Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Hard and soft

Talk about the most pejorative of terms you’re ever likely to come across! Traditional corporate culture would have you believe that ‘hard’ things are factual, financial, real, rational. ‘Soft’ things are woolly, emotional, irrational, hard to prove, based on feelings and impressions rather than hard evidence. Soft things are easily manipulated, they’re the domain of the HR function, we’ll pay lip service to them but the real decisions get made based on hard stuff….how can we possibly operate in any other way? The dividing line is drawn up and the behaviour pattern is set; if you want to advance in your career, head for hard careers like finance or strategy, if you’re interested or God forbid, good at the ‘people’ side of things, head for HR or communications or some other ‘touchy feely’ function and good luck to you…great intentions but never going to get near the decision making table!

Frankly this drives me crazy primarily because it’s lazy but mostly because it’s about as far from the truth as you can get. Ask yourself the question….am I more productive as an individual after my client / boss has re-affirmed my value to them or after seeing the financial performance of the business overall? Am I more innovative and creative as a result of increased autonomy or as a result of my bonus? Does a qualitative question yield more information than a quantitative one? When I last made a major purchase (like a house), how did I make that decision? Was it really based purely on sound financial analysis or was it at least partially based on the fact that it ‘felt’ right! Malcolm Gladwell talks a lot about ‘thin slicing’ – our innate ability to make incredibly accurate decisions and judgements in a time frame which is totally remarkable and David Brooks in his brilliant book, “The Social Animal” talks to our intuitive decision making as a key dimension in our success as a species.

Ask any CEO you like and they will tell you the same message…the difference between success and failure rests with achieving an advantage over the competition and that is ultimately determined by one of two things…better customer retention and therefore increased stickability driving the cost of sales down and / or innovation in the form of new products / services / channels to market etc. And the driver behind these things? Basic human ingenuity and the courage to try and test things which are a bit off the wall!

How many workshops have you been in when the solution that everyone was looking for came from an unlikely source? Not the cleverest or the most highly educated / qualified or most networked…but the most intuitive person in the room. Intuition and courage – a fantastic combination – hard or soft? What do you think?

Until we lose these ridiculous labels which through a pernicious combination of peer pressure, perceived wisdom and corporate laziness have become ingrained in the corporate psyche of many of the biggest and best companies / enterprises out there, we will continue to struggle to get the best out of our most precious asset. Our people will continue to leave their brains at home when they go to work.

Rant not over. Planning to explore this in more detail at a later stage…

Categories: Change management, human behaviour, Human Capital

Tags: , , ,

1 reply

  1. And a loud and heartfelt AMEN to this! I blog often about work and this delineation between hard and soft skills is endless. I actually (!??) heard someone say the other day (someone mid-career) they had never heard the expression “soft skills” before.

    I put it in terms of EQ and IQ and while EQ so often wins the day, it’s IQ that is so over-valued. I’ve seen many people who are inarguably very bright intellectually completely turn off a meeting or project because they are so arrogant or cold or unable to elicit inspiration and collaboration. I’ve worked much harder in recent years on my soft skills (which come less naturally to me) and have seen good results.


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