explain to me this thing you call soft skills….

Those words – “soft skills” I hear so often. As a coach and HR Professional working in Leadership Development, I wrinkle up a little more every time I hear this phrase. People skills are not soft skills. Learning how to manage and lead people is not a soft task. It’s not an easy task and even if you do it naturally, there will always be skills that are hard to learn and very difficult to master.

In my career, some of the most difficult things I ever had to do were have tough honest conversations, or provide difficult feedback, or lead someone through change or a crisis, or become the bearer of terrible news, or remove someone from their job, or discipline someone, or be the one who is the very first to tell them they aren’t doing as good a job as they thought, or to be the leader wanting to change culture, or disagree with my boss or, or, or …….

Maybe I should stop there because that already sounds anything but soft to me. These aren’t soft skills perhaps in the way I consider that word soft used. I acknowledge the term is used to indicate that it’s not spreadsheets, data analysis and business development we are doing. Those things are definitely hard. Maybe soft is meant to imply that because its people related, it’s soft? In work terms, being soft can be considered an insult. In sporting terms it’s an insult to be soft. So – the language is just all messed up. In my short stint on the planet, soft people are the thoughtful, caring, sensitive and self-conscious ones. Much the way I’d like all leaders to be. 

Language is so important and I feel like the word soft doesn’t do these Leadership responsibilities any justice. They aren’t easy skills to learn either. I had a bit of a baptism of fire with my leadership skills (as I am sure most people do!) and I learned them without any education or “training”. I was thrust into a really tough job and had to just learn as I went along in the course of my normal working day running a business. Because that’s what we expect from our leaders right? That they show their skills, whatever texture – in the way they lead their teams. 

There is nothing soft about any of the skills we need, to do the work I talk about here. Soft skills insults the very tough, real life, day to day human tasks of leading people. Of being a role model and of calling out the hard stuff. It’s true, they are skills like any other, but calling them soft to me implies they are easy. They aren’t. 

If anyone has a better term, please let’s start having that conversation! 

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