Soft: Easy to mould, cut, compress, or fold; not hard or firm to the touch: (of a person) weak and lacking courage: (of a market) falling or likely to fall in value (Oxford Dictionary).
The word soft comes with a variety of definitions, not all of them positive. Yet it is the adjective we use to describe the interpersonal skills, relationship skills, or even leadership behaviours required of the modern executive. They are contrasted with the so called ‘hard” skills’ which are usually the technical, objective, or more tangible skills that characterise many mining, industrial or technical industries and roles.
Unfortunately these ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ labels create other assumptions, such as: one is easy, the other is difficult; one is flimsy the other is substantive; and so on.
It's time to change our language when describing the often highly complex, ambiguous and subtle behaviours, skills and attitudes that combine to influence the success of our relationships with other people in the workplace and elsewhere. To refer to these characteristics in anything but the most respectful terms suggests we don’t fully understand them or their impact on our success as a manager or leader in an organisation.
The complexity of these interpersonal skills is often highlighted most vividly when people participate in training programs to enhance their ability. They often approach the learning with confidence, thinking, ‘how hard can this be?’ only to be exposed when the difficulty of being truly skilful at interpersonal behaviours is illustrated. A seemingly simple skill such as active listening requires many micro skills and a heavy dose of authenticity to be seen as effective by both the listener and the speaker.
Strangely, the “hard” skills are often easier to acquire. They are more tactile, visible, logical and sometimes more linear. In many ways they are better described as knowledge than skills because they require the acquisition of some underpinning content before they can be applied in the work setting. In absolute terms, people either have this underpinning content or they don’t. Therefore, those with this content can see themselves as superior to those without this knowledge. In contrast, everyone believes they have a degree of interpersonal skill that can lead to the false impression that they have it all – “It must be easy if everyone has it”.
To be successful, in every role, we need a combination of skills. They blend to form a tapestry that makes it possible for us to get things done, in an efficient and sustainable way. Rather than belittle one type of skill over another, we may be better served acknowledging and respecting all skills and just set about becoming a little better at them all.
Dr Shaun Ridley FAIM is Deputy Chief Executive Officer (Learning and Development) at the Australian Institute of Management in WA. His extensive experience in leadership, strategy and learning and development has been gained through his work with hundreds of organisations, across all sectors both domestically and internationally.