The Hard Thing about Soft Skills

The Hard Thing about Soft Skills 1I would imagine we’ve all heard the term ‘soft skills’ although they tend not to get much focus when it comes to improving performance. Their power however, is hugely underrated, and vital for long-term results.

Exactly how we define ‘soft skills’ is up to interpretation but we’d probably consider ‘hard’ skills as those relating to something technical: flying a plane, servicing an engine, making a cappuccino. Then soft skills would be, well, pretty much everything else.

Organisations who wish to raise performance most frequently spend resources improving the ‘harder’ side of the operation: technical efficiency, quality improvements, process re-engineering, new software and systems, skills training and others. Softer issues don’t get much air-time. Issues such as the company’s core values, its purpose, trust issues, and team members’ individuals goals and aspirations are left to another day.

Here’s the key though. If this ‘soft’ part of the organisation isn’t healthy, in the long term it wont matter much what improvements are tried on the other side. Why don’t we spend as much time on the softer issues? My guess… because it’s hard!

Values, purpose, communication, trust, respect, teamwork, sharing to receive more in the long term… all these seem like woolly, fuzzy (some would say ‘touchy feely’) concepts. Some would say they are a distraction when it comes to chasing hard quarterly targets.

Companies that are bold enough to tackle soft issues are on a far more secure footing than those that don’t. And they frequently out-perform companies in similar markets by huge margins. Those that remain without this firm foundation are always at the mercy of chasing the next “shiny object” in the market place and are continually shifting strategies and policies. Poor staff moral, lack of ownership, high staff turnover and ultimately poor results are frequent outcomes.

The Hard Thing about Soft Skills 2It’s hard to tackle issues such as the company’s values and purpose. It’s even harder to stick to them! Would you take a financial hit if it meant living according to your values? Would you dismiss an employee for violating them? Would you pursue a more difficult route if it meant living true to your values instead of taking an easier path and compromising one or more of them?

Are you clear on the purpose of the company? Is there a really good reason you exist as an enterprise? How would your community, society or even the country be worse off if you were not around?

If you haven’t got a clear purpose and a solid set of values to align your so-called ‘hard’ activities, it’s all the more difficult to produce sustainable results.

For an light-hearted example, I refer to one of my favourite film franchises “Mission Impossible.” In the fourth version “Ghost Protocol”, at the end of the film Tom Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt is reflecting on their mission and he says “We were in the dark, unprepared, disavowed… the only thing that functioned well, was this team”. Okay, so this is a work of fiction but it illustrates the point well. Whatever tactical changes you need to make (technology, skills, new opportunities), if the soft core is strong and works well together, just about anything is possible.

For help with addressing the softer side of your enterprise and driving real, lasting change – check out more of Ian’s advice or contact him.

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