ATD Blog

Stop Calling It Soft Skills!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

John Dillon is an entrepreneur who has been wildly successful as VP of sales for Oracle and CEO of start-ups that have been solid investments for staff and investors. His secret to success? John Dillon is empathic, caring, and effective in communicating both the big picture and the details.

Tracy Ashdale is the executive director of Philadelphia-based Girls on the Run. She has built a program that offers training for coaches and transformative experiences for girls, empowering them to run a 5K while learning life skills. Tracy leads by example; she does not expect her staff to do anything she would not learn or try. She meets with her staff about their goals and plans, and also is interested in their personal lives. Tracy attracts donors because of GOTR’s mission and her warm, outgoing, honest manner.

Rod Beckstrom, co-author of The Starfish and the Spider, is a serial success story. He made his reputation in the highly technical fields of financial software development and cyber security at a major Korean firm. He also is the former CEO of ICANN, a firm responsible for the safety, security and reliability of the Internet. Rod is one of the most genuine, authentic, warm, friendly, and humble leaders I know.

Kathie Powell is the CEO of Petaluma Health Center in Northern California. She is widely regarded as having performed miracles in a health setting that serves primarily low-income clients. Petaluma Health Center earns stellar marks from federal auditing agencies, peers, and customers. Patient satisfaction and quality of care go hand-in-hand at PHC. Kathie is approachable, straight-forward, and visionary. At the same time, she makes sure that anything that can be measured is tracked and used to improve service. Kathie is one of those people you wish was your boss.

All four of these managers, as well as countless other leaders, are experts and experimenters in human skills. Perhaps it is time to closely examine the harm we do in HR and learning and development by colluding with implied criticism of skills that are considered “soft.”


I think the following are human skills that every leader, manager, and employee must be encouraged to demonstrate (and we should evaluate their success):

1. Being interested in the experience of others. This counterbalances the human tendency to be self-serving or self-concerned. Interest in others is a form of empathy, and measures of empathy can used to assess skills required to be empathic.
2.Listening well. This means summarizing, paraphrasing, and demonstrating caring by giving others the gift of time and your attention.
3. Developing a facility for holding conversations that are high stakes, emotionally charged, and where there is a difference of opinion.
4. Training in self-awareness—via skills of emotional intelligence or mindfulness. It is critical to human interaction that we learn how to regulate our responses to others. In addition, mastering reactivity in tough pressured conversations is what every human can and must do to make progress when there is dissent or difficulty.
5. Developing tools that train the brain to focus sharply and at depth, relax at will, and redirect attention when it is lost or distracted.
6. Holding oneself accountable to be warm, friendly, and of goodwill—even when we don’t agree with each other or we feel threatened or challenged.None of these skills are easy or scream “Rock Star.” Instead, they simply encourage human beings to feel connected to each other—but that connection can produce cooperative and collaborative behavior.


I feel that using the term “soft skills” perpetuates the assumption, bias, and habit of thinking that soft equals expendable. It implies that we need everyone to use Excel, but it is less important that they be held accountable for being a good communicator and kind person.

Let us, as a profession, communicate with different words like “human skills” that connote valuable, essential, and intrinsic abilities.

About the Author

Elad Levinson is an expert in applying neuroscience and cognitive sciences to leadership effectiveness, and has more than 40 years’ experience in leadership roles in various organizations. He held several senior management positions at Agilent Technologies, ICANN, and Stanford University. Elad is currently a senior adviser at 4128 Associates, and the head instructor for Praxis You’s Thriving on Change. Be sure to check out Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader's Toolkit. This is a great resource created by Elad for today's leaders.


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