‘Soft Skills’ Leadership

It’s quite common to hear ‘soft skills’ when people talk about managing people, leadership, conflicts, giving direction, listening, speaking…

But are they really ‘soft’? Let me tell a story I experienced over a dozen years ago while working with a client, Texas Instruments.

I was brought in to design and deliver a 5-month program for first-time managers. As you can imagine, it included things like leadership, performance management, DiSC®, teams, etc. It was interactive driven by case studies and group discussions. It was a half-day program each month for a group of 12-15 managers who went through the 5-months together.

Most significantly, it was introduced by the VP of the division (this was a production group in TI).

He attended the kickoff morning session and posed the following question:

“Let’s say that you return to your desk this afternoon and you’re immediately presented with 2 problems.

You only have time, however, to adequately solve 1 of the problems. You know that based on experience.

The first problem is that you have two employees who are arguing and fighting. Not coming to blows, but it is escalating. Words are being exchanged both aggressively and passive-aggressively.

The second problem is that the line has gone down because of the system failure.”

He then went on to ask:

“Which problem would you solve first?”

Invariably, everyone answered the second problem–the line is down. In all the sessions, this was the unanimous answer.

He then asked:

“Why did you choose that one?”

And they would say something like “it’s easier”, “we know how to solve it”, “it’s simpler”, “it has bigger implications for the company and customer”.

He then would say, especially to the responses about it being easier, knowing how to solve it, simpler:

“So it’s easy, ok. What’s the opposite of ‘easy’ or ‘simpler’?”

At this point, someone would say “hard”.

“Bingo”, he would exclaim. “Solving the technical problems is easy.”

“Solving the people problems are ‘hard'”, he would add. Heads would shake around the room in agreement.

And he would then add:

“So why do we say classes like this are ‘soft skills’ when by your own admission, they are harder? Why do we call issues dealing with people ‘soft’ when in fact they are ‘hard’?”

From that moment on, we never used the term ‘soft skills’ in the program. And working with this group was always rewarding–they really wanted to understand people, teams, and especially how they can successfully lead, manage, and coach.

I often use this story in working with clients. It’s an example I’ve found resonates with every client I have–from production and operations to sales and marketing to administration. I’ve found that it applies to my for-profit and my non-profit clients.

Soft skills are hard skills. Sometimes labeling them ‘soft’ implies fuzzy bunny, rainbows, and candy–, trivial, less important, secondary.

Rather, what makes them hard is that people are not machines. People have good days and bad days. People have emotions. Often as this example was debriefed in the program, that’s exactly what the participants said. They would also add that they had more confidence and ease in dealing with the system–they could count on it to react as expected.

So keep this in mind you use the term ‘soft skills’. For all these years, this has been an example which is both instructive and a useful reminder.


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