Why are soft skills so much harder than “hard” skills?

In the evolving landscape of personal and professional development, the terms “soft skills” and “hard skills” seem misleading, at least in terms of their difficulty to teach and learn.

Hard skills /härd skilz/ noun — Concrete, technical, or academic abilities that can be learned and precisely measured. Examples include coding in a specific language, solving mathematical equations, or accurately answering vocabulary-based multiple-choice questions.

He enhanced his résumé by listing two new software design platforms he learned to operate during the training seminar.

Soft skills /sôft skilz/ noun — Intangible attributes that underpin successful interpersonal interactions and personal growth. Examples include: communication, teamwork, emotional intelligence, listening effectively, managing time.

Her impressive soft skills made her an invaluable team member, even beyond her technical expertise with the software design platforms we use.

Developing soft skills is an altogether different exercise, which requires both flexibility and structure. It requires a more nuanced understanding of performance measurement. Effective soft skills programming should have strategies for impacting intrinsic personal qualities like self-esteem and persistence; it should also have methods for modifying learners’ habits or ingrained behaviors. These two objectives are not so straightforward, especially when considering the need for personalization among a group of learners or while simultaneously balancing a range of different reading levels in a soft skills class. Developing soft skills also generally means building soft skills over time; it often requires extending programs into the students’ personal lives and connecting with their personal values, in order to produce lasting positive change. Given the clear impact of soft skills, deep discussion of its challenges can hopefully bring light to accessible solutions for soft skills educators and service providers.

Defining Objectives and Holistic Evaluation Methods

Technical skills often possess an objective clarity in terms of assessment. For instance, when it comes to coding, an individual either knows how to execute a command in a specific programming language or does not; the output can be seen and tested, and the output either performs or it does not. Soft skills, conversely, are nebulous, presenting a suite of challenges for educators and trainers when it comes to measurement and evaluation.

To start, the objectives themselves must be defined (or re-defined) according to a wide variety of different contexts. Unlike hard skills where objectives are predefined, soft skills objectives and standards often need tailoring depending on the group or class’s unique makeup. The combination of the teacher’s experience and expectations, students’ individual backgrounds and capacities, and overarching educational goals dictate which soft skills are prioritized. From the vast sea of abstract soft skills – be it conflict resolution, critical thinking, adaptability, leadership, giving or following directions, or any other – service providers must first sift through, select, and detail clear objectives to enable any meaningful evaluation of student growth. This ‘progress evaluation challenge’ underscores the difficulty of developing soft skills in any setting.

One approach to gauging soft skills is through self-reports. Individuals rate or describe their own abilities or behaviors, giving some insight into their understanding and facility with a particular skill. While self-reports can be valuable, they come with obvious challenges. They can be influenced by biases, where individuals either overestimate or underestimate their competency, driven by the desire to present themselves in a favorable light or by a genuine lack of self-awareness. Despite these drawbacks, when used in conjunction with other methods, self-reports can provide a more holistic understanding of an individual’s soft skill competency. Certain kinds of self-reports can also be used as a learning exercise for students and a diagnostic tool for soft skills teachers. These tools can help program managers define lesson objectives in clear terms and gain some information on each student’s understanding of soft skills objectives.

Behavioral indicators serve as observable manifestations of soft skills. For instance, an individual’s ability to successfully mediate a group disagreement might be an indicator of their conflict-resolution skills. To effectively evaluate and develop behavioral soft skills, particularly social soft skills, educators must also design consistent evaluation methods. And these methods may need to be continually refined or adjusted according to the unique mix of students, the evaluation context, or different subjective evaluators. Performance scales can provide a spectrum on which these observed behaviors can be rated. Such scales also need ongoing refinement and adjustment. They need to be sensitive enough to capture growth and yet broad enough to allow for variability in performance. In short, they need to be meticulously crafted and refined to specific purposes in order to be consistent and effective.

Objective content is also a part of the equation. The same types of written tests that are used to assess technical skills are used in soft skills programs. They may be needed to assess technical aspects of certain soft skills, or to establish common vocabulary among a soft skills class and ensure students have at least a similar understanding of learned concepts. But in designing soft skills assessment, there are many layers beyond what is required to effectively test one’s “hard skills.”

