Why Are Soft Skills So Hard?

pic trustIt’s common to hear business leaders talk about their skills as a collection of tools that are kept in a toolbox. The idea is that for any job or task, there is a tool or skill that can be used to fix the problem. As high-impact leaders we want to have all the latest tools. We need to be flexible, versatile, up for any challenge, and we want to stay relevant.

Leadership skills typically fall into two buckets: hard and soft. Hard skills are specific abilities that can be defined and measured. Examples of hard skills include: using an Excel spreadsheet, creating a Profit and Loss statement, researching a competitive product. These skills tend to be tangible, repeatable, measurable, and for most people, transferable through education and training.

Read my award winning post on, “Intuitive Leadership” by clicking here.

Soft skills are something different. They are less concrete and more esoteric. Soft skills include: communication, listening, negotiation, conflict resolution, team building, influencing and problem solving. Soft skills are personal attributes that enhance your ability to interact effectively with others. These skills are behavioral competencies and they are hard to quantify. They are also known as interpersonal skills, or people skills.

The development and study of soft skills is fairly recent. Prior to 1980’s, management was predominantly top down, rules based, and autocratic. This changed as companies realized that distributed power led to more creative thinking, increased productivity, and more content employees. In the 1980s, team-based, values-driven organizations appeared. Companies were no longer driven by rules, but by systems and teams. Suddenly, there was a need for leaders who could master soft skills.

Today, many feel soft skills are more important to business leaders than hard skills. Noted psychologist Daniel Coleman states that, “An individual’s ability to manage their relationships with others is twice as important as their intelligence quotient.” Clearly if we look at today’s workplace environment and see the changes due to technology, customer-driven markets, information-based economies and globalization, there is an increased reliance on, and demand for, soft skills. For these reasons, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications.

If soft skills are so important why can’t we just find a way to standardize them so they can be mastered by all? Why do we still see people in the workplace who struggle with interpersonal or people related matters? Why are soft skills so damn hard?

First, as noted above, soft skills are not tangible. They are difficult to quantify and measure. Without a baseline to measure, it’s hard to determine what works and why. This makes it a struggle to build learning and training exercises that traditionally look at measurable best practices.

Second, most of us were educated in systems that only taught hard skills – math, science, history, language. Traditional education did not focus on teaching soft skills. So most soft skills are learned on the job by trial and error. Essentially, we’ve had to learn them the hard way.

Finally, everyone is unique. We have different histories, personalities, mores, ethnic backgrounds, motivation, and values. Because of this diversity there are no one-size-fits-all solutions or models to be utilized when conflict and interpersonal issues arise. Each situation is different; the key is flexibility to judge each situation on its own merits, and offer a creative solution.

So, soft skills are hard to master. But, below are a few suggestions that can help you move forward.

  • Know your personality strengths and weaknesses. There is some science that theorizes that how humans interact with others is driven by their personality type. There are many tools to measure personality such as the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator. A good on-line place to start is HumanMetrics, which offers a free Jung Typology Test. Understanding your personality type can help narrow the focus to areas you can leverage or improve.
  • Watch and listen to others. Find others in your organization who you think have good soft skills. Watch and listen to see how they interact with others. Find out what they are they doing that is successful. Do not be afraid to copy what you feel is working.
  • Ask for feedback from your team. Those around you often have excellent insight into your interpersonal skills. Do not be afraid to ask for input on your actions. This will often win respect from others as it shows you value their opinions and want to improve.
  • Find a coach. Getting honest, productive feedback can be hard. Often it is best to find someone outside your normal channels who can help you identify the areas where you need to focus. Look around at the networking organizations that you belong to – there are usually qualified people willing to coach for little to no cost. PMI offers a free coaching service to its members. Send me an e-mail and I will be happy to provide you with coaching options.
  • Don’t think that soft skills are for weaklings. As high-powered, strong leaders, we often think of soft skills as wimpy. You need to get over this – soft skills are a requirement in today’s organizational environment. They will define your levels of professional success in the future. Spend time understanding and improving your soft skills, or risk becoming a dinosaur.

