What do we mean by people skills?

I’m rereading Richard Farson’s Management of the Absurd. So much of his argument, especially in the earlier chapters, resonates strongly with me.

Gaining skills in planning, organizing and scheduling no doubt improves the performance of managers. It is when we attempt to apply skills to the most challenging area of management, that of human relations, that they desert us. This is especially true when we try to handle those people who mean the most to us – our closest colleagues. Here, skills don’t help.

Farson asks people to recall things their parents did with them that they particularly remembered and thought were significant in their development. There are several in the book, but one is My father, in his coat and tie, sat on the ground with me and ate those dirty baked potatoes I had cooked in the backyard. Farson suggests none of these stories comply with parenting manuals.

For the most part, they spoke of acts that parents did not do deliberately, as something they thought would be good for their children’s development. Rather, they remembered acts that had a spontaneous, even accidental quality, sometimes breaking all the rules. These moments were memorable because they were different from what the child was used to getting from the parrent. We could construct theories about parental behaviour from these responses. But we could not use them to develop techniques or specific “how to” advice.

He then describes how he repeats the exercise for people talking about their managers, and again gets a series of exception stories, such as Once when I was drinking after hours with the manager at the restaurant where I worked, he said the only reason he hired mewas to ‘piss someone off,’ but I had turned out to be one of the best waiters they have ever had. Farson comments

Not once did any of my respondents cite an episode that could have been learned in a management skill training program. In fact, most recalled behaviour that would hardly be thought of as an approved management technique (for example, teasing, losing control emotionally, job hunting with an employee). They tended to be moments that… revealed something of (bosses’) humanity. In these incidents the bosses may have exhibited spontaneity, genuineness, caring – but not skill.

Farson calls into question the idea of “people skills”, something so commonplace in our language that we probably don’t think about it. I have always felt very uncomfortable with the use of models, 5 steps and lists of methods for dealing with people. They seem simplistic and reductionist and carry the implication that we should just be good at something that is, in fact, complex and often very difficult. The superficially claim to help us, but in effect treat us as fools. Farson has more to say on this, and I’ll blog some more later.

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