Posted 28 Sep 2021
What Are Soft Skills Anyway? Unconscious Bias In Everyday HR
Linked In’s 2019 Global Talent Trends reported that so called “soft skills” were in demand and a growing commodity in hiring. What do we mean by soft skills? From the perspective of neurodiversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity, age diversity, LGBTQIA+ diversity, disability diversity, soft skills are the very words used to exclude, excuse, oppress, marginalize and minoritize. I am very dubious about soft skills and I’d like to explain why. Let’s take a few of the favorites.
What does this mean? How frequently should one communicate? By which medium? How lengthy should one’s communication be? How should it be adjusted depending on the seniority and any prior rapport that one has with the recipient? If I give feedback on what I liked and wanted different about a report that you have sent me, am I being a good communicator or am I micromanaging and demanding? It is all in the eye of the beholder and the social rules of communication vary significantly across geographical boundaries, cultural boundaries, generations, neurodivergent versus neurotypical etc. Is “good communication” actually about working out who has the power in the relationship and then that person gets to set the rules of how we communicate?
In my own business and our neurodiversity consulting work I can see where these mismatches in interpretation cause no end of difficulties. For example, some of us aren’t brilliant at picking up subtle cues. We might not notice that we have upset someone from silences, sighs and gentle persuasion. They might say “it’s definitely getting there” and we might think, “great, I’m headed in the right direction.” They might end up really frustrated and point out to us in a huff, “I’ve told you three times that this wasn’t good enough.” We would then find this surprising and disorientating. On the flip side, we are quick to point out in a direct way what is missing or needs work, “the balance between image and words isn’t right can you please add more pictures” and forgo the gentle introductions like “It’s definitely getting there.” This is then interpreted at the same level of annoyed that they would need to be experiencing to talk like that, so assume we are cross and they get defensive.
This same dance of cultural and personal norms in communication occurs between the genders, between nationalities, races and ethnicities, generations etc. One person’s direct and transparent is another person’s rude, one person’s polite is another person’s insincere and disingenuous. So who is the good communicator here? The polite one or the sincere one? The game is to get the right balance for the context you are in, but if you have power, you can influence your context and get away with deviating from the norm.
I can influence people in a good way or a bad way. I could be an amazing influencer and also rather deceitful, telling people only what I think they need to hear in order to get them to do things for me. I could influence formally, transparently and with passion and enthusiasm. Does the phrase influencing skills incorporate both of these? In what way is it related to the job? Why do we need influencing skills in team management and team member roles where actually tasks should just be handed out and completed, surely influencing is only needed if you are in sales, strategy, policy or politics?Again, the neurominorities among us find this confusing. Many of us are very direct and don’t need to be influenced, we just need to know what our work should be and then we do it, very uncomplicated. We wonder why people need influencing, they are paid to come to work and get on with it, why the need for influencing? It falls into the same category of insincerity for us. As a result, we don’t always influence people well! And we are sometimes chastised for it. Again, influencing goes with power, those who have it can influence in whichever way they choose whereas those who do not have power have to pitch their influencing just right for the culture in which they sit. We can get it wrong and be too bossy, too abrasive, too abrupt, too withdrawn, too cold, too introverted, too extroverted, too devious, too obvious – and if we happen to be female, Black or Brown, disabled, young, trans, queer – well, you know the story. So again, who is the good influencer here? The one who can match the cultural context best and there in lies the oppression.
In an article for CEOWORLD magazine, Alicia Gonzales makes this point beautifully when discussing flexibility. She writes “Workplace flexibility includes the ability for employees to work where and when they want. [The Linked In research] discovered that creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management were the five most important soft skills in demand. Oxford Languages defines adaptability as the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions. Perhaps, there is equal value in the skill of being able to prevent unplanned new conditions. Certainly, while considering the quality of someone’s ability to adapt, we must also acknowledge that our perspective is subjective.”
Is flexibility only needed to compensate for poor planning and preparation? We need to value the complimentary balance of consistency and flexibility, both are required for day to day functioning in business.
In the use of ambiguous, culturally-laden terminology we are hiding marginalization and unwritten social rules. The winners of the ambiguity are those who are most easily assimilated into the culture by virtue of their demographics or, failing that, those who find it easy to pick up social cues and respond quickly. For minoritized employees, this is the daily experience that holds us back. I encourage all businesses to take a long hard look at the unconscious bias embedded in your role descriptions, job adverts, interview selection criteria, situational judgement test scoring, performance appraisal systems and disciplinary policies. You might find that you are not as clear as you think.