Employers today highly regard soft skills, because they understand that to get things done, to achieve the company goals, they have to have the right employees in their organization. People with good personal attributes and excellent interpersonal skills are necessary and invaluable to business. Soft skills play a vital role for professional success; they help you to excel in the workplace and their importance cannot be denied in this age of information and knowledge.

Go ahead and open up your leadership toolbox. Do you have the interpersonal skills needed to be a leader in today’s business environment? If not, now is the time for action – now is the time for change!

Read my award winning post on, “Intuitive Leadership” by clicking here.


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Soft Skills and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Why Are Soft Skills So Hard?

  1. Ann says:

    I think that you men see what you call as soft skills as unmanly. Have you done some work with women leaders and both sorts of skills. I would be interested in reading that as well. Thanks, Dale. I am going to take that test you mentioned above.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. My view is from the male perspective as this is what I know and how I see things. I have worked with mnay excellent female leaders and I see more moving into project management roles (more than in the past). I think that the leadership skills (soft & hard) that are needed are the same for females and males – but, I need to think about this a bit more. Actually, this is an great topic to put on my list for a future blog post. Thanks and regards.

  2. Yes developing soft skills on your own is hard. But with interpersonal skills training one can convert his weaknesses into strengths. Learning interpersonal skills can help everyone, even the brightest one among us. This will open up new avenues on how to communicate.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Liviya for reading and taking the time to comment. It is always good to “open new avenues” when it comes to communication. Leveraging strengths is also important – we tend to focus on our weaknesses. Let’s do more of what we do well! Have a great day.

  3. Great Post and I appreciate you for bringing the hard core challenges in practicing the soft skills and how it can be mastered with dedicated training and mentoring

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting. Mastering soft skills takes a lot of work and an open mind. I hope that this message came through in my writing. Thanks again.

  4. Sherry May says:

    i am trying to re-enter the workforce after 25 years at home with children. I have an MPA and worked in Project Management with Westinghouse. One of my greatest assets is my interpersonal skills. In addition to my time out of the job market, I have the problem of not being able to say define job I am seeking. Soft skills are useful in many job situations.
    Any advice?

    • Dale Myers says:


      Raising kids teaches you skills that any employer should want – scheduling, task mgmt, change management, interpersonal skills, etc.

      I am not qualified to offer you suggestions on your quest. I do know that there are a lot of great charities out there who need help and support and might offer you opportunities to further develop your skills. I work with the American Red Cross, and find the experience challenging and rewards. But, it is not for everyone (and obviously there is no pay).

      Look into your network and see who is out there that can help you. Having Westinghouse on your CV is a real positive. Maybe you can reach out to some of your old Westinghouse collegues and see what they suggest. Also, look local (Craigslist), and see if there are any non-profits who offer career counciling. Sometimes you can find a retired exec who gives their time to help others in their careers.

      Let me know how you make out – I wish you luck.


      Dale M.

  5. Hi, Dale –
    I agree with you, like what you had to say; my company’s focus is on exactly that – the development of “soft skills” to enhance retention and revenue in project management. I also agree that many of us end up learning this the hard way – through successful implementations and failed projects, for example. I’m not sure I see this as a male or female issue, as I coach and mentor both equally and find each face the same types of challenges. Great topic, well addressed. Thank you! Devie

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Devie for reading and commenting – I appreciate you taking the time to do so. I am not sure that I see this as a gender issue – need to think it some more. In my career, I have worked with both females and males that are very good with soft skills – and, some that were not so good. It would be interesting to do some research in this area. Anyway, thank you once again. Good day!

  6. Devikap says:

    Good tips. I think soft skills implementation is not at all a gender based skill Personally have worked with both male and female colleagues and seen best and worst of both with regards to soft skills. Thanks for sharing this tips.

    little millennium

  7. EQ training and learning is definitely one of those areas which is very hard, but very worth it. Soft skills can have such a huge impact in different areas of life, especially in the work environment. This why a lot of employers are now looking for skilled workers with high soft skills abilities and are assessing these with assessments.

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