The clash of hard and soft

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Written by Natalie Henville and Adam Smith on 1 June 2014 in Features

Natalie Henville and Adam Smith encourage a holistic approach to hard and soft skills delivery

When it comes to the way we are formally educated, how we evaluate potential employees, and the type of training delivered in the workplace, traditionally a lot of  importance has been placed on ‘hard skills’. The contradiction to this is that we actually judge, reward and recognise people in the workplace based on their competence and demonstration of key soft skills.

Picture for a moment all of those ‘Personal Statements’ and opening paragraphs you have read in a typical CV. Filled with assertions about being a good communicator, a team player, empowering, inspiring and confident as a leader, or a skilled influencer.

In reality, these skills are not assessed as part of a child or adolescent’s personal education, most probably because schools appreciate that none of these attributes will affect your Maths, English or Science grades!

What this means for hiring is that unless you introduce a way of assessing the soft skills capability and confidence of potential employees, a huge emphasis is put on industry expertise and academic record – despite the fact that all signs point to soft skills making all the difference. In reality, is it fair to say employees are ‘Hired on hard skills but fired on soft skills?’

The table below is taken from a survey undertaken in 2008 of 50 CEO’s of global companies and executive search consultants who rated 500 different firms. Not the only truth as we know it but an interesting result that gives food for thought (Human Equity Report 2008).

What we are looking for in our employees is industry expertise and a good academic record but once in the work place, it is often the soft skills that separate the poor performers and the high achievers. Is it possible that you have excluded some candidates with extraordinary soft skills because they didn’t meet your company’s benchmark for technical brilliance?

The case for integration

In reality, most tasks require the application of both hard and soft skills. Below are two very different examples of why just having the hard skills (or vice-versa) will not cut it.

1. A front desk agent may have outstanding hard skills; they can manage check-ins and outs, obtain customer payment data and assign rooms. They may be able to multi-task phone calls and guest inquiries to reduce waiting time. They may have good job knowledge and be able to handle several job duties leading to smoother operations. But…if they seem rushed while doing those check-ins, if they seem more focused on getting the service done versus making a service connection while doing it, and if they seem indifferent or insincere, their excellent hard skills are diminished and may result in a less than excellent guest experience and/or a poor review.

2. When a CEO approaches decision-making as an absolute hard skill rather than integrating it with soft people-orientated skills s/he can lose the ability to ensure that the good decision they have made is followed through and implemented. Many organisations fail to implement ideas determined through a rigorous planning process and detailed project plan; the plan remains on paper and the business carries on as it always has. This occurs due to the lack of integration between the hard and soft, with the assumption that a clearly articulated plan will change people’s behaviours.

There is a simple reality that needs to be addressed in training. When completing the vast majority of tasks there will be a number of elements to take into consideration:

  • Expertise and Skills
  • Knowledge
  • Understanding of procedures and tools
  • Managing (in the broader sense) other individuals
  • Understanding the impact of your actions on others.

By treating these as separate we only address part of the skills staff will need to do their job. By looking at the tasks that will be performed by an employee, and objectively assessing what hard and soft skills will be needed to complete the task, the training can start to be more specific and targeted to the organisation, and equip employees with the exact skills they need. Both training and appraisals must reflect the reality of this balance in an individual’s role.

In our experience this is already the case for training with more complex content and senior audiences – hard skill subjects start to get closer to ‘soft’ skills training. For example, we were asked to provide Advanced Project Management Masterclasses to a European defence contractor, which was already world class in its existing project management capability.  The learning needs analysis and stakeholder analysis surfaced a number of specific issues:

  • The difficulties associated with managing multiple projects in a complex environment
  • How to effectively enable project management skills in others
  • What it means and looks like to lead in a project management environment.

