Are Soft Skills Really That Soft?

NOTE: The following is about one of my pet peeves - the denigration of "soft" skills; the skill-set that is delegated to a quality that's less important than the "hard" skill-set we all know and love to hate. Enjoy! As always, you can find all of my blogs from 2013 to the present on my website at https://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

I have a serious issue with the term "soft skills." You know, those skills that the United States Department of Labor lists as Communication; Enthusiasm and Attitude; Teamwork; Networking; Problem Solving and Critical Thinking; and Professionalism. Every one of those skills is absolutely critical to success in today's business environment, and calling them "soft" subtly diminishes their importance. Like A Boy Named Sue, soft skills have an image problem, and we need to change that.

"Hard skills" don't have that image problem. "Hard" connotes tangibility, certainty, and measurability. You have that knowledge, you have that skill, and you are hired to use that knowledge and perform that skill and bring value to the company. Hard skills are essential because without skill and knowledge nothing gets done.

But today, relying solely on hard skills won't get the job done either. As we move away from the literal and figurative bricks-and-mortar production model, and toward a more virtual and collaborative workspace, soft skills are arguably more essential than hard skills. After all, when breakdowns happen at your organization, is it because your employees didn't have the specific knowledge or expertise to do the job? Not really. We can determine hard skills reasonably quickly and get people in the right positions. Failures are far more likely to arise when there's a communication breakdown, a toxic team dynamic, or a lack of critical thinking. Soft skills don't seem so soft when you think about it that way.

If I had my way, there would be a line item on the balance sheet entitled "Human Performance." After all, aren't most modern companies valued through the quality of their employees just as much as, if not more than, the number of their hard assets?

The Human Performance value would reflect employees' overall engagement and motivation, as well as a company's ability to execute, innovate, adapt, and ultimately grow. The Human Performance line item would be a reliable indicator of company health--if it is well suited to produce in an ever-changing world, and if its employees are creating results that recognize and capitalize on opportunities.

Organizations that understand that culture drives results also understand the importance of Human Performance to good culture. My friend Patrick experienced that first hand. He was in an interview several years ago for a job in an industry that was utterly foreign to him. He had good work experience, but very little of it matched up with the job description. The interview was going well, and his inexperience came up; Patrick readily admitted his lack of knowledge and expressed his willingness to learn. At that point, the interviewer (and his future boss) said to Patrick, "I don't care if you don't know the job; we can teach you that. I really just wanted to see if you were a fit with our culture."

Patrick will never forget that interview because it led to the best job, with the best culture, the best boss, and the most successful company he's ever worked for. He learned how to do the work because the culture allowed for it.

Many things can contribute to a good company culture; here are four aspects that I believe are paramount:

1. Respect The Individual

People appreciate being valued for their unique contributions to a situation, and, as Daniel Pink recently theorized in Drive, this is generally an employee’s number one motivation to work.  The Dalai Lama was recently quoted as saying, “Everyone is born into the world as a person, and everyone leaves the world as a person. Yet we tend to forget that fact when interacting with others.”


2. Positive Environment

Studies show that a positive work environment affects the brain, increases employee engagement and that people are generally happier while at work.  According to Shawn Achor, a positive psychology expert and bestselling author of 'The Happy Secret to Better Work,' “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

3. Clear Goals and Provide Regular Encouragement

Individuals appreciate knowing where they stand and how their personal contributions impact the whole. Establishing achievable goals, particularly together, means you’re both on the same page about what is expected and how they can contribute. Having measurable steps means you can routinely gauge their progress and provide consistent encouragement.

Remember that people usually appreciate timely feedback. If they are struggling to meet their goal, chances are they will want to address this as soon as possible, as opposed to only hearing about it at their annual review. Additionally, being recognized for a significant contribution is likely to have a more positive impact on the individual if it is done within a few days of achieving the accomplishment.


4. Engage Beyond Work

Find ways to engage with each other beyond work. At some companies which with I have worked, they have monthly staff celebrations in a non-work environment. Sometimes they go bowling, other times they watch a movie, and occasionally, if the weather is nice, they’ll have a BBQ lunch. The point is to come together more as people than co-workers and to get to know each other at a deeper level. It may only be an hour or two, but, it helps to promote the value of family and build camaraderie.

So next time you hear the term "soft skills," know how important they really are. Just because they are misnamed doesn't mean they aren't vital to your organization's success.