Soft/Hard Skills: A false dichotomy

A popular distinction in the jobs/career literature is hard/soft skills.

In general usage, soft skills refer to interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, communication skills, emotions, and characteristics such as friendliness, empathy, social graces.

Hard skills refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills.

For example, according to this distinction, a doctor’s bedside manner comes under soft skills and their ability to diagnose illness and know what medicine to give are considered hard skills.

While the literature often refers to these skills as complementing each other, no one questions their continuing use. Here are six reasons to stop using this distinction.

1. False connotations of difficult/easy

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of difficult/easy due to the ambiguity of the terms. There is nothing easy about dealing with people. Most managers, no matter how technically skilled and knowledgeable they are, will spend most of their time on demanding people issues. If their interpersonal skills are poor, life will be unbearable.

2. False connotations of serious/frivolous

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of hard skills being serious and soft skills being somewhat frivolous, easily dismissed as not warranting the same attention. This built-in derogatory flavour does nothing to encourage people to take these skills seriously.

3. Employers want staff with interpersonal skills

Any list of most-wanted skills includes teamwork, communication and customer service. Some businesses choose to take people with ‘the right attitude’ and train them on the job, in technical, hard skills, in order to find quality staff. While qualifications are essential, they are useless without the ability to get along with people.

The Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework has ‘Interact with others’ as one of the three skill clusters. The Framework points out that while Skill Areas within each cluster are related to each other, ‘there is also interaction across clusters’. In other words, you can’t get work done if you can’t get along with people.

4. The skills are inseparable

There is no point having qualifications and extensive technical knowledge if you don’t also have interpersonal skills. Even on projects with huge demand for a range of technical skills, such as building a dam, if people in different trades and professions can’t talk to each other and cooperate to solve problems, the project won’t be completed.

5. Disadvantages women

Soft skills are traditionally associated with women. Women are seen as better at interpersonal matters, use language more effectively, have the emotional basis for doing soft skills better than men.

While there is some basis for this generalisation, it is neither true that all women are good at people skills, nor that all men are hopeless in this area. Women are disadvantaged by being seen as best suited to people-rich roles, which are often those that are poorly paid, offer mainly part-time work, and have few promotional opportunities.

The soft skills/women link means that men may not be considered for such female roles and can potentially get away with poor communication skills because, well, they’re men.

6. False belief soft skills can’t be learnt

Some of the literature implies, even states, that interpersonal skills are part of a person’s personality, and therefore are not subject to learning and improvement. You either have them or you don’t.

This too is a false belief. People can increase their self-awareness about how they communicate and interact and identify behaviours to incorporate into their repertoire so that they are more skilled. Yes, it takes practice, as does any behaviour that needs to become habitual. But it is learnable.

What’s the alternative?

First, stop using the hard/soft language.

Second, focus on talking about core skills, employability skills, transferable skills.

Third, treat interpersonal skills as equal in value to technical skills. I’d go so far as to say that in many cases interpersonal skills are more important than technical skills once a certain level of competence has been achieved.

Fourth, make sure the inter-relatedness of interpersonal and technical skills is explained to staff.

Fifth, be consciously aware of how soft skill talk can disadvantage women and save men from building these skills, and take action to prevent these discriminatory practices.

Sixth, Check assumptions that these skills are gender-linked. Notice messages that show women as the skilled people person and men as the people klutz. Voice objections.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.