Smart Moves: Carve out your niche but don't blame others if it goes wrong

The soft skills are hard to quantify - but they're essential, writes Robert Craven
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The Independent Online
IN THE immortal words of Carolyn, a close trainer colleague of mine, "communication and people issues are just a load of old touchy-feely rubbish". I understand exactly what she means.

People issues are all too often encased in victim language, the close linguistic cousins to complaints about the organisation in general, about unfairness, being undervalued, loss of status, having to work longer hours and so on. All this soft, wimpy, "life isn't fair", "poor me" stuff drives me mad.

So let me explain it to you, Carolyn's three boxes. She believes there are three boxes in life: the C box, the I box and the S box. The C box is the one that has things in it that we can control; the I one has things in it that we can influence; and the S one has things in it that we can do sod-all about. And where do we spend most of our time? In the S box, the sod-all box. And where should we spend most of our time? In the C and I boxes, the control and influence boxes. That is where we would be most effective.

Life is not fair, no one ever said it would be. Nature, however, is hugely honest. There is no instruction book in life but most of us have an understanding of how the game works. So, make some decisions. Decide your goals and be prepared to pay the price. But stop blaming others. Now I have got that bit of angst off my chest I can return to the discussion in a more rational way.

Soft skills, by their very nature, are unscientific and difficult to value. Compare human resources with, say, accounting or finance - the latter are (supposedly) objective and measurable and the subject matter consists of fact. The former, soft skills, is more intangible and seems to consist of opinions and guesses rather than fact.

If you look at the contribution of soft skills to a standard business/management programme then you notice that they are often not that valued. Is this because the non-scientific and non-measurable nature of the subject matter attracts the type of indecisive liberal teacher who has a woolly approach and conviction about their work? Why don't they force their subject to the top of the management agenda? Or are these advocates not able to put together a compelling enough case for their subject?

Knowledge has always been the domain of the universities and colleges of further education. But the subject in hand, the soft skills, is not so much about knowledge as about skills and attitude.

Knowledge is a crucial aspect of a business education. But knowledge is only power if it is coupled with the skill to use it properly. So it is not enough to fill our students' heads with knowledge; we must give them the tools to use it. As long as the soft skills are treated as poor cousins of the hard skills, so its teachings will not be taken seriously.

For me, the reason why soft skills have not been addressed fully is because of a basic contradiction in how we look at the subject. On the one hand soft skills is about communication, and sharing what we are doing and trying to do.

But, on the other hand, soft skills also concerns the more complicated context in which the communication takes place; this is summed up in the literature on organisational behaviour. One look at the chapter headings of Managing Organisations by DC Wilson and RH Rosenfeld, makes us realise, not only the vastness, but also the complexity of the subject. Chapter headings include big topics like the Individual, the Group, the Organisation, International Management and Managing in the Future.

At a philosophical or intellectual level, it is imperative we understand the context we are working in. We must also communicate effectively. It is the way that we do this that determines our ability to influence, and hence our power.

Communication is not about making sure we get our message transmitted - it is about making sure our message is understood. Good communication is about understanding where the audience is "coming from" and what it is that both sides are trying to convey and why.

Our management training and education programmes are short-changing their delegates and themselves if they do not ensure that communication skills are a mandatory part of the course. Good management and leadership is all about effective influencing skills; and effective influencing is all about communication.

Robert Craven is Visiting Fellow at Warwick Business School and Visiting Professor at Toulouse Business School. He is a Director of the Directors' Centre.