top of page

Soft Skills: Why Workshops Fail to Offer High ROI

Many organizations are not truly invested in soft skills training. Most people don't realize that the term “soft skills” originated in the 1960s in the US Army Training Command to describe the skills necessary to control and manage a battlespace.

Hard Skills Do Not Equate to Career Success

For over a century, hard skills were the only skills necessary for employment and were generally measurable from educational background, work experience, or interviews.

Success seemed to be related to completing tasks. For this reason, employers hired new people based on their objective competencies.

It turns out that this assumption was wrong. Numerous studies demonstrate that 80% of career success is determined by soft skills and only 20% by hard skills.

What Are Soft Skills?

I divide soft skills into six broad sets: communication skills, emotional competency (measured by emotional intelligence), thinking skills, people skills, sense of self, and social skills.

Communication skills include public speaking, presentation skills, persuasion, storytelling, cognitive and affective empathy skills, managing difficult conversations, managing effective confrontations, and reflective listening skills.

Emotional competency skills include emotional self-awareness and self-regulation, cognitive and affective empathy, maintaining a non-anxious presence, building consensus, receiving critical feedback, compassion, and motivating others.

Thinking skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical reasoning, decision-making, awareness and prevention of cognitive distortions, and qualitative and quantitative analysis.

People skills include conflict management and resolution skills, approachability, tolerance of diversity, trust, and transparency.

Sense of self includes self-awareness, integrity, ethics, patience, vulnerability, and authenticity.

Social skills include networking, team building, relationship building, running efficient meetings, negotiation skills, and observing appropriate etiquette rules.

All of these skills have to be learned and mastered. And other than thinking skills, these skills rarely appear in formal or informal educational curriculums. When they do, they are still not given the same merit and attention as hard skills subjects like math and science.

Why Do Executives Dismiss Soft Skills?

Our culture is heavily biased towards rationality even though neuroscience now teaches that humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. As a result, organizations wrongly believe that measuring the effects of soft skills training should be relegated to a spreadsheet. This is aggravated by the fact that most executives “hate” soft skills and have no interest in developing emotional competency.

I hear five phrases repeatedly:

“Soft skills threaten the structures that keep businesses going.”

To many, soft skills imply a lack of hard work and a relaxed touchy-feely approach to employee relations that flies in the face of an intense competitive dog-eat-dog business world.

We are too busy for soft skills.”

Every company has had to cut costs and do more with less. Investing time in soft skill development is viewed as time lost from production and therefore represents lost profits.

“Soft skills are a sign of weakness.”

It’s been conditioned within us that skills like compassion, vulnerability, transparency, and trust mean that competitors can exploit and take advantage of us and that we must be hard and tough to succeed.

“Soft skills are hard to measure.”

How do you measure the effect of a trustworthy vs. untrustworthy leader on the bottom line? How do authenticity and vulnerability relate to quarterly financial performance?

Those are the excuses and justifications I hear from business leaders and executives. But they all hide the real reason business dismiss soft skills: Fear and lack of knowledge.

A Key Reason Businesses Dismiss Soft Skills

Many people are afraid of emotions. Afraid of relationships. Afraid of authenticity and vulnerability. These are alien, scary concepts. And to master these soft skills requires hard work over time, forcing you to look at yourself in ways that will inevitably be painful. It’s easier for people in power to blow off human development than confront their fear of emotions.

Organizations at large have short-term perspectives (usually quarterly or annually) and fail to see the return on investment in serious soft skills training may take years to develop because it takes years to develop strong leaders.

Organizations struggle to measure the intangible costs of low emotional intelligence, high turnover, difficult recruiting, absenteeism, low productivity, low morale, etc. Therefore, they cannot measure the positive change that occurs when leaders are properly trained in soft skills and emotional competency.

For instance, it is almost unheard of for an organization to say, “We will invest $50,000 for coaching and training each of five upcoming leaders. We will track their progress and development over the next five years and compare them to leaders who did not receive coaching and training. We will measure the development of leadership qualities, emotional intelligence, and the productivity of the groups these leaders lead. At the end of five years, we will have the data necessary to determine if we received value for our $250,000 investment.”

Organizations are not set up to measure cost savings over time, only profits over time. Since soft skills training is predominately viewed as reducing costs than increasing profits, the value of the training is not appreciated, tracked, or analyzed.

How Do We Make Soft Skills Dominant?

  • Obtain the commitment of the board of directors and senior executives to change to a soft skills mentality. Without support from the top, a soft skills development program will fail.

  • Invest in leadership development at all levels. Remember that a 19-year-old Army private has to go through a 30-day leadership course just to qualify for NCO school. The Army sees training the lowest in the hierarchy in basic leadership as crucial to the mission of the organization.

  • Offer continued education. Most community colleges offer courses in critical thinking and reasoning. Work out an arrangement for formal training in thinking for employees. Don’t assume they learned how to think during their educational years.

  • Use peer reviews to measure emotional competency, people skills, and social skills.

  • Bring in professional mediator trainers to teach effective confrontation management, conflict management, negotiation, and difficult conversations.

  • Retain qualified coaches to set up emotional competency training at all levels of the organization.

  • Plan for a 5–10-year horizon to see systemic changes in the organization.

  • Set up metrics for measuring the tangible and intangible effects of soft skills development by looking at current costs and losses, such as absenteeism, retention, recruiting, and productivity.

This is hard work because it goes against the flow of 100 years of business management theory and practice. However, it will mean the difference between success and failure as the 21st century progresses.

Are you interested in watching Doug Null's corresponding video?


bottom of page