explain to me this thing you call soft skills….

Those words – “soft skills” I hear so often. As a coach and HR Professional working in Leadership Development, I wrinkle up a little more every time I hear this phrase. People skills are not soft skills. Learning how to manage and lead people is not a soft task. It’s not an easy task and even if you do it naturally, there will always be skills that are hard to learn and very difficult to master.

In my career, some of the most difficult things I ever had to do were have tough honest conversations, or provide difficult feedback, or lead someone through change or a crisis, or become the bearer of terrible news, or remove someone from their job, or discipline someone, or be the one who is the very first to tell them they aren’t doing as good a job as they thought, or to be the leader wanting to change culture, or disagree with my boss or, or, or …….

Maybe I should stop there because that already sounds anything but soft to me. These aren’t soft skills perhaps in the way I consider that word soft used. I acknowledge the term is used to indicate that it’s not spreadsheets, data analysis and business development we are doing. Those things are definitely hard. Maybe soft is meant to imply that because its people related, it’s soft? In work terms, being soft can be considered an insult. In sporting terms it’s an insult to be soft. So – the language is just all messed up. In my short stint on the planet, soft people are the thoughtful, caring, sensitive and self-conscious ones. Much the way I’d like all leaders to be. 

Language is so important and I feel like the word soft doesn’t do these Leadership responsibilities any justice. They aren’t easy skills to learn either. I had a bit of a baptism of fire with my leadership skills (as I am sure most people do!) and I learned them without any education or “training”. I was thrust into a really tough job and had to just learn as I went along in the course of my normal working day running a business. Because that’s what we expect from our leaders right? That they show their skills, whatever texture – in the way they lead their teams. 

There is nothing soft about any of the skills we need, to do the work I talk about here. Soft skills insults the very tough, real life, day to day human tasks of leading people. Of being a role model and of calling out the hard stuff. It’s true, they are skills like any other, but calling them soft to me implies they are easy. They aren’t. 

If anyone has a better term, please let’s start having that conversation! 

Have you got the guts to have the tough conversations?

It has been a year now since I had any staff to manage. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels sing. Whilst I did enjoy it and all the challenges it threw my way, it was nothing short of the most difficult thing I ever did. I chose not to have children, so I managed people instead. God works in mysterious ways.

It is true that I will have stories to dine out on for the rest of my days.

Anyone who knows me lived this example of managing poor performance, painstakingly! One of my staff used to take the company car to drive to the shop to get coffee for everyone (of course he walked around the building and took orders before he left). He returned, delivered said coffees, chatting to all along the way, then took time to drink his own coffee and eventually got back to work. He thought this took 15 minutes; his tea break. In fact it took 40 minutes, on a good day. He conveniently forgot that he traded off that tea break when he signed the last Enterprise Agreement giving him a 13% pay increase over three years. Not entirely his fault, no one had the guts to tell him that he couldn’t do that anymore.

If you are let get away with something for long enough, it can become the norm.

This very same guy did a less than sterling performance for 27 years. He was an absolute under-achiever of the highest order. When challenged on his work ethic, his work contribution and his general performance, he quite rightly produced his HR file and showed me that no one had ever challenged him on this before. That meant it must be me, the new Bossy Bitch who had a problem with him and the way he worked.

Well hidden potential

That was without doubt one of the toughest challenges of my career. It took me a year of setting targets, measuring performance, reviewing targets, adjusting targets, sending him on more learning and development than was good for him and basically devising every strategy I could find to get him to reach his potential. He had the most well hidden potential of anyone I had ever met.

Lots of very tough conversations and nine months later, he was dismissed for his consistent abysmal performance, including mistakes costing the company thousands of dollars, ruining our reputation and creating ill will amongst his colleagues (unlike anything I have ever seen.) Dismissing someone in a Government run institution was a tough gig, I give you the drum!

Your staff may just thank you for it.

There are thousands of employees out there just like him. It is tough having to have conversations with people about the way they work, or rather the way they don’t work. I doubt to this day that he thanks me for it, but I have had other staff who have. I have had people return to thank me after I have made them redundant, cancel their contract or just plain old tell them off for bad behaviour. Some of them gloat, and that is OK. Some realise it is the best thing they could have done, or could have had happen to them. To leave an environment that doesn’t stretch you or your creativity and is a lovely deep, well grooved rut can be a liberating experience, regardless of how it happens.

