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“Soft” Skills By Any Other Name

Let's stop calling it soft skills
Written by Summer Salomonsen

My daughter is a force. She is determined, insightful, intelligent, and funny. But more often than not, when new people meet her, they opt to say some variation of “Don’t you look pretty.” I’ve experienced more than one proud moment in which my daughter looked up at me, imploring, as if to say “I don’t know what to say to that.” Because she is much more interested in talking about her new monster truck, riding her bike fast-fast, or learning to identify and sound-out words. Because my daughter, in all her complexity, is not singularly defined as pretty – that’s just a word people say because, well, it’s just a word they’ve always said. People might mean it as a compliment, but that one word becomes a one-sided, undescriptive, and superficial descriptor of who she really is.

Similarly, learning practitioners struggle with their own pretty when it comes to what the industry refers to as soft skills. Search the phrase “why are they called soft skills” and you’ll find any number of articles, blog posts, and tirades questioning the rationale of this term. A remnant of a bygone era, these skills were called soft in comparison to the hard and tactile skills of factory workers, machinists, etc. But these words have gained more complex attributions in the interim years, with the terms soft and hard aligning more readily to descriptors of feminine and masculine constructs. Put simply, it has become a gendered term. And it’s incumbent upon us to give it a more appropriate name. Why? Because words matter. And more importantly, what we call things matters. By calling these critical skills soft we are, at best, identifying them as female-only skill-sets, and, at worst, minimizing them as “nice to haves” or “second tier” skill-sets.

We know these skills aren’t inherently soft, but we struggle to assign the appropriate nomenclature and we also don’t know how to shift the conversation to focus on their impact and importance. So, what are the skills at the heart of this soft skills conundrum? These are the people skills, the human skills, the professional skills. These are the influence without authority skills. The design thinking and problem solving skills. The building inclusive team skills. Basically, soft skills are what all employees need to be successful in the modern workplace.

This challenge hearkens up a timeless passage from Romeo & Juliet, brilliantly posed by the word master himself, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In this monologue, a naive Juliet ponders her own challenge of loving the son of her arch enemy. She muses that if she were to call him something else, perhaps her trials would disappear. To Juliet, the only thing standing in the way of love is Romeo’s name. But, of course, Shakespeare is joking. Because we know that calling something by a different name doesn’t make it different. But what if that thing was misnamed from the start?

Indeed, “What’s in a name?” Well, if you ask Shakespeare, a lot, actually. As long as we persist in misnaming the most critical skills of the modern workplace, we miss the point entirely, and we risk misleading an entire generation of employees in believing that these skills, these soft skills, are unimportant. Like the word “pretty,” when we use the word “soft” we’re misrepresenting what these skills really are.

So how about this. Let’s call a rose a rose. Instead of soft, how about… Interpersonal. Cross-Functional. Professional. Pick a word, but let it be truly reflective of the skill-sets to which you refer.

At Grovo, we’re dedicated to building a best-in-class library of lessons that helps everyone thrive in their jobs. Take a look at our Microlearning® Library Datasheet to learn more, and to see how you can help your team build their interpersonal, cross-functional, professional, and just plain essential skills.