Connecting Hard & Soft in Practice

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Hard and soft, doing and feeling, task and relationship – there are many ways to talk about these aspects of work. We could examine how they are differentiated or characterized in theory, and how each contributes to productivity, morale, and a sustainable culture that attracts great talent. And few would not concede the importance of linking hard to soft.

Most in management understand that neglecting the soft can make a workplace unattractive, even toxic. Still, management has little appetite for in-depth conceptual analysis of what hard and soft are, and why they’re important. So, I found myself thinking of an eminently simple way to bridge hard and soft in practice that gives hard-headed pragmatists reasons to care, but also give them guidance on how to realize it.

Start by Characterizing the Task

Pragmatism is a belief that we can best evaluate the validity of an idea or the efficacy of a strategy by considering how well it enables us to achieve our desired outcome. So, what is the task, and even more important, what is the outcome goal? What is the course of action that will achieve this goal? Who are the individuals (by name or role) who must contribute and coordinate their actions to realize this end?

If you really want a robust vision of the “hard” side of the task at hand, you might also ask about the potential risks or barriers and how you will mitigate and address them. You might also assess the essential skills, resources, and technical practices that must be mastered to execute the task well. All of this begins to flush out the larger scheme of things that must be brought under managerial control.

Then Identify the Soft Variables

What is it that could impede collaboration, motivation, and performance from a social-emotional point of view? For example, it’s important that we feel respected, heard, and understood if we’re to rely upon one another’s best efforts, right? How might these expectations be honored or offended in the work process, and how might conditions of stress, strain, and fatigue manifest and affect this behavior?

Just as we raised the question of bringing task-oriented variables of performance under managerial control, we must discuss how we’ll monitor these “soft” aspects of how we work together. We must find ways to attend to and notice how our interactions satisfy our mutual needs for feeling respected, heard, and understood. Especially as time pressures build and emotions intensify.

Creating Opportunities to Notice

Operational reviews and management reviews are commonplace. It’s how we monitor progress, quality, and identify needs for course corrections. We collect data and evaluate how we are doing against plans and budgets. It’s not simple. We’d rather be doing and “making things happen.” We might also struggle with being the messenger of bad news, or with admitting that we’re falling short. Truth is not always easy.

We need to focus with equal rigor on the soft variables of performance. If chronic patterns of tension, conflict, or strain are not being addressed, performance will suffer. If we're not sure of or confident of how to raise issues because they seem to imply difficult conversations, we must figure it out. If we’re tempted to respond defensively, territorially, or in other ways that divide, we must resolve it.

How Anticipation Pays Off

If we have “scoped” the task-oriented requirements for success as described above, we should have a "control panel" for evaluating progress and identifying on-track and off-track patterns of performance. We should also be able to specify needs for improvement. And if we’ve conceptualized the work as a team effort, we should be able to analyze flaws, faults, and needs for change systemically and avoid personalizing and blaming.

If we’ve attended to the soft variables (attitudes, feelings, behaviors) in a similarly systemic way, we should recognize that we all contribute to what is working or not working, feeling bad or feeling good. There should be a greater capacity for making conversations feel safe, open, and getting past any initial testiness. We should be able to examine our near-term production issues and longer-term capacity building aims.