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  • Soft Skills—Call Them What They Are

    It grates on me when I hear people talk about “soft skills.” Although definitions vary, soft skills generally refer to the ability to communicate effectively, knit a group of people together toward achieving a goal, and create a sense of shared community and purpose. CareerBuilder.com’s Kate Lorenz describes these as “interpersonal skills and leadership qualities to guide teams of diverse professionals.”

     “…Firms today are having a very difficult time finding managers who have superior ‘soft skills’,” says John P. Kreiss, president of SullivanKreiss, a recruitment and placement firm for design and construction professionals.  Based on my own consulting practice, I would have to agree that most workplaces could do with more soft skills.

    Our language is part of the problem. By calling them “soft,” we are demoting this constellation of abilities and skills to something frilly, mushy and largely unimportant. Let’s find a more fitting term for them.

    We use the term “hard skills” to describe technical expertise such as ability to read balance sheets, conduct market research, create computer programs, diagnose engine troubles, perform surgery, conduct research, design skyscrapers. These are all essential skills. What if we called them “soft” skills? It wouldn’t fit. They are too important to be called soft.

     This same argument can be made for what we now call soft skills. If we have learned anything from the last half of the twentieth century, it’s that language is important. It matters what we call things. Language frames expectations. Working women were called “girls” around the time I was born. Anyone calling a woman in the workplace today a “girl” would be instantly perceived as an oaf. If you call a paramedic an “ambulance driver” you will surely incur that person’s wrath. During the 2008 Democratic Primary race, pundits who don’t like Senator Hillary Clinton called her “Mrs. Clinton” and referred to Barack Obama as “Senator Obama” in the same sentence. For telling ethnic jokes in the workplace—fill in the blank for which group is the target—those in search of a cheap laugh risk getting scowled at, shushed, or fired. Peter Senge says, “Words do matter. Language is messy by nature, which is why we must be careful in how we use it.”

     “Emotional Intelligence” was added to the modern lexicon by Daniel Goleman. Much of what he called Emotional Intelligence would be considered soft skills and includes self awareness, self regulation, self motivation, social awareness and social skills.

    Goleman reports that in work performance, large variations exist between “average” and “high performing” employees.  He found that only a third of this difference is due to technical skill and cognitive ability while two-thirds is due to emotional competence–those soft skills.  In top leadership positions, he says, emotional intelligence accounts for over four-fifths of the variation between average and high performance.

    There is a business case for what we call soft skills. So let us call them what they are—higher order skills.

    Updated 10-31-08


    Kate Lorenz, “What Are Soft Skills?” CareerBuilder.com, 2005,<http://msn.careerbuilder.com/Custom/MSN/CareerAdvice/532.htm?siteid=cbmsn4417&sc_extcmp=JS_js5_may05_advice&cbRecursionCnt=1&cbsid=124f22b59ba543bfb98781df040bd9a1-255822427-r2-4> (February 11, 2008). 

    [ii] John P. Kreiss, “In Search of Soft Skills: Creative and Technically Skilled Employees Can Have Trouble Learning Good Management Skills,” ASLA Business Quarterly, June 20, 2005,< http://www.asla.org/businessquarterly/softskills.html> (February 11, 2008).

    [iii] Peter M. Senge, “The Practice of Innovation,” Leader to Leader 9 (Summer 1998): 16-22.

    [iv] The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, “The Emotional Competence Framework,” 1998, <http://www.eiconsortium.org/reports/emotional_competence_framework.html> (February 11, 2008). 

    [v] Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, (New York: Bantam, 1998).