Soft Skills

I’ve been transitioning over the past six months from a game designer to a team lead/project manager. Specifically, the kind of person whose job it is to ensure that everyone working on their team has the resources and shielding they need to do excellent work, or, for the cynical, meddle and ruin everything.

There’s a similarity in both fields that I’ve found interesting. Most people don’t tend to believe that either game design or management are “skills”, in the classic sense of the term. There isn’t the same view as people take when talking about mathematics, or programming, or mechanical engineering– those things involve skills, and there’s a deference given to people who can have them. You’re unlikely to, as a non-programmer, suggest to a programmer that you could whip up a secure peer-to-peer networking solution if you felt like it.

As a game designer, however, it was interesting to me how often people would say one of three things to me:

1.) “Oh, I thought about making games for a living, but decided not to.”

2.) “Hey, I have this cool idea that you haven’t thought of, you should use it!”

3.) “Man, I played [game], those guys/you screwed up some obvious stuff! I can’t believe they were such idiots!”

These aren’t people intending to be disrespectful or crass; most of the time it’s an honest attempt to find common ground or strike up a conversation, but there’s a very real belief underlying the comments– the skills employed by a game designer aren’t “real”, at least in the sense that they’re skills that most people lack. There’s an underlying implication that anyone could be a game designer, just that the people who are doing it either got to it first or couldn’t find something better to do.

There’s a similar train of thought that I see applied to management– it’s very popular to hate on anyone with “manager” in their title, or just the concept of leadership and management in general. From within game development, there was a pervasive, strong distrust of anyone in any sort of leadership position beyond a team’s direct reports.

The distrust is so pervasive, in fact, that finding suitable images for “stupid boss” and similar made finding images for this post trivial, whereas finding suitable images talking about “soft skills” led to very little of use.

I think we distrust soft skills, and by extension the people who use them. The idea that being a good communicator is a skill bothers people at some fundamental level, and it leads to a certain disbelief when it comes to jobs that are more about soft skills than “hard” skills (programming, mathematics, etc). There’s a lot of research that’s been done on the topic, and it’s interesting how constrained to certain circles it is.

I’m fond of saying that people don’t have as much free will as they like to think they do, that conscious thought is consistently and radically affected by subconscious stimuli without our knowing. We are hardwired to be affected by our subconscious and rationalize our behaviors after the fact– you didn’t eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting because the combination of flavors is precisely tuned to drive your brain to crave more, you did it because those chips were delicious. That bit of rationalization says “sure, I made a questionable decision, but it was MY questionable decision, not influenced by someone who knows more than I do about how my brain works”.

I think this is why we distrust soft skills. It’s easier to accept that someone can do something you can’t, that involves a particular skill that you haven’t picked up, than it is to accept that someone can do the same thing you do, but better. In a sense, we’re less intimidated by people with skills we lack entirely than people who have the same skills we do but are better than we are at them. It’s player fantasy, applied to the real world.

If two very similar classes in an MMO have markedly different outputs, the game’s community rages– the game itself is broken, and for many players, the game is fundamentally unsatisfying unless the imbalance is reduced or removed. This has next to nothing to do with how much that difference in output affects their day to day play– the mere suggestion that someone else does the same thing they do, but better is enough to fuel anger. Sometimes this can be rationalized– some classes are “harder to play”, and this will mollify the playerbase. The “hard skill” of playing the class is justifiable, and more accepted.

I think the same thing is true of soft skills– the concept of a really excellent communicator (a marketer, almost by definition) is viewed with distrust and often outright venom by people who value “hard” skills. I’ve had friends tell me to my face that “business types” are poison and the worst people, even knowing that I’m pursuing a business degree.

I often suspect that I’m exempt from this label because I’m still developing my skills, I’m not a “real” businessperson and thus it’s easier to rationalize me away. I wonder how many friendly relationships are sabotaged simply over the divide between the concept of “soft skills” vs “hard skills”. I suspect it’s a very high number.

Source: Digital Initiative
Soft Skills

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