The hard truth about soft skills: are they really that ‘soft’?

Or are they one of the hardest components when it comes to leadership?

Whenever the subject comes to soft skills, I get the unmistakable feeling that this expression has always been used in a misleading way and does not take the significance of its content into account at all. On the contrary, soft skills are hard-to-achieve skills – and they have become increasingly important in today’s working environment.

Soft skills determine how well bosses deal with their teams, how they motivate them to top output; they also enable them to deliver their own best performance. Soft skills are the tool for cooperative managers, good negotiators, excellent salespeople, efficient communicators – not to mention engaging politicians, statesmen and -women. Applied soft skills make managers into leaders, and you may agree that they also come in handy in our personal relationships; they can simply make them or break them.

Wikipedia gives an idea of the whole extent, the enormous dimension of competencies included in the term ‘soft skills’: “Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attribute, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients among others that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills. The Collins English Dictionary defines the term ‘soft skills’ as ‘desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.'”

Looking at the definition at hand (I do not necessarily agree with all of the forecited elements, character traits for example), it is no wonder that soft skills are actually harder to acquire than any task related competency – it’s an enormous range!

Hard skills, on the other hand – a certificate or degree, knowledge of foreign languages, competence in IT matters etc. – can be precisely defined, narrowed down and usually also be more easily measured. Hard skills are taught in schools, at universities; they are trained in companies and on-the-job, and employers are very clear which hard skills are needed for what kind of job.

Casually put, soft skills are simply ‘everything else’: they cover the entire range of inter- and intrapersonal competencies that enable us to successfully interact with other people – and with ourselves, for that matter. They are crucial for every business success, from corporates to one-person-operations, and they determine how much energy we have to put in our endeavours for a desired outcome.

For a long time, soft skills were widely attributed to women and seen as given by nature. Today, we know that soft skills can be taught and learned, by nurture – as well as in specific environments and tailored trainings that raise awareness, create acceptance and bring about action. And it is obvious that every individual – from assistants to CEOs, in big companies and small entities – regardless of their gender, their nationality, their social background or their formal education – needs soft skills to successfully navigate society, profession and daily life.

‘Soft skills’ are not so soft after all. It is a hard fact that they require hard work, and that they are part of the hardware for personal and professional success.

What do you think?