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of measuring soft skills compared to technical skills is their inherent subjectivity. While a math test has definitive right or wrong answers, evaluating someone’s communication or teamwork abilities is laden with personal biases and perceptions. Even with established, descriptive behavioral indicators, the very same behavior might be perceived as assertiveness by one evaluator and aggression by another. Or perhaps assertiveness is considered differently, in significant ways, for a 6’7″, 270-pound man than it is for a soft-spoken, small woman. This subjectivity clearly makes evaluations more challenging. It also highlights the importance of having multiple, diverse assessment tools and methodologies to arrive at a rounded, holistic understanding of an individual’s soft skill prowess.

Cultural Interpretation

What constitutes “good communication” or “effective leadership” can vary depending on the cultural, social, or organizational context. Understanding soft skills’ multifaceted nature becomes even more pronounced when considering diverse cultural backgrounds. Immigrant populations bring with them a wealth of unique cultural nuances that significantly influence the interpretation and application of both personal and interpersonal soft skills. This can create challenges in programs like English as a Second Language (ESL) or work-readiness initiatives tailored for immigrant student populations.

In correctional settings, these dynamics become even more complex. The confined environment, with its stringent regulations and focus on security, can sometimes suppress cultural expressions. The emphasis in these settings is often on maintaining order, which can overshadow the subtleties of soft skills training. Additionally, prisoners, irrespective of their cultural backgrounds, often come with past traumas, assumed trust issues, or a different set of survival-driven behaviors. In such an environment, teaching soft skills like effective communication or teamwork will necessitate different strategies compared to a free-world education program. Trust-building exercises would be foundational in a prison setting before diving into deeper into any personal development, given the inherent mistrust in such environments. One effective strategy here seems to be finding leaders among the offender population, either to extend soft skills programs into the cell, or to have leaders among the offender population directly lead soft skill development efforts.

The challenge for educators in both scenarios—be it ESL programs for immigrants or soft skills training in prisons—is to find unique, context-dependent ways to communicate and measure skills which are already difficult to define and measure. They must respect and understand cultural and social nuances while also preparing students to navigate the predominant culture of their new home country for example, or preparing students to transition back to society from long-term incarceration. These considerations do not have the same critical impact in academic or technical skills programming as they do in soft skills programs.

Changing Behaviors and Thinking Patterns

Mastering technical skills predominantly means absorbing new knowledge and applying it. For instance, learning the syntax of a programming language or understanding the mechanics of a machine in order to repair it. Soft skills delve deeper, necessitating shifts in values, attitudes, and interpersonal dynamics. Soft skill development often requires individuals to modify ingrained behaviors or habits in some way, which can be extremely difficult and can take significantly longer than the acquisition of new knowledge. The intricacies of behavior change can be best understood through examples.

  • Listening Effectively: To truly listen means to not just hear words but to understand and internalize them. Someone accustomed to dominating conversations would need to consciously curb their instinct to interject, redirecting their focus on the speaker. This change goes beyond mere knowledge acquisition; it involves retraining one’s natural response. Active listening, as it is often defined, also involves certain behaviors on the part of the listener. For example, in active listening, one can give the speaker gestural or facial cues that signal understanding or confusion and aid the communication process. Once these behaviors are learned, they must be applied consistently in order to affect lasting behavioral change.
  • Dealing with Conflict: Imagine someone who has always avoided confrontation. For them, actively addressing and resolving conflict means going against their deeply-rooted instinct to evade or retreat. It’s not about learning the specific steps to resolve conflict, but about overcoming the internal resistance to face it. Imagine how this particular skill might change in the context of long-term incarceration. To be sure, Dealing with Conflict means a very different thing in prison than it means in an office setting or in an employment interview setting.
  • Being Assertive: For individuals who have grown up in environments where they were encouraged to be passive or submissive, asserting themselves can feel unnatural or aggressive. They would need to recalibrate their understanding of self-worth and personal rights, and then practice expressing their needs and boundaries clearly and confidently. They may need to first focus on areas like Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, or Self-Confidence.
  • Managing Time: Someone who’s always been spontaneous might struggle with strict schedules. Adapting to time management techniques involves not just understanding the methods but reshaping daily habits, prioritizing tasks, and resisting the urge to procrastinate. It may involve many strategies, such as a personal calendar, or other ways to extend the classroom objective into the learner’s personal life.

Each of these soft skills showcases the crux of the challenge: it’s not just about knowing what needs to be done but about changing how one naturally reacts or behaves in all sorts of complicated situations. This makes mastering soft skills, or developing them in others, a time-consuming and intricate journey, far removed from the comparatively linear path of acquiring technical skills.

