“We Don’t Manufacture Widgets” – a word on soft skills.

“We don’t manufacture widgets”, a few thoughts on so-called soft skills.

In a podcast called, “There’s no such thing as soft skills[1], Simon Sinek talks about how skills like effective confrontation, empathy, and patience are not soft skills. He says, “They are human skills, and they’re hard”. This podcast directly touches on something I have been saying repeatedly – there is no such thing as a soft skill.

In the first management training session I ever did at an advertising company, the CEO introduced the training, which he had reluctantly agreed to, as “you know we don’t manufacture widgets, but Marleen is going to try and teach us how to manage soft skills, which of course you cannot measure and is totally subjective”. This irked me terribly at the start of the training, but I could not quite tell why. I knew that what he said was wrong (besides the obvious put-down, which I chose to ignore) but could not analyse why it felt so jarring. I have since understood why and now start all my training, especially in environments that do not manufacture products that are measured in width and height, with the statement:

“I know that you don’t manufacture widgets, but this training is about how ‘soft skills’ are not soft at all, they are hard, important, measurable skills that are critical to environments where relationships are key. Which is your environment. Without your internal and external relationships, your business would not be able to run.”

In all my managerial skills training, I have said this over and over again. I start with a question to the team: “Tell me, when one of your colleagues walks into this boardroom in a bad mood, can you tell that his day is not going as he would want it to?” Of course, they all say yes. On being prompted further, I ask how they know it. Well, he was frowning, or a black mood preceded him into the boardroom. He sat down, crossing his arms in a tight body-language gesture, scowling at people. He didn’t greet us when he came in. He slammed his briefcase onto the table when he arrived. He didn’t make eye contact, which is unusual, he normally smiles at us. And so on.

Prompted further, all the delegates agree that this bad mood will affect their relationships, particularly if it is frequent. If this manager has a team that reports to him, this bad mood will percolate down into his entire team, affecting the mood of everyone and most probably the productivity of the day. He will be unapproachable, which affects the flow of information, he may reflect his mood in a client conversation, which could harm the relationship and leave a bad taste in the client’s mouth. Not only is this a hard reality, but this ‘mood’ is describable, can be reduced to a sentence or even a paragraph, can be put down in black and white on a piece of paper, and is a key component to the manager’s successful interaction with his team. It is as measurable and describable as a 5 cm height on a widget.

In an environment where EQ is important, the management of emotions is critical, enhancing relationships is key, fostering team goodwill is an important component of getting the work out, all these aspects are key performance areas. They can be managed, measured and feedback can be given on non-performance of any of these important aspects of the manager’s job description. Yes, he might also be required to enhance the bottom line, meet his sales targets, keep timesheets, and hand in reports on time. But a critical component of his daily job is to manage his team and colleagues. In a manner that is conducive to enhancing relationships and not breaking them down.

This ‘mood’ which is so hard and tangible, will affect everyone around the person. Especially if it is not in turn managed. Sometimes, when someone who has on an ongoing basis soured the water through their personal problems, their soundwave of dramas, their boundaryless management of their own emotions, leaves the company, the team breathes a collective sigh of relief. The mood lifts, people are more inclined to want to do their work and all their energy is no longer taken up with avoiding or counter-acting this person, but in doing what they are all employed to do – the work.

Describe the key skills needed in your managers, such as relationship-building, rapport with staff and teams, team cohesion, relationships with clients, managing emotions; and manage any deviation from the acceptable norm and standard of performance in these critical skills in the same way you would manage not appearing at a critical client meeting or handing in a report on time.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9uzJ0LgvT0, accessed 7 April 2021.

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