Be wary of reports and tools about ‘soft’ skills

You don’t have to look far to find a business or consultancy branding themselves in the marketplace with reports and tools that promote ‘soft’ skills. While ‘soft’ skills is shorthand for a collection of skills, when you look closer you can see all the reasons why this term should be banned from use.

Let’s take three examples:

These documents are given an aura of credibility. Adecco’s document is a White Paper. You can find research to back  validity and references to others’ related work.

Yet caution is needed in accepting this material at face-value.

Compare what each claims to be ‘soft’ skills. While there is some overlap, the lists vary:

Adecco: To express empathy, communicate persuasively, and seek common ground in a manner that allows groups to agree on an action plan and, more important, to feel collectively invested in its success.

Deloitte: communication, teamwork, and problem solving, as well as emotional judgement, professional ethics and global citizenship, time management.

Employment Readiness Scale: Self-Efficacy, or one’s confidence in one’s ability to manage one’s life effectively. Social Supports, or the development of a support network. Job Maintenance, or the ability to keep work, once found, particularly the ability to work effectively with others. Work History, especially the ability to identify transferable skills. Outcome Expectancy, or one’s optimism about one’s chances of success.

How do you decide if material is credible? Some details to assess if a report or tool is using credible skill terms are:

  • Is ‘soft’ skills used in inverted commas or is the expression ‘so-called’ used?
  • Is the material backed with reference to peer-reviewed material, or does the material reference the authors’ own research or primarily others who also use ‘soft’ skills?
  • Are other sources referred to who don’t use ‘soft’ skills but have had their work redefined as being about ‘soft’ skills?
  • Do the authors acknowledge that the term ‘soft’ skills is used inconsistently, and/or that there is no agreement as to what it means, yet still use the term?

Using inverted commas or ‘so-called’ are ambiguous signals. Does it mean ‘soft’ is being used in a peculiar manner, is slang, is someone else’s term? Does ‘so-called’ mean that ‘soft’ is commonly used, unsuitable, or falsely applied? None of these options add credibility to the term ‘soft’. It is ironic that users try to present a credible justification for using ‘soft’ yet undermine that credibility by using inverted commas and/or ‘so-called’.

If a resource is going to have credible value, it needs to be backed with a range of career development profession-based material, preferably peer-reviewed, that uses consistent, accurate terminology. There is growing research that points to the inadequacies of a range of skill terminology, such as skill gaps and skill mismatches, and questions the assumption that skills are generic, and can be readily transferred from one context to another. Simplistic adoption of ‘soft’ skills does not progress a more nuanced discussion of skills nor help clients identify their skills.

An illusion of wider usage is created when other writers’ work is rebadged, and misrepresented, as being about ‘soft’ skills when in fact this term is not used by them.

Users of ‘soft’ skills commonly acknowledge that this term is not used consistently, yet still opt to use the term. This is a curious choice given it undermines rather than enhances credibility.

So what can you do as a career development professional?

If your clients are to understand what skills are in demand, career practitioners, teachers, researchers, and parents need to use accurate, consistent, professional skill terms. This means dropping the use of ‘soft’, as well as ‘hard’, skills.

How to replace ‘soft’:

  • When discussing reports, tools, and research on skills, avoid adopting or repeating any use of ‘soft’ skills. Even saying “so-called ‘soft’ skills” keeps the term in circulation.
  • When discussing specific skills, use specific skill words, like communication skills, problem solving skills, interpersonal skills, so clients learn accurate skill vocabulary.
  • When grouping skills that relate to communication and interpersonal skills, use social  skills.

The words we use send invisible signals about what’s valid and legitimate, stigmatised or unimportant. The skills grouped under ‘soft’ skills are vital life skills, not to be diminished by grouping them as ‘soft’. To prepare people to effectively take part in working life, we need to drop this term and use consistent, accurate terminology that supports our clients and profession.

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.