Some hard truths about soft skills

For generations, hard skills have been prioritized over soft skills. Today, engineering and computer science education still places a strong emphasis on building technical expertise through math, science, and programming courses, with little attention paid to fostering interpersonal abilities.

Many parents and educators still operate under the assumption that academic achievement and hard skills should be the top priority. But success in today’s world depends just as much on soft skills like creativity, collaboration, empathy, and adaptability.

The Collins English Dictionary defines soft skills as the “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

Note the part that says soft skills do not depend on acquired knowledge. Indeed, many people think that soft skills cannot be taught or learned. Is that really the case?

Nothing soft about soft skills

The term “soft skills” was created by the U.S. Army in the late 1960s to refer to any skill that does not employ the use of machinery. Since then, interest in soft skills has greatly increased.

Google Trends for Soft Skills from 2016 to 2023

Here are the most in-demand soft skills according to a survey conducted by LinkedIn:

  1. Creativity
  2. Persuasion
  3. Collaboration
  4. Adaptability
  5. Time Management

It’s unfortunate that we chose to call such fundamental skills “soft”, making them sound somewhat weaker and less crucial to the job compared to hard skills.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In today’s world, the half-life of a technical skill is roughly 2.5 years. Soft skills, by contrast, will never get obsolete, and can be transferred from role to role and anywhere outside the company.

Hard skills are linked to your ability to do a specific task, while soft skills are about the way you do them. As technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, soft skills may be the only constant in an ever-changing work environment. In the most basic sense, hard skills will get you the job, but soft skills will make you excel at it.

There is in fact scientific evidence to this. A review from Rutgers University lists 19 research findings building a case for how emotional intelligence, a commonly used proxy for soft skills, contributes to the bottom line in the workplace. For example, one study found that leaders with higher emotional intelligence delivered greater profits—139% higher in one study—as well as higher customer satisfaction levels.

This was confirmed in a famous research study conducted with hundreds of employees by Google, called Project Aristotle. The goal of the study was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective?”

The big surprise? Hard skills did not top the list. Psychological safety—basically teammates being nice and caring—was the top factor in team performance, followed by dependability—being able to count on your teammates.

So what should we call “soft skills” instead? I vote for “life skills” but other people have suggested “power skills”. Whatever you want to call them, one thing is for sure: they are in demand. So, is there a way to teach or learn them?

Measuring soft skills

People say that you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Fortunately, as I’ve discussed in the past, that’s a fallacy. But it’s still true that soft skills are incredibly hard to measure. There have been many attempts to create tests that would give a score assessing how well developed soft skills are in people, with no clear winner so far.

The most common approach is to measure people’s EQ, or Emotional Quotient. Some research found that one of the most important foundations of emotional competence — accurate self-assessment — was associated with superior performance among several hundred managers from twelve different companies. But EQ is only a small subset of soft skills.

Some people are trying to develop frameworks that touch on other specific aspects. A few years ago, Brent Hoberman announced a new business school called Founders Academy, where I was a faculty advisor to support the first cohort of students. The school focuses on developing your AQ, or Adaptability Quotient, a measure of how well you are able to thrive in a world of accelerating change.

You also have this paper which examines a new creativity test designed to test for CQ, or Creativity Quotient, using verbal tests and eye-tracking to measure engineers’ creative thinking skills. Collaborative Quotient, Persuasion Quotient… You can stick the word “quotient” to practically any soft skill, and you will find that someone has created a test to measure it, and many of them lack solid science to support them.

As you can see, measuring soft skills is actually hard work, and you may be better off focusing on developing your soft skills and measuring the impact they have on your work, your relationships, and your life in general, rather than creating a measurement scale for the skills themselves.

Life skills

There’s an increasingly large body of evidence showing that soft skills can help predict work performance. The consensus is that curiosity, emotional resilience, and general learning ability will make you better at your job. So, how can we go about developing these skills in people and yourself?

The main challenge is that you cannot just give people a step-by-step guide on how to be a nice person, or how to be a better listener. Reading about soft skills or watching a lecture is not enough. Soft skills need to be practiced, and the student needs a strong intrinsic motivation to learn them and incorporate them into their lives.

More than demonstration, soft skills require participation. Here are some learning approaches that do work when it comes to acquiring or improving soft skills:

  1. Coaching and mentoring. Research suggests that coaching significantly enhances motivation, coping skills, and overall emotional wellbeing. One of the most important aspects of coaching is to provide feedback, which helps people identify their key areas of improvement. This is crucial when it comes to soft skills, as people are pretty much unaware of their own soft skills, with only a 10% overlap between the skills people think they have, and the ones they actually have.
  2. Interactive training. There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of interactive training when it comes to learning soft skills. For example, many creativity training programmes do produce positive results. Again, the interactive part is essential! Soft skills cannot be taught through a good old traditional lecture.
  3. Online interventions. Interestingly, whether soft skills training is delivered online or offline doesn’t seem to matter. Which is pretty exciting if you’re thinking about learning new soft skills or improving existing ones — no need to travel far to attend face-to-face events.

One big caveat is that soft skills training works best for people who are motivated to improve these skills — and who therefore may need it the least.

But I personally find it extremely comforting to know that whatever your current levels of interpersonal and emotional skills… You can always improve them should you wish to invest some effort. Another example of the magic of lifelong learning!

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