Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham explain what soft skills are, using powerful examples from business. 

Bob Graham ‘0:22’: We’re going to explain what soft skills are in general, and explain them in a way that gives people a better understanding. Let’s start with the big question first. Why soft skills now?

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘0:58’: We know from our research that soft skills go back almost 50 years. So they are not new. But what is new is, we are in a hyper-competitive market now, where technology and globalization have saturated how we do business. The speed of change if you are working at Apple, SAP or a company like that, is greater. The hyper-competitive world is hitting all of us, from a small business up to a global corporations.   The environment we work in is different. Then, within our organizations we are facing a multi-generational workforce; the people we work with and the way we work are different.

Where Soft Skill Are Affecting Small Business

Graham ‘2:03’: Give me an example or situation where soft skills are playing a role with a small business?

Porterfield ‘2:09’: We know even the term small business can a landmine, because we can be talking about a hardware store or some other business with 3-5 employees up to a small company with 100 or 150 employees. But those soft skills still come into play. We’re in an environment where we have to be able communicate with our customer, we have to be able to listen, we have to be able to respond to changes in the marketplace.

Graham ‘2:47’: That makes sense. I have certainly seen that in my own small business. Things change, customers change. You have ownership changes; you have management changes, or even you have companies that change their focus like overnight. One day they are doing A and the next day they are doing B. It’s the soft skills that really allow us to adapt to those things.

Porterfield ‘6:04’: I think you make a great point. We are involved in a virtual world.

What Soft Skills Really Are

Porterfield ‘3:23’: We are throwing around the term “soft skills” and most people are familiar with it it.   Our argument is that soft skills are what make us responsive and allow our organizations to not be complacent in the face of all of these changes going on in our hyper-competitive business world.

Is Soft Skills The Right Phrase?

Porterfield ‘3:43’: Soft skills can be a challenging term. We have had people respond to us, Don’t even use that term. Don’t even call them soft skills because it makes them seem second class. IT makes them sound unimportant. Use critical skills, communication skills, managerial skills, and I know there are a lot of other terms out there.  

Graham ‘4:14’: Non-technical skills is a term we see a lot in literature.

Contrasting Soft Skills with Technical Skills

Porterfield ‘4:19’: These soft skills are not your technical skills. For a marketing person, those technical skills might be understanding the message and how to take that message out to the market, how to develop that message.

Graham ‘4:40’: The tools that you would use, whether you would send out a press release and other types of specific things that you can put your finger on.

Porterfield ‘4:50’: If you were an architect or an engineer, those hard skills or technical skills become more obvious because I need to understand tension strengths and all kinds of other technical details of my work. So then, you might say the soft skills are everything else.   But I like to use a working definition that soft skills are the portfolio of skills that allow us to work or operate within the context of an organization.   The soft skills are the glue that allows us to move those technical skills into the marketplace.

Graham ‘5:31’: Soft skills allow us also to work with other organizations. I might go to professional seminars or events, get involved in networking, or interact with others who do what I do. I start talking to people and we might develop partnerships or we might do other things together.

So soft skills are not just confined to my company; soft skills can be used with the world at-large.  

Porterfield ‘6:04’: I think you make a great point. I use that term organizations, but we are in a virtual world these days where our organization is not bound to the four walls we sit within. It’s our customers, our suppliers, that whole microcosm that we operate in, everyone we interact with, and soft skills are what make it possible for us to work within that context.

Finding 50 Different Soft Skills

Graham ‘6:20’:  Can you name more of the soft skills so we can start putting our finger on them?

Porterfield ‘6:39’: When we started on his project a couple years ago, we found that soft skills are a lot of different things. When we dug through research on soft skills, we found over 50 different specific items that are defined as soft skills. That runs the gamut, everything from what I would call a personal or very close soft skills like loyalty, perseverance and listening skills, things that are really unique and individual to the person. Then we can go out from there to talk about soft skills that help us interact with other people like conflict management, written and oral communication, and at the higher level, things like change management, leadership and project management, teamwork, to work with ambiguity. That list we have is pretty extensive, and that takes something like soft skills, where most people are familiar with the term, and it starts to really granulate it. What are those soft skills? Have I developed those soft skills? Do I need those soft skills in a particular situation? That’s what’s really important.

We have to ask ourselves, what are those soft skills, which ones do I have and which ones do I need to be successful?   

Graham ‘8:10’: You are very kind to say that we did that research when you did most of it. But I remember when we had breakfast and you brought that list to me and it was over 50. I was prepared for 15 or 20 soft skills, and it was over 50. And we immediately started talking about how it was overwhelming to be dealing with 50 soft skills. The thing we are trying to do and our research is really showing this is that we are trying to define those soft skills in groupings that will lead us to better clarity and better opportunities to employ them.

