We need to banish soft skills at work. I’m not talking about the concept but the term. It’s misleading and counterproductive, making the underlying skills sound as if they are pointless, wasteful frills. Yet, any respected leader will tell you it’s the “soft skills” that distinguish effective leaders from outstanding operational producers or, at the management level, distrusted tyrants.
Check any of the online dictionaries, and you’ll find that the term soft skills refers to attributes which relate to or encourage trust, communication, teamwork, safety, inclusion, and productivity, as well as the prompt airing of serious problems. Leaders need these qualities to engage employees and obtain the most efficient results. In the process, they also limit operational, safety, legal, and other similar catastrophes. And maximizing results while minimizing distractions and hazards is the most frequently voiced concern of the executives with whom I’ve most recently met and read about. Without soft skills, organizations can suffer an array of crippling consequences:
- Physicians who so distract and intimidate team members that avoidable fatalities and complications sometime occur
- Military officers whose units suffer from a lack of cohesion and morale
- Business persons who are afraid to report financial irregularities for fear of losing their jobs
- Team members who put in time rather than effort, knowing their efforts are not appreciated by their leaders and the organization
- Hazards unreported at work or in products released to the public by those aware of the defects but afraid to raise concerns
Now check the dictionary for the term “soft.” Here are definitions you will find:
- Gentle or mild
- Smooth, soothing, or ingratiating
- Sentimental or flowery
- Informal, easy , involving little effort; not difficult, laborious, trying ,or severe.
There’s absolutely nothing “easy or involving little effort” about building and maintaining trust, inclusion, civility, and ethics. They take high level leadership skills, constant reinforcement, awareness, and discipline. For many, these skills are neither inherent qualities nor intuitively obvious. If they were, we wouldn’t face so many of the issues referenced above.
Yet, when the skills are referred to as soft, it suggests they are easy to master and justifiably expendable. When finances are tough, it makes sense for some to reflexively conclude that “gentle, mild” skills can be readily abandoned in the midst of other crises. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many leaders think, “We’ll get the soft skills back when things are better.” In place of “soft skills” come, I suppose, the hard skills of intimidation, disregard, dishonesty, avoidance or, perhaps, a focus on production as opposed to the people who produce.
So much of what goes on in business is labeling, and labels can have profound consequences. Think of the difference between buying a “used car” versus a “pre-owned vehicle” or a house which “needs some TLC” versus one sold “as is.”
We need a new term. My quick votes in place of “soft skills” are “essential” skills or “survival in today’s crazed, frantic, pressured, stressed out workplace skills”.” But not “soft skills.” No business can afford to invest in building “sentimental or flowery” skills. Regrettably, that’s what soft skills are too often taken to describe.