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Defining Soft Skills

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

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.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Studies were conducted during this period comparing the two professional cultures. The findings showed that cultures with an embrace of soft skills outperformed toxic cultures that solely relied on hard skills and measured success only on profits. Retention of human capital, job satisfaction, and productivity all went up in environments that acknowledged and practiced soft skills.

The term soft skills is still not as widely embraced by many in corporate culture, but that doesn't change the proven results. Leaders and teams who learn to develop soft skills, experience greater resiliency, sustainability, and success over those who ignore these skills. Often the best way to tell if your organization is open or opposed to soft skill training is to just use the term and see the reaction it gets. Toxic leaders won't hesitate to jump in and point out all of their negative associations with the word soft. Innovative leaders will take a very different approach and lean in with curiosity.

If organizations and corporations hope to have a sustainable future, they will need to have innovative leaders at the helm. In short, the time has come for a softer approach when it comes to corporate culture. The hard approach led to burn out, disposable human capital, harassment, shame, addiction, and corruption (just to name a few of the negative outcomes). Having the courage to lead with vulnerabilty, kindness, and compassion is the direction companies need to move towards if they want to stay sustainable, competitive, and relevant in the 21st century.

So when I'm asked by leaders, "What are soft skills?" I use the following comparison...

Hard Skills describe what the job is.

Soft Skills describe how the job gets done.

Does your boss effectively communicate and have a willingness for conversations around ideas, or do they demand that you follow the instructions without question?

Do your team members have awareness about how their behavior effects the larger team or do they plow through the day without concern or compassion for how they work with others?

Does your company approach problem solving with excitement or avoidance?

These are example questions when thinking about HOW the work gets done.

If you are looking improve how your team "gets the job done," know that soft skills are learnable, just like hard skills. Training takes time and practice but when you have a team that has strong soft skills, you'll not only notice improved communication, connection, confidence, and collaboration among your team, you'll wonder why anyone would ever want to go back to way the "its always been."

Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In.
Photo Credit: How & Rose Photography

Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In. All Hands In, is a soft skills development company. Contact us today to help you and your team thrive.

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