Boise State on Business by Nancy Napier and Linda Clark-Santos: ‘Soft skills’ can be hard

NANCY NAPIER, executive director of Boise State’s Centre for Creativity and Innovation; LINDA CLARK-SANTOS, affiliate at Boise State’s Centre for Creativity and Innovation.September 17, 2013 

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Nancy Napier

Be honest, now. If you think about the biggest decisions of your life — getting married, having a child, perhaps buying a new house, getting a dog — did you go through a conscious and conscientious risk/benefit analysis?

We suspected as much.

It’s funny that so many decisions that really matter don’t go through the very steely eyed process we use in business.

Or, do we? Maybe the less systematic processes are more common than we think.

Years ago, Nancy asked a CEO how he hired people.

“Intuition, gut feel.” Not good enough.

“But HOW did you get that intuition?”

“By making lots of mistakes when I worked for someone else. Now in my own company, I’m more careful. But it’s still not a checklist, systematic process. I need to have that ‘gut feel’ that it’s a good choice.”

In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about those fast decisions we make that (he thinks) most of us should listen to.

(Full disclosure: Nancy learned years ago that she has bad “first impression bias,” meaning 80 percent of the time she’s dead wrong about a person being a good guy or bad guy. But 20 percent of the time, she’s dead-on right and everyone else is wrong. Problem is, she doesn’t know when meeting someone if the impression is in the 80 percent or the 20 percent, so it’s safest to not make any judgment. Linda, however, reads people right off!)

Most people use some gut feel when they meet someone or make a decision.

By contrast, in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman argues that we make those quick assessments, but we also slow down for the more systematic ones. Using both provides perhaps a better approach than just “gut” or just “cost-benefit.”

So what does this mean for business people? Too often in our world (teaching and consulting in business), students and managers assume that the “hard stuff” of finance, accounting and production are the core business decisions. The “soft stuff” around people skills, strategic thinking or collaboration are seen as less important and easier. That’s just “gut feel” stuff, they may say.

Yet very often, once those same managers become senior level leaders, they start saying “the hard stuff IS the soft stuff.” Dealing with people, whether hiring them or helping them become leaders themselves — that’s the toughest part of their jobs. And it’s not always just gut feel. In fact, leaders and managers can learn how to be better at the “soft stuff.”

One organization in town takes collaboration and interaction among employees very seriously.

The firm has started a several-months-long process in which employees, in small learning groups, talk about and then practice some key element of collaboration, such as giving feedback in a way that doesn’t crush the other person. The employees are learning that it’s harder and takes much more practice than they expected.

In fact, as we talk with leaders on a variety of “soft” topics such as culture, values and hiring, they comment more and more that finding ways to practice the “soft skills” is increasingly important for their employees and organizations to thrive.

So think about it: What soft skills do you need to practice?


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