Porterfield ‘8:57’: We don’t want that large array of soft skills to make people feel overwhelmed and say I am just not going to deal with it. That’s not the case. We have to deal with them, to identify them and really to develop them, and when necessary, to hire to fill those gaps in our organization. But we need to dig in and deal with soft skills.

Graham ‘9:36’: That’s a lot of why we are doing this podcast. We want people to be able to learn with us and share with us as we work through soft skills and what they mean to career development and our organizations. I look forward to a community of discovery that allows us all to get better at using soft skills because it’s really important. We keep saying it, because it’s true.

Soft skills are the key to the future of organizations.  

Graham ’10:10′: Let’s talk about what technical skills are so we can make that strong contrast with soft skills.

Porterfield ’10:15′: The place to start is nearly 50 years ago when Fry and Whitmore confirmed that we use soft skills. Fry and Whitmore did an ingenious thing. They looked at the operations of a soldier and said hard skills are those skills that relate to working with machines — the technical aspects of working with artillery, weapons and the like. They are skills that members of the military must have in order to do what they do. They very clearly said those are those technical skills.  And then for us, they coined that term “soft skills.” They said everything else — how we manage people, how we have loyalty, how we work together as a team — those are soft skills. They kind of teed it up for us.

Graham ’11:38′: We should mention that they used the phrase “hard skills” for what people do while working with machines. What gets lost often is that there is a clear difference between what we call technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills versus soft skills seems disingenuous and puts soft skills in the subservient role, when they thought of it more as hard skills and soft skills, with hard skills being the things you do with a machine, which is kind of technical, especially when you think of the military, that really tactical stuff, and soft skills being the people stuff. I was floored when we found this, because those guys were way ahead of their time. Here we are 50 years later and everything is technology, everything this computer-driven, and we have gotten so many routine tasks being done by computers and software, and for them to see 50 years ago that we were going to be in this place where I would have a computer in my pocket that I could communicate with is just staggering to me. And it speaks to how long it has taken for us to sort of accept as a society the role of soft skills. It has been almost 50 years and that’s a long time, and that’s a long time when you think about it, for something to evolve. But it’s not like these guys thought about it and no one else did for the last 50 years.

Porterfield ’13:25′: You make a good point that we suddenly didn’t jump 50 years to where we are right now with soft skills and suddenly we have this big lens to look at them with. There were a lot of other key steps and the next big one was in the 1988 when Porter and McCubbin, other researchers, were looking at education and all these technical skills. But in order for graduates to succeed today, they need soft skills. They caused us to rethink how we do MBA education, in particular, and curriculum was put together. They were a big wake-up call to the academic world. The next big point was the discussion of emotional intelligence in the late 1990s. Books came out at a time when people were ready to understand what’s going on with competitiveness, why aren’t our businesses as successful as we want them to be. Daniel Goleman came out with a series of books that everyone read. The message he was giving was we need to understand our emotions, our drivers. We also need to be aware of and sensitive to those same aspects of the people we work with. Goleman really opened our eyes to these soft areas of not just what’s your latest innovation, what’s your latest product you are going to launch, but how do I integrate with these people to successfully launch a product. So emotional intelligence is part of the overall portfolio of soft skills. Goleman really woke us all up to its importance and got it into the discussion.

What’s Going On With Soft Skills Now?

Graham ’15:34′: Has there been anything going on with soft skills since that time, which was the late 1990s? That’s like a 20-year gap. Did we go to sleep and wake up like a cicada to the importance of soft skills today?

Porterfield ’15:44′: That’s what we found we had to dig through all of these studies, and there were lots of studies done in the last 20 years on soft skills — surveys, research and case studies that started to unwrap soft skills. But what we found was that people were pecking away at it. They were saying these non-technical things are out there, but what are they and how do we use them. We have seen some research into child psychology that really looks at how a child develops those abilities to interact with others, to persevere, to make ethical decisions carries all the way through to our adulthood and our work. But the research is a little compartmentalized. Our effort is to bring all of those together so we can look at this greater body of soft skills research and information. There have literally been hundreds of studies since the 1980s and 1990s that have gotten at pieces of this, but it’s time to pull it all together.

Graham ’17:03′: That gives us a great point to stop this episode and tell people in the coming weeks, we will be looking at In the coming weeks, we will delve deeper into what soft skills, how they empower workers and organizations, with some concrete examples of where they are and are not working. Next week, we will look at who needs to employ soft skills. Is it just for managers and leaders, or can every worker in every organization benefit from employing them? All that and more in Episode 2 next week. We hope you will join us. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.

