Soft Skills Are Too Important to Be Called Soft

Soft Skills Are Too Important to Be Called Soft

A person’s “soft skills” can’t be measured by some simple test despite what some test seller might tell you. Snake oil has a better track record when you add false positives (passed the screen but failed the reality) and false negatives (failed the screen but passed the reality) into the mix.

More important than any so-called test is that “soft skills” are far too important to be called soft. So, for this post I’ll refer to them as “non-technical” skills. (Now you can rank your own non-technical and leadership skills with this survey to determine your strengths and weaknesses.)

In fact, I’ll contend that these non-technical skills are more essential than technical skills when it comes to hiring people who are likely to progress the most rapidly. This contention is not too farfetched either, since after tracking hundreds of people who I’ve interviewed over the past 40 years it is clear that once a threshold of hard technical skills and intelligence was achieved it was the depth and quality of the person’s “non-technical” skills that propelled their upward progress.

Given their importance, here’s my top “more than 12” list of non-technical skills and why they should not be called “soft skills:”

  1. Cross-functional Collaboration. No one can tell me that successfully negotiating a critical series of product requirements with a team comprised of accounting, marketing, manufacturing and engineering that meets all of their competing needs is a soft skill.
  2. Responsible and Committed. No one can tell me that consistently meeting time and budget goals is a soft skill.
  3. Communication Skills, Detail-Oriented and Proactive. No one can tell me that presenting a monthly business review to a team of managers and company executives is a soft skill. Especially when the results missed plan and the person doing the presenting did a masterful job of knowing the details behind each variance and had already implemented an action plan to get back on track within 30 days.
  4. Staff Development. No one can tell me that developing a personal development plan for each person on a manager’s team and then implementing it throughout the year is a soft skill.
  5. Team and Interpersonal Skills. No one can tell me that proactively coaching and helping peers become better without any responsibility to do so is a soft skill.
  6. Initiative. No one can tell me that volunteering to handle a difficult project that will require lots of overtime and where there’s a high probability of failure, is a soft skill.
  7. Drive for Results. No one can tell me that being fully responsible for meeting goals and successfully completing them month in and month out without making excuses is a soft skill.
  8. Persuasive. No one can tell me that influencing a person’s manager or some senior executive to change his/her mind on some important course of action is a soft skill.
  9. Confident, Assertive and Courage. No one can tell me that having the confidence and guts to stand up for some idea or complain about some shoddy process or wrongful action is a soft skill.
  10. Flexible and Cultural Fit. No one can tell me that being flexible, changing direction and staying motivated under a new set of business conditions is a soft skill.
  11. Herding Cats, aka Project Management. No one can tell me that leading a group of talented and opinionated people in a matrix organization and completing a complex project successfully is a soft skill.
  12. Leadership. No one can tell me that having a vision, putting a plan together, getting it approved, marshaling the resources and then achieving the results using all of the above is a soft skill.
  13. Coachable and Growth Mindset. (This and the following have been added since date of the original post based on the comments below.) No one can tell me that someone who can modify their behavior and do things differently or change their mind or decision when presented with valid evidence that their way is not the best way is a soft skill.

For these reasons and the dozens more left out, I contend we should ban the term “soft skills” and stop trying to peddle their importance in some soft, diplomatic manner.

As important, we shouldn’t substitute some pseudo-test to assess them. Interviewing for these skills is relatively straightforward and far more accurate in predicting on-the-job performance, potential and team skills. To get started, during the interview ask the person to describe two or three of his/her major team and individual accomplishments. As part of clarifying each of these accomplishments ask the person to give you examples of each of the dozen or so non-technical skills described above. While ranking them also compare the accomplishments on a scope, scale and complexity basis to the performance objectives of the job to see if there’s a fit.

Another good interviewing technique is to use the Sherlock Holmes’ deductive interview process by asking people how and why they got assigned to different teams and the roles they played. You’ll discover that those with the strongest “non-technical” skills consistently get assigned to important teams that are growing in impact and importance.

Driving this type of assessment process is the recognition that you first must describe the job as a series of performance objectives rather than a laundry list of skills, experiences, competencies and soft skills. Without this benchmark whatever approach used to assess competency, fit and potential will yield results no better than a flip of the coin.

Bottomline: Since soft skills are the essential drivers of personal success they are far too important to be called soft.

Posted in: Assessing Soft Skills

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