The Stupid Concept Of “Soft Skills”

Let me tell you what I find “stupid” about the phrase “soft skills”.

Anyway, it’s most likely that the word “stupid” caught your attention and you wanted to see what this article was about. Had I given a boring title like “Importance of Soft Skills” or “Why You Need Soft skills” or something similar, you might not have bothered to read the rest of it. You would have thought “Oh just another boring article on how to speak properly and communicate properly” and moved on.

What I find “stupid” about “soft skills” is the term “soft”. It is extremely misleading, especially for freshers who are starting out in their careers or even experienced professionals who have attended numerous interviews. When they have multiple rounds of interviews, one of them will be about soft skills, and the rest will be about their professional skills or technical skills.

Human Resources defines soft skills as

“Soft skills is a catch-all term referring to various behaviors that help people work and socialize well with others. In short, they are the good manners and personality traits needed to get along with others and build positive relationships.”

and then your core/technical/professional skills are called  hard skills:

“Hard skills include a person’s technical skill set and ability to perform certain functional tasks”

The term “hard skills” makes the term “soft skills” look even more useless and unimportant than it would have been otherwise.

The point is that “soft skills” represent your ability to communicate – whether written or oral and how you interact with people. Have you noticed how much time, money and effort people put into learning a functional skill like computer programming or becoming a neurosurgeon or becoming an expert in corporate law or becoming an investment banker? The whole idea of having a professional career or a job is completely focused on mastering a functional skill or earning a formal degree in a certain discipline.

All the effort goes into getting your “hard skills” into place. By the way, why is it called “hard skills” anyway? Is it because you spend a lot of time and money in acquiring them?  Is it because there are specific hard skills which are known to be in demand and a lot of people learn them thus increasing your competition? Yes to both the questions. It is not easy to become an investment banker or a surgeon or an Oracle developer or a CFO. In other words tagging the phrase “hard skills” to all these endeavors is perfectly justified.

So are we to assume that “soft skills” are “easy”? Apparently everyone thinks so. How many people do you know who took a course in public speaking or took a particular interest in learning the art of debating or took a short term course in etiquette? I am not saying there are none, but they are very very few and they are the exception rather than the norm.

The general attitude of professionals towards soft skills is ambivalent at best. The stereotypical mindset is “Hey I can talk, can’t I? And I can write too. So what’s the big deal about soft skills”. That is where a blind spot starts building up and remains for a very long time. A lot of people lose jobs or never get to the level where they want and they keep wondering why.

That is where all the problem starts. Look, here is the deal, mate: If you can’t understand what the other person is saying, or if you do understand what the other person is saying but are not able to express your thoughts or if you can’t write a one page document on a particular topic or if you don’t understand the concept of politeness or good manners, it really doesn’t matter how good you are in your “hard skills”.  You will not get anywhere without good soft skills.

I would very much like to rechristen “soft skills” to “life-saving skills” . In this day and age what we call as the Information Age and where every part of the world is connected, if you are not able to communicate, if you are not able to get along with people, you are finished. Your game is over even before it has begun.

It is definitely true that a “hard skill” like Oracle development is hard as it takes time and effort to acquire. But a “soft skill” like verbal communication is not hard to acquire – its virtually impossible!!

Your professional career generally starts in your early 20s . Your mannerisms, your way of talking, your mindset, the way you deal with people. are all set in stone by that age. Soft skills are not something you can just “learn” – they are a hybrid result of individual learning combined with cultural norms combined with social environment.

You can still teach a 30 year old how to design a website. It’s not that complicated. There are hundreds of books, online and offline courses, teachers and instructors who will make you skillful in designing websites.

But where will you find a course which tells you how to reply to an interview question “Why should we hire you and not someone else?”. There are no written steps for that, no textbook and no certifications. Who is going to tell you that there is no canned predefined answer to a question like that? You will have to improvise your answer based on your current circumstances and the company you are applying to and successfully reading the mindset of your interviewer. The ability to do this is a soft skill.

The ability to write a 5 page document explaining how you will manage a retail campaign for your company , in a way which is clearly understood and covers all the relevant points – that is a soft skill.

The ability to express your disagreement in a formal board meeting without sounding rude or loud or uncouth is a soft skill.

The list of soft skills can go on and on. Unlike a “hard skill” which you can turn off once you are out of office, soft skills can never be turned off or on, because they are a part of your behavior and mindset – they are an extension of your personality.

The biggest qualified labor pools in the world today are from the third world, specially India and China. I an Indian , and it is an official fact that most of the labor pool may be technically qualified but they are horrible when it comes to soft skills. This is a general refrain among employers that people they hire, lack the ability to communicate and that makes them unemployable. This is not just relegated to the developing countries; even developed countries are facing this issue specially when they hire young people.

I personally feel that if someone puts in the trouble to enhance his “soft skills” it will pay much higher dividends than if he/she simply enhances or keeps on upgrading their “hard skills”. As I said before, it is not easy to learn or unlearn or relearn soft skills. It requires practice, making mistakes and it takes time and there is no clear path. Everyone has to chart their own way. It is hard but it’s not impossible. And the rewards are very good.

I can use myself as an example. I have been a software developer for over 25 years and I have still survived in this industry not because I am a super-guru in some technology or because I am a topper from Cal-Tech or MIT. Of course I am good at what I do, else I wouldn’t have survived but I know several people who are far better than me in the same field, but yet they went down the tubes and I am still here. I have survived due to my communication skills in English – that is all there is to it. That has spelt the difference between success and failure for me, while dealing with global clients.

The sooner people wake up to the fact that communication skills are important, the sooner they will see their professional circumstances changing for the better. The best part is that you don’t need to spend any money for this – it just requires time and sustained effort.

Take a lesson from the politicians of the world. Less than 1% of them have any technical or functional qualification or expertise. But they all have one thing in common – Enormous soft skills. Their ability to communicate, persuade and motivate or demotivate people is what makes them leaders.

Look around you – you will find the people who lead are all masters in “soft skills”. Now you understand why I find the phrase “soft skills” stupid.

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