It is never a pleasant job to have to tell someone that they are going to lose theirs. People are human at the core of all that shockingly poor performance. They have lives to lead and children to feed, husbands, wives and parents to entertain and ignore just like the rest of us. Pity they don’t think of them when taking their employer for granted.

I have had to have tough conversations, not just about performance, but about stealing, bullying, racism, sexism and inappropriate swearing. I have had to tell someone it is not appropriate to call the company you work for a euphemism for a female body part. I have had direct and uncomfortable chats with people about bad body odour, inappropriate clothing, smoking in a non-smoking flammable confined space; coming in late, leaving early, excessive private phone calls – you name it. Were any of them nice, NO! Not for me and especially not for the staff concerned.

However, every single one of them knew exactly where they stood after those conversations.

To refuse to tell a person that they are under-performing, is not only poor management practice, it is poor leadership. It’s unfair and in fact, it’s just plain old bad human skills. Most of us just want to do a good job. Some of us think we do, and some of us know it, even though we aren’t always told (when will people get that? Can you just say “thank you for your work”, or “You’re doing a good job”. Is it really that hard!!?). I digress…..and OK, yes I was channelling a few of my previous bosses just then, sorry.

If you don’t provide feedback to people, good or bad, they will keep doing what they have always done, whether it is right or wrong. Having the tough conversations can drive you mad if you are not prepared and if you don’t have the skills to do it well and to protect yourself in the process.

Six tips for having the tough conversation

  1. If you witness the bad behaviour, ask the person into your office. Nicely, quietly and privately.
  2. If you don’t see it for yourself, then ask them to come and see you. Ask them for their version of the story. Perhaps: “I heard something unpleasant about xyz….can you tell me what happened?”
  3. Whatever the situation, start the discussion immediately. Do not make small talk or make them feel like they are going to be having a friendly chat with you. This is business and it is serious.
  4. Address the issue. “I just noticed {or I heard} that you did……(insert appropriate disaster here). I wonder why that happened, can you tell me about it please?”
  5. Give them enough time to provide you with an answer. Let’s be honest here, no excuse is acceptable when someone has used bad behaviour in an office, so the next tip is not negotiable!
  6. Say this, clearly, precisely and succinctly. “I just want to make it clear to you that that type of behaviour is not acceptable here in this office, nor in this business. Do you understand?”

Then stop talking.

My experience is that people listen, tell the truth and respond. They are usually embarrassed to be called on bad behaviour and who isn’t? Ask them if they are clear on it. Never underestimate the power of repeating your point, over and over again if you have to. If they start to give an excuse, remind them in the nicest possible way that they are adults; that they have a responsibility to work well with others and to just do their job.

If there are serious reasons why their job can’t be done, they can be discussed later. Make a note of them, then make another time to review workload, or do whatever you have to do to support them (yep, crap behaviour still requires support…much like parenting!). But make those two meetings separate so they are clear on the performance message, and that they are also clear on who is the leader.

The “…how dare you?” tantrum

Seriously, if ever anyone says those words to me, I walk away. They may as well ask me if I know who they are. As a manager I recover from my shock and then take the person in question for a very strict, very sotto voce conversation (strange phenomenon that, the angrier I get the softer my voice!)  I have had staff attempt to throw a tantrum after they have left my office. I followed them and suggested that they go for a walk, or take a break or go work the guillotine (OK, that was a dream, I was in printing!). Keep your resolve and make sure they are aware that you will not accept that behaviour under any circumstances.

Livestock in your living room?
Livestock in your living room?

Feedback is a wonderful thing and I have been known as the Feedback Queen all my life. I love it. I have learned to accept it and I give both positive and negative feedback graciously. It is difficult to manage people because they are people. Some will hate your guts till the cows come home (but what are you doing with livestock in your living room?) and some will adore you for it.

I know some of you reading this will be wondering if I worked in a prison, or even dealt with small children and farm animals. Not so, just an environment where staff had been let do what they wanted; one with no authority, no leadership and certainly no one there who had the guts to have tough conversations.