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Why We Need to Nix the ‘Soft Skills’ Label

Soft Skills

In the workplace we liberally use the terms ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills’ and acknowledge that we need both 

Think of hard skills as technical or tactical mastery and proficiency, and soft skills as relational abilities that enable us to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.  

If we are being honest, hard skills continue to be valued and prized over soft skills. Workplaces recognize and reward hard skills whereas soft skills are rarely highlighted or celebrated.  We demand technical proficiency in a craft, yet tolerate bad behaviour, inept leadership and toxic cultures – which all point to a lack of soft skills.   

Why is that?  

I think it has a lot to do with the word we use to describe these skills and our perceptions around them. Soft is the antonym to hard. Soft skills are often associated with feminine qualities and emotions, and are perceived as the less important skills that are overlooked as strengths and, sadly, are often seen as weaknesses.  As such, they are diminished and relegated to second class citizens in the skills world. I mean, who wants to have soft skills when you can have hard skills?  

But that thinking is binary. It isn’t an either/or tradeoff We don’t choose a restaurant for either delicious food (hard skills) or excellent service (soft skills); we want and expect both, and typically will likely be more loyal to the restaurant that has the better service (Review our last blog on the tyranny of the OR and the genius of the AND).   

To prioritize the non-human components (technical skills) over the human components (soft skills) misses the point that work is a human experienceNothing happens without people. People drive results. And people are complex. That’s why we must value and elevate the soft skills and demand proficiency in them, like we do with technical skills.   

And let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills and instead call them what they are — relational skills.  

What are relational skills?   

A study undertaken by Boostrs, a data-science company, identified a set of 38 soft skills which are most frequently encountered in job postings.  And 90% of those 850,000 job postings required several of them. 

They defined these skills as including both personal skills (i.e., autonomy, adaptability, initiative) and interpersonal skills (i.e., managing conflict, relationship building, negotiation). They are generally not job specific and they are traditionally not formally taught in the education system.   

At Fluency, we define them as the human-centric skills. They are the skills that require leaders to build personal connections, show up as authentic, and elevate people to action or new understanding.   

The best results are created through relationships 

Technical skills may have gotten us here, but if we want to lead, they won’t get us there.   

Mastering relational skills is key to leadership and organizational success because relationships built on trust play the central role in organization and team performance and results. 

Since organizations are so interconnected, every outcome relies on the ability to work well with others. Mismanagement of relationships create the greatest cost to organizations. Conflict impacts leaders, teams and individuals, and frequently is the underlying cause of the most challenging issues that arise in today’s work environments. Studies show that more than 65 percent of performance issues result from strained relationships – up, down and across the organization. As leaders, we can improve trust, relationships and reduce stress and conflict by applying those human-centric relational skills.    

Three places to start developing your relational skills  

Relational skills have never been more important to leadersWhile there are many relational skills to master, in our blog “Are you Ready for the New Language of Leadership? we highlight five core fluencies (skills) that future-ready, humancentric leaders need to embrace and learn to successfully navigate the new landscape.  

In this article, we highlight three of the more relationaloriented skills that we believe are essential for the evolved leader to embrace. 

Coach MindsetMore than ever, leaders need their people to be more independent, self-reliant and self-motivated. And people need their leaders to empower them and hold them capable to solve problems and learn.  This skill invites us to develop our curiosity and listening muscles and ask powerful questions to unlock learning, capacity and resilience within teams, creating cultures that thrive and grow, and developing future leaders.  

Communication:  In a distributed world, leaders must be skilled and constantly investing in communication to engage their teams, provide context to change, instill confidence, and inspire performance.  To build and earn trust, future-forward leaders need to communicate frequently and authentically, and cultivate presence and be present across all mediums and at all times. 

EmpathyNow is the time leaders need to tap into their humanity, vulnerability and humility. The ability to be intuitive, see things from the perspective of others, ask powerful questions, and deeply connect with people are now table stakes to leading remotely in a distributed and disrupted worldThat’s how we build trust and relationships and ultimately succeed as leaders. 

The so-called soft skills are the hardest to do 

Here’s the irony. Relational skills  the so-called soft skills — are the hardest skills to masterThey are tough to learn, instill, navigate and sustain. They require self-awareness, new perspectives, vulnerability, courage and practice.   

And we avoid what’s hard. It is easier to lean into the familiar confines of technical proficiency than feel exposed and unsure as we develop our relational skills.  Yet these are the skills that will define how you lead and succeed.   

  1. What would change for you and others if you had the difficult conversations you needed to have?   
  2. What results would you achieve if your team trusted each other and took accountability for results?  
  3. What would having a team that could solve more of their own challenges do for you? What would it do for the people you lead? 
  4. Where would your team say you have a presence through communication? What are you missing?   

How do we develop proficiency and mastery in relational skills and become that future-readyhuman-centric leader we strive to be? We step outside of our comfort zone, lean into learningseek out feedback and intentionally build new skillsbehaviours and practices.  

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