Why “Soft” Skills Are Actually Hard AFby@experimentalcivics
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Why “Soft” Skills Are Actually Hard AF

by Experimental CivicsJanuary 15th, 2019
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I have had this burning irritation over the past couple of weeks about “soft skills” and how they are currently discussed in the workplace. These skills are measurable, they’re more complex than we think, and every business/organization/industry needs to start focusing on them.

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3 Fastest Hacks to Improve

I have had this burning irritation over the past couple of weeks about “soft skills” and how they are currently discussed in the workplace. These skills are measurable, they’re more complex than we think, and every business/organization/industry needs to start focusing on them.

In order to help get this conversation started, I’m going to break down soft skills Sarah-style and hopefully provide insight to help us hone in on and improve these incredibly challenging skillsets.

Let’s start with how “hard” and “soft” skills are defined. has an amazing video of under 2 mins with a breakdown:

So while “hard” skills can be broken down into mostly technical competency and experience, we can see how “soft” skills like communication, teamwork, and adaptability can be harder to assess and learn.

What I find odd is how little emphasis is placed on “soft” skills by corporations and experienced leadership. I also don’t love that they’re called “soft” like they’re malleable or not as strong. Therefore, for the duration of this post, I am going to call them human-centered skills, which I think is more descriptive of what they actually help us do: connect to other humans. Moreover, while the common theory is that these skills are hard to learn and even harder to track, I just don’t buy it — and I’ll explain why shortly.

Hack 1: Start to Measure Human-Centered Skills

One memory I have as a teenager in secondary school in the UK was how our teachers took the time to write thoughtful and honest annual reports on our progress and graded us on our collaboration, behavior, and mindset … in addition to our work! It wasn’t until I started high school in Los Altos, CA that I first encountered stark metrics and grade point averages (GPAs). Throughout my college and professional career, my performance has consistently been tracked using quantitative rather than qualitative data, lacking a core behavioral, human-centric component.

I recently discussed this realization with a potential client and we talked about the rewards given (or lack thereof) in a corporation for good behavior and just being an all-around decent human being.

When you were young and you stole from another classmate or were mean to another person, you were punished for it. It’s obvious that age does not guarantee these lessons were learned. I have been in more than one workplace where someone became exceedingly aggressive in addressing a missed deadline or internal conflict. Explosive emotional outbursts can be draining to deal with — especially as a manager, since you’re not just calling out a misstep with a project or task, but instead having to “parent” your staff. This is particularly hard for me, as I’m not one to dance on eggshells around those I work with. I don’t know if all of this stems from shortfalls in building cultures where people can talk safely about failure and tolerance of differing opinions, but I’m confident these are related.

I often hear colleagues encourage their children to treat others respectfully and then turn around and display very different values in the workplace. How do we carry those same values throughout our lives and certainly in the workplace?

Per this blog by Karl Thompson, employees spend up to 92,000+ hours at work in our lifetime. While our friends and family are some of the most important people in our lives, we actually spend the bulk of our time with our co-workers. The people we see every morning, sit next to in every meeting, and wave to (or avoid) on our way out of the office are the people who bear the brunt of our competency (or lack thereof) with human-centered skills.

My professional contacts are my work family. They are part of my support system and we help each other get through our life happenings and struggles of our work. They are the backbone of my professional growth and my check-in system. It’s vital to be in safe spaces where you can make mistakes as a manager or growing leader and change for the best. I’m not the same leader I was several years ago, nor do I aspire to be the same leader in the coming 5 years. I want to get better and improve.

So back to the task at hand. And like a good manager, I encourage us to get creative.

Dick Jones, Center Specialist at Technical Assistance Center in NY recently shared a blog on the five ways to measure soft skills. I like his approach for several reasons:

  1. He addresses behavior and uses daily, separate evaluations from annual employee reviews
  2. He highlights the importance of collaboration, creativity, and perseverance
  3. He is actually attempting to measure human-centered skillsets

When researching this post, I struggled with finding an array of examples for how to measure human-centered skills. I have seen various methods implemented to promote positive collaboration and a sense of unity among organizations — like giving each other “kudos” for doing great work. I love the idea of recommendations, as it’s an authentic way to tell a story about someone and build a deeper relationship with that person. After all, you never know when you might need their help or expertise in the future.

One way I like to measure human-centered skills is by having an open meeting format in which our team is encouraged to thank someone for helping them in front of the team. I’ll fully admit that this is an idea borrowed from youth competitions, but I think it’s an effective way to have people express their gratitude for each other. This warm, fuzzy feeling transcends engaging in simple pleasantries and can spread through a team. From a manger’s perspective, tracking the names of those who are thanked (and who offer the thanks) can be very telling.

I would love to see people take on more professional development opportunities and opt-in to professional/personal growth. If folks are willing to explore all of the different styles of leadership, the result would be a culture of learning and support. I always loved having study partners who challenge me and who I could count on to support me when the going got tough. Having people actively seek what sparks their curiosity or channels their passion is an important behavior to reward. We want to encourage people to be curious.

