From my perspective, there are no soft skills. There are only skills. Some skills are hard. Others are even harder. Allow me to elucidate.
Still, the idea persists across sectors that Hard Skills matter most and that Soft Skills are a nice little bonus when you can find them in a person.
|Here is a typical chart putting Hard and Soft skills in opposition, and over-simplifying the latter. Source: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/hard-skills-vs-soft-skills-2063780|
I recently came across a post by Yonatan Zunger, titled Hard and Soft Skills in Tech. He wrote "I’ve recently seen a lot of very anxious responses from people in tech at anything which suggests that their “core skills” may be devalued, especially in favor of other skills which they haven’t spent their lives on. Most importantly, this shows up in the argument over “hard” versus “soft” skills. That anxiety is itself a signal of how important this has become. But there’s a hidden assumption we’ve been making that (I suspect) has increased the anxiety far out of proportion: and maybe perversely, it comes from not taking soft skills seriously enough." Later in the post, he continues with "The fact is that the kinds of “soft skills” we’re talking about aren’t the ones that come for free to anybody; they’re not the things taught in “manners classes” or in fraternity hazings. They come from studying people, paying attention to them, and understanding what they need even when they can’t express it themselves — and as such are as brutally difficult a set of skills to acquire as any other professional expertise. Our habit of treating them like they’re not “real” skills, of trying to deprofessionalize and devalue them, does us no favors; when we’re called upon to do them ourselves, we quickly find out that they’re not trivial." (emphasis is mine)
I think that Zunger is really onto something here. First he observes the anxiety that technically competent people experience when they are confronted with a need to demonstrate a set of skills for which they have been ill-prepared. This is a natural response of course, and it's motivated by a primal fear of being asked to do something that we cannot possibly do (or at least feeling that way). Anxiety and fear lead quickly to defensive denial, avoidance and possibly de-valuation. These responses are relatively primitive ways that we as humans respond to internal discord. And more often than not our defenses become exaggerated enough to become maladaptive. Sigh.
There is another challenge in all of this, and it's another hard one: the element of insight. What I am referring to here is the ability to really look at yourself, examine your inner workings, unpack your conscious and unconscious ways of being in the world - all of which then lead to learning about yourself to create an opportunity to learn and grow. This is tough stuff. People spend years in therapy and only scratch the surface of really understanding themselves. Again: a Harder Skill.
Before I close, I want to make sure to express optimism and hope about Harder Skills. They aren't magical, and no one I've ever heard of was somehow miraculously born with a powerful set of Harder Skills. They can be learned, practiced and improved. And that can be a lifelong process.
There are few ingredients that help. A growth mindset is a great place to start (by the way, a growth mindset may be seen as a Harder Skill in and of itself, capable of being learned). It also helps for us to be dedicated to a pursuit of lifelong learning - fed by healthy doses of curiosity and open-mindedness. Also, it helps if we see our career challenges as they evolve over time and apply ourselves to learning what we need in order to be successful (for example, and I realize this is a vast oversimplification: We often get promoted based on demonstrating our Hard Skills until one day we find ourselves in management positions - where it's not longer about finding answers, but instead it's about finding the right questions and taking care of the people who will find the answers. I hope you can see that the skills needed for the latter are quite different from those needed earlier in our careers).
So what to do?
I recommend a couple of things.
1. Stop using the phrase "soft skills", please. In and of itself, this label diminishes and disrespects the Harder Skills, which are vitally important to leadership and success. And don't let others get away with labeling things as "soft skills".
2. Work on your Harder Skills. There is no simple formula for doing this. I found some good ideas in an article by Roy Saunderson called Sharpening Soft Skills With Situational Learning. (I know, I know - "soft skills" - aargh!) Among the recommendations: mentoring, apprenticeship, group learning, and game-based learning. These are all great doorways to open as you work toward building your Harder Skills and growing your career.
Note: This post also shared via LinkedIn