Is there such a thing as “hard” skills and “soft” skills?

Cristina Simón, Dean of IE Business School’s Department of Psychology

21 May 2015

Empathy, communication, self knowledge, influence… All these skills are extremely difficult to acquire and play a key role in being a good manager. Can we really call them soft?

I recently attended a debate at a prestigious US university between two academics, one of them an engineer, and the other a musicologist. The former was arguing that organizations increasingly need people with “soft skills”. Barely were the words out of his mouth when the musicologist interrupted, angrily pointing out that these “so-called” soft skills were in reality much “harder” than most people imagined. I could not agree with him more.

First, a little background. The terminology here dates back to the beginnings of business language, in late 1950s America. The rapid industrial and economic growth that followed the end of WWII had created a new profession: the manager. This role came about as a result of the need for supervisors with increasingly sophisticated abilities able to oversee the different activities of a company, from operations to sales, and finally, to create strategies to respond to the dynamics of the marketplace. The technician completed his studies, and reality converted him into a manager. Would it be possible to create these people at universities? How to give the profession of managers the sheen of science? The first management schools answered these questions by putting their students through courses based on quantitative, “hard”, disciplines such as economics, mathematics, and behavioral psychology.

Soon, “scientific” management was not sufficient to deal with the vast range of problems managers faced. The role of people and the importance of social interaction meant that the manager needed to complement a body of knowledge based purely on business with other skills: empathy; communication, self-awareness; influence, etc. Here we enter the world of the intangible, the so-called “soft” skills because they cannot be measured. That said, there are at least two reasons why these abilities are anything but “soft”. In the first place, there are extremely difficult to acquire and develop, and certainly cannot be learned from books and blackboards; they come from continual reflection and a personal wish to improve one’s communication skills. In second place, they are the essence of direct labor: what differentiates a technician from a manager is that the latter gets results from other people, a task where “hard” skills are of little use. Perhaps it’s about time we changed those labels round to recognize the real value of direct labor in today’s world.
 

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