How Are Soft Skills Soft?

It’s now common to hear org leaders stressing the importance of “soft skills.”

This is good, of course, but also a little odd. How did this end up becoming something that ever needs stressing?

Part of the problem might be the term itself, which comes from the U.S. Army; and, more to the point, probably doesn’t mean quite what you think it does.

A little history: FORSCOM (the United States Army Forces Command) used to be CONARC (the Continental Army Command). The term “soft skills” comes from CONARC’s CON Reg 350–100–1, which defined them as, “job related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper.”

Wait a minute — people and…paper?

That’s right. “Soft skills” are skills that are not about operating machines. They’re “soft,” as in, “not a hammer.”

This casts a slightly different light on the term, doesn’t it?

For example, is designing a bridge a hard or soft skill? Most today would probably say “hard,” but only because we tend to associate soft skills with things like “emotional intelligence” (or just not being an asshole).

According to CONARC’s own definition, however, “designing bridge structures” is one of the stated examples of a “soft skill,” along with inspecting troops, supervising personnel, and conducting a study.

In 1972, CONARC held the Soft Skills Training Conference with the stated purpose of “fostering an extensive interchange…regarding approaches to the system engineering of soft skill training.” (You can see the conference report here.)

The report begins with a survey conducted by Dr. P.G. Whitmore to explore the use of the term. He asked judges to rate job functions on different variables, including the degree of interaction with a machine, the degree of specificity of the behavior to be performed, and whether the job function takes place in established (known) or emergent (unknown) conditions.

Though Whitmore had included the job function of “Interprets and Uses a Military Map” as an example of a hard skill, most judges disagreed. After all, paper isn’t “hard.” There is also an irony in leaders acquiescing that soft skills matter when leadership itself was, from the beginning, always considered a “soft skill.”

In Whitmore’s verbiage, a leader is a “people operator.” People operators have a handicap “not imposed on machine operators.” Directing human activity toward achieving goals is a vaguer process than operating a machine, though both, according to Whitmore, fall under the same process of systems engineering.

To this end, Whitmore makes it clear he prefers a behavioristic approach: A leader must reinforce productive behaviors, minimize the inadvertent reinforcement of counterproductive behaviors, as well as “minimize aversive conditions in the environment.”

Again, that’s quite different from how we today think of “soft skills.”

Another section, by Dr. Gerald Nadler, describes how conferees were arranged into working groups, with conference presenters appearing at each group for Q&A. Interestingly, he reports, the conferees concluded that the distinction between hard and soft skills isn’t useful.

As the report states, “a majority of the groups concluded that no distinction should be made between hard skills and soft skills and recommended that the term ‘soft skills’ be eliminated from systems engineering terminology.”

That was 1972. Fast forward almost 50 years(!) to today.

Most of us who don’t know anything about systems engineering still hear an awful lot about “soft skills,” though now in a different context. For my own part, I agree with the attendees of the Army’s first soft skills conference: The term should just be dropped.

It’s loaded with connotations that lead to it being undervalued, and there is a high cost to ignoring this. Promoting people with high technical skills and low people skills is a costly move.

After all, to lead, to inspire, to motivate, to facilitate, are all “soft skills,” and yet what’s harder? Operating a machine is easy by comparison, which was actually more the original point of the term.

Consider research on employee motivation (see Primed to Perform by Doshi and McGregor). The main determining factor in “total motivation” (ToMo) is the extent to which people feel work is synonymous with play—something that likely has high overlap with people’s “soft skills” at work.

Consider also leaders today stressing the importance of org culture, while ignoring that leadership “soft skills” are largely what sets culture in the first place. (As Nate Regier says, leaders in drama create cultures of drama.)

Or consider business strategy. The decisions businesses make to solve problems are design decisions (whether framed that way or not.) One of the main obstacles to good design decisions is org politics, best surmounted via expert facilitation—all “soft skills.”

Sadly, though its history in systems engineering is today unknown by most, the loaded term of “soft skills” remains, implying to many such skills are not as critical, important, or necessary, that they’re “not masculine,” or “not scientific,” or “not pertinent to the bottom line.”

All false and costly.

Maybe it’s time we just stopped using the term.

Until next time.

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