Training & Development

Quint column: Give soft skills the respect they deserve

Quint Studer.

In name alone, the term “soft skills” doesn’t exactly emit the feeling of high priority.

Those skills don’t really get the respect they need. One goal I never was able to accomplish in healthcare consulting was to erase the phrase “soft skills” and replace it with something that would get them the attention they deserve.

It is confusing why skills such as communication, courtesy, flexibility, integrity, interpersonal skills, positive attitude, professionalism, responsibility, teamwork and work ethic are labeled “soft skills.” (Those 10 were compiled as the top 10 soft skills for business executives by Eastern Kentucky University.)

“Soft skills” are not “easy” or “less important.” Over the years the perception has become that their importance lags behind “hard skills” — skills defined as necessary for career development. “Hard skills” were defined as measurable and quantifiable based on a person’s education and work experience. The ability to operate machinery would be considered a hard skill; a person’s work ethic, sense of teamwork and professionalism, are the soft skills.

What happens when the sole focus is on hard skills? Perhaps an employee may be described as very good … except no one wants to work with them. Another example would be an employee who is great technically, but they come in late often and miss too much work. Many people have given me an example like this, asking, “What do you do with a good employee who just struggles with deadlines?”

My advice is to quit calling them a good employee.

Years ago, I was introduced to speak to an organization that was not achieving some very important customer goals.

“Quint is here to talk about soft skills,” the senior executive said.

I opened by asking why they’re called soft skills when they are so darn hard. Many top executives lack strength in soft skills, so maybe downplaying soft skills as unimportant allows people to rationalize their own difficulty with using them.

A study by Harvard University noted that 80 percent of achievements in a career are determined by soft skills and only 20 percent come via hard skills. Studies by Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation of 500 CEO’s established that 75 percent of long-term job success resulted from soft skills and only 25 percent came from technical skills.

So, I’ve explained the misconception. So here are some tips on soft skills:

— Let’s change the term “soft skills” to “vital skills.” In my opinion, that is what they are.

— Make “soft skills” part of the fabric of your business. In your workplace, take those 10 soft skills listed above and make sure they are included in the employee handbook. Make sure they are part of the interviewing process for new hires and are included in the values identified and detailed in the company’s standards of performance or behavior.

— Include these skills in job descriptions. Most job descriptions are long on technical skills and short on items like teamwork, communication, flexibility, etc.

— Make it clear to all employees (starting at the top) that these vital skills are not optional. Don’t think because you’re technically great that means you can disrespect people, not be a good team player, etc.

— Acknowledge that all skills are important with some being more vital for some jobs than others. Obviously, some such as communication, teamwork, integrity, etc. are nonnegotiable.

— Recognize. Make sure you’re pointing out those vital skills as much as technical skills are recognized.

Only when “soft skills” are no longer seen as soft, easy or less important will a person and an organization achieve high performance.