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Soft Skills Aren't So Soft

May 31, 2021

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During a recent executive coaching session, a client used the phrase "soft skills" and I cringed. Gratefully, the Jersey girl in me didn't immediately confront the person. I have learned sometimes it is best to "stop, drop and roll." Not literally like the fire safety technique, but figuratively: Stop (don't react), drop (pause and take a breath) and roll (get some space out so I can dig into what bugged me).

 

Skills word cloud

What bugged me about the phrase Soft Skills? I believe many feel that soft skills aren't as as important as hard skills. Or not as valuable. Or can't be learned, as they are more of an innate trait versus a learned skill. So I decide to do a little research and was surprised at how much has been written on this topic. One of my favorites was a 2018 Forbes article (why soft skills are a major misnomer).

Of course the online search also revealed a variety of definitions for both hard and soft skills. Most often, soft skills are defined as things like communication, teamwork and creativity (skills that can be applied to any type of job or business). While hard skills are considered more job or task specific, like coding, budgeting or analytics. But what really struck me was how many different definitions there are! One definition of hard skills I came across was: "Hard skills are learned abilities acquired and enhanced through practice, repetition, and education. Hard skills are important because they increase employee productivity and efficiency and subsequently improve employee satisfaction."

I laughed out loud when I read that definition. So hard skills are really soft skills! And soft skills are really hard! Just replace the word Soft in the definition above and it is completely accurate:

"Soft skills are learned abilities acquired and enhanced through practice, repetition, and education. Soft skills are important because they increase employee productivity and efficiency and subsequently improve employee satisfaction."

So why do we need to delineate between the two? Hard and Soft. The truth is Hard and Soft skills are both necessary to be successful. And maybe it is time to just call the skills what they are (like leadership, critical thinking, writing, listening). Let's be specific versus using a vague and broad categorization of hard or soft. Not only is it somewhat lazy to generalize all skills in two categories, but many believe the so-called soft skills are/will become more important than those defined as hard skills. Mark Cuban noted in the Forbes article mentioned above, in ten years, "a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree."

So what. Why does it matter what we call them. I believe it matters because words have power. And by calling one soft, we may not only be minimizing the critical importance of the skills, we are also not 1) clearly identifying the actual skills needed to be built (name it); 2) putting a plan in place to build the skills (invest in it); and 3) ensuring leaders possess the skills (require it).

Kate Johnson
GRACE CAMP® CONSULTING, LLC
 
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