The design phase of our programme derived session content that considered:

  • Conflict management when managing different preferences and personalities in teams
  • Influencing skills when trying to unblock sticking points, or gain senior management buy in to a project or proposal
  • Transactional Analysis, in the sense of the mindsets and beliefs we hold about ourselves and others in any given situation, and the effect this has on all our interactions with others
  • Fierce conversations – this can be on a project team or a supplier management side, and we encourage participants to bring an example of a difficult conversation they want to practice
  • Leadership Styles – using the right management and leadership style depending on the level of maturity and experience or simply the personality type of the individuals involved.

The course was still based fundamentally on project management skills, and these formed the majority of the case studies, scenarios and examples that were used. But most of the more sophisticated approaches and learning, and importantly, those which have been embedded throughout the organisation, dealt with behaviours, emotion, culture and attitudes, with not a Gantt chart in sight! The real sweet spot is ensuring that everybody receives this combination of hard and soft skills in any aspect of training and development to do their job effectively, not just top tier managers. It is through this approach that a culture of learning, feedback and honest and authentic conversations will begin to appear in your organisation, when it filters through all levels of interaction with a learner.

The wider opportunity

Taking this a step further, there is huge potential for organisations to learn, test and experiment by implementing hard skills alongside soft skills. When piloting new procedures, new software or trying new ways of working, wherever training is required there is a fantastic opportunity to use the hard and soft skills approach to influence each other through programme or project design.

Back to our example of a hotel front desk, the soft skills required and the type of interaction and conversation individuals may have with a customer should influence the way the booking system and other IT or communication systems operate. If the person operating the check in software is forever getting stuck on the same screen and holding up a queue, or if a particular customer request is causing a problem because of the current applications they are running, this will have an impact on the customer experience. By doing for example, a Customer Journey Mapping exercise, which looks at the thoughts, emotions, and feelings a customer has about your brand at each stage of interaction they have with you, you can start to establish where the areas for conflict or dissatisfaction are arising. But this only works using a soft skills approach – not many computer programmes can give you that level of insight!

This then should have an effect on the type of procedures that are then put in place. By putting the hard and soft skills in context with each other you create an opportunity to learn how they interact and give the employee and the customer the opportunity to feedback their real life, felt experience of the role or organisation or brand interaction. This way, training is addressing the exact needs of the employee and feeding a culture of continuous improvement – and you won’t have to redo it in six months following bad customer feedback or low staff satisfaction survey scores!

An example of this is the evolution of software simulation, more and more the ‘how’ an employee interacts with a customer while using a piece of software is affecting the design and training needed, quite rightly.

There is little you can glean from human interaction and perception that can be created in a lab or testing centre to the same affect.

Embracing the new reality

More and more we are learning how interconnected and complex the world is becoming,  yet many businesses continue to have a blind spot when it comes to the over simplification of employees’ training needs. Managers, employees, customers, procedures, knowledge, skills, IT, organisational structure all interact with each other on a daily basis.

Let’s acknowledge this when training employees and start to equip them with what they need to deal with the reality of their role.

There is also a wider issue here. We tend to segment the knowledge from the skills that are needed for implementation; we take the intricacies of situations out of the equation to simplify things and seemingly make them easier to digest. The impact of this on organisations is huge. It affects the way we hire, measure performance, train, implement organisational change, and ultimately retain or fire staff. Also by failing to look at individual identities, drivers and motivations, learning at a deeper level does not happen and real life connections are not made. Let’s start to look at what the future of training and development could look like - where there is no differentiation between a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ skills programme in terms of delivery style and transfer of learning, it is only the intricacies of what is being taught that need to be distinct. We know organisations, people and situations are so complex – a one size fits all approach just won’t cut it anymore.

So what is stopping you from training your staff not only on the skills they need to effectively do their job, but also look at the meanings, motivations, behaviours and styles that are influenced or can influence these elements? Make a commitment with your staff to show them how these skills interact with each other and how important each skill is – you will get the best out of them.

About the author

Natalie Henville is a managing consultant and Adam Smith is R&D manager at The Berkshire Consultancy and they can be contacted at and


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