Recently I heard from an old friend whom I hadn’t talked to in a while. He had moved back to the east coast from Colorado and dropped me a line to see what my business was up to. When I explained that most of my work these days was leadership and team building for federal agencies, he sneered and said, “Oh, you teach people to be nice to each other?”
I laughed it off at the time but later I felt a little annoyed with myself for not defending the work I do. As I have said for many years, it’s not about being nice, it’s about being effective. In fact, this was a message I delivered often to some of the leaders of the Colorado-based volunteer mountain rescue team on which this particular friend and I served. When an incident commander yelled at a field member for doing something unsafe and unwise, I would point out that yelling only served to focus that field member on his own indignation or embarrassment, rather than on how to behave in a safer manner. The last thing you want is an angry, distracted climber on a cliff face, thinking about how to restore his dignity rather than how to rescue a subject and keep himself and his teammates safe. Having good “people skills” is not about making people feel good, although that might be part of it; but ultimately it’s about getting the result you want. That’s called effectiveness.
I read a great article earlier this week by Brian Evje Inc. called Why Executives Are So Bad at the Behavioral Side of Management. Evje talks about the false labels “hard skills and soft skills,” which consultants and trainers like myself have deplored for many years, although most of us continue to use them.
“In reality, there is nothing ‘soft’ about the skills needed to relate to people well enough to lead them,” Evje says. “Hard skills can get the job done. Soft skills make the difference between a job that gets done and a job that gets done exceedingly well. Leadership requires a sophisticated approach to both. That’s even harder.”
Evje goes on to say that much of the poor leadership out there consists in executives who focus on one side of the equation to the exclusion of the other—the manager who is so focused on the execution of the mission that she bulldozes over the team and loses any possibility of employee engagement; or the executive who is so afraid to hurt feelings or rock the boat that he avoids tough conversations and fails to effectively manage performance.
I’d like to call my friend back and tell him all of this. But experience tells me it’s not likely to do much good. Those who sneer at the need for “soft skills” are usually folks who are solidly planted in their technically-oriented perspective of work effectiveness. At least until the day someone yells at them while they’re hanging off a cliff.