Friday, December 21, 2018

There Are No "Soft" Skills - There are Only Hard Skills and Harder Skills

For years, I've cringed whenever I hear some expert or another talk or write about so-called "soft skills", which are nearly always positioned as supplemental - a second tier of value after the so-called vital hard skills - in other words, a bonus!

From my perspective, there are no soft skills. There are only skills. Some skills are hard. Others are even harder. Allow me to elucidate.

First of all, I do not intend to demean the importance and difficulty of hard skills. People put years of effort and often times they invest a large amount of money into working toward and attaining specialized skill sets that are vital to fulfilling professional roles and helping organizations succeed. As Seth Godin noted in his post Let's Stop Calling Them Soft Skills, "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." 

In my own hiring practice, hard skills are an important and necessary ingredient, but (and this is important) hard skills are not the deciding factor in any hire. In fact, if I take one step back: When evaluating any open position, I will work with the hiring manager to determine the basic skill set that is truly necessary for a new hire to be able to take on the responsibilities of the job. During this discussion, we must keep in mind that many hard skills can be taught - if someone is Smart and Gets Things Done, it is a relatively straightforward process to get them up to speed on a new technology, workflow, or process - even if any of those happen to be complicated and/or challenging. 

Hard skills can be achieved by diligent effort and applied practice. Hard skills - most of the time - can be measured directly by another person who already has those skills. Generally, you can't bluff your way through claiming a specific hard skill - anyone who already possesses that skill can tell almost immediately that you don't actually know what you are talking about. In terms of my hiring practice, we determine the foundational skills and then evaluate the pool of candidates fairly early on with those in mind - basically using hard skills as a screening tool to reduce our set of candidates to those who have demonstrated the necessary competencies to do the job. After that, the much more difficult process of interviewing and evaluating for Harder Skills begins. Perhaps in a future post, I'll explore methods for doing that.

One of the things that makes it very hard to know if someone has the Harder Skills is that they are extremely difficult - if not impossible - to measure in any objective manner. There are no simple ways to ascertain things such as psychological attunement or someone's capacity for cognitive synthesis (e.g., deriving a set of abstract relations from observations of conditions that seem unrelated and possibly random or chaotic to others). Furthermore, even people who have attained a level of expertise in the Harder Skills are capable of getting it all wrong, depending on a whole slew of variables (e.g., alertness, empathy, connectedness, psychological defensiveness, relatedness, emotional intelligence, situational constraints, cultural differences, the immutability of particular interpersonal ecosystems - just to name a few).

Let's hear from a couple of writers who seem to agree with me.

In Busting the "Soft Skill" Myth, Teri Lupburger writes "In many companies today all over the world, you still hear the term “soft skills” referred to by leaders, managers and HR professionals. It’s a myth that just won’t die. Actually, there is NO such thing as soft skills. The so-called “soft skills” people refer to such as the ability to communicate effectively, develop alliances, enroll others into a vision, navigate uncertainty with ease, coach team members, build trust – just to name a few – are the absolute hardest thing to do well. Sure, you can learn math or engineering or medicine or finances and become very competent at those skills, but if you can’t get others to consider your ideas or follow your lead, then these “hard” skills won’t take you or the organization very far." (emphasis is mine)

In a Calgary Herald article titled There's No Such Thing as a Soft Skill, Gerry Turcotte wrote "There is nothing soft about listening well and bringing diverse viewpoints together. And there is definitely nothing soft about an ability to think creatively and outside the box by drawing on complex philosophies, theories, theologies and cross-cultural perspectives. On the contrary, these are the hardest skills to master." (emphasis is mine)

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:

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. 

But how?

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

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