Why we undervalue ‘soft-skills’

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Image credit: http://www.bootcamplearning.in/soft-skills-training/

Business school is an interesting place. You take hundreds of 20 & 30 something people from a diverse set of paths, stick them together and get them to learn a bunch of things including finance, accounting, marketing and ‘leadership’, whatever that is… Each school has their own pedagogy and style; At Harvard almost everything we do is taught using the case method. Other schools use more lecture or project based methods.

Throughout my studies I observed the various attitudes of my classmates to the different courses. While individual interests varied widely I have noticed a consistent thread between the perspectives. In general, the students placed higher respect on courses related to objective ‘hard’ skills over interpersonal or ‘soft’ skills.

Why is that?


  1. Society undervalues interpersonal skills over technical ones but it should be the other way round.
  2. We believe soft skills are innate not learned and so rely on gut-feel and hard-won experience rather than learning
  3. We falsely believe we are high performers when we suck because we don’t even know what good looks like.

Society: technical skills >> interpersonal skills

As a society we systematically undervalue soft skills in favour of the ‘harder’ more technical skills like finance, statistics or engineering. We freely admit that we don’t know how to conduct NPV analysis, how to perform heart surgery, or how to perform maintenance on your car. However many people generally believe they can listen effectively, manage and motivate teams, or handle complex negotiations. The former group feels like a set of objective skills that one acquires with experience, the latter feels like merely a set of human traits. To imply that someone is a poor leader cuts deeper than to imply they need to up their tennis stroke.

Seth Godin wrote an interesting piece on Medium titled Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills. By calling them ‘soft’ we devalue their importance. Instead Godin suggests that we call them ‘real’ skills.

“Real because they work, because they’re at the heart of what we need today.”

We are in an age where machine learning and artificial intelligence is helping machines take over more and more of our activities; for example

  • personal finance: Abe budget advice and Acorn automated investment;
  • transportation: Otto autonomous trucks, Waymo (formerly Google) self-driving cars;
  • Health: Your.MD virtual doctor and Freenome next gen genetic analysis;
  • Agriculture: Harvest Automation material handling robots and ASI’s autonomous tractors;
  • Data Analysis: Dataminr’s social media sentiment analysis and Trifacta business intelligence tools;
  • And many more companies across many more industries.

In fact a 2016 Digital McKinsey report claims that 45% of the current activities people get paid to do are at risk of being automated away. The activities that will be the hardest to automate (although perhaps just a matter of time) are those associated with ‘knowledge work’; the same real skills we were talking about before.

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‘Real’ skills — the myth of the natural born leader

I believe that part of the reason that people undervalue interpersonal skills is that they believe that these skills are generally fixed — how often have you heard someone be described as a ‘natural born leader’. You are either born with these skills or not. And so given this mindset it makes sense to put less effort into these skills. We all have limited time to spend and so it makes more sense to hone our technical skills, ones that we can control, rather than ones in which we can’t.

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Norman Doidge’s book explores stories of how people are using neuroplasticity to dramatically change their brains — a task thought impossible even a decade ago.

However more recent research is beginning to change this conventional wisdom. We used to think that the brain is fixed and that damage to parts of the brain were irreparable. More recently, promising research in the field of Neuroplasticity has demonstrated that in fact the brain is quite malleable and will respond to trauma by reconfiguring itself. For example in Norman Doidge’s wonderful book The brain that changes itself blind patients who are taught braille ultimately grow the areas in their brain associated with reading.

Understanding this difference is not only interesting but actually leads to improved learning. Carol Dweck’s research into Growth Mindsets has shown that children who maintain a Growth Mindset learn more than their Fixed Mindset peers (you can watch Dweck’s great TedTalk here). Dweck argues that this relates to how such students respond to challenges. Fixed students assumed that they were simply not smart enough to solve it and often gave up quickly. In contrast Growth students assumed they simply had not tried in the right way YET and often were motivated to keep trying.

In management education we see the same phenomenon. Leadership, listening, empathy. We view these with our Fixed Mindsets. If we can’t catalyse our team behind a bold vision, we just are a great leader. If we can’t don’t engage fully with others in conversations, we just aren’t great listeners. And if we can’t put ourselves easily into other people’s shoes, oh well, we just aren’t a people person.


If we can’t do it now it’s because we can’t do it yet. Like other skills we can get better with deliberate practice.

Dunning-Kruger — a tale of hubris

I think the other big reason why we underinvest in improving our interpersonal skills is that we are routinely misunderstand our ability in these areas. The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a cognitive bias where low-ability individuals mistakenly believe their ability is much higher than it is. This is because they lack decent comparables and are unaware of what good performance really looks like. This is illustrated in the diagram below.

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The same effect relates to interpersonal skills. How many of you have worked with a destructive manager or colleague who seems to think they are excellent?

I thought so.

Ok great so what do I do now?

One option would be to curl up in a ball and hide from the big bad scary world. But, as tempting as that is, it’s not a very sustainable solution. So instead…

Develop a Growth Mindset

The next time you come up against a challenge when dealing with other try to maintain a curious perspective. Observe how you are engaging with others and how they are responding to you. If you aren’t getting the outcomes you want understand that this is a situation that can be fixed. If you can’t do it, well you can’t do it YET. Test out different methods and observe the outcomes.

If you are incompetent be aware — get the facts

If the Dunning-Kruger effect is a villain then training and education is its superhero. Don’t just assume you are have good interpersonal skills just because you are a human. Don’t just rely on your gut. Ask people for feedback or even conduct a 360-degree feedback. Observe how others perform and critically compare yourself to them and the relative outcomes you achieve.

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Written by

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.

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