Category Archives: Accountability

Is Management a Soft Skill?

Beth, the head of Human Resources in a law firm, was talking with me about the problem of management in an organization full of lawyers. She rolled her eyes, not wanting to criticize her attorney co-workers.

“They know the law”, Beth said, “but do they know how to be a manager?”

Good question. This is where the conversation could shift to comparing hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the job-specific skills. If you are an attorney – or a financial analyst, IT specialist, physician or astronaut, you have “hard skills” in your field of expertise.

Soft skills are the people-relationship skills. This is where the social-psychology perspective comes in. “Emotional intelligence” is a favorite description, but “soft skills” usually includes communication skills, leadership skills, and teamwork skills.

So, what happens when an attorney is named the head of a department? Or when a financial analyst or nuclear physicist is promoted to a management position? Is managing a hard skill or a soft skill? Will sending an attorney to a 2-day program on emotional intelligence make her a better manager?

Let’s say that management, as a job function overseeing a team or group, involves three basic activities:

  1. Establishing clear goals and objectives, including specific measurable results and timelines;
  2. Establishing clear agreements to identify Who will produce and/or deliver What, and by When; and
  3. Holding regular team meetings to review the status of all goal-relevant agreements, and to update the objectives and agreements as needed to improve goal performance (also known as “course-correction”).

Sounds simple, right? Goals + agreements for actions and results + status review-and-update meetings. The only catch is that the manager has to keep track of that information, and many managers aren’t very good at that. Furthermore, they may think they shouldn’t have to do it: after all, people are self-generating, aren’t they? No, they aren’t. So, what’s required of a manager is:

  • The ability to have conversations that produce understandable goals and objectives, measures, and schedules;
  • The ability to support people in making requests and promises that establish agreements for productive goal-relevant relationships, both with team members and with others; and
  • The ability to facilitate a team or group discussion about which agreements are either complete or on schedule, and which ones are in trouble – and then to identify ways to close any gaps between planned and actual goal performance.

If we could give Beth’s attorneys an injection of “emotional intelligence” (motivation, empathy, social skills, etc.), would they know how to keep track of people’s agreements to produce on-time results, for different – and sometimes multiple – objectives? Would they know how to clarify the status at every team meeting, and how to engage people in developing course-correction solutions?

Soft skills are important, but management takes more than “people skills”. It’s about the nuts and bolts of steering a group of people – who are doing different kinds of work and communicating with other people inside and outside of the team – toward accomplishing specific objectives. Management might be a “hard” skill set of its own, that includes some valuable soft skills too.

Perhaps, if we recognized this, we would have more managers who are effective as well as emotionally intelligent.

Accountability is Not Authority

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”.

“They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem. Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. I asked him how he would know if his people were being accountable, he said, “They would report their results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. He didn’t specify exactly which results they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does Howard expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires clear requests and promises to produce results. And it requires follow-up: Howard will need to identify which results he wants each person to report on, and schedule a time for that to happen. Without a clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. Without a specific date and time to report on those results, there is no accountability.

“You have to set it up,” I explained, “so you can get the feedback you want about what is actually being produced. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report. It’s your job to create the framework for that to happen.”

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.”

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, even though that’s just a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. Authority will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted, “They should know their jobs”. He refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting. He even rejected the idea of having his employees create and update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.