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The power of “the unexpected small touches”: Leveraging ‘soft skills’ for business success

Taye Negussie (PhD)

“….I could talk forever about the swimming pool, fantastic views, and the morning breakfast. Honestly, though I would expect those things given the price I was paying, what will bring me back to the resort was the impression ‘the unexpected small touches’ left on me.”

This was an excerpt from a student’s market observation term paper report entitled ‘An Overview of My stay at Adama Executive Hotel,’ submitted in partial fulfillment for my economic sociology course at Addis Abeba University.*

As I see it, the above seemingly ordinary phrase –“the unexpected small touches”– invoked by the student as a force to win the hotel her customer loyalty, would rather speak volumes about the currently changing business environment: the newly emerging mode of business organization and management and the accompanying set of skills and competencies required thereof.

In the conventional ‘economic-efficiency and technological-rationally’ business model a greater emphasis was placed on how a worker’s body could make the most mechanically efficient moves with a view to attain maximum productivity and thereby profitability.

To this effect, business organizations often had to be framed in a quasi-military type system with a rigid, hierarchical bureaucratic organization operating under a pre-determined, strictly regulated, standardized and uniform working rules and procedures.

In such organizational framework, the most essential skills needed– aside from the manual work – used to be one’s intellectual and technical competencies.

It goes without saying that such a rigid organizational arrangement engenders a robot-like mode of behavior and thought that deprives employees the freedom to display originality and spontaneity and all the creative aspects of human nature – hence, the notorious rational, impersonal, and formal behavior utterly insensible to specific people’s needs and preferences.
The new challenges and the changing yardstick

Well, the above mode of business organization and management might have well served the purpose of mass production and services in a relatively less competitive business environment. However, in today’s globalized world and cut-throat competitive business environment it carries less promise than ever before.

Now, businesses essentially need to ensure their survival and niche in their respective sector by engaging themselves in what economists call rendering value-added products and services. In its crudest sense, this may mean that productive and service-rendering business entities must turn their attention to customer-oriented products and services that may well take into account customers’ specific physical, psychological, social and cultural needs and preferences.

Definitely, offering such services and products requires quite a different and new arrangement of business organization and management and the corresponding new set of competencies and skills on the part of the organization’s staff and personnel.

The emerging organizational mode

As opposed to the traditional rather rigid and conservative organizational prototypes, now the most valued and highly cherished organizational variety seems to be a flexible and a learning entity capable of quickly adjusting itself to the continuously changing business environment.

While in the ‘good’ old days, industries and businesses committed themselves only to their own selfish profit motive with little interest to the larger environmental and social concerns, albeit some variation across level of economic-development and commitment of governments, now every business entity is required to bestow some reasonable attention to these rather important public issues.

In this regard the recently coined notion of environmental and social accountability is set to underpin the value and operational framework that orient legislative and policy makers, government executive organs, business communities, community groups and civic organizations in their endeavor to create socially and environmentally sound industrial and business activities.

The case for ‘soft-skills’

Unsurprisingly, the newly evolving industrial and business environment has tended to demand a radically new set of skill and competencies which in earlier times were largely held in contempt–hence dubbed ‘soft skills’.

The economic significance of this otherwise known as ‘soft skills’ was brought about into the debate for the first time by the renowned American Scholar David McCleland in his 1973 paper “Testing for Competence rather than Intelligence”, in which he argued that the traditional intellectual capabilities did not predict the success of people in their job. Subsequently, he proposed that a set of specific competencies including ‘empathy’, ‘self-discipline’, and ‘initiative’ to serve as reliable predictors of success.

Latter on in 1998, in his bestselling book “Working with Emotional Intelligence”, psychologist Daniel Goleman drawing on McCleland’s insights identified ‘emotional intelligence’ that comprises ‘self-mastery’ – initiative, trustworthiness, self-confidence and achievement drive, and ‘relationship skills’ – empathy, social awareness, leveraging diversity, team capabilities and leadership, as the most important trait that distinguishes most successful people in their private or work life.

In reflecting on the current changing business circumstances, Goleman argues that, “The rules for work are changing. Now we are being judged by a new yardstick: not just by how smart we are, or by our training and experience, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other –our emotional intelligence.”

Goleman substantiates his argument by quoting a senior university official from the Harvard Business School, “As business changes, so do traits needed to excel. New challenges demand new talents.” According to this official the competencies that the Harvard Business School is now looking for in those who apply comprise “empathy, perspective taking, rapport and cooperation.”

Thus, based on his own and many other recent research findings Goleman joins McCleland in disputing what is known as the ‘IQ mystique’: the false but widely embraced notion that attributes success to intellect alone.

All in all, the consistent finding that has emerged from a substantial number of research undertakings in the field well points out to the fact that intellectual and technical capabilities take only second position to ‘emotional intelligence’ in determining outstanding business performance.

Apparently, what my student considered as “the unexpected small touches” by the hotel staff include rather than just handing over room keys to guests, first inviting them to make a visit to the property of the hotel and then escorting them to their respective hotel room; paying extraordinary attention to guests’ children; aside from the formal good morning and pleasant smiles, engaging with guests in a heart-felt interaction at each encounter; while meeting in the hotel hallways or outside, going out of their way to purposely step aside and create a path for guests, were truly humbling humane gesture, not merely “being nice”. That could only be acted out by people endowed with some emotional and social competencies.

From the foregoing arguments we gather that what is often relegated as ‘soft skills’, quite to the contrary, is indeed indispensable emotional and social capabilities – in fact far more than that of mere intellectual and technical competencies – that have proven to be the key ingredient for individual as well as business success across the board.
The writer is can be reached at

* The writers would like to acknowledge student Sara Abdu’s invaluable contribution to this piece

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