Are Soft Skills Really that Soft?

Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recently published major pieces on the critical need for so-called “soft” skills. Both papers emphasized the increasingly high demand by employers for soft skills, but also their woeful short supply.  Both drew on just-published studies by the likes of LinkedIn.

The term “soft” skills has always bothered me. It implies these skills are easier to acquire, and somehow less valuable, than ‘hard’ skills. In contrast to mathematics or engineering, it’s implied they are difficult if not impossible to define, identify, teach and nurture. But nothing could be further from the truth.

And I speak from personal experience. My team here at USC-Annenberg has spent the last four years interviewing executives across multiple industries to identify and define the critical competences they seek in their employees, especially when hiring new employees.

We uncovered five distinct attributes or competencies that are key to success in today’s digitally disrupted world. These are all “soft” skills:

Adaptability – The ability to demonstrate mental agility and remain comfortable with ambiguity and flexible in the face of continual change. Capable of effective problem-solving and exploration of various alternative scenarios by drawing upon principles from multiple disciplines, including design, technology and economics as well as communications.

Cultural Competency – The ability to demonstrate emotional and cross-cultural intelligence; capable of working inclusively and respectfully with others of various cultures and orientations. Also demonstrates organizational intelligence and broad, cross-functional thinking, shunning the limitations of structural, geographic, departmental, or other organizational boundaries that may hinder effective problem-solving and goal attainment.

Empathy – The capability to understand others’ priorities and perspectives by engaging in active listening and focusing on reflective responses that clarify and strengthen dialogue. Able to effectively interpret others’ viewpoints and integrate these insights into more effective approaches for problem-solving and need fulfillment.

Intellectual Curiosity – Possesses a hunger for knowledge that fuels ever-higher levels of learning and performance. Strives for measureable growth and demonstrates emotional intelligence and savvy with regard to organizational and cultural mores.

360-Degree Thinking – The ability to takes a holistic, multi-dimensional, analytical approach to problem-solving. Able to convert information into insights, considering potential relationships between disparate data points and engaging in sense-making by “connecting the dots.”

Clearly, critical “soft” skills can be carefully identified and precisely defined. They can also be assessed. At the Center for Third Space Thinking ( we have developed a proprietary tool called the Third Space Thinking Assessment Tool that measures the current proficiency of individuals and teams on each of the attributes individually and collectively. Based on that assessment we can provide the tools people need to improve their deficiencies on each competency and better leverage their identified strengths.

We are also successfully teaching these “soft” skills to students through multiple courses at the undergraduate and graduate level and to executives through custom experiences and boot camps. Over the past year more than 300 students have enrolled in classes where Third Space Thinking has been taught; over the same time, we brought Third Space Thinking to companies like Arrow Electronics Company; Robert Half International; Gap, Inc.; UPS, Inc.; eBay and others.

The real lasting benefit of these so-called “soft” skills comes not in acquiring and deploying them one-by-one, but using them in concert as a new, more dynamic way to solve problems. Using these “soft” skills as a foundation, we have developed a holistic communication-driven methodology to frame and solve problems that can help organizations become more successful in today’s complex and ever-changing world.

But developing the Third Space framework has not been automatic nor easy. Identifying, defining and teaching it has not been a walk in the park. “Soft” skills are at least as complex and challenging to acquire as the “hard” skills and they may be harder to acquire and teach. They may also be more important to your success.

Just ask the whole new generation of leaders we’re equipping every day at Annenberg with the skills needed to thrive in a communication-at-the-center world.

In my next blog post I’ll describe how communication is central to all the “soft” skills, just as it is becoming central to the lives of individuals, organizations and nations.