They May Be Soft Skills, But They’re Real Important

In managerspeak, the word, “hard” means good or important.  There are “hard results” and “hard numbers,” which are better than soft results and soft numbers.  And there are hard skills which often seem to be much more highly rated than “soft skills.”

Now we get a study from the Center for Creative Leadership.  It tells us that in tough times, those soft skills are really important.  But, guess what, they’re not only important in tough times and they’re probably more important than those hard skills just about any time.

When we talk about something being “hard” we normally mean that it’s expressed in numbers and probably based on some form of cognitive analysis.  Soft things are harder to quantify and often based on perception.  But in real life the two categories seem to overlap.

In the Bible, Moses goes up to the mountain and he’s got an objective.  Moses wants to learn the name of God.  That’s because he believed that if he knew the name of something, he could control it.  Even God.

In today’s 21st Century business world, we think that’s kind of silly.  How could you control something just by naming it?  Pshaw! We’re much more sophisticated than that.  Or are we?

Most businesspeople today figure that if you’ve got something that you can count or quantify, it’s better than something you can’t.  They believe that if you can carry out the answer to more decimal places, it’s more accurate.  Both of those are likely to be untrue.

The fact is that many of our quantifications are based on subjective judgment.  And, many of our quantifications are based on accounting data which, as we’ve learned with the recent Enron bankruptcy, can be very misleading and soft indeed.

What we’re talking about here is something that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called “the danger of false concreteness.”  That’s the idea that if you can quantify something or carry it out to more decimal places, it’s more accurate.  That’s wrong.  It’s a fallacy.  It’s dangerous and misleading.

This is similar to the way we make decisions and then describe the process.   Most managers would tell you that you begin an effective decision-making process by gathering data.  They’ll tell you that, but it’s not what they do.  What most managers do is to begin with opinions.  Then they go out and gather the facts, even though starting from opinions colors the selection and interpretation of the facts that they gather.

Hard numbers and hard results are grossly overrated as a way to get a handle on an effective business process.  What about hard skills, though?  Isn’t analytical ability and strategic thinking the most important thing for a leader?  Those beliefs turn out to be wrong, too.

The eminent psychologist, David McClelland showed that a number of things contributed to top-executive success.  Among the most powerful were factors he called achievement drive, developing others, adaptability, influence, self-confidence, and leadership.  All of those are soft skills.  The only hard skill in McClelland’s list was analytical thinking.

Over and over again, the research studies tell us that it’s the soft skills that make for success in business leadership.  That’s true whether you’re measuring career success or organizational performance.  Here’s a brief and very partial review of some of the studies.

There are studies that indicate that IQ is an absolutely awful predictor of job performance.  The  study that I saw that rated IQ  the highest said that it accounted for 25% of the variance in job performance, but other studies put it much lower at 10% or perhaps even 4%.

It’s even true in a profession like accounting.  A recent article in the CPA Journal stated that “20% of a person’s success is estimated to be based on what is normally considered intelligence:  the ability to learn, understand, and reason. . .  The other 80% is based on the ability to understand ourselves and interact with people.”

It works the other way, too.  Lack of effective soft skills can totally de-rail a career.  An article in Fortune Magazine talked about why CEOs fail.  And what was the big reason?  Fortune came up with two.  One was the inability to put the right people in the right jobs, and the other was the failure to fix people problems in time.  It was those failures that created the failure of the company to perform and cost the CEO his or her job.

Now let’s look at the upside.  A leader’s soft skills can make a huge difference in the working environment, and that working environment can make a difference in performance.  In a study of CEOs at U. S. insurance companies, it was found that when the CEO was good at the soft skills, the companies got better financial results.

Those financial results were measured by both profit and growth.  The study controlled for company size.  You could say that they were using hard numbers to measure the impact of soft skills.

David McClelland found something similar when he studied division heads of a global food and beverage company.  The  divisions with leaders who had good soft skills out-performed yearly revenue targets by a margin of 15 to 20%.

The list of findings goes on and on.  They come from studies of salespeople and sales managers, from studies of individual career success and corporate performance.  The lesson that they give us is that it is the soft skills that matter more than the hard skills.  That doesn’t mean that being smart or analytical isn’t important.  It is, it’s just not as important as those soft things.

In my own research, I conducted a study of thirty-six top-performing supervisors.  We used the research findings to develop competency-based training for new first-line supervisors.

We found that our top-performing supervisors were not always the smartest folks in their peer group.  They needed to be smart enough to do the basic work of the job; but once they had that, the top supervisors were the ones who could handle the people-skills part the best.

I’m not alone in what I found.  The same results show up in research into top research scientists.  Even there, the bastion of rationality, it’s the soft skills that contribute the most to individual success.

A study published in 1996 tracked the careers of 80 PhDs in science. They all started out as graduate students at the University of California in the 1950s where they underwent a battery of psychological tests.

Forty years later, the same group was evaluated on their “success.”  Success was measured by resumes, evaluations by experts in their disciplines, and sources such as American Men and Women of Science.  Guess what?  The folks who scored high on soft skills turned out to be more successful overall.  In fact, social and emotional abilities were four times more important than IQ in determining success.

Okay, you may be thinking, that’s all great, but what are these soft skills that I need to develop?  There we turn to some of the work of Daniel Goleman. Goleman is the Ph.D. psychologist and former science writer for the New York Times, who wrote the incredibly-popular book, Emotional Intelligence.

Since the publication of that book, Goleman has modified his framework slightly.  He groups the skills that he and others have identified into four clusters, two each for personal competence and social competence.  His framework is a convenient way to identify kinds of soft skills and to develop programs for improving them.

Under Personal Competence the Self-Awareness Cluster includes emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.  The Self-Management Cluster includes self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, achievement drive, and initiative.

The Social Competence Cluster for Social Awareness includes empathy, service orientation, and organizational awareness.  The Relationship Management Cluster includes developing others, influence, communication, conflict management, leadership, change catalyst, and building bonds.

You can do a quick and unscientific verification of all this by looking at your own life experience.  How many folks have you known who were wildly successful?  What did they bring to the party?  How much of their success would you attribute to hard skills and how much to the things Goleman is talking about?

Turn that around.  How many people have you known who had hard skills, analytical and cognitive skills to burn, but who never really succeeded?  What did they lack on the soft skills side?

And consider yourself.  Look at Goleman’s lists and use them as a way to get an idea of what you can do for yourself.  Are there strengths you can build on more than you have?  Are there weaknesses you can make irrelevant?

One of my majors when I got my degree, lo those many years ago, was “Management Science.” It was in the heyday of Operations Research, and folks like Robert S. McNamara were held up as exemplary executives.   If I hadn’t been working all the way through school, I might have succumbed to the idea that with enough equations and good data, any business problem can be solved.

But I knew better.  I’d been raised by parents who were as human as they were bright and I’d been in the working world for a while.  I knew then, what the research tells us now, that people and “people skills” matter more than anything.  That’s what it takes for success in business and in life.


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