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

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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.

We also recommend watching Managerial Skills: How Good Managers Promote Productivity and Human Resource Management: Hiring and Staffing


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.

Looking more deeply into the human skills/people family, Fine described these skills as a nested hierarchy. Someone with the ability to mentor, for example, also has the ability to instruct and supervise. As a manager moves outward from the center of the hierarchy, he or she has more discretion over how and when to enact these skills.

Human Skills in Action

Imagine you've just started working at Pick My Brain Consulting. As a consultant you need to work closely with your clients to persuade them to adopt your suggestions, so your industry requires significant human skills. Your technical skills focus on your area of consulting - let's say communication theory and fundraising practices. Your conceptual skills are needed to understand the big picture of your client's organization.

Let's look at what kind of human skills you might use as you are promoted up the management chain. In your first project at Pick My Brian, you are part of a team developing a social media fundraising campaign for a well-known charity. At this level, you might be helping the senior members of the team and speaking to the client about concrete details of the project. When you have established competency in this area, you may move beyond speaking about information to diverting your clients from unwanted behaviors or persuading them to a particular course of action.

A few years later, you've decided to stay at Pick My Brain because they value your work. You are no longer the new kid on the block, and you find that you're now spending less time speaking, persuading, and helping and have more involvement in instructing junior members of the team and supervising their efforts. As you continue to move up the ranks, you find you are still supervising and sometimes instructing, but more often you are mentoring those coming up behind you so they need less direct oversight from you moving forward. You also find that, although there are still circumstances in which you need to persuade others, you have more refined negotiating skills.

Lesson Summary

Human relational skills deal with communication and managing interactions among people. These are important and necessary skills, but they represent just one set of skills managers need; technical and conceptual skills are also necessary. The amount of time each manager spends using each of these broad sets of skills changes based on their managerial level and industry. As managers move from the base of the management pyramid to the top, the conceptual skills they use become increasing more complex and discretionary.

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