What Are Soft Skills and Why Are They Important?

Soft skills. It’s a term you’ve probably heard before. From executives and consultants, to Seth Godin and Inc Magazine contributors, people are talking about the importance of soft skills.

It feels like a new diet craze. Something brewed from too much sunshine and sandy beaches in Southern California. “Look for these traits! Be the best! Climb the corporate ladder!”

Then, when you take some time to investigate, it dawns on you… “Soft skills” is just a general term used to describe the traits of likeable, conscientious, relatively successful people. It encompasses a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.

These skills have always existed. They have been utilized and perfected in many successful organizations. However, the mass majority of people are finally catching on to the fact that these skills can be taught to anyone, and the results are very positive.

The Origin of “Soft Skills”

The term “Soft Skills” is a fairly recent one.

Around 1959 the US Army started investing heavily in training procedures that utilized technology to improve workflow and learning efficiency. They created a regulation (doctrine, guidelines, rules) called “Systems Engineering of Training” (CON Reg 350-100-1) that laid the groundwork for designing and producing courses for specific Army jobs. According to Dr. Paul G. Whitmore (author), the courses created under this regulation would cover job related skills involving people and paper – inspecting things, supervising people, preparing reports, or designing structures – skills that did not involve machines.

This was the catalyst for the creation of “soft skills” as a term. While the term did not appear in CON Reg 350-100-1, the regulation spurred the analysis of skills and skill development in the modern military.

The term “soft skills” eventually and formally appeared in a report on a 1972 CONARC Soft Skills Conference, OR a 1972 US Army training manual (I believe they are one in the same).

At the 1972 soft skills conference, Dr. Whitmore and John P. Fry presented three papers dealing with skills analysis and training procedures. I was able to find a reference to Dr. Whitmore’s papers at the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). After giving them a call and speaking with a representative, they directed me to the National Technical Reports Library where I was able to download the March 1974 version of the reports. The three papers are:

  1. “What Are Soft Skills?” by John P. Fry and Paul G. Whitmore
  2. “The Behavioral Model as a Tool for Analyzing Soft Skills” by Paul G. Whitmore
  3. “Procedures for Implementing Soft-Skill Training in CONARC Schools” by John P. Fry

These papers were presented at the 1972 CONARC Soft SKills Conference. Page II-7 of the conference report reads:

Page II-7 of 1972 CONARC Soft Skills Conference Report on The Importance of Soft Skills

text highlight added by me (Jeff)

So that’s it. “Soft skills”, as well as many other things, originated with the US Army and was eventually adopted by the public.

Today these skills are also referred to as “people skills” or “emotional intelligence”. Seth Godin thinks we should stop calling them soft skills because the word “soft” makes them sound like they are not important. Regardless, they exist, and they are so important that the US Army held a multi-day conference about them.

The question is: Why are they important?

The Importance of Soft Skills

Everything you do involves, directly or indirectly, other people. Even if you are a programmer who never talks to another human being, your code eventually makes its way to the outside world and affects people. If you want to turn your creation into a business, you will have to talk to other people, in person, on the phone, or digitally.

Furthermore, if you want to get a job, keep your job, or advance up the career ladder, you will need to be personable, conscientious, and self-aware.

Your whole career, even your personal life, centers on the importance of soft skills. A terribly ironic example of this can be found in Dilbert cartoons. Remember the boss with the pointy hair? His ineptitude cannot be overstated.

How did that guy get to be the boss? It’s a sad recurring theme in business, isn’t it? The manager is too dumb to perform any productive technical functions in the office, and no one knows how he or she got the job. We have to assume his or her technical skills are severely lacking, they couldn’t have earned the position based on project success rate.

Yes, I am suggesting that Dilbert’s boss earned his position by having good soft skills. Accurate? No, it’s a cartoon.

But it should make you think. Technical skills are just half of the game. If you can fix a computer, you have half the equation figured out. However, if you don’t know how to greet someone properly by looking them in the eyes, saying hello, and giving them a firm handshake, you will struggle to improve your position in the workforce.

The importance of soft skills cannot be overstated: To succeed, people need to be able to connect with you, and you need to be able to connect with other people in meaningful ways.

Soft skills are important because they are the difference between being an engaged member of a team versus being just another cog in the wheel.

Examples of Soft Skills

There are so many different examples of soft skills, I will not be listing them all here. Too much duplication, too much overlap. Let’s discuss the most important ones and why these are covered in our courses.

The following is a compilation from multiple sources including Eastern Kentucky University, TheBalanceCareers.com, WikiJob, and others.

  1. Communication – speaking, writing, presenting, listening, in person or on the phone.
  2. Courtesy – manners, etiquette, business etiquette, gracious, says please and thank you, respectful.
  3. Flexibility – adaptability, willing to change, lifelong learner, accepts new things, adjusts, teachable.
  4. Integrity – honest, ethical, high morals, has personal values, does what’s right.
  5. Interpersonal skills – kindness, personable, sense of humor, friendly, nurturing, empathetic, has self-control, patient, sociability, warmth, social skills.
  6. Positive attitude – optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging, happy, confident.
  7. Professionalism – businesslike, well-dressed, appearance, poised.
  8. Responsibility – accountable, reliable, gets the job done, resourceful, self-disciplined, wants to do well, conscientious, common sense.
  9. Teamwork – cooperative, gets along with others, agreeable, supportive, helpful, collaborative.
  10. Work ethic – hard working, willing to work, loyal, initiative, self-motivated, on time, good attendance.
  11. Time Management – scheduling, project management, efficiency, follow-through.
  12. Conflict-Resolution – problem-solving, sympathy, active listening, crisis management, negotiation.
  13. Leadership – taking initiative, coordinating efforts between team members, mentoring, inspiring others, making difficult decisions, vision.
  14. Balance – respecting boundaries, self-care, managing expectations, managing workload.

If you can master these, you’ve got the other half of the equation in your toolbox.