by Dustie Mercer, Vice President of Student Journey, Eleven Fifty Academy
Does anyone else out there dislike words at times? I especially dislike them when Merriam-Webster has over 25 definitions for a single word that, when interchanged, can completely alter the meaning of a statement or phrase. Such as, with the word “soft.”
Things that are soft have their place and time—a soft pillow, soft music, hey, even a soft drink if you’re old school. But when it comes to the workplace, to be seen as soft historically has been viewed as lacking firmness or strength of character (that’s definition 8.c according to Merriam Webster.) That’s why most of us don’t want to be seen as soft, no matter what industry we’re in.
And that’s why the term “soft skills” has come to bother me so much. It’s not just inaccurate—it’s holding us back on a cultural level from being better humans.
It surprised me to learn that the concept of “soft skills” started with the US military. As interaction with machines became important for soldiers in the 1960s and 70s, the military needed a way to distinguish between technical skills and non-technical skills.
This wasn’t because they wanted to prioritize the technical skills.
It was because they realized no matter how good a job they did at training soldiers to use the machines, the success of a mission depended on leadership, communication, and organization—aka, “soft skills.”
Let me repeat that: the idea of soft skills was created not because they are less important than hard skills—but because they are more important.
But of course, you probably don’t need me to tell you that this insight isn’t really part of the way we think about abilities like communication, collaboration, and compromise in the workplace today. In fact, a toxic problem across industries today is that those with “hard skills” in engineering, coding, math, science, mechanics, and so on, don’t think that soft skills are important for them to learn. I have personally met people across multiple industries, sometimes entire workplaces or departments, where they think that because their technical abilities are so valuable, they don’t have to be worried about being good communicators, being kind, or showing up as a collaborator.
Isn’t this just so misguided? That because someone is good at something technical, it isn’t important if they know how to talk or work with another person? Yet it’s true—and it’s perpetuated, and allowed, and sometimes even celebrated.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the industries where hard skills are prized are male-dominated. Can you imagine if a nurse, or a teacher, decided that their technical abilities were so awesome that they didn’t need to be polite, or a good communicator? For women, soft skills must always be present, even when hard skills also have to be twice as strong to be appreciated. One might wonder if the requirement to compromise, listen, adapt, and support others was delegated to women in the workplace, while men were encouraged to develop their technical prowess and ignore the “soft” things.
Here we have circled back to the connotations of the word “soft.” It not only hasn’t been rewarded for men to be seen as “soft” or “kind” in the workplace, it’s often been outright discouraged. This isn’t anyone’s fault. But it is our responsibility to step up and change.
Calling our leadership qualities and interpersonal skills “soft skills” creates an extra barrier. The word “soft” prevents some people from understanding these skills are about being the best human beings we can be. On the flip side, it means others are trapped in practicing only soft skills, denied the ability to grow their technical capacity because they are just so good at communicating or organization that their other abilities are devalued.
Before you start thinking I’m a linguistic genius who figured all this out myself, I’ll tell you that my awareness of this issue was actually brought about somewhat embarrassingly. At a conference I approached a speaker who I had really admired and asked her for advice about marketing soft skills via email. Instead of getting excited, she quickly and emphatically expressed her disdain for the term “soft skills” which she believed devalued the skills.
“I really dislike this idea that interpersonal skills are soft,” she said. She went on to share a little of her experience of the bias that only women in the workplace are required to be good communicators. Since then, I haven’t been able to un-see it: every time I’ve been told “software engineers don’t talk to anyone,” or “mechanics don’t like to explain themselves,” I get more and more disappointed about how often we just allow these biases to persist.
So, I’m issuing the call to change the way we talk about soft skills, or as they should be called, essential skills. Soft skills aren’t just skills that are essential to some people’s success in the workplace, while others can choose to ignore them. These skills are essential to success as a functional adult human.
Awareness many times serves as a catalyst for self-development, and for that reason Eleven Fifty Academy is partnering with Purpose HQ to provide coaching and training for both our career coaches and students. This involves providing personalized behavior profiles and job readiness reports that include essential skills at the forefront.
We believe it’s our duty to provide these valuable personal insights as part of the launch process of not just a career in tech, but a life transformation.
Everyone needs to be able to communicate. Everyone needs to be able to adapt and be flexible. Everyone needs integrity and honesty. Everyone needs work ethic, the ability to compromise, a positive attitude, and the capacity for time management. And these are just some examples of essential skills that have long been considered soft.
We need these skills because even the most technical of roles ultimately involves a human doing the work and working with others. The experience of life is a soft experience. To change the way we think about what it means to be human, we have to change the way we talk about it first.