The concept of soft skills is still an evolving discipline surrounded by myths that must be busted.
"The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world." —Lao Tzu
The learning and development (L&D) function has undergone a tremendous change in the 21st century. Gone are the days where all sectors underscore technical skills alone. Currently there is a change in the mindset of companies to highlight both hard skills and soft skills. However, there are several myths associated with soft skills.
For L&D staff to perform effectively in the workplace, they must know the truths about soft skills. The mere acquisition of hard skills alone is not sufficient for employees to survive in the corporate world. In fact, what is needed is the perfect blend of both hard and soft skills to excel as successful professionals. It's important to know the differentiations between the two types of skills, as well as bust the myths about soft skills.
Soft versus hard skills
Soft skills are the abilities required in the workplace for professional success. They are the polite and pleasing way of presenting to others and are mostly related to personality, attitude, and behavior. They are a collection of several skills and abilities related to the execution of such tasks as communicating, managing time, negotiating, writing, listening, reading, presenting, problem solving, and decision making. They are essential at every level of an organization if it is to function smoothly and successfully.
Hard skills are technical competencies and domain knowledge, while soft skills are a combination of people skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. Companies search for a blend of both soft and hard skills among their employees to deliver goods and services effectively to their clients. It is rightly said that people rise in organizations because of their hard skills and fall due to a dearth of soft skills.
Myths and truths
Here are 12 myths about soft skills that are running around in the minds of professionals. It is natural for these myths to exist since the concept of soft skills is still an evolving discipline. However, it is time to bust these myths with truths.
Soft skills are inborn qualities. Soft skills are not traits and qualities people acquire through heredity. As the term indicates, these are skills and abilities that can be acquired through observation, reading, teaching, training, experience, practice, and from other sources.
Soft skills are closely connected with the English language. Soft skills are in no way connected with any specific language. People often think that those who speak fluent English have strong soft skills. Especially in such countries as India, where educators with English educational backgrounds impart soft skills training, people assume that English is associated with soft skills. Soft skills deal with how you speak, not in which language you speak.
Soft skills are synonymous with communication skills. The truth is that communication skills are both the cornerstone of soft skills and a subset of soft skills. People often emphasize that those who are good at communicating with others both in written and unwritten forms are experts in soft skills.
However, soft skills are broader in nature and go beyond communication skills. There are other skills—such as interpersonal skills, team building skills, negotiation skills, etiquette, motivation, time management, and critical thinking—that constitute soft skills.
Emotional intelligence alone encompasses soft skills. Emotional intelligence is an integral part of soft skills, but doesn't represent the totality of what soft skills are. People who have high emotional intelligence are effective in managing their emotions, thus displaying a mature mindset. They can be better at people skills because they can discover, motivate, and manage their emotions, as well as discover and motivate the emotions of others. Being aware of emotional intelligence helps people to bring out behavioral changes, thus promoting soft skills.
Soft skills are interpersonal skills. Although interpersonal skills promote soft skills, soft skills are not synonymous with interpersonal skills. However, effective interpersonal skills promote better relations with others by minimizing the differences and promoting similarities among individuals. Hence, interpersonal skills pave the way for soft skills.
Soft skills symbolize the softness of people. The truth is that soft skills are not connected with the external appearances of people. They represent how politely and pleasingly people get the message across to others without hurting them. Soft skills are more about how you communicate than how you appear externally.
Soft skills are synonymous with listening skills. People who are good listeners have good soft skills. Research reveals that only 5 percent of people are good listeners; the remaining 95 percent are average or poor listeners. It is rightly said that leaders are good listeners. Listening skills not only denote leadership ability, but also signify having good soft skills. Frances Hasselbein has this to say about listening: "[I]t's called respect, it's called appreciation, it's called anticipation, and it's called leadership."
Soft skills are employability skills. Soft skills pave the way for employment and are regarded as employability skills, especially in countries such as India where candidates have unemployability and unemployment problems. When candidates have educational eligibility, suitability, and capability but don't have employment opportunities, that is known as unemployment. In contrast, when candidates have educational eligibility but not suitability and capability to grab employment opportunities despite having employment opportunities, that is known as unemployability. In this context, soft skills are known as employability skills because they enhance employability for candidates. However, it cannot be concluded that soft skills are synonymous with employability skills.
Soft skills alone help ensure professional success and career advancement. People who don't have any knowledge and are simply good at communicating with others demonstrate chinks in their armors, and thus will fall flat professionally. What is needed is the combination of soft and hard skills to ensure quick growth in one's career. Hard skills are the basis for professional survival. There are instances in which employees have strong hard skills but fail to survive because they lack soft skills that enable them to gel well with superiors, peers, and subordinates in the workplace.
Women have better soft skills and men have better hard skills. This is the biggest myth of all. Soft skills are not gender specific.
Soft skills are not transferable. There are three types of skills—job related, self-management, and transferable—that are essential for L&D professionals. Job-related skills are related to hard skills; self-management skills are related to the individual; and transferable skills can be used across multiple professions irrespective of industries. Hence, it is a myth to conclude that soft skills are not transferable. In fact, soft skills are the transferable skills that are needed in all professions, from peon to principal and from janitor to CEO.
Frontline employees are better at hard skills, while support staff are better at soft skills. Every employee must possess both soft and hard skills for professional success. Although frontline staff, such as faculty members in a business school, play a crucial role in organizational excellence and effectiveness, the role of support staff, such as HR personnel, accountants, and librarians, cannot be ignored because they also are crucial to the success of the organization.
An evolving discipline
It is unfortunate that people often take lightly the significance of soft skills. In fact, the concept of soft skills is an evolving domain that people must take seriously; people have to be educated about them.
Whenever a new discipline surfaces, people resist and mostly don't respect it because there is no strong research to substantiate its relevance. However, over a period of time people start accepting and respecting the discipline. For example, there were many people who initially did not take management as a discipline seriously, and expressed their reservations. Today, management as a discipline is a reality, now having a sacred and respectable position like many other disciplines in the world. Similarly, soft skills will evolve as a discipline during the course of time when more research is done.
It is often difficult to quantify soft skills (unlike hard skills), but soft skills are both intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies that determine a person's ability to gel well with others and excel in the corporate world. Penelope Tobin said, "Soft skills are the traits and abilities of attitude and behavior rather than of knowledge or technical aptitude."
Robert Katz outlined three skills needed at each level of management: technical skills, human skills, and conceptual skills. The so-called human skills can be replaced by soft skills, and the need for these skills remains constant at each level of management, even though there is variation in other skills from one level of management to another. There is decreased significance in technical (hard) skills, and increased importance in conceptual skills for all employees. In addition, Ram Charan unveiled the need for technical and business acumen for leaders at all levels.
Soft skills are very much needed in this present world where complexity and uncertainty have become the hallmarks of businesses. They are required of all employees, from the bottom to the top level, to ensure professional success and enhance employee productivity and performance.