“Soft Skills” …..It’s time for a mindset shift & refocusing of language

I have been becoming increasingly frustrated at the ‘throw -away’ nature for those most human of skills such as communication, listening, collaboration, problem solving, creativity etc under the phrase ‘soft skills.’

I was reminded of this when listening to the most excellent talk between Kelly Swingler and Vicky Holdworth this evening:

At a time of rising mental health challenges, always on tech and a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, it is more important now than ever that the focus on human skills & human interaction is increased, especially around mental health support.

I have always held such skills in high regard, maybe due to my sales background, maybe as I am just pro-humanity, but whatever the reason, I assert that it is far easier to type numbers into a spreadsheet or to train someone to a set methodology than it is to identify, develop and retain people that espouse such important skills as those mentioned above.

So where did the term ‘soft-skills’ originate from and is it time to move the dial on the language used around these critical skills?  I consulted the oracle Wikipedia:

soft skills.PNG

If we take the above comments at face value, to some extent the myopic focus on technical skills over interpersonal skills could be part of the problem as to why we still see too much of our current organisational design based around hierarchical, more fear-based structures that protect the technicians and those with perceived ‘hard skills.’  Hard skills are more predictable, easier to measure and more controllable.  None of these are valid for more interpersonal skills.

However we only need to look at Enron, Northern Rock and other examples of corporate criminality to realise that if the more human skills of empathy, problem solving and collaboration were a priority, these so called ‘soft’ skills, we may well have avoided such crises.

Also, could this priority focus on technical skills be one factor why HR as a function, tasked with looking after people and those ‘soft skills,’ is so often dismissed as ‘fluffy’?

If those at the top of organisations, often with a myopic focus on metrics, hear the term ‘soft skills’ being banded about, I assume that the value proposition of these such important interpersonal skills holds little weight.

Combine the above reflections with the recent World Economic Forum report that states that the 21st century skills that all students need are as follows and we are at a tipping point I feel:



Are our schools focusing on develop these ‘interpersonal skills’ so that our future leaders are adept in these more social of skills? The answer is not enough from my experience and understanding, but it is changing.

One solution to the identity crisis around humanistic, interpersonal skills as described above is a shift in the language & focus, right throughout work organisations globally.

One such shift I was excited to hear was from Geoff Colvin on the “Lead from the Heart” podcast with Mark Crowley.


Geoff talks about “intense human interaction” as a term to encompass skills such as cultural awareness, problem solving and collaboration.

It is a bit lengthy, but somehow this phrase captures the depth, importance & emphasis on key humanistic skills and I wonder how C-suites would receive a discussion about technical skills on the one hand and intense human interaction skills on the other.

There certainly appears to be more parity in the above example discussion?

This is, I accept, an over-simplified reflection, but language is important and I would be interested in other people views around these reflections.

Is it time to ditch the phrase ‘soft skills’ in favour of something else?  Do you feel it makes any difference at all?

3 thoughts on ““Soft Skills” …..It’s time for a mindset shift & refocusing of language

  1. Garry – this is a great read and something I entirely relate with. In my pursuit to expose the attributes of police and other public services these ‘soft’ skills are ‘bread & butter’ in their day jobs. Its in my instinct use these skills as a human being. Could it be that is what society has forgotten to be. Good humans. It really does make for a good culture that has trust, honesty and integrity.


  2. Interesting observations, I feel exactly the same. We moved away from using soft skills to use professional competencies, but I must admit that finding an alternative was not easy. In fact the one we found not an ideal either. We contemplated to use 21St century skills, but it felt long and cumbersome, and we felt that business wouldn’t know what it is. What are your thoughts? Looking forward.


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