Defining Soft Skills

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

As I continue to dig into the world of soft skill training and development, a common question keeps coming up. How do I define soft skills? So let me back up and talk about where this term comes from and why many of us still don't know what soft skills are.

The term soft skills dates back to the late 1960's and early 70's. This term has its origin from a surprising source, the US military, specifically the Army. The term "hard skills" was already in use to describe skills that male dominated fields prided themselves on. For the US military hard skills include mechanical engineering, tactical maneuvering, combat fighting, topography, and more.

The military realized the skills needed for combat success were not solely dependent on their masculine hard skill set. Military leaders observed that they also relied on skills that required a "softer touch," such as communication, awareness, diplomacy, connection and loyalty when navigating difficult and dangerous situations.

These "softer skills" were more about interpersonal interactions, which meant they couldn't be lumped in with the hard skills. The term Soft Skills began to be applied to the social skills that leaders relied on to bond, motivate, and keep their colleagues alive in dangerous and violent events (like a war).

When it came to keeping troops safe and winning wars, the US military realized soft skills played a major role in the success or failure of combat objectives. Despite the importance of soft skills, even the macho culture of the military was not enough to override the negative associations with the word "soft."

The term was relegated to the "culture back burner" of many corporations and organizations. By the late 70's hard skills were thought to be the only necessary mechanism for success. By the time the 80's rolled in, capitalism was roaring and hard skills were driving the train. Soft skills were largely left in the dust. By the end of the 1980's soft skill development and training lost any appeal as profits soared under toxic corporate cultures, along with corruption, abuse, and shame.

Toxic corporate cultures continued in the 90's and early 2000's as downsizing became the new way to bump up profits. As a result of increased layoffs connected to downsizing, Americans began to wake up to the fact hard skills needed to be balanced with leadership that understood (and valued) interpersonal skills.

By 2008, the train finally came off the track when toxic capitalism led to the largest market crash since the great depression. Over the years that followed the crash, new leaders entered the market who had been bruised by the old guard of toxic leadership. These leaders questioned the "mad men" style of leadership, and began to explore the value of building up teams instead of shaming them into submission.