The exaggerated importance of people skills

I am no stranger to the domain of “people skills”, having made a good living working in this area all my working life, as well as in my military career.

Every so often, there are hurricane-like winds exalting the importance of people skills. At times, it seems to me that people skills are as important as oxygen or clean water. But they are not.

I want to point out the contexts in which people skills are not all that important to success.

  1. In a shitty job market, the importance of people skills take a beating, because management thinks you should kiss their ass simply for having a job.
  2. When someone has extremely good and rare skill set, it is not all that important  for that person to have people skills.
  3. In cultures which foster subservience and deference, people skills are a nice to have, but things get done anyway.
  4. I do believe that feigned interest in people is far more important than authentic people skills for senior executives. My experience is that very senior managers often have reached the top because they put task before people, set impossible deadlines which stress people beyond belief, and ignore the squawking from below the deck. I belief that people skills often (not always) hinder people from getting to the top.

So are people skills important?  Sometimes yes. But not all of the time. If these skills were all that essential, the marketing of our skills would not be a hellish nightmare.

This having been said, there are specific areas where people skills are absolutely critical, as was pointed out to me by my friend GK in personal correspondence.

“Smaller companies and companies in trouble are usually in a very weak situation with employees, investors, board members, and customers. In these situations, which is a huge percentage of actual situations faced, people skills are critical because the relationships are often all that is between a customer or employee leaving, or a board member going hostile. Of course, stellar results always trump everything, but that is not always under the manager’s or CEO’s control.” (emphasis mine AS)

“In big companies results matter, of course. However, what actually matters more is the perception of results, rather than the results. In a big company, managing P&L and spinning information takes a huge portion of senior manager’s time. The critical people that need to be influenced for this to be successful are not always in the direct line of the hierarchy. They are often finance people, other staff people etc. They will support those they like more than those they hate. Of course, they may support those they fear even more (see Machiavelli), but that may be more short term.” (emphasis mine AS)

To wrap things up, if consultants know how to properly position when and where people skills are important, and avoid preaching people skills as a religious doctrine, marketing the abstraction of soft skills may become easier.

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “The exaggerated importance of people skills

  1. People skills are the so-called “soft skills” that some disparage. The fact is however that organizations are in dire need of better people skills. For example, how to have tough conversations; how to resolve conflicts; how to give feedback on performance; how to restore morale; etc. The list goes on.

    Is there hype? Are there purveyors of snake oil in this domain? Sure.

    But organizations won’t get anywhere without people communicating with each other to solve problems, overcome differences, and reach agreements that enable them to reach goals.

  2. If I may – People skills ARE important and sorely lacking BUT the lack does not obviously impact output or outcome. Most of the time management can use the power over others to drive performance. Will the performance be done with enthusiasm and good cheer? No – but likely that won’t matter enough to deter management from their accustomed style. It is extremely difficult to measure the benefits of people skills. The one area that might be impacted is turnover – but businesses now expect turnover.

  3. If one equates people skills to « ageeableness », there is actual empirical evidence that such skills poorly serve both individual and organizational interests. If absence of people skills equates upfrontness, an ability to debate fiercly with little regards to sensitivities, cutingly distinguishing evidence from interpretations, then in some cultures, such a disposition beats people skills any time.

    • Levis –
      I think of people skills as having insight into human behavior, and being able to work with people to bring them into alignment with organizational goals so that they are working at their best. This includes an awareness of cultural norms for a group as well as recognition that not everything thinks and works like you do.

  4. A very interesting read–and some harsh truths. I do, however, think that this takes far too narrow a view of what “people skills” actually means. If that phrase means, “being nice to people,” yes to all your points, but that is only a very small subset of “people skills.” That senior exec who is wringing impossible deadlines out of the people “below deck” is using a different set of people skills: The power command, persuade, and to understand how much people can accomplish while under pressure, for example. The skill of putting together an effective team that is taking focused is also a “people skills.”

    The skills wielded by customer service reps bear little resemblance to those necessary for senior management and executive teams, whether we’re talking about “people skills” or any other skill set. You have to adapt to the changing landscape, learn, and use the skills appropriate to the role you are playing.

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