Leadership Advice

Managers: It’s time to retire the term ‘soft skills’

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

When managers ask my help in solving performance problems they often use a time-worn and misleading expression. They say someone lacks “soft skills.” 

It’s a catch-all term for people who may be good at their craft but deficient in their interactions with colleagues. 

Words matter — especially in newsrooms. We break “hard news” stories. We tell “hard truths.” We examine the “hard data.” We ask “hardball questions.”  

Little wonder the term “soft skills” can seem a bit squishy.

In the logic of that lexicon, the ability to produce things is a hard skill. “Hard,” as in solid and strong. 

Then we use the word “soft” — which is the opposite of hard — to describe our human interactions. 

And yet, we now know the skills at the heart of that poorly-phrased definition are essential for success. Here are six that set the most talented employees apart from others:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Empathy
  • Inclusivity
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Conflict resolution

People who lack these skills create harmful tension, frustration and confusion. They hurt morale and productivity. Even if they do well on the so-called “hard” or craft skills, they drag down colleagues and managers, who spend way too much time resolving problems they’ve caused.

In short, those who lack so-called “soft skills” make work harder for others.

So let’s retire the term once and for all. 

What do we use instead? Good question. Some folks use “people skills” as a substitute, though it doesn’t fully cover the breadth, heft and nuance of that list of six aptitudes. 

Maybe we just call them “power tools.” 

Imagine if that became the universal descriptor for the skill set of emotional intelligence, empathy, inclusion, communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution. (A power toolkit which many people possess, by the way.)

It would sound like this:

“She’s a great employee. Breaks stories left and right. On top of that, she’s all about the power tools. People love working with her.”

Wordsmiths, you probably have far better ideas than mine, and I’d love to hear them.

As we retire the term “soft skills,” we may or may not rebrand it, but let’s truly respect and reward what it stands for.


Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
eddie doucette
eddie doucette
1 year ago

As you may remember I love catchy phrases/nicknames that ring the bell. Recall is important. “Power tools” engages my attention. This is it! Bango!

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
1 year ago

I think ‘power tools’ is really catchy, but also a bit vague. ‘Prosocial skills’ is a bit jargony, which is not something I generally favor, but I think it better describes the skills involved.