Soft skills and straitjackets

Two posts by good friends appeared in my timeline yesterday which seem closely related.

Jon Husband writes about Semantic Straitjackets a useful way to describe the many models and processes used in organisations to help manage things. They all promise to solve organisational problems yet easily become the problem themselves:

The models created to codify “how to do things better faster cheaper” are almost exclusively derived from yesterday’s and today’s mainstream management ‘science’.  These models have led us directly into the modern re-engineered, optimized and streamlined business processes that surround us in our daily lives today. Today’s business processes, competency models for all sorts of work, and leadership and management models are all focused on this kind of short-term performance-related behaviour. 

They are so common and widespread that they are used almost without thinking. As a result, just like buzzwords that may present a solid idea, but are diluted through popular and not- rigorous use, many of today’s models have come to be relatively meaningless in our new context.

People love being able to produce diagrams, grids and seven-step processes that appear to solve the complexities of working with other human beings… but don’t.

Which is why John Wenger’s post seems rather timely: soft skills are not soft. Those who think the answer to complexity can be found in a model or process easily create the idea that their thing is tough and resilient, and that anything to do with people’s feelings is soft and ineffectual. But actually responding to people’s individual needs is the really hard work, choosing to have the difficult conversations we’re tempted to avoid, and risking engagement with our own messes and shadows. The shiny models which appear to allow us to avoid those conversations are perhaps a distraction from the real work. As John says:

I believe, like many do, that being with others as they develop the human capabilities that we all could do with, happens one conversation at a time.  It happens when we take the time and energy to engage with others and approach them on a human to human level, without reducing them to a bunch of unsavoury behaviours that need changing.

I notice how reluctant I am these days to engage with the business-speak that surrounds processes, and often wish I could just say: could we just talk about this?  “Just talk” sounds humble, perhaps even feeble to some ears. But I think we need to stand up for it; doing so may be the braver, harder choice.

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