You know what a concept is, but what are conceptual skills and who uses them? After this lesson, you’ll be able to identify conceptual managerial skills and understand how managers at various levels use these skills.
Conceptual Skills: Definition
It’s hard to get the big picture when you have such a small screen. This anonymous quote can be stingingly true. Have you ever had a manager reluctant to give up hands-on work? Maybe you’ve had managers who spend most of their life handling office politics? They are so deeply involved in the interpersonal relationships of the office that it’s almost like working in a soap opera. It’s important for managers to understand the work of the company and to navigate interpersonal relationships deftly.
Without the big picture, though, managers can efficiently knockout the to-do list only to find out later that the tasks aren’t linked to meaningful goals and a coherent strategy. Becoming familiar with conceptual skills puts you on guard against such aimlessness as you move through your career. Managers who have conceptual skills have the ability to think creatively and understand complicated or abstract ideas. But before we dive into conceptual skills, though, let’s get an overview of all three required management skills as well as the layers of management.
Classical management theory structures organizational management into tiers, like a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are supervisors, or lower-level managers, working directly with workers to coordinate the daily tasks of the organization. In the middle are, you guessed it, middle managers.
They oversee longer-term goals with the supervisors that align with strategic objectives of the organization. Who sets these strategic objectives? That’s right; it’s the folks at the tip of the pyramid, the top-level managers.Regardless of the level of management, theorist and psychologist Daniel Katz identified three skills common to every manager. These are conceptual skills, human skills, and technical skills.
- Conceptual skills allow a manager to visualize the entire organization and work with ideas and the relationships between abstract concepts.
- Human skills, also called human relation skills, require communication and attention to relationships with others.
- Technical skills are needed to actually get the work done; they are the techniques, practices, tools, and processes needed by front-line employees in the manager’s functional area.
While all managers have these skills, the ratio of each skill to the others varies based on the industry and level of management. Let’s say Michelle and Michael are both supervisors for accounting companies. Michelle’s team are all remote contractors, while Michael’s accounting staff are working nine to five in a specific building.Both are on the same management tier, but Michael may need more human skills than Michelle to manage interactions among team members.
Michelle’s team interacts directly with her, but not with each other, so she’ll use human skills differently and less often then Michael will. Each job requires the same amount of conceptual skills to ensure their team is meeting organizational objectives. They’ll also use equivalent technical skills (generally accepted accounting principles) to ensure the quality of the work.So, you can see how the mix of managerial skills might differ by industry, but let’s take a closer look how conceptual skills change with each successive step up the pyramid.
Conceptual Skills by Management Level
- Top managers rely mostly on conceptual skills, but they use significant human skills as well. Remember, though, they need technical skills to set a strategy that makes sense for the organization. Top managers have the most discretion, or choice, in how they exercise any of these skills.
- Human skills are needed by most middle managers, because middle managers need to communicate up, down, and across the organization in order to do their work well, but they also need conceptual skills to set the goals and achieve strategic objectives. They are expected to have more technical skill and less conceptual skill than the managers above them because they are ‘closer to the ground.
- Direct supervisors do not spend as much time doing work that requires conceptual skills – the day-to-day operations of the organization are more task-minded than strategically oriented. Instead, they are the ‘closest to the ground,’ so they need more technical skills as the most hands-on and visible managers. They do need some human relations skills.
It makes sense that the different levels of management have a different mix of each of Katz’s three skills, but what do we mean when we talk about working with ideas and the relationships between abstract concepts? Sidney Fine, a professor and historian, described three families of skills relating to data (conceptual), people (human), and things (technical).
As you can see, his families correspond with Katz’s skills. Fine described the data skills (conceptual) as working in a nested hierarchy, as shown in this image:
Let’s use a specific example to understand conceptual skills. Meet Julia, supervisor for two other people in the graphics department at Razzle Dazzle, a public relations and marketing firm. Given her industry, she’s expected to have good conceptual skills. Her boss gives her samples of the kind of work he expects her team to produce, and she copies the examples and compares her team’s work to the standard.
She’s very good at what she does, and two years later, we find she’s now the director of online marketing. As a middle manager, she still has the conceptual skills to copy and compare, but she’s also skilled at analyzing graphics for more complex concepts, such as metaphor and meaning, color, shape, and texture. She then compiles examples of good work to share with the supervisor below her.Julia’s on fire! When we check in five years later, she’s now a partner in the firm. She’s created innovative design strategy and coordinates the efforts of the departments below her so the firm can meet strategic objectives.
When she’s working with the partners to make strategic decisions, she’s synthesizing information from the company as a whole, as well as from changing conditions and trends out in the marketplace.
Conceptual skills deal with grasping the big picture and making connections between abstract ideas. Managers at all levels need conceptual, human, and technical skills to perform their jobs successfully. The proportion of each skill to the others changes based on managerial level. As managers move from the base of the management pyramid to the top, the conceptual skills they use become increasing more complex and discretionary.
Understanding the conceptual skills required for management responsibilities allows you to seek opportunities to make them a part of your skill set.
After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll be able to:
- Define conceptual skills
- Identify the three skills common to every manager as determined by Daniel Katz
- Explain how these skills apply to the different levels of management
- Relate Sidney Fine’s families of skills to Katz’s skills