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, people are talking about the importance of soft skills so much it feels like a new diet craze.

However, when you take some time to investigate, it becomes clear that “soft skills” just means “likeable”, “conscientious”, or “admirable”. It’s a broad term used to describe almost all non-technical skills. According to Wikipedia, the term “soft skills” 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, their popularity has increased as the mass majority of people have caught on to the fact that these skills are super important and they can be taught to anyone.

Where did the term “Soft Skills” come from?

Soft skills have been around forever, they are not new. Before it became an official term, Dale Carnegie described many soft skills in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

However, we started using the term “soft skills” because of the US military.

Around 1959 the US Army started investing heavily in training procedures that utilized technology to improve workflow and learning efficiency. They created a regulation (a doctrine, a set of guidelines or 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 author Dr. Paul G. Whitmore, 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.

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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:

text highlight added by me

text highlight added by me

So that’s it. “Soft skills” (along with many other things) originated within the US Army.

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 of what you call them, 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?

Why are soft skills important?

Everything you do involves other people, directly or indirectly. 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 centers on the importance of soft skills. If you cannot smile at appropriate times, hold a conversation, or deal with conflict, your career potential is, on average, extremely low.

Soft skills are so important, we often instinctively value them too much. Ever wonder why or how a certain person became a manager or a director, when they don’t seem to have the required technical skills? It’s probably because they have great soft skills!

Technical skills are just half of the game. If you can fix a product, you have half the equation figured out. However, you will lose business if you don’t know how to connect with your customer on an emotional level, understand their needs, and make them feel valued.

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.

What soft skills should you master?

There are so many different examples of soft skills. Too much duplication, too much overlap. Let’s discuss the most important ones and why these are covered in our courses at Dave’s Charm School.

At the very least, these interpersonal skills should be on your radar:

  1. Communication – the ability to speak, write, present, and listen, in person or on the phone.

  2. Courtesy – a habit of observable manners, etiquette, business etiquette, graciousness, including saying please and thank you, and being respectful.

  3. Flexibility – adaptability and willingness to change, adopting the mindset of a lifelong learner, accepting of new things, willing to adjust, and, in a word, teachable.

  4. Integrity – practicing honesty, being ethical, valuing high morals, having personal values, doing what’s right.

  5. Interpersonal skills – being kind and personable, having a relaxed sense of humor or ease, being friendly, nurturing, empathetic, displaying a strong sense of self-control, being patient, social, and slow to anger, appearing “warm” and considerate.

  6. Positive attitude – choosing to be optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging, happy, and confident.

  7. Professionalism – recognizing and donning the appropriate look, manner, and poise, appearing businesslike, well-dressed, and adopting the proper attitude for the situation.

  8. Responsibility – showing yourself to be accountable, reliable, able to get the job done, resourceful, self-disciplined, wanting to do well, conscientious with common sense.

  9. Teamwork – being cooperative, getting along with others, supporting others, trying to be helpful, willing to collaborate.

  10. Work ethic – hard working, willing to work, being loyal, taking initiative, being self-motivated and on time with a good attendance record.

  11. Time Management – able to schedule your time appropriately, manage project flow and deadlines according to their due date, being efficient and following through on commitments.

  12. Conflict-Resolution – ready and able to engage in problem-solving, displaying sympathy and empathy for others, practicing active listening, knowing and practicing effective crisis management and negotiation.

  13. Leadership – taking initiative, coordinating efforts between team members, mentoring, inspiring others, making difficult decisions, having and pursuing a vision.

  14. Balance – respecting boundaries, practicing self-care, managing your own expectations as well as your workload, maintaining focus on your purpose.

This may seem like a long list, but we practice or neglect each and every one of these just about every day. These skills are the counterpart to all of the technical knowledge we have, and they are just as important. Be mindful of these as you work.

Fixing a product should be followed by a smile, and perhaps a warm handshake. Collaborating on a design should include providing your technical knowledge and then being able to gracefully accept the input of others. Leading a team requires pursuit of your mission, but it’s also about being able to inspire your team to follow you on that mission.

You are using soft skills regardless of your position, and the higher you climb the job ladder the more important those soft skills become.

How to improve your soft skills

The best thing you can do to improve your soft skills is to learn and practice. Read books like How to Win Friends and Influence People. Review and rate yourself on each of the soft skills listed above. Then schedule some time each week or month to practice areas in which you feel deficient.

It takes time to improve soft skills, but it’s worth it. Focus on strengthening your strengths, and shoring up your weaknesses.

The benefits will last the rest of your life.