Some hard truths about soft skills

The definition of “soft skills” on Wikipedia feels like it’s been written by a very confused person.

According to the page, soft skills are a combination of things such as social intelligence and emotional intelligence, people skills, social skills and communication skills, personality traits, and even career attributes.

The article goes onto listing courtesy, flexibility, integrity, responsibility, work ethic, teamwork, and a positive attitude as essential soft skills in the workplace.

So, basically, soft skills are what makes you a good human being?

Even though soft skills will vary from culture to culture and are elastic in nature, let’s have a look at a more succinct definition.

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 it the case?

Nothing soft about soft skills

Hard skills⁠—also called vocational or sometimes technical skills⁠—are often viewed as easier to teach and measure. That may be true, but calling some fundamental skills such as the ability to deal with people “soft” makes them sound somewhat weaker and less crucial to the job compared to hard skills.

In the tech industry, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In today’s world, the average lifespan of a technical skill is roughly 18 months. 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. In the most basic sense, hard skills will get you the job, but soft skills will make you excel at it.

For illustration purposes, here are the most in-demand soft skills in 2019 according to LinkedIn:

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

The tech industry is moving incredibly fast. It’s easy to see how these skills are not optional for anyone who wants to perform at their job, whether as an employee, a founder, or a freelancer. And even more so when wearing several hats and juggling multiple projects.

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” or “durable 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?

Google Trends for "soft skills" (2004-2019)
Google Trends for “soft skills” (2004-2019)

Measuring soft skills

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. And 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. Research shows 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.

At the moment, people are developing frameworks that touch on one specific aspect. Brent Hoberman, who has launched many initiatives to support founders such as Founders Forum and Founders of the Future (which I’m a part of), has just announced a new business school called Founders Academy. The school will focus on developing your AQ, or Adaptability Quotient, a measure of how well you are able to thrive in a world of accelerating change.

This recent research paper 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.

While many of these tests lack solid science to support them, this seemingly disparate approach may not be such a bad thing, and may even be seen as a feature of approaching soft skills in a natural way by embracing their diversity.

As you will see, acquiring soft skills is actually hard work, and you may be better off focusing on one or two of them rather than trying to tackle them all at the same time.

The 5 most in-demand soft skills

Lifelong learning 

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 found 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, research shows that 90% of creativity training programmes produce positive results. As discussed, the interactive part is essential, as soft skills cannot be taught through a good old traditional lecture.
  3. Online interventions: interestingly, whether the interventions are 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 maybe need it the least. But I personally find it extremely motivating to know that whatever your current levels of comfort when it comes to interpersonal and emotional skills, you can always improve should you wish it.

The future of life skills training

What would a “soft” skills school look like? I’m exploring ways to learn life skills such as creativity, productivity, emotional resilience, and adaptability. Subscribe to my newsletter if you’d like to follow my progress and receive a weekly round up of articles.

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