Why Do We Give "Soft Skills" Such a Bad Name?

Carly Simon: You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you ….

People give a person’s soft skills a bad name – soft skills. People don’t underperform because of their lack of technical skills, they underperform because of their lack of soft skills.

It’s best to make this point with a story. Around mid-2012, a senior engineering executive from a company you know well, called me with a proposition. While he liked our full interview training course, he felt his team had already aced the technical assessment, so this part wasn’t necessary. Instead he wanted a two-hour course on how to assess soft skills. He then went on to tell me that final candidates spent a full day on site with multiple interviewers assessing a variety of technically-related skills. At the end of the day, the hiring manager would spend the final 45 minutes assessing soft skills. They wanted to make sure they got this part right, that’s why he wanted the two-hour course.

I then asked these few questions:

Do you consider the following soft skills? (I had already put this list on the whiteboard)

  • getting work consistently done on time at high quality
  • collaborating with cross-functional groups on major projects working towards deadlines and making technical compromises
  • making presentations to customers, company executives and/or those in other functions
  • persuading others to consider different technical points of view
  • appreciating the end-user's perspective from a usability and design viewpoint
  • coaching and being coached on technical and non-technical matters
  • taking direction from project managers in a matrix environment
  • being able to work for a variety of different managers each with their own unique style
  • being flexible, handling rapidly changing design requirements, and still hitting deadlines
  • making tough technical and non-technical decisions with limited information and often dealing with ambiguity
  • challenging conventional wisdom and authority
  • helping team members who are struggling
  • taking over without being told on a project that's in trouble
  • managing multiple projects to a timeline
  • meeting budget restraints
  • being able to prioritize with little direction

The answer was a resounding yes, yes, yes, followed by a hardy “that’s exactly what we’re looking for! And that's why we need the training."

But that was only the first question. Some others:

Do more people underperform at your company because of a lack of these “soft skills” or their technical skills? He said their soft skills, that’s why we need to get better at measuring them.

Do people with strong technical skills sometimes feel that their jobs aren’t as technically challenging as they had expected? As a result, does this cause dissatisfaction? He said yes and yes, but I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the unstated suggestion that maybe they didn’t need to hire people far more brilliant than the job required.

Do your best managers have the best soft skills, and are these people also your best techies? He pondered this one for a few minutes and then answered yes to part 1 and no to part 2. A this point, I knew I had him, or at least thought I did.

Do you think you might have excluded some very good technical people who have great “soft skills” because the were filtered out too soon since they didn’t meet your company’s benchmark for technical brilliance? These are the people who would have become your best managers. He scratched his head, and refused to answer this question, but the look in his eye was a definite “oops!”

Given all of this, why do you spend 5-6 hours measuring technical skills and only 45 minutes measuring “soft skills” when soft skills seem to be more important? He didn’t hesitate and said, “because this is the way it’s done here, and we’re not about to change. Furthermore, because we know it’s so important that’s why we want you to develop a 2-hour course to help us accurately measure soft skills.”

I did gain a few concessions though. First, I suggested let’s not call them “soft skills,” since this categorization minimizes their importance. Instead, let’s call them “non-technical skills.” He tepidly agreed. Second, let’s imbed some of these non-technical skills assessments into the technical assessments. He agreed to this, too. Third, I suggested that it might be a good idea to measure these soft skills in one of the earlier interviews, rather than leave their assessment to the last interview of the day. This way potentially great managers wouldn’t be inadvertently excluded. He thought this was a great idea, but didn’t think he could pull it off. Last, why not spend at least two hours assessing these critical non-technical skills instead of just 45 minutes. He said he’d think about this.

Finally, I said I didn’t think everything could be covered in a two-hour course, I’d need at least 3-4 hours. He said he couldn’t budge on this one. A week later I reluctantly agreed to conduct the course in two hours and he reluctantly agreed to increase the time spent measuring non-technical skills to an hour and 15 minutes, but still at the end of the day. I considered this a complete failure of my soft skills, he considered it a huge win.

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you ….

Note: Sign-up for our newsletter (upper left corner) and/or stay tuned for Part 2 (later this week) describing what happened during the actual class. It started out by having everyone answer the The Most Important Interview Question of All Time. Here's a link to the full program if you need to measure someone's non-technical skills this week.

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Lou Adler's (@LouA) newest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, has just been published. It's written for hiring managers, recruiters and job-seekers. Lou is also the author of the Amazon best-selling author, Hire With Your Head (Wiley, 2007) and the award-winning audio program Talent Rules! (Nightingale Conant). You might want to join Lou's LinkedIn group to discuss this and related hiring issues.

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