The Saga of Soft Skills

The time has come to blow the whistle on two words that do well on their own, but must never be put side-by-side. When ignored, these two words can derail a career and a life. These skills are far more important than most people can ever imagine, and our technology isn’t doing us any favors to help alleviate the problem.

I think by now most of us know the art of face-to-face communication is slowly being replaced by technology and as a result our society is rapidly losing contact with each other. Oh sure, sometimes when we’re out and about we may need to check for an important communication that is expected to be coming our way. But more often than not, that stop-head-down-stare at a small screen operates more like a security blanket then a true need to interact with a communication device. In fact, what it really does is provide a hiding place to shield us from having to rely on our soft skills.

What are soft skills? The term “soft skills” refers to skills such as communication skills, time management, problem solving, working with teams, selling, negotiating, and basically learning how to work well with other people. For the record, the actual definition of soft skills is “learning to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”

Sadly, it seems like the term “soft skills” has a PR problem. For instance, what do you think of when you hear the word, “soft?” Webster’s defines the word “soft” as, “demanding little work or effort.” Is it any wonder why the first thing to be cut from a school’s education program, or a company’s training budget is the training in soft skills? Who would want to attend a class, or fund a program that provide skills that demand little work or effort?

If you look up the word “hard” –softs evil twin, you’ll see it defined as “requiring a great deal of endurance or effort.” So, it seems that “hard skills” are the skills that you can really sink your teeth into. Hard skills refer to such noble tasks such as typing, writing, math, reading and the ability to use software programs.

Let me ask you this simple question: When was the last time you ever heard of someone bombing out on a job interview, or losing their job, or being stopped in their life because they couldn’t type well enough, or write fast enough, or know their times table accurately enough, or use the software programs efficiently enough? These are rarely issues that hold us back because if there is a deficiency in any of these areas, there are numerous options to train you and teach you how to correct it.

By contrast, when you hear the words “soft skills,” they appear to be less tangible and harder to quantify, but they are so much more important. As a matter of fact, the more you study what soft skills actually are, the more you’ll understand how crucial they are to someone’s success. That’s why I believe it should insult any rational person’s intelligence to keep throwing the words “soft skills” out at critical, sometimes life altering skills we clearly undervalue.

For close to six years, I’ve been a part of a tremendous group called Career Network Ministry. This organization works with thousands of amazing people who are in career transition, and who are working diligently to find their next jobs. These people aren’t struggling because their hard skills failed them. They are struggling because no one ever taught them how to bond fast enough, how to align with the right people well enough, how to be quiet quickly enough, how to connect with clients effectively enough, or, dare I say, how to sell enough. No one ever taught them the “soft skills” they needed to be successful because there aren’t programs in place to address them.

You don’t find many programs in “soft skills” in schools, and who want to even advertise a program in something called “soft skills?” So let’s change the name once and for all. I’ve kicked around a few names like “people skills” and “survival skills.” But for me, the winner is “performance skills.” Those are two words that add respect and urgency to these vital set of skills.

The next time you hear the words “soft skills,” firmly, but politely, interrupt and ask if the person meant “performance skills.” Perhaps today we can begin a movement to eradicate the use of the term “soft skills” once and for all. One by one, we can educate others to see the error in their ways.

The term “performance skills” does justice to a set of skills that will be one of the most important competencies you will ever acquire. My friend, and fellow Berrett-Koehler author, Marilee Adams, recently told me:

Soft skills equals hard cash.

These skills will be pivotal in determining if you get hired, accepted by others, promoted, admired, and respected. Now…. it seems pretty clear that we can all invest our time and energy in “performance skills,” right?

©  2018 Robert Jolles  All rights reserved.


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