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?