Collaboration, an important soft skill, takes many forms, and each form it often enables us to rise above the challenges we face in life. The old adage that two hears are better than one is valid.

To obtain survey responses from the widest possible group of people for some research we are doing, we sent it to our LinkedIn and Facebook friends. Some responded and some did not. We also sent the survey to some of our networks’ best connectors, hoping that they would spread the survey on soft skills in the workplace beyond our limited networks. (Our networks aren’t small. Collectively our LinkedIn numbers exceed 3,000 connections.)

But reaching beyond our networks enables us to obtain a broader cross-section of respondents. Our network, while diverse and broad, is limited in some ways, as we each have a lot of former students and academic world colleagues on our lists. One of our lists skews toward insurance brokers, owing to a past position as an insurance publication editor.

The people with whom we shared our lists have their own networks. Those networks represent different segments of the working population.

We could have spent a lot of time and money trying to reach a broader network, but in the most effective and obvious method of reaching more people was to collaborate with others. They were happy to help, as in each case, we have provided value to them in various ways, never seeking compensation. We just helped when it was needed.

And now, when we need help, they rise to the occasion, ensuring that we can achieve greater results than if we had only spread word of the survey to our own networks. That collaboration is just one demonstration of where soft skills improve our work.


Our mind is constantly evaluating the angles, possibilities, benefits and drawbacks of countless decisions, though we rarely think much about what is going on in our minds.

If I ask my boss for a day off next week, will I miss out on an opportunity? Should I tell HR that someone has been reporting his arrival time at work as far earlier than the reality? Should I tell my boss I am looking for a new job or should I keep her in the dark until I have one in place?

Each of these questions – and a million others that come up each day – requires a careful analysis of the situation. Consider the list of soft skills necessary for each of the questions raised above:

  • Listening – Paying attention to what others did in similar situations to learn the rules of the road.
  • Critical Thinking – Using the information obtained from listening and other stimuli to formulate an appropriate response to the situation.
  • Presentation – Evaluating other people’s words and actions through their presentation of information, and preparing a possible presentation of the information regarding the situation. Also, being able to talk coherently so that the people involved understand and appreciate your concerns and interests.
  • Negotiating – Determining what should be done and how to handle it with others involved.
  • Conflict Management – Being able to deal with any negatives outcomes or consequences that arise from your choices.
  • Adaptability – Being able to alter your actions as the situation evolves. For instance, if your boss seems distracted when you enter her office, recognizing the signals and putting off the discussion for later in the day.
  • Responsibility – Taking responsibility for your career and your success and for the requirements of your job.
  • Proactivity – Being proactive about your career and situation
  • Loyalty – Weighing the requirements of loyalty against what you need to succeed for yourself.
  • Confident – Having the confidence to admit to yourself that you are ready for a new job.
  • Ethical – Deciding what is best to do to meet your own ethical standards.

Most of us take action without much thought. We might do what someone else told us to do. We might just do what feels right. We might follow our instinct or our gut.

But breaking down the individual skills at play gets at one of the core realities of soft skills. They rarely, if ever, operate in isolation. One soft skill is dependent on other soft skills. Notice how many of the ones listed above play off of one or another of them.

Even though soft skills usually operate in concert with one another, we often cannot identify areas for improvement unless we look at them individually. And as we work on one soft skill, it influences and affects the others. Further complicating matters is that some soft skills are more in use than others, and some work more closely with others.


No one likes to be wrong. And even worse is when that thing we are wrong about is personal. We all have an ego that has to be protected.

Often, effectively developing our soft skills necessitates checking our ego at the door.

Take, for instance, the situation involving a team leader who gave a bad presentation that we talked about last time.

To improve on his presentation would require him to first and foremost admit that something wasn’t right about his presentation. None of us like to work hard on something only to see it fail, especially when it is something as personal as a presentation. We struggle to separate the mechanics of the presentation from what it says about us as a person.

We see this problem occur in our students all the time. Their presentation has some problems, but they internalize the feedback, whether from other students or their instructor, as an indictment of who they are inside.

That inability to separate Presentation Me from Real Me often lead them to become defensive, which in turn discourages people from giving them the feedback they need to become better. If you think for a second, you can probably come up with a similar situation in your own life. We all do it.

Until we realize that good, honest feedback isn’t a bad thing, but the thing to help us get better. When we check our ego at the door, our soft skills, no matter what they are, will begin to improve exponentially.