What are Soft Skills and Why Have They Gone Missing?

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This post is part 1 of a two-part series about Soft Skills.

Jeremy was undoubtedly smart. He was gifted with a photographic memory and academically dominated his peers in school. Rather aloof, he made no effort to get to know his teachers or classmates more than necessary. He much preferred to devote his time to playing video games. Life in virtual reality was infinitely easier. It didn’t require social interaction, deep critical thinking, or even arriving on time.

Having no ambition for future endeavors he was unknowingly conditioning himself for life of mediocrity. While it was cozy and convenient to stay secluded in his basement, life was happening outside his door. The missed opportunities of connecting with people and holding himself to increasingly higher standards would turn this kid of remarkable potential into someone easily forgotten.

What this fictional Jeremy had was a complete imbalance of skills sets. While proficient in intellect and quantifiable hard skills, he came up short on soft skills and people skills. While hard skills have their place and are essential (like reading, writing, and arithmetic among other things), soft skills help get us through life. Much like how a hard drive is nonfunctional without software, a person without the necessary soft skills may be equally incomplete.

What are Soft Skills?

There is no universal definition for soft skills. It’s a broad umbrella that includes capabilities ranging from how you measure and present yourself to how you engage with others. It’s all about the people stuff and the use of effort and ingenuity.

A nebulous definition for sure so an easier way to think of them is to recall all the things you were supposed to learn in kindergarten. Things like being kind to others, trying hard, being a good friend, making good choices, being responsible, and figuring things out.

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Deficiency of Soft Skills in the Workplace

For such a fundamental skill set, it’s coming as a big surprise to many employers that more and more employees are lacking such skills. While it’s a varying problem across the board, employers are expressing most concern about recent college grads.

It seems perplexing as many would assume such skills are learned naturally through the socialization in our upbringing. But with the growing evidence of this skill deficiency, employers are becoming dismayed when new hires who look great on paper end up performing poorly on the job.

According to a 2018 study, nearly four in 10 corporations and almost half of academic institutions said new hires lack the soft skills required to perform at a high level on the job. The survey respondents suggest the soft skills deficit is so problematic they believe new hires are ill-prepared to tackle some of the most difficult yet common challenges they will face in today’s workplace.

They cited missing capabilities such as:

  • Communication skills

  • Interpersonal skills and empathy

  • Persistence and perseverance

  • Leadership

  • Creative problem solving

  • Work ethic

  • Critical and analytical thinking

  • Optimism and growth mindset

When fictional Jeremy shows up to his first job out of school, his lack of soft skills is conspicuous. He abhors any collaborative exercise. He would rather instant message or text than have a face-to-face conversation with his boss or peers. He becomes paralyzed when having to critically evaluate a problem and make a decision. Instead of soliciting help or input through brainstorming with colleagues, Jeremy just ignores the problem and hopes it’ll just go away. He feels no shame in disregarding it because he assumes someone else will take care of it.

Why There’s a Deficit of Soft Skills

With such a growing problem, many are asking why we’ve arrived here most recently. An easy answer is to point to the prevalence of technology and how it’s impacting how we relate to one another. While this is a significant factor, it’s not the sole culprit. Many speculate that the American K-12 school system’s intense focus of standardized testing has emphasized hard skills to the exclusion of less quantifiable but equally important people skills.

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Employers are taking notice and pushing back. Employees that lack the fundamentals of emotional intelligence, complex reasoning, negotiation, and persuasion end up harming the business or institution.

Even if the company is selling widgets, it still has to sell these widgets to human beings. Employers are waking up to this new reality and beginning to evaluate employees much more holistically. They are beginning to scrutinize an applicant's interpersonal skills as much as their GPA or work history.

I remember being on the recruiting team when I was in my corporate job. I interviewed both new college graduates and seasoned professionals. While their representation on their resume got them in the door, the final decision came almost instantaneously when we met in person.

Instead of a lengthy interview, I generally had some sense of wanting (or not wanting) to hire the person in under three minutes. It was all about how they presented themselves through their soft skills. What was their body language like? How did they engage me in conversation? What kind of questions did they ask (if they asked any at all)?

How Soft Skills Impact Your Life

The value of soft skills isn’t just about making or breaking your career. They have far wider application throughout your life. Soft skills are the mechanisms that grease the skids of functioning well and enjoyably through life. They add texture and depth to your day-to-day interactions.

They allow you to convince the customer service rep to lower your monthly bill, to figure out and present a solution everyone believes in, or to show honest compassion to your friend when she’s going through a divorce. These are the moments where real life happens.

Using soft skills well signals to those around you that you are capable, personable, reliable, and trustworthy. You show the world that you possess something about you that motivates people to move towards you and not retreat in indifference. They want to be in your social orbit. Can you imagine what upside you would have if you had this effect on others?

Click here for part 2 of this series. In it, I discuss 6 ways you can put soft skills into practice.

In your experience have you seen a noticeable absence of soft skills or people skills? Share some stories!