Time to drop the “soft” from “soft skills”

Why are soft skills called “soft”?

According to Wikipedia the term “soft skill” came to life through the US Army, to describe “important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.” To which the US Army added the remark “in other words, those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills and those about which we know very little are soft skills.”

Today, “hard” skills refer to the mostly technical competencies, while “soft” skills refer to more human-centered skills like communication, social and emotional intelligence. However, these terms are often mistaken for the difference between cognitive and emotional abilities. Thus, overlooking the fact that soft skills need cognitive abilities too.

Are they really soft?

When you don’t master one of these “soft” skills, they can make your life and that of others damn hard. Soft skills are not cuddly at all! Just think about the last time someone lost his/her temper during a meeting.     

By calling them “soft” we discredit their importance, and the effort and difficulty to master them. Even at work they are crucial. Without those skills, you can say goodbye to effective decision-making, teamwork, negotiation, leadership, perseverance, … basically anything that helps you to succeed in today’s economical and industrial environment.

Unconscious bias

When they are soft “as a teddybear”, why would anyone take them seriously and invest their time and money in improving them?

And because of this unconscious bias, we create a suboptimal situation. Look for example at the gender gap or the Peter Principle. “Soft” skills are not valued equally in performance ratings, promotions, etc.  As a result people are hired or promoted for their specific technical skills, but don’t improve their skill to communicate effectively with their team, to deal with conflict or failure, etc. …  What is his or her name? I’m sure you know someone like that.


The time is long due to drop the “soft”. With the help of psychological and neuroscience research we know now a lot about these skills. These skills are now hard data and no longer black boxes. Time to treat them as such!

Written by: Brain & behavior expert, Dr. Nicole Van Hoeck