Why Are Soft Skills So Hard to Develop?

The Basics – Hard Skills

One of the great ironies in the world of Human Resources (HR) is the term soft skills in contrast to hard skills. Hard skills involve specific knowledge and abilities. For example, hard skills include technical proficiencies like using spreadsheets, mathematics, bookkeeping and accounting principles, or driving a forklift, etc. In the context of a hiring process, these hard skills can be summarized as “what you know.”

When we’re interviewing and getting to know potential job candidates, we rarely forget to assess knowledge, including confirming that the candidates have earned the relevant degrees or diplomas and have a solid familiarity of the area in which s/he will be employed.

In many respects, these hard skills are fairly easy to evaluate. If you need to hire an engineer or a nurse, you can demand that all job applicants have the appropriate engineering or nursing designations or credentials. That’s a good first step and a worthwhile shortcut but it’s not nearly enough. Of course, any worthwhile hiring process will probe all job applicants’ hard and soft skills, knowledge, and experience in the relevant fields.

The Flipside – The Basics of Soft Skills

Soft skills are the tools that we use to apply our knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences. Soft skills have a huge impact on how effectively an employee performs their assigned tasks and duties Soft skills include things like judgement, initiative, interpersonal skills, flexibility, and an ability to communicate effectively both verbally and in writing, etc. I would argue that the hard skills are the knowledge and abilities, the soft skills are how one uses and applies ones’ knowledge, skills, and abilities.

In 2014, Career Builder published a study of over 2,000 HR professionals. They found that 77% of the people they surveyed believed that soft skills are just as important as hard skills. In fact, 16% thought that the soft skills are more important. In many instances, I agree that the soft skills can be at least as important as hard skills.

Why Does This Matter?

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have two surgeons who have similar years of experience and graduated from equally ranked medical schools and post-graduate training programs. Dr. Ace is known for her ability to take the initiative and remain flexible enough to take additional steps that prevent complications. In addition, she uses her extraordinary communication skills and empathy to put her patients at ease. Dr. Meh has similar technical skills and knowledge (that is, he and Dr. Ace have equivalent hard skills) but his surgical outcomes aren’t as good … nor is he as well-liked. Most people who have a choice would choose Dr. Ace but it may not be easy to differentiate between the two surgeons in a standard interview.

Since many of us get through life without ever meeting a surgeon, here’s another example. Let’s say you need to hire a real estate agent. You’ve narrowed it down to two people. Both of them have been in the field for about 10 years and possess a valid real estate licence. The hard skills are about the same. If one agent was more conscientious, proactive, and tactful and could remain calm during times of stress / challenge would you want to hire that one? Most people would — and that’s for one transaction that should last for several weeks. Imagine the impact that these soft skills could have on the purchase or sale of your home. Then, imagine the impact that these soft skills could have on a real estate company who employs this agent instead of the one whose soft skills are much less developed.

Why Are Soft Skills So Hard to Develop?

First, don’t get me wrong — I fully believe that hard skills are essential. I want full trained and competent people to provide my dental, construction, and financial services, etc. There’s just no substitute for knowing your stuff. With that said, I also believe that the soft skills are also essential. In fact, I’d argue that when the hard skills meet or exceed an appropriate threshold, the deciding factor should be the soft skills.

In practice, once a person is in a work role, the odds are that their experience, knowledge, and technical skills (that is their hard skills) will continue to increase over time. Those are the things that someone can continue to learn on the job. In contrast, however, the soft skills are the things that great job candidates should bring with them into the job because they are much harder to develop (see a previous blog post on this topic).

Have you ever tried to teach someone how to have better judgement? How about initiative and follow through — have you successfully taught these soft skills? Maybe you’ve had better luck teaching someone how to be a friendly, cooperative, team member whose communication skills improve month after month? No, that’s just not how it works. These soft skills are things that people must bring into the job since they’re too darn hard to develop.

Sadly, in addition to these soft skills being hard to teach, they can also be very difficult to assess reliably during a hiring process. Although I offer HR services, my foundation is in Industrial / Organizational Psychology. Since 1999 I have developed expertise in the assessment of relevant work-related behaviours at hiring and also in the context of promotions and succession planning. This skill is exceptionally valuable when employers need to make good hiring, promotion, and succession-related decisions.



Dr Helen Ofosu Career Coach Outplacement Specialist HR Consultant


Dr. Helen Ofosu is a specialist in the development of precise and efficient hiring processes for the private and public sector, using best practices from Industrial / Organizational (I/O) psychology which is also known as work or business psychology. She founded I/O Advisory Services, a firm that specializes in HR Consulting and Career Coaching.

Categories: Business, Human Resources, Workplace Values & Ethics

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