Let’s Stop Calling Them ‘Soft Skills’
They might be skills, but they’re not soft
Are you good at your job? Different, easier question: Was Ty Cobb good at baseball?
It’s generally understood that Ty Cobb was a jerk. His teammates didn’t like him very much. But he’s still in the Hall of Fame. That’s because baseball keeps score… of hits, of runs and of catches.
What about your job? It’s probably a bit more complex.
There are linchpins, people who don’t shirk responsibility when the chips are down. And, among others, there are connectors, people with insights, folks who never seem to lose hope. Your company is staffed with people who can’t possibly be rated on a linear scale, because you’re not baseball players. You are managers and inventors and leaders and promise-makers and supporters and bureaucrats and detail-oriented factotums.
And yet we persist in hiring and training as if we’re a baseball team, as if easily defined skills are all that matter.
What causes successful organizations to fail? Stocks to fade, innovations to slow, customers to jump ship?
We can agree that certain focused skills are essential. That hiring coders who can’t code, salespeople who can’t sell or architects who can’t architect is a short road to failure.
These skills — let’s call them vocational skills — have become the backbone of the HR process.
But how to explain that similar organizations with similarly vocationally-skilled people find themselves with very different outcomes?
By misdefining ‘vocational’ and focusing on the apparently essential skills, we’ve diminished the value of the skills that actually matter. Most of the textbooks business students experience and the tests business students take are about these vocational skills, the checkboxes that have to be checked.
But we give too little respect to the other skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional.
It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.
Culture defeats strategy, every time.
Organizations spend a ton of time measuring the vocational skills, because they can. Because there’s a hundred years of history. And mostly, because it’s safe. It’s not personal, it’s business.
We know how to measure typing speed. We have a lot more trouble measuring passion or commitment.
Organizations give feedback on vocational skill output daily, and save the other stuff for the annual review if they measure it at all.
And organizations hire and fire based on vocational skill output all the time, but practically need an act of the Board to get rid of a negative thinker, a bully or a sloth (if he’s good at something measurable).
If an employee at your organization walked out with a brand-new laptop every day, you’d have him arrested, or at least fired. If your bookkeeper was embezzling money every month, you’d do the same thing.
But when an employee demoralizes the entire team by undermining a project, or when a team member checks out and doesn’t pull his weight, or when a bully causes future stars to quit the organization — too often, we shrug and point out that this person has tenure, or vocational skills or isn’t so bad.
But they’re stealing from us.
What Can We Teach?
Along the way, we’ve confirmed that vocational skills can be taught (you’re not born knowing engineering or copywriting or even graphic design, therefore they must be something we can teach), while we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to decision making, eager participation, dancing with fear, speaking with authority, working in teams, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, inspiring others, doing more than we’re asked, caring and being willing to change things.
We underinvest in this training, fearful that these things are innate and can’t be taught.
We call these skills soft, making it easy for us to move on to something seemingly more urgent.
We rarely hire for these attributes because we’ve persuaded ourselves that vocational skills are impersonal and easier to measure.
And we fire slowly (and retrain rarely) when these skills are missing, because we’re worried about stepping on toes, being called out for getting personal, or possibly, wasting time on a lost cause.
Which is crazy, because infants aren’t good at any of the soft skills. Of course we learn them. We learn them accidentally, by osmosis, by the collisions we have with teachers, parents, bosses and the world. But just because they’re difficult to measure doesn’t mean we can’t improve them, can’t practice them, can’t change.
Of course we can.
Let’s call them real skills, not soft.
Yes, they’re interpersonal skills. Leadership skills. The skills of charisma and diligence and contribution. But these modifiers, while accurate, somehow edge them away from the vocational skills, the skills that we actually hire for, the skills we measure a graduate degree on.
So let’s uncomfortably call them real skills instead.
Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need to today.
Real because even if you’ve got the vocational skills, you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we can’t write down, or program a computer to do.
Real skills can’t replace vocational skills, of course not. What they can do is amplify the things you’ve already been measuring.
Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it.
That’s fine, it’s the baseline.
Now, add to that: Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience.
What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?