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Differentiating Between Hard And Soft Skills

Muhammad Tahir Rabbani risked poking the bear on LinkedIn when he asked the Learning and Development Professionals Club: “How can we differentiate between hard and soft skills?” His question was serendipitous, because I had been giving that very question some serious thought, and where I landed was that the successful application of hard skills can be measured definitively. For example, the code you write works as intended, or you arrive at the correct mathematical solution. Hence, the metric is a hard number or a binary yes or no (1 or 0).

On the other side of the coin are soft skills, so named because they are not hard skills–a bit like the white rhino and the black rhino, or hard dollars and soft dollars. Successful application of these skills less obviously boils down to a number. For example, how do you measure your communication skills or your relationship management prowess? The number of emails you send or the size of your network both miss the point. One approach might be to measure the skill indirectly, perhaps in terms of employee engagement or volume of sales.

I was comfortable with my position until I listened to a podcast by David James in which Guy Wallace quotes Joe Harless: “Soft skills is a euphemism for hard skills which we have not worked hard enough yet to define [1].” In other words, Guy explains, we typically don’t begin with the end in mind–that is to say, terminal performance.

And this made sense to me. I realized we could measure an executive’s communication skills by monitoring their target audience’s actions in response to the key messages in their memo, and we could measure a line manager’s provision of feedback by calculating their team member’s subsequent uptick in the performance of a task. Thus, if we factor in terminal performance, a business metric emerges.

However, as Guy also explains, this is all highly dependent on the intended outcome in the context of the individual’s role, which makes it challenging to quantify at scale. Yet I also see how, just as we standardize the outputs of hard skills via acceptance criteria, we can do the same for soft skills. For example, we could use a rubric to assess whether the feedback that the manager provided clarified the situation, described the behavior observed, and explained the impact. In this way, we “harden” the skill.

Complicating matters is the fact that some folks take umbrage at the word “soft” because it conveys the impression that they’re easy or weak. I consider this a misinterpretation, but I also acknowledge that perception is reality. Thus, countless peers have proffered alternative adjectives such as “business”, “professional”, “power”, “behavioral”, “employability”, “core”, or one that I’ve used myself in the context of a skills-based learning strategy, “transferable.” The problem with all these labels, in my view, is that they don’t satisfactorily differentiate hard skills from soft. For example, is a hard skill such as data analysis not also a business skill or a power skill? It’s certainly transferable.

Wikipedia describes soft skills as “psychosocial”, and I feel this hits the mark closer than most. Intrapersonal skills that are exercised inside your head–such as creative thinking and resilience–are psychological, while interpersonal skills that are exercised with other people–such as communication and relationship management–are social. Unfortunately Wikipedia goes on to declare that hard skills are specific to individual professions, which is demonstrably false.

Another popular way to differentiate hard skills from soft is with the labels “technical” and “nontechnical.” However Josh Bersin argues that soft skills are not soft because they’re highly complex, take years to learn, and are always changing in their scope . That sounds a lot like technical skills to me. In “Figure 1” of his article he also combines core/technical skills! I wouldn’t dare suggest he was wrong; it’s just a matter of personal proclivity.

Harking back to my answer to Muhammad’s question, my own proclivity is to use the labels “objective” and “subjective.” Hard skills such as computer programming and data analysis are measured quantitatively, hence they are objective skills. In contrast, while the measurement of soft skills such as communication and relationship management can be rendered objective, we tend not to and so they remain qualitative in nature, in which case they are subjective skills.

Having said that, perhaps all this linguistic gymnastics is just an academic sideshow. Our audience doesn’t much care for it, and for them I suggest it would make more sense to repackage “digital” skills (working with data, working with technology) and “people” skills (working with humans, working with yourself). These complement “role-specific” skills (pertaining to accounting or derivatives trading, for example) and of course “compliance” skills (such as privacy and AML), both of which might be better pitched as competencies.

I also suggest that however you slice and dice skills, it’s always going to be a little bit wrong. There will inevitably be exceptions, cross-categorizations, and dependencies. Frankly, it will be a marriage of convenience. And that’s OK, because whatever you call them, what really matters is that we develop them to improve our performance.


[1] Hard Skills in Context: Performance-Oriented Soft Skills Development With Expert Guy Wallace

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