Monday, January 28, 2013

Organizational Mythology #1 - "Soft Skills"

Without exception, there is one phrase I react to whenever I hear it. 
The phrase I refer to is ...

"The people side of change requires soft skills." 
I suppose I shouldn't react as sharply as I do, but it never fails.  This phrase is a mythology that frustrates me every time I hear it.
Why do people use the term "soft skills"?  Here's my take:
  1. Because unlike Accounting which measures numbers, there is no perfect measure of human behavior ... at least, not from a human perspective.
  2. Because unlike injection molding that repeatedly produces the same parts there is no perfect mechanism of human behavior ...
  3. Because there is no perfect method of analyzing human behavior ... only statistical probabilities (with the exception of parking lot behavior, which is very predictable).
But what does Dr. Bohn really believe is behind this smoke screen? 
  1. First of all, human emotion, motivation, perception, cognition, awareness, need fulfillment combine to create the most complex (and thus the most difficult and demanding) challenges we face as managers.
  2. Group Dynamics - the interplay of groups within groups within divisions, etc., all increase the level of complexity a hundredfold.
  3. Organizational Behavior, Organizational Psychology, Organizational Dynamics add yet ANOTHER level of complexity ...
  4. and above all that ... there is the issue of Power (a separate subject unto itself ... Jeffrey Pfeffer of Harvard has written extensively on the subject, also Robert Cialdini).
  5. The quote shown below puts it all together nicely. 

"Put simply, conflict in organizations is inevitable given that humans therein need to manage their mutual interdependence."  (Journal of Applied Psychology, November 2012, p. 1132). 

Whole Journals of research are dedicated to these subjects every year ... they are complex and demanding subjects. 

When managers, leaders and executives step back for a moment, they all realize these elements are far more complex than figures, equations, and theorems.
Albert Einstein reportedly said "I worked in mathematics, because people are too complicated."

Paul Allaire of Xerox said "The hardest stuff is the soft stuff." 

The mythology that people working with other people is a 'soft skill' requires reconsideration.   Don't get me started!

- Jim Bohn



  2. Our company works with people and transformational change on a regular basis. One thing we have found, is you need to make change be self serving. Make the change beneficial to the worker. Our software was written with guise of Lean/CI in mind, but what we found is that is aligned around the factory floor employee and as a result we have been very successful. It wasn't totally by design, it was a result of using the principals.
    If you think about it people are rarely altruistic until after they have become accomplished or had a great deal of success. This country was founded on Jeffersonian Individualism. When you take away the innate competitive nature of humans you take away their drive and ultimately their enjoyment in life.

    1. Todd - thank you for your insight. The "innate competitive nature of humans" has another name, from a researcher named White (1959). He called it "Effectance Motivation", the need to have an impact ... we often hear someone say "I need to make a difference ... voila! Effectance Motivation"!