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Can we stop calling them “soft” skills?

By Benedita Sampaio Nunes

Awareness, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, courage, patience, communication through writing and speaking, the capacity to listen, emotional intelligence in general, creativity, work ethic, organization, collaboration, dealing with a crisis…

As opposed to “hard skills”, these skills are intangible and difficult to measure and train, but can we really call them “soft”?

Here’s the problem: the word “soft” diminishes the value of these essential skills by making them sound like they’re accessories, weaker than hard skills, easy to acquire, or “nice to have.” The truth is, they are crucial, especially in the long-run. It only takes a few years in the job market to understand that the most challenging part of any job is using interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to communicate effectively. The workings of interpersonal relationships are complex and their impact is far reaching within the organization. For as long as we treat them as having less importance than the so-called “hard” skills, it will be hard for organizations to move forward.

The global crisis that the world is going through has been the opportunity for many leaders to sit back and ask themselves what leadership is really about. The conclusion is that the most fundamental dimension of leadership is: making a positive difference in people’s lives. While having to revisit the core meaning of leadership has helped shed new light on “soft” skills and their role in empowering leaders to navigate times of crisis, and while the pandemic has opened everyone’s eyes to the importance of mental health at the workplace, it saddens me a to think that without COVID-19 this global conversation on mental health, emotional intelligence, and crucial leadership skills such vulnerability, empathy and compassion, wouldn’t be taking place, at least not with it its current depth and dimension. Do we really need to go through such devastating experiences before we act on what (most of the time) our intuition is already telling us?

All the studies by the most reputable entities and institutions are already out there, showing that leaders with “soft” skills like compassion perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement by their teams, especially during a crisis. What does it take to give this matter its due importance, not during a specific moment, but all the time? Reading carefully the conclusions of the existing studies could be a good place to start… Changing the terminology with a view to elevate everyone’s awareness about these skills’ ripple effects and far-reaching impacts throughout the organization could be the next step.

Let’s build work ecosystems and cultures that are truly sustainable and bring out the best in everyone. Let’s do it now and let’s do it well, there is no doubt it’s worth it.