30 June 2009

Killing me softly: soft skills, anyone?

In the June09 issue of Harvard Business Review, Mr Robert I. Sutton writes about How to Be a Good Boss in a Bad Economy. His remedies for the Boss were predictability, understanding, control and compassion. He gives examples to further his argument about his remedies. While his explanation followed his remedy - it was predictable – his example on compassion had me bristled.

First, a little digression on compassion. These days we are bandying around compassion as a skill. As if it were something that one learns at the blacksmith’s or at the carpenter’s. It is our very innate nature, for God’s sake. It has nothing to do with managers or employees or with royalty; it is mine because of being a human being. It is our seventh sense. Don’t ever call it a soft skill. Compassion is not a good thing to have. It is the right thing to have.

Now, for that example on compassion. Let me quote Mr Sutton:


Jerald Greenberg, a management professor at The Ohio State University, provides compelling evidence that compassion affects the bottom line in tough times. Greenberg studied three nearly identical manufacturing plants in the Midwest that were all part of the same company; two of them (which management chose at random) instituted a temporary 10-week pay cut of 15% after the firm had lost a major contract. At one of the two, the executive who conveyed the news did so curtly, announcing, “I’ll answer one or two questions, but then I have to catch a plane for another meeting.” At the other one, the executive who broke the news gave a detailed and compassionate explanation, along with apologies and multiple expressions of remorse. He also spent a full hour answering questions about why the cost cutting was necessary, who would be affected, and what steps workers could take to help themselves and the plant. Greenberg found fascinating effects on employee theft rates. At the plant where the curt explanation was given, the rate rose to more than 9%. But at the plant where management’s explanation was detailed and compassionate, it rose only to 6%. (At the third plant, where no pay cuts were made, the rate held steady at about 4% during the 10-week period.)


It is unfortunate that he gives thieving of employees as an example to buttress his idea about compassion for employees. It would appear that researchers such as Mr Greenberg - as quoted by Mr Sutton - think that employees by nature are prone to thieving. Why else would one do such a gratuitous research?
I would imagine that Mr Greenberg's research hypothesis read:
This research establishes a correlation between increase of theft by employees and the abruptness of language used by CEOs conveying salary reduction news.
And from this research Mr Sutton got compelling evidence that compassion begets less thieving!
I think this is absolutely unfair to employees.

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