Why Do We Call Them “Soft Skills”?

February 7th, 2012 by Celia Young Leave a reply »

Sitting next to a young man on a flight from LAX to New York one day, we automatically opened our greetings with “what do you do for a living?”  He said he worked for one of those big management consulting firms.  When I told him I am an Organization Development Consultant, he twitched his nose a bit and said they did not focus on the “soft side” of their clients business.  Having heard the terms, “soft side” and “soft skills” so many times in the last 26 years, I decided to examine what they really mean.

There seems to be a perception out there that the real business is run on its functionality in Finance, Manufacturing, Engineering, IT, R&D, Sales, etc. These are the hardware of the business like a machine.  It is easier to measure output of a machine but what keeps the machine running is the energy, which is harder to measure. Energy comes from the people. Most business people would agree that the people side of the enterprise is very important to the success of the business. However, they don’t often think of the business as a human system, built with such “software” as organization culture, workplace relations and leadership.  And many of the same business people tend to view the skills that deal with these “software” as “soft skills” and believe these “touchy feely” issues should belong to HR.  “Soft” is certainly not seen as powerful as “hard”.  And we tend not to assign equal value to anything soft.   Many of us privately think that no serious business career ought to focus on the “soft” side of the enterprise.  Yet, historically, these “software” have proven to have the power to either make or break a business.

On one of the many trips I took to Washington DC on client assignments, I found something was not quite right after checking in at my usual hotel and called the front desk for assistance.  The housekeeping staff freshening up the rooms on my floor saw the problem and called the front desk again to suggest that they move me to a different room.  She then followed up with a bottle of wine and a plate of fruits.  I was quite impressed with the actions she took.   I did not think this was part of her job beyond cleaning the room.  When I asked her, she pointed to the big bright orange button on her lapel that said “Customer First”.  She had pride in her smile.  On that same trip, we had a sudden ice storm.  I found out I had locked my keys in the rental car.  By the time the rental car company’s representative came to open the car door for me, there were several inches of the ice and snow already accumulated on top of and all around the car.  The hotel doorman and the valet went out there and help me scrape and shuffle the snow so that I could get in the car.  And they all had the same big buttons on their lapels.

I did not believe this hotel paid their staff more money than other hotels.  And this was not even the most expensive hotel around the area.  So what made the staff so energized to stand behind their slogan?  I believe this had something to do with their organization culture.  Housekeeping staff, the doorman or the valet, just like the company receptionists are the front line or the face of our business.  They can expand or destroy the brand image of our business that took millions of dollars to build.  So the question is:  How does a company make sure its mission and vision are shared all the way to the bottom level of the organization?  And can we ignore this “soft side” of the business?

Another time, my colleagues and I were in a different town to do some executive training for an auto company.  First thing we found out when we got into the training room was that many of the training supplies that they agreed to provide, were not there.  When we inquired, the support staff said they did not have the supplies and we would need to go to the company store and buy them.  When it was time for lunch, we discovered a shortage and asked the kitchen to bring in more food.   The kitchen staff said they were not told that more people had attended the training than planned and did not have enough food to cover the extra attendees. It did not matter that this training class was for members of the top 100 senior management staff, and the kitchen staffs work for their executive dining room.  At three O’clock, the company announced the largest mini-van recall for its history.  Most of the participants had to leave the training to attend to the urgent matter at hand.

So the question is: Was there a direct correlation between how the support and kitchen staff behaved and the product recall on that day?  What made them behave so negatively even in front of the senior staff?  They could not have had this attitude from the first day on the job.  Otherwise the issue has to do with this company’s bad hiring practice.    But not all bad employees are bad “hire”.  Once again it is fair to say that this incident had a lot to do with the organization culture of the client company.  To find out about an organization’s culture, all you need to do is to discover what behaviors are rewarded and what are punished.  A new employee will often find out very quickly after they are on board.

So, what is in the work environment that causes employees to become “apathetic” and “uncommitted”?

Many companies assume people are just soldiers who are supposed to follow orders and do their job.  Many company cultures believe “work” is supposed to be “hard” and the employees are supposed to be self-motivated.  In this kind of culture, when people find out their “hard work” did not get rewarded, they will begin to lose their enthusiasm.

Many managers believe the employees should learn to adapt to the system.  They would even mentor and teach the selected few how the “game” is played.  It is not likely that these types of companies will adjust themselves to the employees.  If a young recruit asks too many questions, and is told to shut up and learn the company way first, he would quickly learn to keep his fresh ideas to himself.  When employees feel their opinions are not valued and their voices are not heard, they would stop caring.  And the company will lose the innovative value of the employees that they spent so much of their resources to hire in the first place.

When employees notice that there are double standards being practiced in the company and leaders are not “walking” their “talk”, they will think the mission and values on the wall are not worth the paper and ink they are printed on.  At that moment, people will begin to sound very cynical.  Cynicism is a very serious contagion that generally kills the spirit of the company.

“Apathy” is not the only hindrance to our business success.  Let us examine the “lack of courage.” Since employees act like good soldiers, they have learned to follow but not challenge the rules.  They learned not to speak up even when they know it is the right thing to do for the company.  Often, they choose to keep their job instead of doing their job.  In addition, managers are reluctant to give real feedback to the employees because they were afraid of dealing with difficult issues or they lack the “soft” skills.  Eventually they end up with mediocre staffs that create mediocre business results.  Finally, senior leaders are not willing to accept feedback, so no one around them will give them any.  Many big decisions at the senior level are made without up-to-date and honest data.  This can have a huge business consequence.  Many companies made merger and acquisition deals that failed and cost thousands of jobs.  These jobs were lost among the employees who were not in the position to impact the fatal decisions.

Since there is no room for truth-telling up and down the chain of command, can you see how the mini-van recall happened?

And, can we afford not to pay any attention to the soft side of the business?

Tom Peters, a popular author and management expert once said, “You cannot treat your customers better than your employees and succeed in business for very long.” Whether you are a superstar because you made a lot of money for your company or you brought in a lot of fame as a brilliant doctor, you cannot succeed without the help of others.  Currently many business schools do not offer more than one or two courses to teach the future managers to be “human”.   These human skills are the so-called “soft skills” required to create a workplace where people are willing to come to work every day and give you 120% of their energy.   This is not rocket science, but it requires all managers to commit to practicing the skills, not just leave it to HR.

On last Thursday night’s panel hosted by Executive Next Practices (ENP), every speaker said the best way to “brand” our business is to express clearly why we are in business and what our passion is.  For Disney, it is about creating the “happiest” place on earth.  While conducting employee focus groups, I often ask the group what keeps them on the job with their current employer. If they could honestly say it was about the company value, not just for a paycheck, I would quietly make three cheers for the client company for getting on the right track to build a positive work culture.

To create an effective human system for business, we must have:

  • – Top level leaders who not only have the vision but who can also turn the rest of the company on with this vision.
  • – Top level leaders who are willing to be the role model for change.
  • – All leaders who are willing to take in feedback and spend more time developing their employees so that they can be freed to think strategically and build the future.
  • – Increased level of trust among teams as well as along the chain of command.
  • – Clear and collective passion as the foundation for business success.

To accomplish all the above, we need soft skills.  To discover if your business culture needs improving, a suggested organization health check list can be found here.

Good luck to all of us, 21th Century business leaders.



Celia Young & Associates, Inc. provides tools and skill sets to transform businesses as human systems.



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