The hardest of soft skills?

I’m on a hiding to nothing here, aren’t I?  To be honest, I will probably return many times to this theme – because the hardest of soft skills will depend on both the people involved and the circumstance.  It will all be about context.  But I don’t care and am going to go for it!


It’s hard to define, except in it’s absence.  And you can’t put a finger on it. It’s easier to say what it isn’t, and say when it’s gone wrong.

The problem is, it takes time and effort to develop.  And it is so volatile – it has a very low boiling point.  Once it is breached, it takes a lot of fixing.  And some people take longer to heal than others.  It seems to me like  a ball of string you have laboriously been winding back into a ball.  If trust is lost, it is like dropping the ball of string.  It goes on and on and rolls away from you so easily.  The only thing to do is to stop it unravelling as quickly as you can, then start the slow process of winding it back into a trusty ball shape.

I tend to agree with the lovely caption below.  It does take courage – lots of it.  But I also have to say I don’t give people too many chances.  Once I have lost trust it is hard to win me back.

is that why I think it is the hardest of the soft skills?

An image from my friends at

Soft skills – a new bandwagon?

I have just received a research report (Thanks Sarah!) from the CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development).  It is entitled “Head and Heart Guide – a business case for soft skills”.  And then, in a leader column in the Saturday Times, we have a discussion on Andrew Mitchell, the new Tory Whip who has been accused of verbally abusing a policeman outside Downing Street.  They talked about courtesy being an essential component of leadership.  And they quote anonymous (the most prolific of all writers) who said “Never hire the guy who is rude to the waiter.”  And Edmund Burke, who said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength”.

Interesting stuff, to say the least.  Lets just stick to this one component of the soft skill set.  One of my old bosses had a phrase about waiter rudeness.  “There goes one of those little big men, showing off by complaining”.  Not little in stature – just small in mind.  And it does seem to be men in the main who have this propensity.  Maybe we should just call that ‘maleness’.  It is probably more about the masculine and feminine sides of nature, not men and women?

When I was a National Sales Manager, we used to have reception check out the candidates.  Did they speak with them, or down at them?  Were they polite, or rude?  Did they try to engage them?  How was their smile?  This was a remarkably

Working politely in a team

easy way of adding real evidence for future successful sales people.  It was the people skill set that is hard to fully elucidate in the best behaviour setting of the interview itself. Simple, quick and useful.

One of my mum’s favourite expressions was “It costs nothing to be polite”.  It obviously costs a lot if you are impolite.

I’m glad to see soft skills are racing up the agenda!


Olympic bandwagon

The Olympics Opening Ceremony

The Olympic Stadium

I’m sorry – I can’t resist.  I’m still aching from the ending of the games!  I had to watch the Great North Run on Sunday just to keep the fix going.

The Paralympics closing ceremony summed up a huge amount of the positivity that abounded through the summer.  And if positivity isn’t one of those elusive soft-skills that are hard to keep up, I don’t know what is!

Oscar Pistorius – “Heroes give people hope”.  Yes, and we all have them – maybe a teacher, maybe a parent, maybe even a boss (it is possible!).

“The Games-makers stand among the heroes of these games”  Yes – in both closing ceremonies, the loudest cheer and unadulterated standing ovations were reserved for ‘the volunteers’.  But games-makers is such a fantastic description of what they did.  It’s that simple change to a positive descriptor, not a straight fact of volunteering  – it just makes all the difference.  And how did they train them?  Well, a bit of basics and then a simple exhortation:  “Just go and be yourselves”.

And Seb Coe (one of two Tories to be cheered…) – “We will never think of sport the same way and never think of disability the same way again”.

“It has lifted the cloud of limitation”

Made in Britain.  How proud does that make you?  And how much of this legacy of positivity from the Olympic Spirit can we keep in our head, hearts and our work?

Soft Skills?

Phil in thought

I detest the phrase ‘Soft Skills’.  I just know that people like it, and everyone sorts of knows it means ‘people skills’. So I have used it in my blog here – and in the book to come!  But, it appears to have been designed by IT consultants to downgrade all the other skills of management and indeed all other organisational competencies into an oxymoronic second tier box.  Hard and Skills do sound like they go together.  Soft goes with fluffy, inconsequential, ambiguous and lightweight far more easily than with skills.  It seems likely that the consultants and old fashioned, macho, over-assertive ‘leaders’ (their word, not mine), were responsible for the spread of this nomenclature.  They can keep their Hard Skills description.  I want a new phrase to replace ‘soft skills’.

