Managers: sometimes, it’s hard to be soft

Our education is dominated by learning hard skills, yet it’s the soft skills that make for great managers. How well-balanced are you?

There are two forms of management – hard and soft. Most of us, especially farmers, come down much too heavily on the hard side. It’s a fine balance, I’ll concede, but there has to be a balance for effective management. Our school lives were dominated by learning and practising the hard skills of writing, maths and the sciences. Even the ‘softer subjects’, such as history, geography and languages, were most often taught as hard, fact-based fields of study, where we were required to remember dates, river names and the rules of grammar and punctuation.

At university, unless one went into arts or humanities, the gathering of hard skills progressed apace. There was the option of science, with chemistry, physics, zoology and others, or commerce – accounting, economics and the law. These educational avenues aim at filling our heads with hard skills that will supposedly equip us to move into the ‘real world’.
The rules for application remain much the same, regardless of the situation organisation or people you work with.

On the farm, understanding the basic rules of genetics and best practice to produce high quality livestock is a hard skill. Having a grasp of animal nutrition and pasture or veld management in order to achieve best milk or beef yield is a hard skill. Monitoring the nutritional requirements of crops and knowing how to meet those needs are all hard skills.
These are the skills that get our farmers’ attention and at which they excel.

Vital for team-building
While these hard skills are the bedrock of a successful business, it’s soft skills that create winning teams, motivate people and build profitable businesses. Yet these receive little attention during our formative education. Take communication, for example. Here we have a vital team-building and management skill. Without good communication, no one ever reached great heights as a manager, and this is not something that can be gleaned solely from books. It is not rule-based. Every situation is different, depending on the audience and the message.

Have you ever had any training in communication? How did you develop your skills? On the job, I guess, but just imagine how much better you would manage if you had been taught the rudiments of good communication.

Get to know yourself
What about self-awareness, knowing yourself? In my early 30s, I was arrogant enough to assume there wasn’t a job in the business I couldn’t handle. Then I was given a few of these jobs to do. I simply didn’t understand myself and my own strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t realise how my instinctive reaction in some situations often caused more harm than good.

If I’d been aware of these shortcomings, I might have been able to modify my behaviour. If only I’d known that there are several highly effective methods of helping develop self-awareness, how much better I might have been as a manager!

Building bonds of trust
How about empathy? A soft tool in the manager’s toolkit, empathy can lead to hard tangible results, and it’s at the core of keeping relationships intact and productive. Without empathy, it’s difficult to create bonds of trust, and to get honest feedback on what others are feeling or thinking. There are numerous studies that link empathy to business results. In
The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow, Bruna Martinuzzi lists a number of practical ways to build your level of empathy.

Listen, with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to body language, tone of voice, hidden emotions. Don’t interrupt.
Smile and use people’s names; make a point of remembering the names of spouses and children. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t check emails, look at your watch or take phone calls.There are many more soft skills that are crucial for effective management.

The ability to control your emotions when provoked and to think calmly and clearly. Patience. Perceptiveness. Being able to cut through the clutter in a crisis situation. Having the ability to apologise, and also to forgive and forget. Being resilient enough to handle disappointment and continue to move on. The list goes on. Your hard skills are important, but they’re easy to learn. There’s no easy way to learn and develop soft skills, and they are much more important to you as a manager.
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This article was originally published in the 18 July 2014 issue of Farmers Weekly.