Part 1: Does Company Culture require ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ skills to drive high performance?

Denison Consulting has been running the slogan ‘bringing culture to the bottom line’ since its inception back in 1998. Our experience to date since Covid 19, suggests that perhaps we should turn this sentence around, without altering the intrinsic meaning of it;

How does your business delivery connect back to your culture?

The Denison culture model was developed utilising unprecedented research at a point in history, when not even the term ‘Company Culture’ received any attention, with the exception of some academics and enthusiasts. The late 1990’s was an era where post Taylorian-management still prevailed and executive MBA programs soared. The best way to boost your career back then was to make sure your employer granted you a ‘fast track’ through one of these programs. Programs where words like Business Process Redesign provided the focus for most CEO’s and those who strived to become one.

In the past 20 years the world has gradually changed. Corporate culture is no longer the odd word out. We’ve come a long way since, with the focus gradually broadening from acknowledging purely the ‘hard’ side of business, to recognising that there’s a ‘soft’ part too, that can no longer be neglected, or even down-played as somehow inferior in its importance and impact on the delivery of success.

But even in 2020 we find our interpretation of the word ‘soft’ still poses, and even confronts us, with new questions. Whilst there is an acceptance that there is nothing ‘easy’ about the people side of business delivery, we still seem to distinguish between ‘hard’ strategy and ‘soft’ people management issues, as if they were two separate entities that require a different if not at least separated approach. Why are we doing this? In reality, we all know they are intertwined and that ‘soft’ is not the easy part, and when poorly managed makes business life considerably ‘harder ’for everyone.

So, what are we really trying to differentiate when we use the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills?

  • We do seem to accept that both are required in order to run a business successfully
  • But do we really believe that both play an equally important role in business?
  • And if so, do we actually manage these two factors as if they are of equal importance?

Where do we place ‘Company Culture’ – does it require ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ skills to drive a high-performance culture in a company?

If Organisational Culture is associated with the collective behaviour of its people, and our attitude, beliefs and emotions drive our behaviour, then maybe:

  • Culture will be seen as ‘soft’ and therefore sits with HR, the ‘people’ specialists?
  • The word ‘soft’ allows those who cannot handle emotions or the conflict they can create, to avoid it legitimately?

Managing people and creating open and ‘choiceful’ work environments (or climates) is one of the hardest challenges. Our experience with clients, suggests there is little that is ‘soft’ in developing such a skill and that it requires diligent ‘hard’ work to understand and proactively mobilize the ‘soft’ parts of organisational culture effectively.

How many leaders are actually fully aware of, and consciously tapped into, the ‘leadership climate’ they create around them and the effect it has? A climate that feels wet and soggy drives people to metaphorically protect themselves with water proofs. When the sun shines we all feel better, we smile more, go out and about more, and we have less need for protective layers, we are more flexible and open to new things.

  • When something is called ‘soft’ does it legitimise having less attention?
  • Is there anything ‘soft’ about crafting a strategy for the new-normal, or any strategy at all?
  • Which is ‘harder’, writing a strategy or being successful in its implementation?

We believe it is time to accept that there’s a need for balance. Great leaders set a clear vision for the future, define strategic priorities and confirm short term goals and objectives; what we perhaps use(d) to call the ‘hard’ stuff. On the other hand, they also have to ensure a sense of collective ownership of that strategy; “what is in it for me?” and “why would I be committed to succeed for the company?”. Some may call this ‘soft’ but in our experience it is ‘easier’ to write a strategy than to see it successfully implemented by inspired and committed employees. If the latter is ‘soft’ then the ‘hard’ strategic implementation will fail.

Especially now, during Covid-19, the deeper understanding, mastering and proactively mobilising the ‘soft’ part of companies will play a ‘harder role’ than ever before.

  • Karen Jones Director of Consulting & Partnerships, Europe
  • Erik Driven
    Erik Driven Founder & Managing Partner, TimeToChange
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