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!)

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