What Are Human Skills in Management? - Definition, Lesson & Quiz

Instructor: Jennifer Wiley-Cordone
Effective managers are able to work well with people, using the human skills essential to successfully lead. Learn how communication and relationship skills ease the way for accomplishing a business team's goals.


It's such a sitcom cliché when the peppy young job applicant tells the seasoned professional that she's a 'people person,' keying the audience into the upcoming comedic incompetence that's sure to follow. But, for every trite expression, there is a kernel of truth. This is the case with 'people person' skills, or human skills, which truly are necessary for managers. Also called human relational skills, these skills require require communication and attention to relationships with others.

While human skills are important, management theorist Daniel Katz recognizes that they can't stand alone. He partners them with technical skills and conceptual skills.

  • Conceptual skills take in the big picture of the entire organization and involve manipulating relationships between the abstract.
  • Technical skills are used by those working on the front-line and are necessary for accomplishing tasks; they are techniques, practices, tools, and processes.

Managerial Skills

Organizational management, according to classical management theory, can be understood as a tiered pyramid. Supervisors or lower level managers at the base of the pyramid are working directly with workers to coordinate the daily tasks of the organization. Middle-managers, by definition, occupy the center level and function as longer-term goal setters. They set these goals in alignment with the strategic objectives of the organization, which are developed by those at the tip of the pyramid, top-level managers.

Any manager, no matter where she is on the pyramid, uses each of the managerial skills. However, the proportion of activities that involve technical, conceptual, or human skills differs in various industries and at each level of management. What does this look like? Let's look at an example.

A Tale of Two Managers

Two managers, John and Sylvie, are both head of legal departments at technology companies.

? John's firm is an established company that has been in operation for 50 years. His department's primary focus is suing other companies for patent violations. As a result, John's team has become the primary revenue source for the company. He has significant support and a staff of 15, including paralegals and administrative assistants.

? Sylvie works for a tech-start up that has just received venture capital funding. The company makes skateboards with an integrated social media connection, so the venture capitalists anticipate disability and personal injury lawsuits; they would not invest in the company unless there were eight lawyers on staff. Of course, this creates a need for paralegals and admin assistants too. So, like John, Sylvie has 15 people reporting to her.

Both John and Sylvie are on the same management tier, but Sylvie may need more human skills than John because she coaches her team in negotiations with anxious parents. John also needs human skills, including negotiation, but might rely more on strong technical skills to monitor his team as they scour pages of patent law. Each job could require the same amount of conceptual skills to ensure their team is meeting organizational objectives.

Two managers of the same level with a different set of skills.
Human, Conceptual, and Technical Skills Vary

So, you can see how different situations influence the ratio of managerial skills, but let's take a closer look how human skills change with each successive step up the pyramid.

Human Skills at Each Level of Management

Top managers have the most choice in how they exercise any of these skills because of their position in the hierarchy. They rely most on conceptual skills, because they need to see the big picture and connect the dots between abstract ideas in order to set strategic initiatives. At this level, they also need significant human skills to manage relationships among their peers, with competitors, with partners and suppliers, and with high-level stakeholders like the board of directors. Technical skills are also necessary to ensure that their strategy is realistic.

Communication and strong relationships - the human skills - are most needed by middle managers, because they need to share information and ideas up, down, and across the organization in order to achieve their aims. But, they also need conceptual skills to set and adjust goals in service to strategic objectives. Clearly, they require more technical skill than the managers above them because they need to understand the work of those they supervise.

In order to effectively manage front-line employees, lower-level managers need some human relations skills, but direct supervisors do not spend as much time doing work that requires conceptual skills. Instead, they are 'closest to the ground,' so they need more technical skills as the most hands on and visible managers.

People Skills at Each Level of Management
Fine and Katz Human Skills on Management Pyramid

Families of Skills

It makes sense that Katz's three skills are evidenced in different mixes at rising levels of management and in different industries. But what do we mean when we talk about 'communication and relationships'? Let's look to the work of Sidney Fine for a better sense of these skills. Fine described three families of skills: data, people, and things. Although developed independently, you can see that Fine's families and Katz's skills roughly correlate so that data = conceptual, people = human, and things = technical.

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