Is the “Soft Stuff” Really Soft?

soft on leadership?

“We don’t have time for the soft stuff” was recently heard in a senior leadership meeting. “Let’s get back to the real work—our budget and strategy for next year.” This team had just been through a training workshop that focused on leadership styles, their impact on the workforce, and the need to shift their behaviors toward more openness and collaboration. Comments on the “soft stuff” have been around for some time. It’s amazing in this time of work complexity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and interdependence, that some leadership still undervalue the importance of the human side of enterprise.

Getting the people side of business right is perhaps the hardest work that any leader or leadership team can do. If the culture in which people work is polluted with fear and anxiety, is infused with politics, and infected with dysfunctional behavior, then the business results will suffer—dramatically. But, if you get the people piece right, the business will thrive. It is incumbent upon leadership to get the people piece right, and if they are uncomfortable with doing that, it is an opportunity for them to grow.

If we have learned anything in the last decade about working in a complex, rapidly changing, global market, it is that we all depend on each other to get things done. To do so requires high levels of trust, authenticity, and openness in collaborative relationships that increasingly must work across the supply chain, silos, time zones, and cultures. Technology cannot fix the distrust issues people have. Neither can a marketing strategy or reorganization. We have to address the messy business of people’s relationships head on.

Some businesses try to do this through training or off-sites. The expectation or hope is that if people learn new content together they will behave differently. Usually training results wear off after 60 days, as it did with the senior team noted above. People don’t change years of patterned behavior because they go to a workshop. Don’t get me wrong, training is important for certain kinds of things like skills development, but not for dealing with the challenges of human relationships.

Here are 5 proven ways leadership can address the people side of the business:

  • Engagement: Establish an ongoing dialogue across the workplace about the direction of the business
  • Team-Based Governance: Create a process where members agree on the “rules” for how they are going to work together
  • Change Ownership: Ensure that the people who have to live with the results of a change own the change process itself
  • 2 Way Communications: Set up an ongoing 2 way process that can increase mutual understanding, trust, and alignment between leadership and the workforce
  • Learning: Learn from mistakes. Have after-action reviews. Have a repository of lessons learned. Celebrate the successes.

We achieve business results through and with people. The hardest work any leader can do is to build a workplace culture that is fit for the human spirit. There is nothing “soft” about this.

Can you add to this subject? I welcome your thoughts and comments below. 

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Dr. Edward Marshall works with companies to build leadership cultures based on trust and collaboration. He is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Managing Partner of The Marshall Group, LLC. You can contact him at:, 919.265.9616.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    A timely reminder in this age of ‘big data’ Edward. I don’t refer to hard and soft any more – but hard and harder

    • Greg Mitchell

      “Hard” and “Harder” skills – I like it Graham!

  • Greg Mitchell

    Thanks for your post Edward. The term “soft skills” is a bit of a bug-bear of mine, as I think it contributes to the undervaluing of these critical skills. Please, take a look at my recent post and let me know what you think: