1. easy to mould, cut, compress, or fold; not hard or firm to the touch.

“soft margarine”

  1. having a pleasing quality involving a subtle effect or contrast rather than sharp definition.

“the soft glow of the lamps”


If you were asked to define soft skills without knowing what they are, what would you say?

Good manners? The art of conversation? Kindness? A team player? Humility? Confidence? Empathy – which, along with resilience, is currently enjoying its moment in the limelight as the holy grail of soft skills? Although this week happiness might be giving them a run for their money.

The definition of soft skills is hazy, blurred and indistinct – or, if you like, rather soft. What they are, the way they are measured and their commercial benefits are undefined.

One thing everyone seems to agree on though, is that they are really important. And their position in the skills hierarchy is set to increase over the next ten years for two reasons.

Firstly, automation is proliferating the workplace in all sorts of ways, replacing traditional roles, but machines are a long way from mastering soft skills. So soft skills are the human opportunity.

Secondly, broadly speaking, strong soft skills enable a more productive, creative, resourceful, prosperous, happy, healthy, entrepreneurial, flexible and committed workforce. Traditional strong-man leadership put-up and shut-up techniques will soon be – we hope – as obsolete as those fast-disappearing traditional skills.

So, what is a soft skill?

The term was first coined in the late 1960s by the US Army to describe any skill that didn’t involve the use of machinery but made a difference to the outcome of an exercise.

There are lots of lists and definitions. In The Hard Truth About Soft Skills, Peggy Klaus says, “They cover a wide spectrum of abilities and traits: being self-aware, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, critical thinking, attitude, initiative, empathy, confidence, integrity, self-control, organizational awareness, likability, influence, risk taking, problem solving, leadership, time management, and then some.”

The US military was definitely onto something. But although soft skills are increasingly recognised as important, they are still classed as inferior to technical skills. This is not new information; lots of people have advocated in recent years to prioritise soft skills. Yet because they are often perceived to be more illusive, unquantifiable, emotional, easily attained, fallible, subjective and not necessarily directly linked to commercial success they remain disdained and undervalued.

Soft skills is a misnomer if ever there was one. Schools, colleges and universities as well as employers need to understand the value of these skills in the workplace as well as in life. We need to be far more effective at teaching and measuring them and appreciating their impact.

If we want the workplace to take soft skills seriously, we need to understand that they’re really quite hard.