Soft skills are not soft.

Photo by John Wenger
Photo by John Wenger

I once had someone suggest to me that I would not be capable of working amongst the “brutality” of business life.  I listened with great interest as there might have been some truth in what they were saying.  Upon extensive reflection, I considered what might be behind their comment, as it intrigued me enormously.  It intrigued me because in my past working life, I have worked with people who were involved in the criminal justice system, having committed some of the most abhorrent acts upon other humans, and never felt myself “soft” or incapable of being with their “brutality”.  In fact, quite the opposite, I considered myself to be pretty robust and effective in effecting change, and this was mirrored back to me by my peers at the time.  A supervisor of mine even shared his experience of the work, saying that if we could work effectively with these folks, we could probably work with most anyone on the planet.

Recently, it has dawned on what might be behind this impression.  I see people as capable of change and believe the best of people.  I see the world through “strengths-first” (rather than deficit-focussed) lenses.  I try to live in a convivial manner.  I try my best to be agreeable, even if I don’t agree with someone.  This may come across in my manner as being somewhat soft; and to earn a crust, I largely spend my efforts on assisting people to develop the so-called “soft skills”.  I’m not good at the “hard sell” and believe that you get more with honey than with vinegar.  Sounds pretty soft, huh?  I suppose this disqualifies me from working with those who are not.

Soft.

Soft skills.

Soft.

Sooooooooft.

It doesn’t give good synonym, that word, if we try and place it in the context of business.  Fluffy.  Simple.  Silly.  Docile.  Gentle.  Yielding.  Mild-natured.  Feeble.  Easily overcome.  Delicate.

Soft things are not hard things. Neither are they as “good” or “robust” or, dare I say it, “manly” (and therefore about REAL business results) as their hard variants.  Hard is a word that means business.  Soft is caring and sharing.  Soft doesn’t get the “real job” done as well as hard, does it? Soft-hearted.  Soft rock.  Soft drink.  Softcore.

The only things that we really want to be soft are toilet paper, puppies and a mother’s touch, innit?

Photo of Veronica by John Wenger
Photo of Veronica by John Wenger

There has been the implication for many years, continuing in many quarters up to the current day, that soft skills are the “nice-to-haves”, the side salad to the meaty main course of hard, technical business skills.  For a long time, I’d been one of many folk who work in the area of people development who’d retort, when faced with this assessment, “They’re called the soft skills, but in fact they are the hardest,” accompanied by a hard stare which masked our soft and damaged hearts.

I make these connections with other associations with the word soft because these more gentle connotations also, I believe, influence how we perceive and (de-)value all the so-called soft skills.  Perhaps it’s time we find a new moniker, because they all sit right at the very sharp end of business and organisational life in the current era.  Sharp skills, maybe?

It is well past time that we re-think what these things are and where they fit in the 21st century world of business and organisational life.

When I think of the “soft skills”, I come up with role reversal and empathy, deep listening, handling conflict, lateral thinking, big picture thinking, group dynamics, delegating, negotiating and accepting difference, self-confidence….you get the picture.

So tell me how it’s soft to bump up against another complex human being and have your rough edges smoothed off as you try to find ways of working towards a common purpose.  Tell me how it’s soft to summon all your capabilities to be fully in the moment in the midst of a highly charged and emotional conversation, right on the edge of yourself, determined to be heard while equally determined to maintain and deepen your working relationship.  Tell me also how it’s soft to work alongside others with their annoying habits, odd pronouncements and bizarre ideas, and grow the ability to see their uniqueness as a key ingredient to a shared creative process that results in something that neither of you could have ever come up with on your own.

As far as I’m concerned, these are the sharp skills that are at the heart of a successful and effective modern-day enterprise of any kind.  I am in no way denigrating what we know as the “hard” technical skills of any enterprise; these are absolutely essential.  I am saying that a sound business needs to perceive and value the “soft” things just as much, and stop seeing them as a discretionary add-on.

When your business is all about being of service to others, whether that’s inside or outside the business, it’s the soft skills that sit right at the hard and pointy end of your business.  I’ve recently collaborated with a Project Manager friend to put together an offering which sets out to address some of the causes of failing projects.  In conversation with this friend, she identified some of the most common reasons that projects hit the rocks and the vast majority were not related to lack of “hard” technical expertise, but the “softer” elements such as poor communication between relevant people, taking an overly atomised or mechanistic view of the project, fear of speaking openly and honestly, unclear decision-making or fractious relationships between the people involved.  The “soft” things, which often get overlooked or under-valued, once again being a chief cause of, and potential solution to a business problem.

Hard may equate to difficult; soft does not equate to easy.

There really isn’t much that is easy about the “soft skills”.  They usually require more of our time, energy and attention to learn and develop than many of the so-called hard skills.  I might be able to learn the ten top tips of how to conduct a performance conversation in an afternoon seminar and be able to quote them back to you at the end of it.  Learning how to listen well, learning how to build a trusting rapport so that you can offer constructive feedback, learning how to have confidence to say something difficult….this requires much more of us and the “results” only show up gradually over time.

