The Saga Of Soft Skills

The time has come to blow the whistle on two words that do well on their own, but must never be put side-by-side. When ignored, these two words can derail a career and a life… and it’s making me angry!

The other day, I was talking to a client about working with her sales team. She casually mentioned that the company’s budget was tight, and unfortunately, the first thing to be cut would be the training in soft skills.

What are soft skills? The term “soft skills” refers to skills such as communication skills, time management, problem solving, working with teams, selling, negotiating, and basically learning how to work well with other people. For the record, the actual definition of soft skills is “learning to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”

Sadly, it seems like the term “soft skills” has a PR problem. For instance, what do you think of when you hear the word, “soft?” Webster’s defines the word “soft” as, “demanding little work or effort.” Is it any wonder why the first thing to be cut from a company’s training budget is the training in soft skills? Who would want to fund programs that provide skills that demand little work or effort?

If you look up the word “hard” –softs evil twin, you’ll see it defined as “requiring a great deal of endurance or effort.” So, it seems that “hard skills” are the skills that you can really sink your teeth into. Hard skills refer to such noble tasks such as typing, writing, math, reading and the ability to use software programs.

Let me ask you this simple question: When was the last time you ever heard of someone losing their job, or of someone losing a key client, or of someone being stopped in their life because they couldn’t type well enough, or write fast enough, or know their times table accurately enough, or use the software programs efficiently enough? These are rarely issues that hold us back because if there is a deficiency in any of these areas, there are numerous options to train you and teach you how to correct it.

By contrast, when you hear the words “soft skills,” they appear to be less tangible and harder to quantify, but they are so much more important. As a matter of fact, the more you study what soft skills actually are, the more you’ll understand how crucial they are to someone’s success. That’s why I believe it should insult any rational person’s intelligence to keep throwing the words “soft skills” out at critical, sometimes life altering skills we clearly undervalue.

For close to six years, I’ve been a part of an amazing group called Career Network Ministery. This organization works with thousands of tremendous people who have lost their jobs, and who are working diligently to find their next jobs. These people aren’t struggling because their hard skills failed them. They are struggling because no one ever taught them how to bond fast enough, how to allign with the right people well enough, how to be quiet quickly enough, how to bond with clients effectively enough, or, dare I say, how to sell enough. No one ever taught them the “soft skills” they needed to be successful because there aren’t programs in place to address them.

You don’t find many programs in “soft skills” in schools, and who want want to even advertise a program in something called “soft skills?” So let’s change the name once and for all. I’ve kicked around a few names like “people skills” and “survival skills.” But for me, the winner is “performance skills.” Those are two words that add respect and urgency to these vital set of skills.

The next time you hear the words “soft skills,” firmly, but politely, interupt and ask if the person meant “performance skills.” Perhaps today we can begin a movement to eradicate the use of the term “soft skills” once and for all. One by one, we can educate others to see the error in their ways.

The term “performance skills” does justice to a set of skills that will be one of the most important competencies you will ever aquire. My friend, and fellow Berrett-Koehler author, Marilee Adams, recently told me:

Soft skills equals hard cash.

These skills will be pivotal in determining if you get hired, accepted by others, promoted, admired, and respected. Now…. it seems pretty clear that we can all use training in “performance skills,” right?

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