What are soft skills, and why do they matter?

This is the first post in a three-part series that explores soft skills, their importance, how to train people in soft skills, and the challenges to measuring such training efforts.

If you search for “soft skills” on Merriam-Webster’s free online dictionary, you won’t find an entry. Dictionary.com, meanwhile, defines soft skills as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge.”

In an article for eLearning Industry, author Sonia Patel explains soft skills as “personal attributes which allow people to interact with others effectively.” For LinkedIn’s 2019 report on the most in-demand skills, author Gregory Lewis sums things up like this: “While hard skills concern your ability to do a specific task, soft skills are more about the way you do them, e.g., the way you adapt, collaborate, or make decisions.”

In light of the varying definitions — and in the absence of a universally accepted one — we shouldn’t be surprised that, when pressed to describe soft skills, many people resort to listing examples of them; creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management are employers’ five most-demanded soft skills, according to the LinkedIn report.

But, why do we struggle to pin down their essence? Perhaps the challenge lies in the name itself. If we consider alternative names for soft skills, does their essence become more sharply defined?

What’s in a name?

Darcy Eikenberg, the founder of executive coaching firm Red Cape Revolution, offers another name for soft skills in her article for Forbes. Toward the end, she uses “human skills” as a synonym for soft skills. She’s likely not the first person — and certainly not the only — to do so. But we think she’s on to something.

Soft skills are, at their essence, things that humans do that machines can’t (or at least can’t yet do proficiently and at mass scale). They stem from our emotional intelligence, our character, our intangible elements that distinguish us as humans. By pushing the limits of artificial intelligence, we simply strive to replicate what already exists in ourselves: the ability to master communication, leadership, critical thinking, listening, organization, teamwork, punctuality, problem-solving, attention to detail, resilience, integrity, and more.

This framing of soft skills resonates with us because it prompts us to ask what we’d be without them. If we fail to properly develop them, do we operate only at half-capacity? Without them, how are we, as workers, functionally different from machines that compute and complete tasks?

If that questioning alone doesn’t inspire businesses and workers to preserve and develop soft skills, maybe some eye-opening statistics will.

Soft skills have a hard impact on business.

In short, employees who have excellent soft skills are beneficial to business.

Michael Hansen, in a 2018 article for eLearning Industry, cites research from the Stanford Research Institute International and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation that claims 75 percent of long-term job success depends upon soft skills mastery and only 25 percent on technical skills.

Beyond that, top performers often rely on their soft skills to separate themselves from less-productive employees. Hansen points to researchers at Harvard University, Boston College, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who reported that people who are trained in soft skills are 12 percent more productive than those who are not. He notes that this advantage in production — though seemingly small — marks a 256 percent ROI in soft skills training.

So, why should companies have an interest in developing soft skills? Put simply, it pays off.

The value of soft skills flows both ways.

People with adequately developed soft skills increase their value, too, not just the company’s.

Employers are rightfully placing more focus on one’s soft skills when considering if he or she has the minimum qualifications for a job. In fact, 57 percent of leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills. That’s according to Paul Petrone, who authored “The Skills Companies Need Most in 2018 — And The Courses to Get Them” for LinkedIn.

To increase their odds of landing job interviews — let alone jobs — candidates should highlight their soft skills.

The additional value of soft skills lies in this truth: People who excel at them have more to offer than machines. That’s only going to matter more as each day passes.

As noted by Forbes, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in 2017 that up to 44 percent of current work activity hours will be automated by 2030. As automation grows, people need to care for and enhance the elements that are distinctly theirs.

In other words, by having better human skills, people help to keep themselves valuable — perhaps even relevant — to companies.

So, soft skills are important; now what?

The Bureau of National Affairs published a report in 2018 from Bloomberg Next in which 40 percent of the surveyed companies said they will re-skill — not replace — employees when prompted by technology developments. People who have good soft skills, especially those who are adaptable, will have a smoother time in such transitions. The problem, as revealed by that same report, is that 4 in 10 corporations say new hires lack the soft skills they need to perform at a high level.

The problem we face is not just a skills gap; it’s a soft skills gap, specifically.

By gaining a clearer understanding of what soft skills are and why they matter, we uncover a new, more difficult challenge: How do we train people in soft skills so that they and their employers reach their full potential?

Keep an eye out for part two of this series, as it attempts to answer that exact question.