Q: “Al, what are soft skills and why all the fuss about them?” —(Graduate student, Emory University)
NOTE: This is an edited response that reflects the evolution of my knowledge and understanding of soft skills. You can read my original response from 2005 here.
Duncan Nugget® #144:
Soft skills are personal abilities that help you perform better and interact better with other people. In most situations, having exceptional soft skills gives you a competitive advantage.
That’s the simplest way I’ve come up with to explain soft skills. If, however, you are looking for something a bit more academic here’s my “formal” definition:
Soft skills are individual abilities that improve human performance and facilitate effective interactions amongst people. (See A List of Soft Skills and Related Terms.)
It has taken me over a decade of training and writing to finally come up with that definition. It’s concise and comprehensive. (My original definition was too complicated for my work with teens and young adults. Actually, it was also too complicated for my work with professionals!)
Soft skills include competencies in areas such as Emotional Intelligence, communication, leadership ability, teamwork, conflict resolution, decision making, grit, self-discipline, persuasion, etc.
The reason for all the fuss is simple. Experts ranging from economists and psychologists, such as James Heckman and Angela Duckworth, to business and education leaders, such as Steve Jobs and the Geoffrey Canada, agree that one or more of the soft skills have a crucial impact on your level of success.
I’m sure you already know that you still need to be able to demonstrate a certain level of technical expertise in your field, but in today’s competitive market, a lot of people have—or have access to—hard skills and technical knowledge.
Do a lot of people have that certain je ne sais quoi that inspires and motivates the people around them? Do a lot of people have the ability to communicate clearly and effectively? Are a lot of people good at managing their emotions? Try answering that in rush-hour traffic or after standing in the customer service line at Wal-Mart for 45 minutes!
Companies use all kinds of assessment tests like MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and MSCEIT (Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test) so that they can get an idea of what your personality is and what soft skills you possess.
A good friend of mine recently applied for a job as a consultant with the Gallup Organization. When she completed the online application and submitted her resume she was prompted to take an assessment test. Based on her assessment test (not her resume) she was turned down for the position via an automated response! The response said that Gallup would keep her results on file and if any positions opened up that fit her profile she would be notified.
Another thing that makes soft skills so “sexy” is that they present a chance to level the playing field. It has been said that your IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is fixed from birth. But your EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), your IPQ (Influence and Persuasion Quotient), your MQ (Motivation Quotient), and any other type of “Q” that you want to invent can be improved.
The most interesting thing about soft skills is this: although it might be the latest term on the street, it’s nothing new. A great book on soft skills, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, was published in 1936.
The Book of Proverbs 29:20 reads, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” It was written and then compiled sometime between the tenth and sixth centuries B.C. It’s loaded with soft skills tips.
And the Ancient Egyptians wrote “Be skilled in speech so that you will succeed. The tongue of a man is his sword and effective speech is stronger than all fighting”.
So, as you can see all the fuss over soft skills is nothing new.
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