“He’s too soft to succeed.” I’ve heard it said in meetings and even in post-interview discussions. But what exactly does that mean? And how did that idea get planted in so many business minds?
There’s a lot packed into those few words so often spoken as truth — yet very little of it of any use to good business practice. In fact, labels like “soft” can actually wind up influencing staff performance negatively. And missing the point altogether.
Employees frequently act as they perceive they need to. And phrases like that leave a lingering impression that can turn into a form of self-censoring. Meanwhile, judgers judge as they think they need to for them to succeed. And, in the process of everyone trying to be what’s expected of them, authenticity gets lost.
Cliched thinking is a sign of lazy management
It’s easy to use phrases that basically minimize or altogether remove the human side of work and business. Let’s not give power, they tell us, to things that aren’t easy to quantify on paper or in a good ole pie chart! You know the old sayings:
- No pain no gain.
- Survival of the fittest.
- Winning is everything.
- The end justifies the means.
- It’s just business, not personal.
- Being too “nice” will get you eaten alive.
But well-known shortcuts in language like these limit healthy discussion of the bigger — and more accurate — picture. And they also help cut off healthy workplace behavior, including giving value to emotional intelligence and the human resource side of work … a company’s most valuable asset.
Without us humans, business just isn’t happening. Even robots need humans to create them … at least as of now. Yet bad managers often hide behind snappy sayings, justifying management decisions that sacrifice human needs for productivity metrics and end game profits.
True … these methods may produce good profits in the short run. But they also produce things like high turnover, employee dissatisfaction, warring internal factions, and squelching of the very same creative sparks that in the end would net them more.
What does too soft to succeed even mean?
Underlying old memes attach minimizing labels to admirable traits such as being considerate and kind. (See below for examples.) Sometimes even calling them “girly” behavior. Or some similar outmoded and irrelevant way of thinking. As if taking human needs into account in business decisions make you too weak to get the job done.
Sadly, this kind of thinking is still etched into the DNA of many managers, even if they would initially deny that. Even women over the years have accepted this (“be more like a man”) as the reality of work. Although I do see this changing for the better, it’s still out there if not always spoken out loud!
Qualities that might get mislabeled as “soft” or weak:
- Sensitive to the needs of others.
- Taking personal situations / characteristics into account when managing.
- Designing tasks and even projects that help a person grow.
- Going out of the way to help others succeed.
- Admitting what you don’t know.
- Showing humility and willingness to learn from others.
- Smiling a lot and being nice. (Historically what women were taught to do.)
And yet, each one of these has value. Even being friendly — lord knows there are days at work when just a smile from a co-worker or boss helps keep you sane. And these “soft” human-centered qualities can help build strong relationships, as well as creating working styles that encourage collaboration and creativity.
Emotional intelligence is NOT soft!
When we start to talk about the human side of work, including feelings and interpersonal behaviors, there are a good number of managers who still roll their eyes at what they think of as “touchy feely” stuff. Even though study after study show its value. Especially if done right.
The smartest managers know — or are learning — that human-centered management is not only good for the employee, but it can help an organization grow and thrive. And it can help build a strong, loyal team who know that soft (in the sense of ends not always justifying the means) can also mean bottom-line success.
The real value of being “soft”
Look. I’m not saying a person shouldn’t be resilient. Or strong in their intentions and determined in their efforts. But being too soft to succeed can be an unfounded judgment label placed on people totally capable of every one of those traits. Even if they don’t come off as bullies or human bulldozers, often mistaken for strength.
Being mean or making it all about themselves can get some people promoted (I’ve seen it time and again), but it doesn’t build a truly supportive network that will be there in years to come. People they can turn to in good times and bad.
And when things start going wrong (they always do even for the best of us), odds are your fear-based network won’t be there to catch you. In fact, they may even enjoy watching your fall from grace.
When too soft to succeed is a real issue
In business, as in life, there is almost always an exception. And that includes the idea of being too soft (in the most obvious sense of the word) for certain jobs. Some jobs require a hard edge, whether we would ideally design them that way or not.
Let’s say that you need to evict someone from their house or repossess their car. Always seeing their side of things probably will get you fired. But then again, even there anything to win is not ok. These are still real people with real problems, who … yes … might be lying to you. But you can still do your job without losing sight of your own humanity.
As in all parts of life, if we continue to push down the side of us that is labeled by some as “soft”, after a while we lose it altogether. Or at least bury it so deeply you begin to forget you even have that part in you.
But if you keep the soft part of you alive, while still doing your best to succeed, you can find a career path that rewards you beyond quantifiable outcomes. One built on solid ground — and solid relationships that last!
More posts to help