The terms “hard skills” and “soft skills” are problematic.
Jeff Wiener, the boss of LinkedIn, says that computers are not going to be taking all our jobs quite yet. “We’re still a ways away from computers being able to replicate and replace human interaction and human touch.”
The result? Most in-demand, according to Wiener, are the so-called “soft skills” of human interaction, communication and conflict resolution. While, recent US data still shows that most in-demand roles are emphasising highly technical, “hard” skills like engineering, IT and trucking, I would agree with Jeff. These soft skills are paramount. But I think they have the wrong name.
One way to understand Jeff’s comments is to recognise we actually live in a world populated by people. We need “soft skills”, like communication and leadership.
But the terms “hard skills” and “soft skills” are problematic. The notion of “hard skills”, especially in opposition to “soft skills”, is truly misleading. Hard in this context has garnered two connotations. The first is difficult (as in “understanding the generalization of the chain rule to tensors is hard”). The second is that you’re dealing with things like machines, that are physically hard (“I hurt my head when I hit it on the laser printer which is hard”). The trouble is that this terminology put “soft skills” into an oppositional position. If hard means difficult (like tensors), then soft must mean easy.
Yes, soft skills involve working with things that are physically soft relative to server racks and diesel generators. Your boss is, physically, quite squishy compared to a truck.
But undercurrent that “soft means not hard and therefore means easy” remains, especially as we glorify the hard skills of STEM. In a world of well-defined objectives and militaristic commercial language, “soft” skills are harder to quantify and fit in a spreadsheet, and so have no place in the modern, Taylorist workplace.
Soft is hard
Here’s the thing. Look at what is in the bucket of soft skills: team management, interpersonal communication, empathy, conflict resolution, critical thinking, perspective-taking. The so-called “soft skills” are neither easy nor are they out of place in an organisation. The origin of the dichotomy comes from a US Army assessment between 1960–1970. Hard skills were hard because they were well-defined and straightforward. Soft skills were soft because “we don’t know much about the physical and social environments in which the skill occurs and… the consequences of different ways of accomplishing the job function”.
In fact, the hard skills are actually the easy ones to grasp. You can wrap your head around them. Advanced calculus, or understanding the chain rule, or fiddling with a Gantt chart is really teachable and manageable once you know how. What is truly tough is persuading a child to do something they don’t want to do. Or resolving a conflict between two, three or more people. Or motivating a recalcitrant team to follow you, even when the data doesn’t support it. Or deciding that even when the data suggests it, something shouldn’t be done. That’s hard.
Hard skills are easy because they can be taught more easily, and often in scalable ways. So-called soft skills are tougher to explain and require considerably more complex modalities than “hard skills”.
Feel the power
I’d propose a rebrand. “Soft” is the wrong modifier. These not-hard skills are actually the skills that we most need as individuals, at home and in the workplace. I’d go for “power skills”.
It encapsulates both what these skills give you and what it takes to master them.
What do you think? Is ‘soft’ the right way to encapsulate these skills? Or is power, or something else better? What would you call them? How do you teach them?
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