The soft skills are the hardest of all

A dark shadow of deep-seated cultural prejudice threatens to limit the competitiveness of UK organisations.

This prejudice takes the form of a profound bias in management and executive circles, and boardrooms, favouring so-called ‘hard’ skills and knowledge, such as finance, technology, and legal, against the allegedly ‘soft’ skills, which include the ability to manage working relationships. This bias is reflected in the focus on hard metrics, with much less focus on the means of achieving the hard figures through people.

Ironically, for many managers, the soft skills are the hard skills. Ask anyone who has had to manage change, deal with organisational politics, or build a disparate group of people into an effective team.

Soft skills are essentially the skills of relationship management and creativity, underpinned by emotional intelligence. These include the ability to empathise with others, manage conflict, cope with ambiguity and paradox, and navigate a route through complex interpersonal and strategic scenarios. So why is it that the very terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ imply the very opposite? And why is it that UK managers are traditionally sceptical about the importance of soft skills and, by their attitudes, discount them?

Part of the answer lies in business school education. Generations of business people have been educated to believe that effective management and leadership principally require ‘hard’ strategic and analytical skills, a clear understanding of the dynamics of business and the ability to make effective decisions.

Managers have been trained to look for evidence and data as the basis for decision-making. Business cultures have conventionally relegated emotions and social values to the sidelines. As a result, we have generations of managers who find that they lack the skills to help them deal with issues relating to the motivation, management and development of human beings. Managers can be forgiven for putting people-related issues and decisions into the ‘too difficult’ box.

In today’s more complex world, it will be the soft skills that distinguish the best from the also-rans. Soft skills will become the key to attracting and retaining talent – the source of future competitive advantage. After all, talented staff do not commit and give of their best just because there is a rational argument for doing so.

It is up to HR to make the hard business case for valuing and developing the soft skills – perhaps by rebadging them as ‘core leadership’ skills – as, without them, the hard skills get us nowhere. Indeed, they can do more harm than good. Without intuition, today’s decisions are made only on the basis of hard fact using yesterday’s data – hardly the basis for creative breakthroughs.

Without the ability to communicate and engage effectively with staff, managers are unlikely to be able to implement tomorrow’s strategic plan. Without self-awareness, flexibility and resilience, managers are likely to keep doing what they always did, long after the need for a different approach arises.

HR should be in a strong position to build the business case. As designers of succession planning processes, HR can ensure that tomorrow’s leaders are developed into great organisational as well as business leaders. HR professionals are in a good position to coach leaders at all levels and design development and reward processes that nurture the skills that make organisations tick effectively. As change agents, HR professionals are more aware than most of the cost of poorly managed change processes in terms of employee motivation.

If we add up the consequences of the lack of soft skills evident in terms of high staff turnover, the cost of new recruits, creative opportunities lost or not capitalised on, and the inability of top management to make decisions, the business case for addressing the soft skills deficit becomes obvious.

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