There are a few beliefs in life that I will defend with the utmost vigor and conviction. Number one: eating Buffalo hot wings with ranch dressing is an offense against humanity. Number two: walking the dog (or cat) without a leash is an invitation to disaster. And number three: labeling soft skills as somehow less valuable in the workplace than hard skills is ludicrous.
While debate rages on the first two beliefs, the third one rankles me to no end. Tom Gerencer puts it best in a blog post for Zety: Hard skills are what make you great for a specific job. Soft skills “prove you’d be a great fit anywhere.” While hard skills may improve your ability to create or edit a spreadsheet, soft skills enable you to provide feedback and measure the impact of those spreadsheet metrics on the people upon who you rely to finish the job.
I’d propose that we re-label soft skills as professional life skills. As a leader with direct reports, you may be the world’s greatest project manager or Scrum Master. If you insist on ignoring the emotional needs of your team, those hard skills will be invaluable after they leave and you’re alone trying to complete that project or initiative. Critical thinking, communication, emotional intelligence, and knowing of how and when to initiate difficult conversations exemplify these professional life skills. BusinessInsider cites a LinkedIn study defining the five top professional life skills as most in-demand for today’s employers. The skills are from the study, but the notes following them are my own.
- Creativity: Less than 10 percent of the workforce are baby boomers (those born between 1946–1964). Younger generations grew up with far more resources and opportunities to express their creativity and demand that license personally and professionally.
- Persuasion: Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Without the powers of persuasion, those smart people may sit in the corner during meetings with their brilliant ideas, and you may never hear them. Or worse, they may take those brilliant ideas across the street to your competition.
- Collaboration: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside-down. Whether talking on Zoom, Google, or Webex or shouting across the backyard fence, we are all desperately seeking connection with neighbors and colleagues. Without collaboration, there is no engagement. Without engagement, employees become disloyal automatons.
- Adaptability: This skill enables individuals and companies to succeed in the most uncertain times. Teaching employees the skills to adapt is like ensuring that you take rain gear with you on a walk during a Seattle spring. There’s no down-side, and while the sun may be shining today, dark clouds loom on the horizon.
- Emotional Intelligence: This is the cornerstone trait of every successful leader I’ve trained, coached, or worked with or for during the last 40 years. Leaders leave a legacy whether they want to or not. Teaching and practicing the tenets of EQ enables them to inspire others to go beyond their self-perceived limitations. While she may not have known the term, this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt sums up the power of emotional intelligence: “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”
If you think these so-called soft skills are optional or something that employees should pursue in their free time, I would refer you back to psychology 101 and the founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow. Our employment and the resulting paycheck help us meet our basic needs (physiological and safety). Psychological needs are derived from our connection to others (belonginess, love, and esteem) at work and in our families and community. Self-actualization is when we reach our highest potential. And that is what employees are looking for today and tomorrow.
The next time someone labels soft skills as somehow less-than-critical to mission success, gently guide them to rebrand them as professional life skills. Share the importance of the five foundational skills and the connection to hard skills. And don’t let me catch you eating chicken wings with ranch on the side.