Let’s Just Call it People Skills, OK?

Many of the skills I teach in my keynote speeches have to do with self-awareness, listening skills, communication skills and relationship management. At many companies, these are referred to as “soft skills” and are seen as electives versus hard skills (technical expertise and job-related knowledge), which are often valued more by managers.

The term “soft skills” rankles me because it infers that they are either easy skills or low priority skills to gain. The term was first used in a 1972 US Army training manual and in a subsequent conference later that year. They defined soft skills as: “Important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.”

And that’s where the rub is: ‘Generalized.’ Today most people refer to soft skills as the hard-to-measure type of skills that only have an indirect bearing on most jobs, other than obvious ones like customer service. Otherwise, why would they be considered soft? One dictionary defines soft skills as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge.”

But none of that is true in real practice. Teaching leaders and contributors how to become aware of their current emotional state, how it impacts their metacognition and decision-making and then how to self-regulate all require VERY specific knowledge. Helping people improve their listening skills, emotional recognition capabilities and communication skills require intense levels of acquired knowledge, insights, advice and practice.

So why do I care so much about this? The labels we put on things have an impact on their perceived value and strategic priority in an organization. For so many companies today dealing with disruption, constant change and market pressures need to focus on non-technical skills more than ever. A study by the American Society for Training and Development found that out of $171 billion dollars spent on training that year, only 27% was allotted to soft skills training!

You might think: Yeah, but we need to train employees on task related skills like budget management, pipeline management, coding, quality assurance, etc. While those technical skills are important, consider the following research (which refers to ‘soft skills’):

·     Soft skills training predicts employment, income and advancement as much or MORE than technical skills, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study.

·     An MIT Sloan study which studied performance at a garment manufacturing company across five factories found that soft skills training delivered a whopping 250% return on investment.

·     At Harvard’s Kennedy School, researchers discovered that workers who combine social and technical skills fare best in the modern economy, as measured by a 7.2 percentage point increase in available jobs and a 26 percent wage increase between 1980 and 2012.

These are real numbers, not soft projections. And this is just a small batch of studies I’ve found that demonstrate the true value of non-technical skills for today’s employees and leaders. So, here’s my plea: Let’s replace “soft skills” with People Skills. Because that’s what they are. We can refer to “hard skills” as Technical Skills at the same time. While this might seem like a play on words, I believe, along with Seth GodinShep Hyken and many of my colleagues, the correct label will give the category the respect and prioritization it deserves.

For the last fifteen years of my career on the lecture circuit, I’ve been saying that “People are the next big thing in business.” I’m hoping that we can make People Skills the next big push in hiring, training, development and succession. By helping our employees and teammates improve their EQ, communication skills, collaboration skills and relationship management skills, we not only help them succeed at their current job – we prepare them for a more successful life.

In 1918, research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center concluded that 85% of job success comes from having well‐developed people skills, and only 15% of job success comes from technical skills. Here we are a century later, and this finding has never been truer than it is today. It’s time change our reference, close the People Skills training gap, and prepare our talent for REAL success in our collaborative working environment.