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Let's stop calling them soft skills


Are you good at your job?

Different, easier question:

Was Ty Cobb good at baseball?

The apocryphal story is that Ty Cobb was a jerk. His teammates didn’t like him very much. But he’s still in the Hall of Fame. That’s because baseball keeps score… of hits, of runs and of catches.

What about your job? It’s probably a bit more complex.

There are linchpins, people who don’t shirk responsibility when the chips are down.

And, among others, there are connectors, people with insights, folks who never seem to lose hope.

Your company is staffed with people who can’t possibly be rated on a linear scale, because you’re not baseball players.

You are managers and inventors and leaders and promise-makers and supporters and bureaucrats and detail-oriented factotums.

And yet…

And yet we persist in hiring and training as if we’re a baseball team, as if easily defined skills are all that matter.

What causes successful organizations to fail? Stocks to fade, innovations to slow, customers to jump ship?

We can agree that certain focused skills are essential.

That hiring coders who can’t code, salespeople who can’t sell or architects who can’t architect is a short road to failure.

These skills — let’s call them vocational skills — have become the backbone of the HR process.

But how to explain that similar organizations with similarly vocationally-skilled people find themselves with very different outcomes?

By misdefining ‘vocational’ and focusing on the apparently essential skills, we’ve diminished the value of the skills that actually matter.

Most of the textbooks business students experience and the tests business students take are about these vocational skills, the checkboxes that have to be checked.

But we give too little respect to the other skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional.

It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.

Culture defeats strategy, every time.

And yet…

Organizations spend a ton of time measuring the vocational skills, because they can. Because there’s a hundred years of history. And mostly, because it’s safe. It’s not personal, it’s business.

We know how to measure typing speed. We have a lot more trouble measuring passion or commitment.

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