You may have heard about soft skills, but you may not know who in your office needs to use them and why. We’ll explain it all.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: You may have heard about soft skills, but you may not know who in your office needs to use them and why. We will enlighten you in just a few seconds.

Graham ‘0:22’: Welcome to Episode 2 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. So let’s get to it.

We explained what soft skills were and were not in Episode 1. But before we get to our topic today, let’s answer a few emails we received.

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:06’: It’s always good to hear from our listeners.

Aren’t Soft Skills Just Being Nice To People?

Graham ‘1:09’: Tim asked, aren’t soft skills just being friendly and nice to the people you work with? Toby?

Porterfield ‘1:13’: Wow. That’s dangerous. While we certainly want to be engaging with people and interested in the people we work with, that’s an oversimplification. That casual smile and looking like you are paying attention are not what we are looking for. When we are talking about soft skills, we are talking about intentionality here. It’s not just being nice, it’s not just being there, but that’s important. It’s the intentionality of engaging in such a way that it enables us to apply our technical skills, our hard skills, in a new way.

Graham ‘2:19’: You aren’t saying we shouldn’t be nice. You’re just saying that soft skills are more than just being nice.

Porterfield ‘2:23’: That just isn’t going to get us where we need to go at work.

Why Did It Take So Long to Recognize Soft Skills?

Graham ‘2:27’: We also have a great question from Kaitlyn. If researchers working with the Army first coined the phrase soft skills in the early 1970s, why did it take so long for people to really start talking about them?

Porterfield ‘2:49’: The work for the Army in the early 70s is where they coined that term “soft skills.” I wish I had coined that term myself. It would have been a great thing. They were pretty forward-looking on soft skills. They really were able to grab hold of that. I don’t think we are arguing that soft skills didn’t exist way before the 1970s. People have been working in teams, using listening skills, perseverance. We have a country made of pioneers who persevered and captains of industry who built the economy that we live in today. It comes back to intentionality in what we have seen as we have progressed from the 1970s, the 1980s to today is, as we talked about in Episode 1, the economy has changed, the workplace has changed and there is a need now to approach work in a new way. We have emphasized those hard skills, we have a lot of disciplinary knowledge in so many fields, but those soft skills are what are coming into play today that are making us say, what do we need today to be competitive, innovative. We’ve got the hard skills and soft skills, but how do we mobilize them? That’s where soft skills really are coming into the discussion today.

Graham ‘4:26’: I want to thank Tim and Katlyn for their great questions. Keep those questions coming. You can email them to podcast@serioussoftskills.com or tweet them to us at @realsoftskills. We will answer more questions in future episodes.

Which Employees Use Soft Skills?

Graham ‘5:19‘: Now, Toby, let’s talk about which employees have to use soft skills. Is it the leaders, the new employees or only people who have to interact with a firm’s “customers”? I have heard all three of these.

Porterfield ‘5:46’: We both have heard all three of those and that is because all three are true. We use the term that we take a lens. We look in our camera and get a slice of it. Historically, we have seen a lot of that come to fruition when we looked at leadership. We saw these people who were moved into leadership, promoted into leadership and they weren’t able to rally the team and take it where it needed to go. Oh, that leader, they didn’t have the soft skills they need to be successful. And we get fixed in on that. Then we look out at the new hires and they come out of college with all these disciplinary skills and they know how to use the technology. And we are seeing in the job descriptions that oh, by the way, you need communication skills. You need self-discipline, self-motivation. Depending on which lens we flip to, we see those soft skills. I hate that pat answer where we say, “Everybody needs soft skills.”

The Story of Doug, Whose Soft Skills Were Lacking

‘7:02’: But let me share one more story that will frame this up a bit better. We have a shared connection, Bob, and I met with him for coffee recently. We were talking about these soft skills issues. He’s quite a leader. He has established a marketing and Internet company. And he had an industry career before that. Like us, he had that industry experience, then moved on to other opportunities. He shared from his technical background back in industry. He had this guy, we’ll call him Doug, and he was an incredible database administrator. He was just a genius with it. We could put anything we need in front of him and he would take care of the databases for their clients. Certainly Doug was an outstanding resource for them to have. But then as time went on, clients started to say they wanted to meet Doug. We want Doug to come to the meetings. And they started bringing Doug along, and pretty soon they found that he didn’t want to communicate what would be challenging, what would be easy. Doug clearly lacked those soft skills and even cost them some relationships. That is where we see that fallback. Oh, this person has the technical expertise. In most situations these days, we are seeing that those technical skills are not enough. Just being that technical expert and being locked in your office or your cubicle, and never having to interact is not feasible in a competitive environment. You can’t have a resource that needs to be locked away to protect them from anyone they might encounter.  