Where do we start?  I began with debate amongst friends and colleagues.  This blog is stage two, and should promote debate.  And I would like to canvass your comments and views.  Stage three is to be included in new phrases entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.  And stage four will be to have the consultants enthusiastically agreeing with me, and using the new phrase themselves in a positive, rather than pejorative sense.

We had a lot of agreement quickly that a new word was needed.  All bar one of the debaters thought that.  One was also concerned about the word ‘skills’:  “What we do is so much more than that.  It’s about changing beliefs and attitudes, challenging values and assumptions, and imparting knowledge”.  There speaks a coach and facilitator.  And I am not going to get embroiled in a tautological argument about coaching and mentoring at this stage.

People have tried this before.  Core leadership skills had a brief airing in 2006.  I agree that the skills we assume to be in the soft skills arena are key to making sure the hard skills are worthwhile having.  ‘People skills’ is a common second line added straight after saying soft skills.  My colleagues often say this to make sure the listener doesn’t make the ‘soft skills means second grade’ link.  Which again would indicate we need something new.

The Association of Project Management splits project management competence areas into Technical and Contextual, to cover the hard side of the equation, and Behavioural for the soft side.  Perhaps we do need another phrase for hard skills to join the suggestions to replace soft, – or it will forever hold the upper hand?

An HR director of one of my colleagues sums up the debate by incorporating the two phrases:  “Soft skills are the hardest ones to develop”.

So what do we put in this box?  The people skills of empathy, sympathy, listening, coaching, cajoling, influencing, supporting.  Do hard skills fall into the box of training courses that can be named?  So, Time Management, Negotiation, Making the most of Software, Finance for Non-Financial Managers would all default into the hard box?  Worrying isn’t it?  I can already feel grey areas.  Where would you put assertiveness training?  Maybe, like leadership and management, you cannot be so prescriptive.  It depends on the context, where you sit in the organisation and whom you are with at the time.

It perhaps comes down to the ‘soft skills are the hardest’ comment.  I would rather make the word bring to mind positive intent.  All the hard, technical skills are pretty useless without the soft people skills helping to put them into action -to help to implement all the talking and planning.  So we could have Implementing Skills.  Or, my favoured suggestion, “Enabling Skills”.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary helps here: “To make possible, to give (a person etc) the means or authority to do something”.  It goes on to specify a computing link:  “To make a device operational; to switch on”.

It is even better than I thought – as long as we soft people don’t then get our own back on our hard skills protagonists for their years of derisive comments by starting to use the phrase, and describing people as ‘excellent enablers’.  We know what happens when a new phrase gains currency.  The opposite tends to become the favoured description for the old phrase.  Do you think our Hard Skills colleagues would like to be known as those practising disabling skills?

Enabling Skills?  What do you think?  It has the virtue of being a positive phrase. It makes you feel that using these skills might lead to something happening.  And it will at least stop you having to spend five minutes explaining what you mean by ‘soft skills’, when your listener’s eyes start to glaze over.  Any other suggestions?


(A version of this appeared in Training Journal 18 months ago – nothing has changed since!)

Why Soft Skills for Hard Times?

I am writing the book of the same title.  Hence, Blogging in the same title.  it sort of helps to get thoughts in order and to keep it lively!

Everyone I have talked to about this  thinks at least the title is good.  I’m guessing the hard times of double dips and low growth could be with us for some time.

Inherently, I am an optimist. I think one of the best ways out of difficulty is positivity.  Systems and processes and equipment and buildings can’t be optimistic.  We are going to have to depend on the wet-ware (as the IT people call humans – not software or hardware, but wet ware because we are 70% water!).  The soft bits.  The people.  The lifeblood of organisations.  The thing that can make the biggest difference in both a positive and negative sense.

Yes, we all need to be led well, managed, cajoled, hugged, feel that we belong, smile, and get sensibly rewarded for our effort.

We al need to maximise our soft skills to make the most of our day to day work involvement.  Or outside work involvement.

Soft skills are hard.  And I don’t even like the words, really.  That was blog spot number 1 – have a look now

In case you feel low now – pigs always make me smile – hope they do you