“Hard” vs. “soft” at work

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I was just sitting around letting my dog run in my new-ish yard and I read through this article on Wharton’s website. It’s by some 30-year veteran of leadership development programs, and he’s essentially arguing that we need to bring “love” and “compassion” into work. I agree with this conceptually, sure, and about four years ago this week I wrote a post on “compassionate cultures” potentially leading to more profits. But there is a giant elephant in this room that I think we often do not discuss.

Item 1: Most companies are still run by men

This narrative is changing, yes. Has it fully changed? No. Phrased another way: Bezos has 18 direct reports. I believe two of them are women, and one of those women runs HR. Try to say back that sentence and not sigh.

Item 2: What do we tend to call things like “compassion?”

That would be “soft skills.”

Item 3: What does a man think about when you say “soft?”

A couple of things off the top of my head:

  • Ice cream
  • Doughy, doesn’t work out
  • Can’t get it up
  • Not a warrior mentality
  • Weak

Item 4: What does a man think about when you say “hard?”

A few off the top of my head:

  • Virile
  • Strong
  • Conquers
  • Pleases his woman/partner
  • Warrior
  • Athletic/fit

Item 5: Do you see where this stuff matters?

The words we use in work contexts are very important. Work vocabulary notoriously kind of sucks, and our new “woke” era has given us even more things like “belonging.”

Here is a simple example. For years, we’ve been talking about this idea of employee engagement. OK, sounds cool on the surface. You want people coming to work engaged in what they do, because then they serve the customers better and hopefully you make more money in the process. Awesome.

But think of the word “engagement.”

A guy at the top of a company does not believe he got to where he is because he was “engaged.” Instead, he thinks about hard work, beating rivals, staying up late, travel, big projects, deals he crushed, etc. He basically virtue-signals that it was all his tireless work ethic and nothing else, even though a lot of work success is, frankly, luck.

So the term “engagement” means nothing to that guy. When the rubber meets the road, he is not spending extra money on an “engagement” program.

What does that guy think of “engagement” as?

  • Asking his wife’s dad for her hand
  • Getting down on one knee
  • The period where the wedding was being planned

That’s it. Employee engagement? Fuck that, Bob. Work harder. Engagement to most world-builders is about marriage, a “personal” thing … not a “work thing.”

Words matter.

So, back to “hard” vs. “soft”

The first thing we need to do is stop calling them “soft skills.” Call them “People skills” or something. When you put “soft” into a male-dominated ecosystem like work typically is, no one will respect anything that’s “soft.”

You saying I can’t get it up?

If you want people that run businesses to give a shit about concepts like “purpose” and “mission” and “engagement” and “compassion” and all these things we keep inventing so that 100 people can sell more books, here’s the one thing you need to do →

Tie those words to hard, bottom-line concepts that these people understand.

There is no reason for someone to invest in “more compassion” if (a) it’s not defined and (b) it’s going to cost money and some rival won’t be investing in compassion, will save that money, and will be more attractive to the market as a result.

It’s just not going to happen. That’s also why the CEO pledge is such trite bullshit, as is Davos. The “raison d’etre” for a company is to make money for shareholders. It’s not to “display compassion” or “develop soft skills.”

You saying I can’t please my partner?

If you want this second-tier stuff to matter — and, admittedly, it should be first-tier stuff — you need to tie it back into “hard” concepts that executives can and will understand. It’s the only way.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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