I want to focus on accountability and transparency here too. If we work on building these qualities into our team workflow, it will be clear to see who is pulling their weight, being successful in their tasks, and helping others with their work. One of the biggest pet peeves I have when it comes to teamwork is one or two members routinely shouldering the burden of helping others who are consistently unable (or unwilling) to complete their tasks. I think all of these steps will elevate those who are great team players, passionate about their work, and adding value to the culture of the company.

Hack 2: Take Them Seriously. Human-Centered Behaviors Are Complex.

Darcy Eikenberg, PCC with the Red Cape Revolution, in a blog called “Soft Skills Are Harder Than They Look” stated, “In fact, soft skills are quickly becoming the difficult skills to recruit for and develop in our organizations. And they’re the ones that turn our everyday work into hard dollars.”

So if soft skills can impact the company bottom-line, why haven’t they been focused on before? Because they are incredibly personal (how many times have you heard how business isn’t personal), and coaching people requires time, intention and thought.

It’s not enough to just put the company values on a PowerPoint slide and tell people to uphold these values; a true human-centered company helps train employees in these values and models for them what it means to embody the mission of the organization.

Google conducted a 2-year study on the effective traits of a great team, conducting 200+ interviews with their employees and examining more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. Ultimately, they identified these 5 key elements in their review:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Does the first/most common point surprise you? Reading over these 5 points, how many of these have to do with soft skills in communication, trust, empathy, and purpose?

We have to address these elements in any place of work and in any industry. In fact, this can even apply to our own lives with our families and friends. The importance of making spaces for healthy conversations, practicing active listening, and truly understanding each other is important.

Drawing from my own experience, I would certainly say that taking risks is important. Moreover, with the teams I’ve managed, I have strongly encouraged idea sharing. I don’t have the answers and I know that more can be achieved through group effort than the sheer force of will of one. Besides, there’s something truly special about working alongside a group of people who are focused on a common goal and play to their strengths in achieving it.

Looking back, I can also see how I’ve striven to make space for criticism. I actively solicited feedback from those who worked with me on how I could improve as a manager and tried to ensure that our conversations were honest and candid. I grew from these experiences and my staff noticed the difference in my habits, which helped us bond in a deeper way. We have to take ownership of our roles in any team.

So take a second to pause and ask yourself whether you value the above elements and reflect on a time when a team project was not working…Are there any human-centered skills that might have helped solve this issue?

Hack 3: Understand Successful Leaders Are Soft

I have heard countless arguments about how companies only value competency, experience, and intelligence, treating the rest of the human-centered skills like they’re meaningless. Human-centered skills require a person to mature emotionally, and that can’t happen in just a 9-to-5 framework, this involves the daily practice of finding joy in one’s life and actively playing out your purpose.

The age of leaders who don’t care about people is over. This is one of the few hills I’m prepared to die on. In fact, I’m surprised these ruthless individuals ever rose to the top in the first place and set the precedent for those who followed. That time is over. No aspiring leader will be allowed to continue in their role without having at least some of these “soft skills” as a core strength.

The people who I have seen grow and excel in their leadership positions are those who are not only competent in their roles, but who possess a tremendous amount of compassion. I recently read an article in Vanity Fair on Sheryl Sandberg and — in addition to questioning her leadership — the article makes a key point about how business schools don’t produce leaders with strong moral ideals:

“The truth is, Harvard Business School, like much of the M.B.A. universe in which Sandberg was reared, has always cared less about moral leadership than career advancement and financial performance.”

Again, despite whatever degree Sandberg has or the competent business decisions she’s made in the past, she is under scrutiny for her leadership. The article highlights how she is incredibly intelligent manager and thrives in her role, but a leader would have taken action against the sale of member data. We have to be clear that if want our world to be a better place with equity and fair opportunity for all, we must have morally sound, empathic, authentic leaders and not business executives elevated solely for merit on sales revenue. We can’t continue down the traditional path which has only lead to deeper social and economic divides.

In his article, “Get Real: It’s The Only Kind of Leadership That Works,” Rodger Dean Duncan shares how authentic leadership is not just a trend even though it has been gaining popularity, it is the only way for a leader to be. Again, he emphasizes the importance of leaders working on their soft skills:

“The word authenticity is derived from the same Greek word as author. Becoming an authentic leader requires day-to-day focus and lifelong commitment to self-discovery. Many executive coaching programs seem to emphasize personality more than character. People are often coached on how to act instead of how to be. This charm school approach produces only superficial, short-term results. With sufficient stress, all the old patterns usually return.”

Gone are the days of the ruthless CEO towering over helpless staffers.

Today’s staff members, managers, and leaders need to recognize the power of human-centered skills (aka “soft skills”) and focus on the following:

  1. You can measure your soft skills and we should uphold ourselves to measure them
  2. They are complex, and they should be taken more seriously. They also take time to evaluate matched with personal growth. The effort placed into tackling this hurdle now will benefit us in the future
  3. You need them regardless of the technical skills your training has given you. In the future, we should see a radical shift towards more authentic leaders in the workforce

On that note, Experimental Civics is researching and developing an exciting new leadership coaching suite of workshops and we’d love to have you take part! If you have any interest in being part of our pilot program in 2019, please get in touch: [email protected]