Blog Post

The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

Julie Winkle Giulioni

Author, Speaker and Consultant Specializing in HR, Leadership and Career Development

I'd like to take a hard position with whoever first coined the term "soft" to describe interpersonal and leadership skills.

Listening, influencing, coaching, collaborating - these are among the most challenging skills to teach, learn and master. And they, unlike technical (hard) skills, tend to differentiate the top performers from the merely good performers in any industry.

According to research conducted by Development Dimensions International, committing to developing these skills is a smart business move, delivering more than a four-to-one return on investment. Even so, many organizations don't make the investment or fail to take the steps necessary to ensure that their investment pays off.

What's so Hard About Soft Skills?

Many organizations fail to invest in interpersonal and leadership skills because teaching and learning these skills can be challenging. The subjective nature of these skills means that different people may have different assessments of their presence (or absence). A technical skill like coding is more objective; the same string of code delivers a predictable outcome that everyone can agree upon every time. But soft skills - like beauty - tend to be more in the eye of the beholder.

Additionally, many people overestimate their interpersonal and leadership skills. We tend to evaluate our skill based upon our intent; however, others evaluate us based upon the effect we have on them, which doesn't always correspond with our intent.

And finally, soft skills tend to be more situational than their technical cousins. Stitching a heart valve is stitching a heart valve all the time. But when it comes to people, there are emotional and contextual cues that must be considered. Is coaching the best response, or would feedback be more effective? Do expectations need to be clarified? Does this person need support? One size doesn't fit all when employing interpersonal and leadership skills.

Making it Easier

Despite the challenges, many organizations are cracking the code associated with helping people master the soft skills that can be the hardest to learn. It boils down to four non-negotiable elements.

Context: Unlike other skills, soft skills are context specific. As a result, they must be taught (and learned) within that context. Rather than focusing on listening skills in the abstract, link them to the typical situations within which someone might need to listen. Perhaps it's coaching, participating in a meeting or gathering customer requirements. Marry the skill with its applications for best results.

Realistic rehearsal: Practice makes perfect - but only when that practice parallels real life. Too frequently learners are asked to assume characters and play out situations that have no relevance to their work. Instead, encourage people to practice actual situations they've faced and real upcoming encounters.

Honest feedback: Rehearsal is only as good as the quality of the feedback that follows it. Failing to offer a candid assessment of a soft skill means that learners may develop unproductive habits.

Implementation intention: Given the situational nature of interpersonal and leadership skills, it's essential that learners develop concrete plans to reach their goals. Engaging in "if/then" planning allows people to consider their environments and the challenges they face and to plan specifically how they'll respond.

The Hard Line About Soft Skills

Interpersonal and leadership skills are vitally important to both individual and organizational success. They are directly responsible for creating culture, fueling strategy, and getting the most out of your workforce.

When both leaders and employees develop soft skills, they are able to engage in quality conversations, collaborate more effectively, drive performance and enhance relationships with each other (as well as customers). And it's pretty hard not to see the value of that!

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