Let’s Nix The “Soft Skills” Label

Ask any coach and you’ll find that the phrase “soft skills” is towards the top of their pet peeve vocabulary list. It certainly is for me. The label is often so dismissive. It assumes the skills we describe as such aren’t difficult, that their impact isn’t measurable in the way “hard skills” are, or that they’re only a nice-to-have. I’ve heard all this and more when discussing such skills.

The reality is: most of the skills people label as “soft” are actually the ones many leaders struggle with the most. There isn’t one right way to lead a team or to be more strategic or to become a more empathetic listener. These are situational and individual in nature. They’re never done. Doing them well requires us to be adaptable and aware.

Contrast those to measurable “hard skills” such as writing software code, interpreting a Profit and Loss statement or doing data analysis. While these functions are challenging, they tend to be more defined. They can be checked off a list. They can even be delegated.

When I contrast things in this way, leaders almost immediately head-nod. Yes, the “soft” skills tend to challenge us more. Further, they can be learned and their impact can be measured. (Topics for another blog post.)

This is why I really appreciated this LinkedIn article published by Pat Riley: it contains “hard” data about the importance of “soft” skills. Mr. Riley is a Venture Capitalist and the blog shares various perspectives on working with startups. In doing so, he shares a study from Crunchbase on why startups fail. While the list certainly contains reasons such as cash-flow and product quality, check out the items below:

“Startups most often go out of business because:

  • 23%: they don’t have the right team
  • 13%: they lose focus
  • 13%: there’s disharmony on their team
  • 9%: they lose their passion
  • 8%: they experience burnout

If you do the math, that’s a full 66% of startup failure due to “soft” issues.”

I’d love to put an end to the “soft” and “hard” labels. If we need to draw contrasts, how about creating some where both sides maintain equal prominence? Some possibilities:

  • Human and Academic
  • EQ and IQ
  • Leadership and Management
  • Motivational and Organizational
  • Relational and Technical

What do you think?

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