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Bridges aren't made of fluffy stuff

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 11 July 2017

A recent workshop included participants presenting reports on their application of learning from earlier sessions. They're always rich and interesting experiences.

One of the presenters talked about introducing sessions into his leadership team meetings that focused more attention on "the fluffy stuff". The team he worked with were from "hard skills" backgrounds and were more accustomed to facts and figures. Focusing on communication behaviours, collaboration, and better relationships with stakeholders was initially a bit of a challenge and as is often the case met with some dismissive references to "all that fluffy stuff".

"We leave that fluffy stuff to HR / PR ..."
"I suppose we should take [someone from HR or someone known for their people skills] so they can do the fluffy stuff ..."
"We'd better put some fluffy stuff in the presentation "
"You've got to be careful with all that fluffy stuff it can distract people from actually doing their work ..."

No doubt you've heard similar perspectives.

Firstly, what are these "fluffy" (or, more commonly called, "soft") skills? Typically, the soft skills refer to those skills associated with communicating effectively and relating well with others; to working in teams and groups; to managing self and time; to decision making and taking initiative and responsibility.

"I'm often asked about what it takes to be successful in business, and the answer often surprises people," said business leader (and 2013 International Business Awards Chairman of the Year) James Caan, OBE,  writing in the foreword to a McDonald's UK commitment to backing the development of soft skills in 2015. "It's not just about qualifications. It's not even about education or background. It's about soft skills skills like communication, teamwork and time management, which everyone needs to succeed at work and beyond."

There's an oft-quoted statistic that 85 percent of professional success comes from soft skills and only 15 percent from technical expertise. It's worth noting that it dates from some research done in the engineering sector in 1918. But if you're thinking, "things have changed a lot since then", you're right, things have changed; but the importance of people skills hasn't.

A 2012 McKinsey report on social technologies suggested that an additional one trillion dollars in value could be added annually through the use of social technology (across just four business sectors). But, it added: "Two-thirds of the value creation opportunity afforded by social technologies lies within improving communications and collaboration across and between enterprises."

Two-thirds or 85 percent? Either way, those soft skills are critical.

So, why do we call such skills "soft"?

The term seems to have emerged from US Army training in the 1960s and 70s that sought to differentiate generalised and widely used workplace skills related to "people and paper" from those that could be more easily documented and described as "technical", and which often related to machines. From about 1972 the term entered the language of business to encompass non-technical workplace skills. "Interpersonal" or "people" skills might be more descriptive and useful terms. Sometimes we use the term "interpersonal intelligence" today.

Whatever terms we use to describe them, the soft skills can be the hardest to master.

Finally, why are soft skills so important?

The McDonald's UK commitment noted earlier was based on research they had commissioned into the value of soft skills to the UK economy. It turned out to be 88 billion pounds in Gross Added Value each year, rising to 127 Billion Pounds by 2025. The point of their report, and their subsequent commitment to soft skills development, was that more than half a million employees were going to be held back by a deficit in soft skills by 2020.

One way to think about the critical role these human skills play is to see them as a "bridge". Our ability connect, communicate and collaborate with others enables us to apply our own expertise effectively in teams. Interpersonal skills enable us to more readily and effectively share with and learn from others' expertise, to be connected with others formally and informally so that efforts are coordinated, to ensure that what we are doing is meeting expectations, and to give and get accurate feedback that enables us to adapt and innovate.

Executing strategies, delivering services, aligning activities and budgets, managing quality, and coordinating functions do not happen by organisational chart. Or executive order. Organisations do not succeed by strategic plan alone. We have to create and maintain bridges between functions, expectations and activities, and between the people delivering and managing those functions and activities.

Whether it's social services, public utilities, manufacturing, design, recreational experiences, logistics, or construction, organisations bring together people with a range of skills, qualifications and experiences and ask them to collectively apply their abilities to achieving shared goals. And to do that requires cooperation, communication and collaboration.

"Soft" we may label those things; easy and fluffy they are not.

The soft skills form the bridge between strategy and delivery, between the executive and the frontline, between the customer and the organisation's decision makers, between the product or service and the experience. The accessibility, quality and safety of that bridge determine the ongoing performance, viability and adaptability of the business.

A good bridge across which knowledge can travel in both directions can enable you to thrive. An unstable or unsafe bridge discourages connection and collaboration. A bridge that only encourages one-way traffic will eventually isolate those on either side. And having no bridge will probably create a lot of misunderstanding, followed by lots of shouting and some very hard landings in the chasm between expectations and actions.

Good bridges aren't made of fluffy stuff.

Aubrey Warren
Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies
© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2017

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