Category Archives: People

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.

The Problem with People

You know those name-badges people wear at conferences? I’m thinking people should wear them to state clearly what they are – and are not –committed to in life. It would save so much wasted time and confusion.

  • Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said they wanted your help , only to discover that all they really wanted was someone to agree with what a jerk their mother-in-law (or that guy down the hall) really is? Badge: “JUST NOD YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN”.
  • Or how about being in a conversation to solve a problem, where you keep sharing your good ideas and the other person keeps saying “Mmm hmmm”, or “Maybe…” – and then later you realize they collected all your ideas and used them later, as if they’d thought of all those things themselves? Badge: “DEVOTED TO LOOKING GOOD”.
  • And have you ever worked hard to fix something or make it work better to help somebody out, and they didn’t even seem to care what you did? Badge: “YOU’RE HERE TO SERVE ME”.

Seriously, I got a call from a business manager – let’s call her Lindsey – who told me about how she worked to pull together information from 6 sales training programs that had been used in the past 4 years, and turned it all into one new training program, updated it with all the organization’s current information and ideas. It took several days to do the job, which meant she worked into the evenings to finish her regular work. But she was sure it would be appreciated, because her boss needed the program materials. He was expected to train the new sales team in the coming week, and he would not have known how to assemble something that good from the company’s program materials.

So he was delighted, right? Nope. “How do you know this is what I would want to use?” he asked Lindsey. “I was thinking we don’t need this kind of standard training thing, and I was just going to have a round-table discussion.” He did the round-table, and never said another word about it. Lindsey, of course, had to field all the complaints from sales team members: “We didn’t get trained in the methods we’re supposed to use for renewals of old systems or for selling the supplies for our new systems either,” they griped. “We got to talk about how we feel about sales.” Boss’ badge: “SELF-IMPORTANT ASS”.

The real problem is that we think everybody operates pretty much the way we do. If you’re a problem-solver, you think other people are too, and are sure they’ll be interested in that. If you’re focused on advancing your career, and one of those problem-solver people starts yammering about an idea they have to make something work better, you’ll try to be polite but wish they would pay more attention to office politics or following instructions.

The problem with people is they don’t wear their “agenda” on their lapel. So we have to figure it out ourselves, and sometimes we make mistakes that are costly. What to do? Listen carefully to learn what people care about, worry about, and what matters to them in their lives and their work. First, of course, you have set your own agenda aside – you know you have one, don’t you? – and listen well to what other people are really about. That way you’ll know how to best invest your time whenever you talk with them.