Stop hyperfixating on "Soft Skills" and start working on expertise
Getting your professional knowledge is the hardest part
6 min read
Tech Twitter is at it again. Gatekeeping at its best. This tweet was forwarded into my timeline a few days ago.
Doesn’t matter how good of an engineer you are. If you can’t work well with people, you’ll only hurt the team.
I am not going to link you to the person posting it because she has got enough backlash already, but I want to use this tweets content to discuss with you why this is a harmful stance.
What are “Soft Skills”?
This is where the whole problem already starts. There is no universal definition what soft skills really are. The term came up the first time in the 1960s in the US-Army to describe anything that was not work on machinery that would lead soldiers and win wars. The Army is a strict top down hierarchy where the single person doesn't matter too much. Personal opinions, and thoughts are often unimportant and only the order from above matters.
Since then many people tried to redefine the term but never came to a conclusion what they actually mean with it. So Soft Skills could basically mean anything that is not your core professional knowledge you need for your job.
These days the definition will simply be copied from previously published lists. Very rarely companies define the needed soft skills themselves. So when an employer demands people to have soft skills, there is no real definition what they actually demand. It could be nothing. It could be everything. This can be problematic.
How have “Soft Skills” been defined in the past?
Since there is a lack of a universal definition, the term has been used and abused by companies in the past. From harmless things like “Communication Skills” over to “Loyalty and dedication towards the company” the ability to “follow commands” and even to “looks”. Soft Skills have always been a term of controversy and also discrimination at the work place.
According to linguist Deborah Cameron diversity in communication skills does train people a better understanding of the communication itself and leads to harmony and mutual understanding. She also notes that the “often praised linguistic uniformity as an ideal” has been outdated with globalization itself.
Soft Skills as an oppression of cultural differences
A big factor of critique that is typically mentioned is that “Soft Skills” do not take cultural differences into consideration because they are frequently connected to character traits. That's why some companies define “adapting to the countries behaviour and culture” a soft skill. In Canada, you will for example have to gather “Canadian Experience” as a Soft Skill in order to get a job as an immigrant. If you can't prove that you have the experience you are typically forced to enter low or no pay jobs even as a skilled worker.
The Ontario Human Rights Organization mentioned this in their paper: “Common questions: Policy on removing the “Canadian experience” barrier (fact sheet)”
[...] An employer may not state openly that Canadian experience is needed, but could give more value to it than to non-Canadian experience. Employers may also devalue or discount foreign experience, or require knowledge they assume someone can only get in a Canadian workplace (for example, social or other “soft” skills).
Further they also say:
Avoid using the term “soft skills” because it is subjective and may be defined in many different ways. If a job applicant does not know what an employer means by “soft skills,” then it will be hard to show they have these skills.
They then explain to name the competencies required for the position of the job the person is interviewing for. They also have to explicitly mention that these competencies can be acquired outside of Canada.
Does this sound like discrimination to you?
And then there is this thing about inclusion
I already mentioned in my last article that “Soft Skills” are often used as an excuse to exclude disabled people from workplaces. Making vague and unreasonable requests towards the “Soft Skill” requirement can even count as 'Disability Discrimination* which is against the law in many countries.
So why is this tweet a problem?
If you can’t work well with people, you’ll only hurt the team.
Let's give her the benefit of the doubt that it might have been written out of personal experience, because someone in the team has been willingly and actively disturbing the workplace. We all know these self entitled, self obsessed people who need to rub into everyone's faces how good they are and get their fix from talking everyone down. If that was the case. Totally agree.
But this tweet was written SO vague that it hurt more people that it helped people. It doesn't specify “working well” but it says you actively hurt the team. Comparing the inability of figuring out social interactions with physical harm. That is bold and dangerous. Especially when you talk to people who are in training or jobseekers. You create a climate that defines this “we vs. them” without saying who “them” are, but making clear they are against what “we” stand.
On top of that. A team HAS to be diverse. A team HAS to bring different views, perspectives, and skill sets. You may have a person that lacks your demand of small talk abilities but doesn't hesitate to get up at 4am when your servers crash to get it running again without complaining.
Or you may hire an autistic person that your colleagues consider rude, because of their direct honesty. Disregarding that autism can also be connected to loyalty and the will to do the “right thing” even if it does not profit them but the big picture.
How to communicate better?
A better solution would have been to say “If you can't work well with a team here are some resources how to work on yourself”. Or: These are the competencies we value and actively support in our team. Being specific and reasonable.
Creating a climate of openness, inclusivity. Reaching hands instead of closing doors for vague reasons.
What to do when looking for a job?
To my headline—Your core abilities for your job are the ones you should train for. They are measurable and can be tested in interviews. Social Skills can not be measured and if a company wants to get rid of you and wants to use Soft Skills as a reason, they will find one regardless.
If your interviewer or manager is unaware of their own lack of communication skills (and oh boy do I have stories about that) then there is nothing you can do. Even with your best communication skills.
So influence what you can influence. Your knowledge. Don't put even more pressure on you than you actually have to. Don't let a buzzword discourage you from starting a career. Also train yourself to spot these red flags when applying for jobs and ask your interviewer directly how they define Social or Soft-Skills when it is brought up either in an interview or in the job advertisement.
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash