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When soft skills seem to be the hardest word

30th Nov 2012
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November was 'soft skills' month on Training Zone and I’ve followed the commentary and debates with interest. Soft skills as in difficult to quantify and measure or soft as in the opposite of hard, difficult, tricky? The old adage has it that if you ask three people you get four opinions. Well, when trying to define soft skills, ask three trainers and probably you can count on at least five definitions. They will be described with great articulacy, with due concern for your feelings and there will be an attempt to achieve consensus, but inevitably, assertiveness will out and the matter will be as unresolved as a coalition position on the Leveson inquiry.

As well as being somewhat tricky to pin down, I’m beginning to think that soft skills may be an inappropriate phrase to refer to that combination of interpersonal skills and personal effectiveness that we refer to as ‘soft’.
Why did ‘soft’ become the chosen moniker? Originally, I guess it was to differentiate it from the ‘hard’ skills in which qualifications could be earned. You know, the important stuff like Maths and English, Science and Engineering and how to perform CPR. Except, that if the differentiator is qualifications, we need to think again – a quick internet search provides access to all manner of certification including modules such as personal impact, cultural awareness and managing yourself, along with any number related to communications skills.
In recruitment circles it used to be said “the hard skills get you the interview, the soft skills get you the job”. In other words, your qualifications in catering, finance, engineering and management would be the ones which opened the doors, but walking through them required something more.
The problem is I don’t think that describing these interpersonal skills as ‘soft’ is doing us any favours. As the old recruitment mantra recognises, the skills which sit under the heading of ‘soft’ are pretty damned important. In fact, if you look at the difference between organisational or personal success or failure, the difference is rarely what we might consider hard competences. It is the soft stuff that matters. 
What’s more, whether a skill is considered soft or hard can often be a matter of context. 
In a sales or customer services role, are negotiation, building rapport or influencing others examples of soft skills? I don’t think so – these are the very warp and weft of the job. 
In management, is being able to communicate ‘soft’? Quite the contrary, for many managers the need to communicate effectively to a wide range of team members is the hardest skill of all. 
In developing those so called harder skills, is the ability to learn, reflect and critically evaluate our own actions a soft skill? If so, why do so many find it so difficult?
If like me you have been in the unenviable position of having to make the case for these skills to be included within training programmes and competence frameworks, you will have realised that calling these vital behaviours ‘soft skills’ does us no favours at all. In most organisations, ‘hard’ is better. Whether we are talking about bottom line results, quality thresholds or productivity, organisations focus on what can be measured. As trainers, maybe we have opted for the term soft skills to excuse us from having to come up with some kind of objective measure of what it means to be personally effective.
Interpersonal skills are not just difficult to sell to the organisation because they are tricky to measure. They’re also difficult to deliver. Training people to improve their inter-personal skills presents a unique set of challenges, rarely met in the one day training course. Providing the objective feedback to build these behaviours can feel like we are questioning character. These skills are so integral to our sense of self, to who we are and what makes us human, that going outside the universally positive appraisal of actions can be horribly exposing for the trainer and deeply uncomfortable for the learner. Without some standards, the support offered is necessarily subjective.
I think it’s time to grasp this particular nettle and come up with those objective measures. I think we need to define what we mean by someone who has the personal awareness, inter-personal skills and abilities to communicate with a wide range of people inside and outside our organisation. I think cultural awareness and team working skills are the differentiator for many people in organisations and we need to provide more guidance about what good looks like.
As the first step on this journey of improving the status of these skills and behaviours, let’s drop the word soft. I’d love to hear your suggestions for alternatives.
Robin is Senior Consultant for training design and delivery consultancy Learnworks Ltd. 

His book Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement is published by Kogan Page in 2013

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By Emma Sue Prince
04th Dec 2012 10:07

Thank you for an interesting and timely post.

I definitely agree that the term "soft skills" is problematic - it's far too vague for a start and one can never be sure what exactly is meant. As you say, everyone will have different interpretations- traditionally I suppose it's an umbrella term for leadership, teamworking and so on but even these are not specific enough to unpack the competences underneath. And it's so right - that these personal competences are/can be the hardest to develop in ourselves and in others as trainers. I worked with a firm in South Africa recently where they defined each job role, the "basic skills and requirements" - including qualifications and then for each role defined the specific competences/qualities that needed to be developed in terms of people skills. Then a kind of matrix for working when different levels were reached. But this is also quite complicated and still runs into the danger of being subjective.

Today I think everyone has to develop a whole range of personal competences to compete, to even keep jobs in some circumstances. Our only competitive advantage has to be our interpersonal skills and our relationships. It's not just down to the trainer to push these in companies and argue the business case but also down to individuals to recognise that personal development is crucial for business (and personal) success.

I still can't think of an alternative term though!

www.unimenta.com - membership site to support trainers and practitioners delivering soft skills - membership is free

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