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Let’s stop calling them “soft skills” — and call them “real skills” instead

What causes successful organizations to fail? What makes stocks fade, innovations slow, customers jump ship? We can agree that certain skills are essential. That hiring coders who can’t code, salespeople who can’t sell, or architects who can’t design is a waste. But these skills — let’s call them vocational skills — have become the backbone of the recruitment process.

But how do you explain that similar organizations, with similarly vocationally skilled people, find themselves with very different outcomes? Most of the textbooks that students experience and the tests they take are about vocational skills, the checkboxes that have to be checked to get a job. By misdefining “vocational” and focusing on these allegedly essential skills, we’ve diminished the value of the other skills that matter.

We give too little respect to the other skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional. What actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.

Vocational skills can be taught: You’re not born knowing engineering or copywriting or even graphic design, therefore they must be something we can teach. But we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to decision-making, eager participation, dancing with fear, speaking with authority, working in teams, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, inspiring others, doing more than we’re asked, caring and being willing to change things. We underinvest in this training, fearful that these things are innate and can’t be taught. Perhaps they’re talents. And so we downplay them, calling them soft skills, making it easy for us to move on to something seemingly more urgent.

At scale, organizations pay less attention to soft skills when hiring because we’ve persuaded ourselves that vocational skills are impersonal and easier to measure. If it’s easier to test for, it seems more important when selecting our team.

And we fire slowly (and retrain rarely) when these skills are missing, because we’re worried about stepping on toes, being called out for getting personal or possibly wasting time on a lost cause.

But these skills can all be learned, as obvious skills like chess or typing can be learned. We learn them accidentally, by osmosis, by the collisions we have with teachers, parents, bosses and the world. Even though they’re more difficult to measure, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve them, can’t practice them or can’t change the way we do our work.

Of course we can.

Let’s stop calling them soft. They’re interpersonal skills. Leadership skills. The skills of charisma and diligence and contribution. But these modifiers, while accurate, somehow edge them away from the vocational skills, the skills that we actually hire for, the skills we measure a graduate degree on.

So let’s uncomfortably call them real skills instead.

Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need today.

Real because even if you’ve got the vocational skills, you’re no help to us without these human skills, the things that we can’t write down or program a computer to do.

Real skills can’t replace vocational skills, of course. What they can do is amplify the things you’ve already been measuring.

Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it. That’s a fine baseline.

Now add to it. Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. Generous, empathic and consistent. A deep listener, with patience. What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lou Solomon reports that 69 percent of managers are uncomfortable communicating with their employees. I’d guess that many of the other 31 percent are lying.

Communicating with employees is uncomfortable because we’ve built systems of compliance and dominance that make it difficult. We ask people to leave their humanity at the door, then use authority to change behavior. We overlay corporate greed and short-term thinking with a human desire to create work that matters.

How do we build people-centric organizations while also accepting the fact that two thirds of our managers (presumably well paid, well trained and integral to our success) are so uncomfortable doing an essential part of their job that they admitted it to a stranger?

In a recent survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council reported that although MBAs were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas that employers find equally attractive: strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership and adaptability. Are these mutually exclusive? Must we trade one for the other?

The foundation of all real skills is this one: the confidence and permission to talk to one another. Not to manage, belittle, intimidate or control. Simply to seek to be understood and to do the work to understand.

Excerpted from The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams by Seth Godin, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Seth Godin 2023.

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