February 22, 2021

Let's Replace the Word "Soft" with "Human"

The "human" stuff is really hard, too.

I’m so fortunate to get to be a “company coach.” In this role, I get exposed to the operating realities of a client company, the dynamics of the senior leadership team, the main all-company events, and more. I am as likely to be in a conversation about Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) trends as I am about a difficult exchange that might benefit from a candid clearing.

My main role as a company coach is to listen, pay attention, notice things that might be blindspots, and speak honestly to my client with no attachment to being right and even less attachment to continuing to work with that client.

In a recent conversation about a planned company event, we were discussing the “content” things we would cover (annual plans, roadmaps, etc) and what someone termed the “softer” stuff (team building, emotional connection, and play).

When I heard that term “soft” in comparison to the business content (which I suppose is “hard”), I had a visceral reaction. It’s so derogatory and so off-base in the comparison. Ask a CFO if it's “softer” to create a 3-year pro forma or to graciously terminate someone he likes but no longer feels is a fit for the company. I imagine most operators would choose the task over the talk.

Like them, I can do all of the business content work, but honestly the stuff that is deemed to be “soft” is the stuff I and others seem to find is the most challenging work of all. This is a huge part of what I do every day, and nothing about it feels soft to me. Sure, there is love there when I tell a client that from my view a decision she’s making looks like she’s purchasing a ticket for a decade of future resentment. I don’t mind saying things like this, but I imagine if you ask that client if that felt like a soft toss, her jaw would drop and she’d laugh at the question.

I’m not the first one to argue for the value of things sometimes regarded as “soft” -- empathy, authenticity, openness to feedback, listening, coaching, growth mindset -- and I won’t be the last. I don’t feel inspired to share all of the reasons for why I think these contextual elements contribute to a smarter, faster, and less dramatic handling of the content elements. All of those perspectives are wrapped up in my views about the intersection of Conscious Leadership and pragmatic business operation.

But I found an approach I’m taking up, starting now. Every time someone uses “soft” as a descriptor for these context elements, I’m going to ask that the word be switched to “human.” It seems like a small shift, but it represents the strength of my conviction here. The work that we’re doing -- the arguments or plans that stand behind those spreadsheets we’re going over in our team and board meetings -- are all executed by humans. It is simply impossible to believe that any of that stuff we are anticipating can happen without the humans behind it and the humanity they bring with them to work.

So “soft” is going on the out list. And “human” is in.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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