The Hard thing about Soft Skills
Spending over 10 years in the salon industry taught me a lot. Number one – no matter what the state of the economy, people need their hair cut (and will spend serious cash to keep up appearances). Number two – men on a building site would be shocked and stunned by what women talk about in the staff room of a salon environment (trust me, I have experienced both). Number three – high earning hairdressers all have brilliant interpersonal (soft) skills.
It’s this third one that always stood out to me. I have seen it proven hundreds of times. The technically proficient professional is simply not successful without highly tuned soft skills.
This is also illustrated in junior staff (apprentices). Their labour-intensive days will be filled with blow drying and washing hair. These youngsters can either carry a conversation with a mature wealthy client while subtly educating their client on what will make their hair sing. Conversely, some will be limited to ‘where are you going on your next holidays?’ type of chit chat. Insert ‘eye-rolling’ and impatient scoffs from the client here.
Seasoned hairdressers will have close deep relationships with their clientele. They will be booked out solidly six months in advance charging in excess of $200-300 per hour, with strategically booked blank spaces in their diary for new clients. It is the definition of excellent robust business.
Fast Forward to today and my study in sociology, high performing cultures, and leadership topics continually brings me back to a critical factor. How we interact with each other is pivotal. And, what holds most people back from achieving in their work is a misplaced trust in technical ability.
Still to this day, even though many HR teams are called Talent Management or People and Culture, there is still a heavy focus on the technical. The certifiable, measurable, and tangible.
One reason could be due to our habit of thinking called ‘Splitting’. Ronald Fairbairn first described this in his formulation of Object Relations Theory. This is a common defence mechanism we all use to mark things as Black or White. Good or Bad.
Tangible and technical skills are very comfortable. They are easy to understand. They represent our comfort zone. If in doubt, measure it. In Professional Sport, there is very little that isn’t in a stats sheet. Baseball is synonymous with being ever changed by Moneyball (see the movie of the same name with Brad Pitt – a good watch!) where a stats laden sport took statistical analysis to a whole other level. Cricket is also obsessed with stats, as is AFL, and lets face it, most sports are.
So, when we revert to ‘split thinking’, if technical measurable skills are comfortable and reliable, then the opposite is not. Hard Skills are good. Soft Skills are therefore bad. Or more accurately, Hard Skills are easy to understand and implement, where Soft Skills are not.
This causes a paradox. Deep down we all know that Soft Skills are important. Anyone that watches TED Talks on leadership, or follows influencers like Simon Sinek, Garry V, Richard Branson, or Tony Robbins will understand that science and experience continue to prove this for high achievement.
Reframing our splitting mentality and recognising the grey area may hold the key. Instead of seeing soft as the opposite to hard, what would happen if we saw it as simply different. What happens if we add a third column? Below I have illustrated this:
The third column is still quite difficult for many of us to get our head around, and I think this is why we ultimately shy away from it. Even if we recognise its importance, developing Soft Skills is a difficult thing to do. Using Soft Skills well is difficult. And, when we approach Soft Skills in a way that is comfortable (i.e. how we approach Hard Skills), there is a limit to how successfully we will improve.
Think about the last professional development training you did on any Soft Skills. Things like listening, conflict resolution, leadership, collaboration, or problem solving. How much of this training did you turn into a long-term habit? I would argue a lot less compared to the capability training you may have done on Microsoft Excel or how to use the latest software in your office. And for good reason – Hard Skills can be drilled in with measurable linear practices.
But, learning how to manage people is near on impossible to practice. You only use certain skills at certain times (that may pop up rarely). And then, the skills need to be flexed to the situation and the character of the individual. It is infinitely difficult to turn into a habit.
So, what can we do? Here are some starting points:
1. Soft Skill Training and Coaching – the approach needs to be completely different. We can take inspiration for the Flipped Classroom Model used by Khan Academy as well as many Universities and Tafe Schools. The content is delivered online, and the classroom is where students discuss and practice the skills. In our context the skills don’t have to be delivered online, but the training session will consist of very little time spent on teaching content and a lot of time will be spent on practicing and discussing implementation. It is a very different approach to hard skills training.
2. Utilise the small moments – Split thinking means that we often assume that Soft Skills are used when there is crisis to deal with. A much more productive way to use Soft Skills is to use them in low-key circumstances constantly. By checking in with team mates often, Soft Skills can be developed, improved, and built like a muscle in the gym. Strengthening your listening muscles is a good example of this.
3. Recognise that Soft Skills is the biggest opportunity – in the next six months what is going to make the difference to your workplace? Where is the water shed moment going to come from? No matter if it is sales, research and development, procurement, or marketing. The underpinning factor will be relationships, trust, connectedness, and collaboration. All big words that boil down to people working together really well to get a job done. Every day presents opportunities for us to be better at this stuff and therefore move our respective projects forward with more pace, momentum, and less re-work. This is a mental shift with infinite possibility.
How do top hairdressers become the most trusted and highest earning people in their industry? They do hair well, but they excel in the soft skills department. They get to interact with people constantly every single day of their career and practice all their Soft Skills daily non-stop. The little moments are managed beautifully. We can all learn from these professionals and realise that top technical ability is not exclusive to top interpersonal ability.