Are “Soft Skills” Bullsh**?

Depending on who you ask, so-called “soft skills” are either essential to one’s success or are simply the latest cockamamy non-sense to emerge from some HR-Department Head’s fever-dream. So which is it? Are soft skills ineluctably important or patently bullsh**? Let’s have a look and see.

The term “soft skills” emerged — like GPS, the internet, digital photography, and duct tape — from the American military. It should come as no surprise that the military was and is very concerned with the optimal training of individuals and teams. In a 1972 report delivered at an American military training conference, the following definition was born: “soft skills are important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.” The report supplemented this vague definition with a contrastive one: soft skills are different from hard skills. Hard skills are technical skills such as repairing a radio, maintaining an aircraft, or computing the trajectory of a missile. Soft skills, more or less, involve interactions with other people and are domain-general (the same across contexts).

So soft skills were not born of some HR manager throwing darts at nebulous terms in a last-ditch effort to guarantee their relevance. To be a bit overdramatic, identifying soft skills as essential to collaborative performance was a matter of life or death insofar as these capacities make a meaningful difference in the theatre of war. But just because the military coined the phrase doesn't make it real or relevant or even clearly defined

In the more recent past, academic researchers in a number of disciplines have addressed soft skills. Many recognize that soft skills matter for success, but even more take issue with the lack of conceptual clarity or even basic agreement over what “soft skills” refer to. This fuzziness makes it very hard, though not impossible, to measure and test intuitions about soft skills.

In peer-review, soft skills are commonly defined as “interpersonal skills that are linked to emotional intelligence (EQ), such as communication and teamwork (Caudron, 1999; Halfhill & Nielsen, 2007; Shuayto, 2013).” Sometimes soft skills are referred to by other names as personality traits, non-cognitive skills, non-cognitive abilities, character, and socio-emotional skills (Heckman & Kautz 2012).”

In the business world, much like in the military, soft skills are absolutely afforded respect. According to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, Google

“decided to crunch every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. The report shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”

Google is not alone in prizing soft skills for no other reason than it makes a clear difference for their bottom line. Not only do all the other big technology companies value soft skills and actively seek out candidates who demonstrate their mastery, businesses in traditional industries such as GE, Ford, and United Airlines also to value them a great deal.

The military, academia, and business, it would seem, don’t think soft skills are bullsh**.

But “Soft skills” also have their detractors. While mostly limited to petulant blog-posts by individuals who either need a provocative and contrarian headline or who simply don’t want to modify their probably less-than-agreeable behavior, there is no denying that talk of soft skills is often absent from the regular workaday discourse. We are inclined to disregard as trivial or fatuous things about which we are unfamiliar, even more so if it bears upon our own personal conduct and character in a way that might make us change our habits and routines.

Anecdotally, when writing this essay I asked a few friends what they thought about soft skills. Most didn't have a clue what I was even talking about. Those who did had been to business school or had otherwise been initiated into corporate-speak language games. Among these friends, respect for the term “soft skills” was mixed at best.

Soft skills, as I understand them, are not bullsh**. Rather the term is a way of talking about acquired (i.e. learnable) traits and characteristics that inform our interactions in a way that tends to paper-over or occlude the origins, context, and stakes of these ways of conducting oneself.

Comportment, or habitual modes of interpersonal behavior and self-control, is often very closely tied to one’s social background. While the term soft skills is largely absent from sociology, older and more extensive terms that cover similar ground are front and center. For example, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for his concepts of habitus and cultural capital. In combination, these terms refer to the ways in which social class positions become embodied. These class-based ways of going about things manifest themselves in class-stratified tastes, ways of speaking, relationships to one’s body, suppression of certain emotions, and so on, all relative to class and other major social divisions (such as race, ethnicity, and gender). Anthony Giddens, another very well-known sociologist, uses the term socialization to refer — more or less — to the same thing. Historical sociologist Norbert Elias has argued that the move from medieval to courtly society in Europe was basically a long process of training and refining the natural impulses of the aristocracy which he dubbed the civilizing process. I guess we can assume that Louis the IX had mastered soft skills avant la lettre. Concepts such as habitus, socialization, and the civilizing process are, as I seem them, very closely aligned with soft skills but open up the matter to issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and class origins which organizations such as the military or Google would very much prefer go unmentioned.

We could also talk about soft skills in relation to the concepts of ethos, metis, phronesis, and virtue in the work of classical philosophy, but this article is already running long and so I will spare the reader.

In sum, soft skills are not bullsh** but they are a somewhat bowdlerized way of talking about socially acquired human traits and characteristics employed in everyday interactions with a much older and august history. Soft skills detractors are probably suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect whereby those who lack certain skills are often unable to even recognize that fact because they lack the needed self-awareness to do so.

One thing that Bourdieu, Aristotle, Elias, The Military-Industrial-Complex, and Fortune 500 companies can all agree upon is that soft skills are real skills, that like other skills they are acquired through training and practice, and that learning them in the right way early on is more effective and successful than trying to pick them up or ameliorate them later in life.

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