Mindset, Values, and Attitude

Soft skills are deeply intertwined with an individual’s mindset, values, and attitudes. These intrinsic qualities are not easily influenced through external or didactic teaching. Mindset, values, and attitude are developed through a complex interaction between one’s education and experiences. In order to impact these areas, the educator must connect with each individual student’s unique experiences, or the educator must provide new experiences.

Interaction with students through journaling is one very effective way to connect soft skills objectives with learner’s experiences. Journaling also helps students fully understand lesson terms and concepts, in their own words and through their own experiences. Note that teaching through active journaling, particularly with many students at once, is challenging for one learning manager. And there are specific methods for effective journaling in soft skills areas. Soft skills programs can also use group learning, discussion, modeling and role-playing, or other methods to provide new experiences through which students can understand objectives for future application.

In either case, the connections between soft skills and self-awareness seem very clear. One can’t address skills like Dealing with Criticism or Being Assertive without exploring the learner’s Self-Concept.

Technological Change and Soft Skills Value

Identifying difficulties in soft skills training and developing better soft skills programs in all education settings it critically important. This is because soft skills development produces change in learners that will support any future endeavor. Soft skills support life success, and soft skills have lasting value in the labor economy.

With technologies like readily-accessible Large Language Models, technical skills that are in-demand today can become obsolete tomorrow, literally replaced overnight by new tools, communication platforms, or automations. As technology evolves at an accelerating pace, the shelf-life of many technical skills is decreasing accordingly. Hard skills – at least those beyond the literacy and math skills required for successful independent learning – are perishable, relative to intangible soft skills.

As machine learning and AI tools become more and more capable, employment opportunities don’t necessarily disappear, but they do change dramatically in many cases. And soft skills represent one’s adaptability to change, determination to resist failure, and ultimately, their ability to succeed in any world of the future, no matter how complex or rapidly changing. Soft skills are innately human, deeply rooted in our evolutionary journey, and cannot be easily replicated or rendered obsolete by machines. In a future where automation and artificial intelligence might dominate many technical domains, it’s these distinctly human qualities that will set individuals apart.

Standardizing Soft Skills Curriculum

All this variability and uncertainty can make it infinitely challenging to standardize a curriculum for soft skills. At Pace, through revisions of the Life Skills 25 curriculum, we have found that there are specific characteristics of program resources for soft skills development that can help improve outcomes in a wide variety of class settings:

  • flexibility of structure and implementation – as discussed, objectives must be tailored to each unique class, and soft skills development services vary widely. Effective resources for soft skills development should be flexible in the sense that ‘pieces and parts’ of a program could be used to supplement other curricular resources, and they should allow for easy reorganization.
  • flexibility/adaptability of content – in addition, the written content itself should be adaptable. Instructional content should create awareness of important concepts and establish common vocabulary, but shouldn’t necessarily draw conclusions for the student and class. Ideally, the majority of ‘real-life examples’ of lesson concepts arise from class discussion, activities, or the student’s own writing and reflection, as opposed to the lesson content itself. Finally, in soft skills programming, it is critical that learning managers read student content itself whenever possible. This is because terminology and definitions in soft skills programs are inherently more subjective; students’ understanding of concepts becomes much more dependent on the learning manager, peers, and the class experience, rather than on objective written content.
  • holistic evaluation methods – we have established the importance of a wide variety of evaluation methods and tools when measuring soft skills performance and progress. Personal and interpersonal soft skills cannot be measured effectively through objective written assessment. Objective test scores measure student vocabulary in a given domain, and they are not enough to evaluate soft skills. Soft skills curricula should have built-in, documentable strategies for impacting both intrinsic personal qualities and ingrained behaviors (habits) in positive ways. One of the most effective ways to impact personal soft skills and evaluate their growth is a student’s journal activity over time, including both prompted and unprompted reflection around lesson objectives/concepts. In order to effectively evaluate interpersonal soft skills, behavioral observation and evaluation is required.

Soft skills programming is difficult, but the effort is commendable and the rewards for your students are immeasurable. The influence of soft skills on success cannot be understated; they play a pivotal role in all areas of life success. Even in strictly academic learning environments, soft skills serve as the bedrock of effective communication and collaboration.

In the future, it seems, soft skills will become ever more important. As the world evolves and becomes increasingly interconnected, the ability to communicate, empathize, and work collaboratively will be of paramount importance. Our mission at Pace is to help service providers create success for their students. We do this by not only rapidly developing technical proficiency in basic academic skills, but also by encouraging self-awareness, learning independence, emotional intelligence, and adaptability, among many other “hard” soft skills.

~C. Massey, September 19th, 2023

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