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The Power Of Soft

| | Leading Organizations

The term “soft” is often used when talking about those things that cannot be measured. In giving them a label alongside “hard,” perhaps we have been attempting to give credibility to those skills we inherently know are both essential and valuable to our success, even though their impact can’t really be proven based on “hard” data.

Yet the very need to distinguish “soft” vs. “hard” speaks to a paradigm that has long revered hard results as the only ones that really matter. Unless something can be quantified and measured the underlying belief is that it is somehow less valuable and hence of lesser importance.

In a TED Talk titled “Leaning into Vulnerability” Dr. Brené Brown shares her journey as a social researcher who began with a desire to “take messy topics and make them not so messy” through research. Early on one of her research professors emphatically stated, “If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Even scientists with advanced degrees in social work have been guided by a scientific framework that assumes “measurable” is the only test for “real!”

Nonetheless “soft” skills have clearly been embraced as important, even critical, in today’s business world. As Dr. Brown explains in her talk about vulnerability, attempts to bring “hard” data to “soft” subjects have revealed insights that change our perception of what we have long referred to as “soft.”

So why do we continue to cling to the language of “soft” vs. “hard?”

I think the answer lies in our continued attachment to measurement – clear, empirical, irrefutable evidence that “soft” is somehow as “real” as “hard.” We seem to be on this never ending quest to make what is “soft” somehow “hard.” As if that is the only true test of its validity.

However, in our relentless pursuit to collect and analyze data, we all too often ignore the most important measure of all – our senses!

We may not have the equivalent of a geiger counter that can help us empirically measure the behavior we see or the emotions we feel, but they are the source of the most powerful tool we have as leaders and mangers – our ability to observe.

You have probably heard the phrase, “the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.” Can’t you feel that tension? How much productive work gets done when that kind of tension is present? Yet we often grind through what we see and feel through simple observation, knowing both the experience and the result are going to be less than satisfying.

Would having a mood Geiger Counter to assign the tension a number really make any difference?

By simply observing the mood and the impact it is having on your ability to fulfill your commitments, you are able to take action to make a difference in any moment. How to take that action is, of course, another subject.

The point here is the real power of soft comes from our innate ability to observe. So perhaps it’s time to give up our attachment to measuring all things and the belief that, “If you can’t measure it it doesn’t exist.”  Why not start  learning to better use the tools we have been born with – our senses – as an access to improving relationships, enhancing performance and creating great places to work?

What if we eliminated the language of “soft” and “hard” and replaced the terms with “measurable” and “observable”?  Do you think that could help us more fully embrace the power of “soft” to make a “hard” difference?

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Jay Forte   |   05 January 2013   |   Reply

Great topic. In an age where performance is more determined by an emotional connection between employee and customer (or at least according to research from Gallup this emotional connection is what moves a customer from satisfied to loyal – see Human Sigma by John Fleming), than just the “hard” delivery of results, the soft or observable becomes more critical. The sign of a great relationship (work or otherwise) is not about the checklist of things to do, but rather how things are done. Observable actions that encourage, support, coach and engage are not always empirically measurable, but have the absolute ability of advancing the quality of a relationship and the quality of life.

Roy Atkinson   |   05 January 2013   |   Reply

Well said, Susan. I think we’re suffering from “if you can’t measure it…” hangovers. Denying that qualities (kindness, empathy, goodness, or their opposites) exist is no longer acceptable. Thank you.

Susan Mazza   |   07 January 2013   |  

Yes Roy, I think business and science are finally embracing the idea it doesn’t really work well to treat people like machines. While we still have a bit of a “hangover” as you put it from the industrial age, it is changing. Although we still have a long way to go to shift the paradigm.

Susan Mazza   |   07 January 2013   |   Reply

Well said Jay. Thanks for making the clear connection between the “observable” and great relationships. In a relationship economy observable rules!

Tony Bennett   |   05 January 2013   |   Reply

The first article of 2013 that has really made me think!

“Soft” is a very negative word for many business people and often is seen as synonymous with “weak”.

I very much like measurable and observable and may well use the concept quite a lot in 2013!

Susan Mazza   |   09 January 2013   |   Reply

Glad to hear that Tony! Please do share what you discover in applying this concept.

Peggy Dalton   |   06 January 2013   |   Reply

I love “innate ability to observe.” I have been an observer from my earliest memories, and I find that I gravitate to using that skill. I worked as a research assistant, and noticed this particular phenomenon that frequently occurred, but did not understand why it happened. I mentioned it to the research director, and he was intrigued that I had made note about it. Observers are not loafing, for they are engaged in what is happening. Thank you for your insight.

Jeroen van Lawick   |   07 January 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for this. I have been struggling with this for some time. I feel that people i.e. my business customers sometimes relate ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ to respectively more and less relevant, which is not the case I believe! Hence I was looking for different language. ‘Measurable’ and ‘Observable’ may do, worth trying! Alternatively I thought of ‘task’ vs. ‘people’ skills. Happy to hear comments and followup comments!
Jeroen van Lawick, Founder ‘ Zijn Werkt!’, creating sustainable organisations.

Susan Mazza   |   07 January 2013   |  

Soft is indeed often seen as less relevant or even insignificant. I will be interested in how it goes when you try shifting your language to measurable and observable.

I think task vs. people skills are valid labels, but I am not sure they go far enough in building the bridge necessary to illuminate the value of “soft”. Ultimately the best bridge is when we can use measures and observations to make meaningful assessments that lead to effective action, improved performance and ultimately better, more satisfying results.

Please do share any new ways to distinguish the value and power of “soft” you come up with. Thanks for engaging in the conversation here.

Susan Mazza   |   07 January 2013   |   Reply

It is great that you have allowed that skill to flourish throughout your life Peggy. The curious and open-minded can’t help themselves (I am guessing you may be both). Perhaps your time has come!

You make a great point that observers are not loafing but rather are engaged. I have a colleague I work with when I am facilitating meetings and leading workshops. He says very little yet adds enormous value because of his extraordinary ability to observe what is happening on many levels. Thinking it would be good to write a follow up article on how to build a bridge between observation and action.

DanneHotchkiss   |   09 January 2013   |   Reply

For years companies have only looked at ‘structured data’ – things that could be easily fit into consistent little boxes. Name, address, etc. Today, technology allows companies to look at data that is so complex it is wrongly called ‘unstructured.’ Perhaps some day we will understand ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills in the same way, that ‘soft’ skills in fact can be measured in useful ways.

Susan Mazza   |   10 January 2013   |   Reply

Another great example of where we lack the language to capture complexity Danne. You point about unstructured reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Meg Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science. “Perhaps order is simply a brief moment seized form disorder”. Using mechanistic language to describe a complex world continues to keep us stuck in a mechanistic paradigm. Thanks for engaging in the conversation here.

Denise W. Barreto   |   12 February 2013   |   Reply

I really appreciate this post as someone who has repelled the word “soft” as a description related to me until last year. I started to equate soft with flexibility, warmth and vulnerability and guess what – one needs to be incredibly strong to really be soft as a leader. I’m in and love opportunities to hijack words that have been held captive by inaccurate or outdated contexts. Thanks for the post – will be spreading…

Susan Mazza   |   12 February 2013   |   Reply

“I’m in love with opportunities to hijack words that have been held captive by inaccurate or outdated contexts.” Well said Denise. Another of those words I have been hijacking (or perhaps reclaiming) is accountability.

Glad you found your way here and thanks so much for sharing!

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