I have never liked the term “soft skills.” In the training lexicon for at least the past 20 years, the term has implied that certain skills are secondary to the really important “hard skills”, when, in fact, while technical skills might get people in the door to a new job, it is the so-called “soft skills” that are critical to people becoming successful in their careers over the long-term.
Marci Alboher, in her blog “Shifting Careers” reports on her interview with Peggy Klaus who has a new book, “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills.” Alboher quotes Klaus explaining the difference between “hard” and “soft” skills:
The hard skills are the technical expertise you need to get the job done. The soft skills are really everything else — competencies that go from self-awareness to one’s attitude to managing one’s career to handling critics, not taking things personally, taking risks, getting along with people and many, many more.
The skills Klaus is calling “soft skills” are the “emotional intelligence” that Daniel Goleman has written about extensively. When these skills are absent, you have what Chris Argyris describes as “skilled incompetence.” Each of these authors argues that people need other competencies, in addition to technical expertise, if they are to be truly effective leaders and followers. I have found in my own work coaching managers, it is rarely their technical competence that gets them into trouble. What gets them into difficulty is most often their inability to communicate honestly and clearly with co-workers and direct reports, their inability to ask for feedback and use that feedback to improve their own performance, their inability to give honest, constructive feedback to others, and their inability to turn a work group into a well-functioning team. These are abilities that we must work on all our lives. Therefore, one of the most critical skill sets is learning: learning about oneself and one’s relationships with others and applying that learning in the workplace. And although I don’t like the term, we all need to develop our “soft skills.” Klaus’ book is a useful source of examples and suggestions for learning and improving these skills.