Soft versus hard

Jun 14 2005 by Robert Heller Print This Article

Management has always been thought of as a 'hard' discipline. The higher a manager rises, the greater his or her powers of command and the larger number of people who must obey the orders.

The hard managers have the mandate and the duty to discipline their subordinates, close redundant activities, dispose of whole businesses, move people from job to job, and so on. This kind of authority can easily create an atmosphere of fear and trembling.

However, the true hardness began to soften some time ago and the change is accelerating.

It's speeded up to the point where the Harvard Business Review can declare 'It's Hard Being Soft', describing 'the hard work of being a soft manager' and asking 'why should anyone be led by you?'

Clearly a major shift in attitudes is taking place. How far have you succumbed to the soft trend? Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

1) Soft leadership is more effective than armour-plated command-and-controlling.

2) Uppermost among the qualities needed to be a strong leader are sensitivity, vulnerability and honesty about your weakness.

3) People start wanting to work with you when you quit pretending to be perfect.

4) Employees will eventually respect and support you when you let them know that you're flesh and blood.

5) When you've established empathy you can give people what they need in order to excel – which is perhaps what they want.

6) You encourage others to share responsibility by relinquishing the idea that the fate of the firm rests completely on you.

If you do agree with all or any of these, then you face a hard question: are you putting your soft principles into practice? If not, you are unlikely to work for an organisation that has time for such ideas.

The above Feelgood Formula enshrines the familiar philosophy that the better you treat people, the better they will work. The problem for most organisations is that the ends outrank the means.

Companies need their innovators more than ever. These brains need the greatest possible space to deploy and share their thoughts. This is where soft management holds the reins
The soft ways of the Feelgood Formula are just good behaviour: you manage in human and humane ways because that's the correct way to treat your people. The fact that it's also more effective is a bonus, albeit possibly a highly valuable one.

But effectiveness depends, not on the degree of loving kindness brought to bear, but on the competitive quality of the decisions taken, the processes installed, the methods applied, the technologies developed – and so on.

These are the 'hardest' areas of management – in both senses of the term. Take a false step in any of these matters today, and it might take years rather than months to recover.

The pressures are so powerful that the experts polled in the latest survey undertaken by the Global Future Forum predict some radical changes in management – and these tend towards a 'soft-hard' future.

A lot of larger companies will become networks of outsourced resources, partnerships, alliances and contractors in order to become (soft) more responsive to market demands.

Understanding the customer (soft) and superior retailing skills will prevail over (hard) straight manufacturing capabilities as the primary drivers of success. Also, organisational adaptability and flexibility (soft) are becoming more important to success than operational performance and other traditional (hard) metrics.

Companies need their innovators more than ever. These brains need the greatest possible space to deploy and share their thoughts. This is where soft management holds the reins. Freedom of thought should flourish. You need self-managed bands of brothers and sisters who set their own goals.

Your model should be the university, not the military camp. However, in this soft habitat, paradoxically, you require a focus of the hardest military intensity.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".