They are usually harder to measure.  I might be able to demonstrate that I’ve learnt how to use an Excel spreadsheet after the one-day training course, so you can tell instantly whether your investment in me has been worth it.  I can only demonstrate that I’ve developed greater empathy when, over time, you notice that my manner with angry customers leads to greater customer retention.  You can measure the knock-on effects of my new soft skills, but it can be much harder to measure the actual skill in the workplace.  If I’m undergoing a development or coaching process, I may not have the facts, notes and handouts that we sometimes use to prove I’ve been learning something.  Over time, however, I will become a bigger person for it and this will be apparent in how I conduct myself in a range of contexts at work.

They are usually harder to isolate.  It is far easier to isolate and atomise something like “needs to learn how to navigate the record-keeping system ” from other technical skills.  Try isolating “learning greater flexibility of response while a customer is making an angry complaint” from your other emotional regulation skills.  Most “soft skills” grow and develop in relation to other “soft skills” because we humans are highly complex creatures. “Everything-connected-to-everything-else” sort of complex.

It is often harder to know where to start.  With a “hard skill” such as learning how to replace a knackered central heating radiator, you start at the the beginning and follow the sequence of steps, building on each step as you go.  There is a start and and end, at which point, you can say that you have learnt how to do it because you can put it into practice.  With the “soft skills”, you pick up a thread somewhere, learn something, try it out, find yourself at the edge of your abilities and learn the next thing. but there is no step 1, step 2 system for learning something which is inherently complex.  The “starting point” is here and now; the end point is when you die.

Brutality

…so to come back to that word, “brutality”. I don’t come from the corporate world and perhaps have not experienced what that person I mentioned was referring to.  I have, however, lived and worked on three continents in both so-called “developed” and “developing” countries.  In all of these, I have witnessed and experienced people being jerks.  I have witnessed and experienced disempowerment, unfairness, intolerance and cruelty.  As I wrote earlier, however, I believe that you get more with honey than with vinegar.  I suppose I could take a hard approach when I encounter hard people, but I’m not entirely convinced that meeting casual and thoughtless interpersonal violence with more interpersonal violence goes any way towards creating the world I wish to live in.  I’m also not entirely convinced that one needs to have been brutalised by corporate life in order to assist people to deal with its effects.  I’m not entirely convinced that one needs to have been brutal to others and made some sort of Damascene conversion in order to assist folks to be kinder, accepting or cooperative.  I believe, like many do, that being with others as they develop the human capabilities that we all could do with, happens one conversation at a time.  It happens when we take the time and energy to engage with others and approach them on a human to human level, without reducing them to a bunch of unsavoury behaviours that need changing.

And there is

nothing

soft

about that.

Soft?

GTF.

softskills

Thanks to Simon Heath for sharing this thing about “soft” skills.

11 thoughts on “Soft skills are not soft.

  1. John – this blog on soft skills and the misnomers that exist in business is one of the better pieces of writing I have read in some months. You are spot on!

    The levels of avoidance through fear and doubt in tackling the aspects of leadership that matter is common-place but adds little value to business or the employees involved. I also relate to your points about project management and where they fail. Thanks for writing such a valuable article…one that I will share widely.

    1. Steve, thanks for adding in and for sharing it round. I think you are onto something when you say that avoidance of developing these sharp skills is related to fear and doubt. I completely understand this. From personal experience, all the little hurdles I’ve had to surmount in order to grow such things were scary at the time. It’s never easy to take a cold hard look in the mirror and discover something previously unseen. All the more scary when we realise that others can see something about ourselves that has remained hidden to us. I always stick by something an old teacher of mine once said: “Better to have courage in the first instance, than in the tenth.” In other words, best to grasp the nettle when we discover something that needs attending to rather than wait for its effects to snowball into something more unpleasant. I’m glad to know folks like you are my fellow travellers; helps with the scary bits🙂

  2. John

    I am almost finished writing a book about precisely this topic and have a chapter called Whats Soft and Whats Hard? If the soft stuff was fluffy and easy then everyone would do it. You have captured it so well here. The skills should be called Human Skills and the absurd notion that they cannot be taken seriously or measured in any meaningful way needs to be thrown out. Those who practice the “hard skills” are really only practising what the Adaptive Leadership Framework calls work avoidance. I write in the book about an experience as a Sales Director some 3 years ago where I sat in a room with my peers who were laughing and jeering when the engagement scores were shared and I was 20 points higher than the next best one. Comments like “lets get Mark to hug our people and sing Kumbuyah” only served to make me more determined to continue practising the “soft skills” which I say are “bloody hard work”.

    My mantra is this – Soft or Human Skills practised well lead to

    Energised Employees
    Ecstatic Customers
    Excited Shareholders

    Love your work here and I am going to share this article on my FaceBook Group called The Human Manager (People Before Profit)

    Here’s to the Human Skills

    1. This is great, Mark, I look forward to reading your book when it comes out. Glad to hear that you are out there demonstrating that not only are these capabilities “do-able”, but that they are good for business and not just a fluffy extra. Thank you for adding in and connecting up, it’s important that we all keep sharing what we do in this area.
      Warmly,
      John

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