After The Promotion: Why HR Must Prioritise The Development of Soft Skills Over Hard Skills

CoachHub · 21 February 2020 · 3 min read

Recruiting for fit is all the rage in HR circles. Focusing on culture over expertise is an inspiring ideal, something to aim for, but we’re nowhere near those levels of perfection yet. When was the last time you read a resume that started with examples of organized, dependable, resilient, or open-minded behaviors and buried the technical knowledge on page two?

But maybe we should take a step back and explain what is meant by hard skills and soft skills.

Hard skills are typically those learned in places of education or on the job. They’re usually measurable and easy to assess, which is maybe why the average job description devotes three-quarters of its content to hard skill requirements.

They include skills like: 

  • Speaking languages
  • Inbound marketing
  • Programming languages
  • Database management
  • Network security
  • Content creation
  • User interface design
  • Data analysis
  • Project management
  • Machinery operations
  • Recruitment
  • Talent management

On the other hand, soft skills are typically acquired more organically throughout a lifetime. They’re challenging to measure, but are what makes a person a good employee.

They include skills like:

  • Etiquette
  • Communication
  • Listening
  • Integrity
  • Dependability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Teamwork
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Self-motivated
  • Resilience

An overwhelming majority of companies still make the mistake of assuming the best or most experienced employee doing any given task will make the best manager of others performing that same role. Whether promoting from within or recruiting from outside, organizations tend to “focus on technical over emotional,” as leadership strategist Victor Lipman explained in Forbes.

It’s an understandable and justifiable mistake to make. Hard, technical skills are more comfortable to identify and quantify. Soft skills are not.

However, management is inherently and undoubtedly a soft skill role. Proper management is based on attributes like leadership development, communication, teamwork, flexibility, integrity, and empathy. Sure, a manager needs to understand the work their team is doing, but they don’t need to be as operational.

The mistake of promoting or recruiting managers based on technical skills is, according to Lipman, one of the main reasons why employee engagement rates are at an all-time low across much of the globe. We have managers who can do, but they can’t manage.

That’s why, when employees are asked about the deficiencies of their managers, they overwhelmingly state soft skills like team-building, feedback, and delegation over hard skills that can be found elsewhere in the team.

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Soft skills can be hard to find

Not only are soft skills more difficult to ascertain from a resume or a job interview, but they’re also hard to measure and can be challenging to teach. Dig into learning psychology, and you’ll discover that, as they take a lifetime to acquire, soft skills also take much longer to update and develop.

Soft skills can be developed but is it worthwhile doing so when they’re so deeply-embedded, and learning and development (L&D) budgets are already stretched? The ROI of hard skills, in essence, is easier to prove.

However, increasingly, L&D managers are learning that the traditional approach to imparting hard skills isn’t working. Forcing groups of employees into a classroom situation, which usually becomes more about networking than developing, is expensive and has shown limited returns.

Add to that the fact that hard skills are evolving faster than ever before, particularly in the tech space where coding languages, processes, and protocols can become obsolete almost overnight, and it can be ruinously expensive to keep curricula up-to-date. Factor in the disengaged attendees, and you may as well throw that budget away.


But soft skills last forever

Learning approaches that focus on soft skills, like coaching, for example, can help managers and employees develop a curious growth mindset and always-learning mentality that creates a more sustainable and dynamic behavioral change. By changing mindsets and psychological attributes, you create a more dynamic workforce that is not only more attuned to each other’s needs and objectives, but also more committed to their individual growth and development goals.

Increasingly, leaders realize this. The number one area where CEOs want to develop, for example, is conflict resolution, followed by listening and delegation skills. These are soft skills but will have a more significant impact on the success of a company and satisfaction of its employees than a CEO who levels up their accounting, coding, or language abilities.

At the end of the day, technical skills and proficiencies tend to level out. This means that it’s culture, morale, purpose, and leadership – driven by a dedication to soft skills – that will decide which companies win out.

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