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Say Goodbye to “Soft Skills”


Say Goodbye to “Soft Skills”

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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning

Soft skills aren’t soft anymore.

Since 2019, HR thinkers have been rebranding “soft skills”—human-centric skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership—as “power skills.” Why the change?

The term “soft skills” was coined by the U.S. Army in the late 1960s. The Army applied the term to important skills that do not require the use of machinery; by contrast, skills that do involve machinery have since that time been known as “hard skills.” But that basic distinction is now giving way to a more nuanced view.

Some experts favor the term “power skills” because soft skills, unlike hard skills, are hard to teach. Others argue for abandoning “soft skills” because the name implies that these skills are not essential. “Power” is a better adjective, they say, because communication and leadership are the kind of skills that give people power in the workplace. Evidence suggests that, whatever you think of the name change, power skills are related to wielding power effectively.

That being said, it would still benefit organizations to dig more deeply into which particular power skills their future leaders need.

On one hand, it’s easy to overstate the importance of power skills. The United States is facing a labor shortage. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the top 10 jobs with the most openings are fast-food workers, home health aides, cashiers, retail workers, stockers, wait people, laborers and material movers, customer service representatives, janitors, and office clerks. Workers in these positions certainly need some power skills, but it’s hard to imagine that the lack of such skills is creating a mismatch between the position and the available workers.

On the other hand, it has always been true that power skills are the key to advancement for white-collar workers. To the extent that white-collar workers have the necessary technical skills, the employees who will successfully rise through the ranks will be the ones who also have power skills. For example, a team of engineers who are also good at collaborating will come out ahead of teams that don’t collaborate well. Similarly, a person who understands how to operate a certain machine and who can correct others without giving offense will be the more successful manager.

Because companies benefit significantly from getting talented people into leadership positions, both identifying and developing power skills in employees should be a top priority for Human Resources. In a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman reported on why some employees identified as “high potential” fail.

“High potential” (HiPo) is a designation that singles out some high-performing employees for further development in the hope that they will later occupy leadership positions in the organization. Zenger and Folkman collected data on 1,964 employees from three organizations who had been identified as high potential. This designation meant that these employees should rank in the top 5% of employees within the organization.

Using a 360-degree assessment, which took responses from peers, superiors, and subordinates, they found that 12% of the HiPo employees were in the bottom quartile of leadership effectiveness. Overall, they found that 42% of HiPos were below average.

As they dug into the data, Zenger and Folkman discovered that the misidentified HiPos had some common good qualities that had led to their initial high-potential designation—and some common bad qualities that led to their eventual failure. The good qualities of these HiPos included:

  • Technical expertise: Just as the pro-“power skills” experts argue, technical expertise is not enough. The majority of the failed leaders were highly accomplished in the technical realm.
  • Initiative: The misidentified HiPos stepped up and got results as individual contributors.
  • The ability to meet deadlines: In addition to taking initiative, these misidentified HiPos successfully completed projects on time.
  • Cultural fit: The failed leaders had personal qualities that dovetailed with their organization’s culture. As an example, Zenger and Folkman noted that one of the organizations they studied values niceness—so it tended to promote highly accomplished nice people without considering their leadership skills.

Where did these HiPos fall short? Zenger and Folkman identified two key areas: strategic thinking and the ability to motivate others.

Perhaps the best outcome of shifting from “soft skills” to “power skills” is that different kinds of soft skills might become front-of-mind. When managers hear that leaders need “soft skills,” they might think of “communication” and “teamwork.” Yet these might not be the skills that actually distinguish productive individual contributors from potential leaders. Zenger and Folkman’s study encourages us to be more nuanced in our thinking about the hard/soft skills divide, to ask whether the ability to get along with peers (the soft skill of niceness) is as important to leaders as the power skill of strategic thinking. Because all skills can be taught, the term “power skills” might help HR focus on identifying and boosting those skills needed to lead.

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