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Are You Ready for the Uncomfortably "Hard" Truth About "Soft" Skills?

September 22, 2016 Jeff Lesher


Wake me up when it’s 2016, and we have been graced with the long-overdue correction to the made up label of so-called “soft” skills with that of critical skills. Before you wake me, please make sure the concocted definition of soft skills as nice-to-haves for people performing certain jobs which don’t “depend on acquired knowledge” (according to the Collins English Dictionary) has been replaced by one that acknowledges such skills are “essential for succeeding in the workplace.”

Never mind – I’m awake. I can’t afford to sleep that long. I’m not friggin’ Rip Van Winkle. For nearly 20 years, I’ve been working to make a small contribution to our understanding of what matters when it comes to selecting and developing high performance contributors. Occasionally, there’s a ray of hope, as when I see an article like this one: Employers Finally Get a Clue About Critical Skills. Even in this case, the acknowledgement comes with such vagary and surprise. I’m not sure it’s all that compelling. “Business planning” is a skill as much as anything listed as a “hard” or technical skill. There’s a missed opportunity to lend some assistance to the reader by helping them connect the dots between capabilities like “coaching” and “emotional intelligence” and the impact of contributing through others (meaning that my value equals my effort multiplied by the number of colleagues I help perform at a high level), not to mention the very real skill and benefits of effectively managing relationships. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the article is the off-handed assertion that these “traits that don’t show up in a job posting.” Two things: 1) by the article’s own construction, we’ve established that they’re skills, not traits – learned not inherent; and 2) if employers value these skills so highly but fail to cull out the essential ones and hire to those criteria – shame on them.

Here’s an oldie and a still-not-fully-appreciated adage: people get hired based on what they know how to do; they get fired based on how they do it…or how they perform the job. Perhaps these skills are better called “performance” skills. Do a quick search on “hiring and firing” – or something similar, and you’ll pull up at least 10 years worth of guidance for avoiding selection missteps…and not just for bringing people into your organization, but for moving them around and into positions of greater impact. And, still, hem and haw about “soft” skills. They’re not SOFT! For one thing, according the Journal article, finding candidates with the appropriate performance skills is HARD. Additionally, when an organization lacks sufficient numbers of appropriately-skilled people, achieving and sustaining high performance is HARD.

For you to help awaken your organization to a better way to find, attract, leverage, and retain the right people for you, here are a few tips: 

  • Make sure you’ve identified and behaviorally defined the top 3 to 5 values that are essential for people to share at your place of business
  • Assess every candidate’s willingness (often through a validated assessment tool) and demonstrated ability (in a behavior-based interview) to live those values
  • Create role profiles that feature components of how critical skills are applied
  • Avoid falling in love with resumes; work to get to know people and place informed bets on them based on what you learn

The value of skills – however they’re labeled – required by your people to fit in, to apply what they know, to continue to learn, and much more, may not be newly discovered; but the opportunity to apply that knowledge remains abundant. It’s not often you can gain a competitive edge by using knowledge everyone has access to, and this is one of those times…so embrace it!

TOPICS: Resume, Employee Engagement