There’s nothing soft about these skills

Smiling young woman listening talkative coworker


What stops a professional from lashing out at an uncooperative colleague? How does an employee seem to inherently understand what to say to calm an overwhelmed student or a frustrated donor? How does a manager earn team buy-in?

While often labeled “soft,” interpersonal abilities yield big results. Professionals who deftly use soft skills can bolster morale and cohesion in the workplace, fostering a professional experience that feels fluid, calm, and harmonious. Communication, problem-solving, teamwork, critical thinking, a positive attitude, creativity, and empathy are some examples of this skill set.

How important are these skills, and how did they get categorized as “soft”?

A Leadership Skillset
Labeling them “soft” makes these abilities sound spineless and vapid. But those of us who have worked with colleagues who are lacking in this area understand just how much professional cultures rely on employees who exhibit soft skill fluency.

Sometimes called core or leadership skills, soft skills ensure cohesion in the workplace. They are a “must have” for leaders. “[S]oft skills are more essential for leaders than content knowledge and industry skills” explains Dr. Jen Harrison, professor, business writing production manager, and dissertation coach. “A leader needs to be able to manage others, innovate, and see the big picture, and soft skills are essential for this. Also, it’s difficult to lead by example if you are not skilled yourself; a leader with great communication, time- management, or organizational skills (for example) is in a much better position to encourage these skills in team members than one with poor soft skills.”

Soft Skills and EQ
Soft skills, taken together, comprise an individual’s emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). Emotional intelligence means having a sound understanding of our own emotions as well as other people’s feelings. It also means knowing how to manage and communicate about our own emotions.

Those who do this well tend to externalize the awareness, understanding and communicating productively with other people about their emotions. This creates a sense of comradery and connection.

According to the National Soft Skills Association (NASSA): “Emotional intelligence is a learned ability to identify, experience, understand, and express human emotions in healthy and productive ways . . . Emotional intelligence skills form the base of competencies that all soft skills are built upon.”

While often innate, soft skills can be learned, and EQ can be bolstered. Those who were born with a well-developed soft skillset and a high EQ make connecting with others look easy. Those who’ve trained to enhance their soft skillset and EQ understand that it’s anything but a given.

Dr. Harrison points out: “Soft skills are hard to pick up through anything other than hands on experience with a focus on critical thinking. They are not the product of book-learning, but the result of putting your mind to solving the problems and improving the practices that form the day-to-day details of a particular role.”

So Why Do We Call This Skillset “Soft”?
The term “soft skills” was originally used by the US military in the late 60s to the early 70s. They settled on the moniker because these are skills that aren’t tied to the use of hard equipment. Also, degree of mastery isn’t measurable like it is with other skills. While it’s a snap to demonstrate exactly how many words we can type per minute, there’s no equal measure for empathy, or active listening, that we can list on our resumes.

NASSA points to research conducted nearly one hundred years ago by the Carnegie Foundation, Stanford Research Center, and Harvard University noting that 85 percent of job success comes from social skills while just 15 percent comes from technical skills. “For over 100 years the focus of our career training programs in this country has been on technical skills or hard skills, while ignoring the teaching of soft skills” NASSA points out. “The reason the focus is on hard skills training is based on the incorrect assumption that hard skills are knowledge-based and therefore can be assessed and taught, while soft skills are not knowledge-based and cannot be assessed and taught.”

The reason, then, that soft skills earned their name is not because they are considered a less important skillset; instead, it’s because they were considered less measurable and teachable than other skills.

The Soft Skill Edge
In Monster’s recent “The Future of Work: 2021 Global Outlook” report, the job search company notes that employers are seeking candidates who exhibit soft skills, but they are finding skill gaps in these areas. Dependability, teamwork and collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking, and flexibility top Monster’s list for skills that employers need in 2021.

These skills enhance and aid culture and make an employee easier to coach and manage. Ultimately, soft skills also make that employee a good candidate for promotion and for future leadership roles, but according to the Monster report, these skills are hard to find.

Why is this the case? NASSA notes that the last century has seen career training that prioritizes technical over interpersonal skills. While soft skills can be taught, that work is rarely prioritized. Dr. Harrison adds: “It’s possible to learn new industry skills and content knowledge, and many roles provide training in these areas. However, great soft skills are rarely taught and highly sought and appreciated, so a candidate for any position who can demonstrate them already has a significant edge over others.”

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