Last June, Entrepreneur Magazine published an article in which they reported that 16% of employers consider employees’ soft skills (getting along with others, punctuality, and other silly things like that) more important than their hard skills, which includes things like ‘technical competence’ and ‘knowing how to actually do your job.’ This means that approximately 5 employers out of 6 have decided that an employee knowing how to do their job is more important than how they conduct themselves at work and interact with their peers.
I’m assuming that there are 6 of you right now huddled around the screen, breathless and eager to see what I’m about to write. (I’m assuming that because it’s more fun than assuming the truth.) So this article is to 5 of you. I appreciate how important technical skills are, and you certainly don’t want to hire welders who think hot things are scary. Or perhaps you work remotely or as an independent contractor, in which case your soft skills might not be as important as they are in more populated environments.
But for the 84% of you who think soft skills aren’t as important as hard skills, consider the following:
You just hired a new employee, and he knows everything. He can build a bridge or bake a soufflé or close a sale like he was born to do it. He’s also a cantankerous drunk who has a habit of throwing things at people’s heads when he doesn’t get his way. You try telling him that throwing things isn’t really how you do business, but he ends up being too busy calling you an idiot to pay careful attention. When one of your other employees has an idea that he doesn’t like, he spends so much time berating the offending party that she eventually leaves and finds another company where people might occasionally listen to her. Were her ideas any good? You’ll never know, because you’re so busy spending time managing your brilliant little hellion that you don’t have time for such abstract thoughts. But at least you can empathize with all the people who worked with Thomas Edison, who was undoubtedly brilliant but so thoroughly difficult a person to deal with that his employees would have electrocuted him if they’d been able to. You consider administering some electric shock treatments to your evil genius – after all, it worked on your dog in the backyard, right? – but someone reminds you that electrocuting people is at least slightly illegal. Which is really too bad, because it would sure be fun to see.
You just hired a new employee, and she’s in over her head. She knows how to open doors and speak in complete sentences, but that’s about it. However, she’s extremely eager to learn, and everyone loves her. She shows up on time or early every day, and eventually you realize she’s fairly good at asking intelligent questions. She makes a lot of mistakes at first, but it frustrates her even more than it frustrates you, so she determines not to make the same mistake twice. That means she searches for mentors, and everyone’s happy to help because did I mention that she’s a wonderful person and people love her? Others take her under their wing, and soon her mistakes are more inconvenient than catastrophic. One day she surprises you by offering a remarkably astute suggestion that no one else had thought of, and when it’s pointed out as a good idea she’s so excited that you can’t help but feeling great yourself. At no time do you consider attaching jumper cables to her head and hooking her up to a car battery.
Here’s my point. Sometimes your most gifted employees are indispensable, and if they’re difficult people then you’ll just have to deal with it because you can’t live without them. And sometimes your most well-intentioned novice is a hopeless moron that no amount of training is ever going to be able to help. But all things being equal, hard skills can often be taught more easily than soft skills can. In a perfect world you wouldn’t have to teach either of them. But then honestly, in a perfect world you also wouldn’t have to manage anyone, or convince anybody to buy your obviously superior products. You also wouldn’t have to eat, since we’d have been designed to manufacture our own food.
Stupid imperfect world.