Graham ‘9:01’: You scare me when you tell me about Doug because you make me think there is no hope for Doug. The reality is we can all build our soft skills. If we want to be better at teamwork, then we have to put ourselves in positions where we have to work on teamwork. If we want to work on problem-solving, which is another soft skills, we need to work on solving problems. We can’t easily be in the work world and not be adapting to change. We all have the ability to improve on these things. It’s not like guys like Doug that you described are consigned to working in the basement of the building and never interacting with people.

Porterfield ‘9:54’: I would say that’s not going to be our most effective organization if we are going to have that type of situation. We probably need to devote a couple of episodes just to how to develop soft skills because it’s different than developing technical skills.

Soft skills can be developed, they can be strengthened, but it takes some different approaches.

Graham ‘10:22’: Probably the first thing is awareness, knowing, so someone like Doug realizing that he cost the company some business and someone having a hard discussion with Doug about the situation. He has to take stock and may say, “I had no idea.” We aren’t always aware of our weaknesses. It’s not like technical skills. If I can’t write a press release for a client of mine, I am in trouble. If I can’t teach the course I am teaching to my students, then I am in trouble. I get feedback almost immediately and I can make corrections right away.

But with soft skills, it’s a little more fuzzy and a little more in the background.

Porterfield ‘11:18’: Soft skills are hiding beneath the current sometimes. But for talent professionals, they really need to get an eye for those soft skills. They need to be able to detect and have an awareness for soft skills, which ones they need at the time and where the weaknesses are.

Seeing Soft Skills Everywhere

Graham ‘11:39’: Maybe it’s time for you to bring up the idea I idea you mentioned a few weeks ago: the eye of the hunter and how that might apply for people. I have found this idea to be a really valuable part of this discovery.

Porterfield ‘11:55’: We had that discussion because as we started into this process, we were looking at teamwork, we were looking at different aspects of the work situation, and soft skills started coming in to our discussions. We started to unwrap them ourselves and to demystify them. We found out that there are specific things that are soft skills, and as we started learning them and unwrapping them and started looking at what are the Individual soft skills and what do they look like, and other ways of looking at them, we ran across the idea of the eye of the hunter. I know with my father-in-law, he lives out in the country and when we are driving down the road, he will be looking around and he’ll ask if I saw that pheasant over there or that deer over there. I’m thinking, I’m looking around and you’re driving. I didn’t see any of this. That’s where the eye of the hunter comes from. Once you know what you are looking for and I have heard it described as when you look down a hedge row and you see that item. That’s not found in nature. It’s a rabbit. You have to know what to look for and you see it. That’s what we’re experiencing with soft skills. We’ve become sensitized to soft skills. We’re seeing them all the time. Unfortunately, we are seeing or not seeing them in ourselves. I realize that I wasn’t listening really well, was I? Or we see it in other people who have this idea or something they are trying to endorse, and they didn’t have the communication skills ready to put that out there. That’s what we want to help people with. We really want them to become sensitized to soft skills, but in an informed way. We actively identify them and then actively work to correct them or improve them in the situation.

We want that eye of the hunter for soft skills in everyone. We want them to be attuned to the soft skills.

How Soft Skills Can Change Us

Graham ‘14:09’: It’s interesting and fun to have this new set of skills that you can bring to the table and be more strategic and more conscious of them. I don’t want anyone to be listening to this and saying this too much work. I can’t deal with all this soft skills stuff. The me with awareness of soft skills is a much better me. I see things differently now. I find times that I might act differently now than I would have in the past and to good effect for me and the people around me.

Porterfield ‘14:57’: I guess what I am seeing is what we have started to promote and what we have started to promote. As a researcher and an educator in my current role, having sensitive to my soft skills and where I am weak, it’s really helped me apply my technical skills in new ways, in my research, in my engagement with students. It’s exciting.

Graham ‘15:29’: That’s probably a good place to stop things. The idea that it’s exciting allows us to continue on with this podcast week after week. Next week, I am going to make the case — be ready for it Toby — that this one soft skill is the most important, one that enables so many other soft skills to appear. If you think you know what it is that I am going to bring to the table next week, why don’t you send us your guess. You can email us at podcast@serioussoftskills.com or send it on Twitter at @realsoftskills. We hope you will join us next time. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.

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