An overview of Soft Skills

06.02.19 06:49 PM Comment(s)


The purpose of this article is to provide a broad overview of soft skills and its development. We will ask the following questions. What is the history of Emotional Intelligence? Is there a growing need for soft skills development? How are soft skills currently being measured? What is the ROI on soft skills? How is education dealing with the need for a focus on Soft Skills?

History of Soft Skills

Up until the late 80 and early 90’s, most people believed that cognitive abilities and IQ was going to determine success in the workplace. We now know that EQ is as important.
Emotional Intelligence might be defined as: “A type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions (Salovey and Mayer 1990:433). The history of Emotional Intelligence can be traced back to the Intelligence testing movement of Thorndike (1920), who recognised that there are multiple intelligences, one of them being social intelligence.
David Wechsler (1939) built on this concept by suggesting that the moods, feelings, and attitudes surrounding intelligence could be critical components to success in life. In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow created the hierarchy of needs discussing how people could develop emotional strength. The Theory of social intelligences did not receive too much attention until Gardner (1983) in his book, ‘Frames of the mind: the theory of multiple intelligences’. Gardner identifies eight different intelligences; linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. According to Gardner, no one person is the same when it comes to how one learns, develops and solves problems. Payne, (1985), Bar-On (1988), Goldberg (1993), Mayer and Salovey (1990) continued to develop the concept of Emotional Intelligence until Goleman(1995), brought emotional intelligence to the mainstream public.

Growing need for soft skills development

Research shows that soft skills can result in higher earnings and higher chances of work success (Heckman & Kautz 2012; Balcar 2014). Research is also showing that there will be a greater need for soft skills in the future (Deloitte 2017; Carnevale, 2013; Manpower Group, 2013).
Soft Skills development is becoming a ‘hot topic’ due to disruptive technologies and many other factors. Deloitte, in their research on Human Capital Trends (2018) it was shown how the world of work is changing to become more personalised and connected, with formal hierarchies breaking down and being replaced by networks of teams. Another article by Deloitte (2017), “Soft Skills for Business Success” 2, highlights the fact that by 2030 soft skills intensive occupations will make up 2/3 of the world’s workforce and critical soft skills like Self Management; Teamwork; Problem Solving and Global Citizenship just to name a few, will be essential to stay relevant in the business world.
Rossano and Hill (2015)3 in their literature review “Soft e-leadership skills” prepared for the European Commission highlighted the fact that although technology will be at the forefront of the future economy, leaders will need skills in collaboration, communication; empathy; diversity and cultural knowledge to build teams across multiple platforms.
Soft Skills are going to be needed in all fields including IT professionals. Wagner and Sternberg (2002), renowned cognitive psychologists highlighted the fact that ‘School Smart’, good academics at school does not translate to ‘Street Smart’ good work intelligence. They highlighted four areas that need to be mastered for IT professionals: Managing tasks; managing career; managing self; and leading others.
Due to this, recruiters, are becoming more concerned about hiring people with excellent soft skills and more rigorous recruiting procedures are being put into place (Alsop 2006; Colvin 2014; White 2013).

Assessing Soft Skills

The challenge with measuring soft skills is that personalities cannot be put into neat boxes, as Srivastava and Oliver (1999), highlighted for us in their work on the “Big Five”. Credentialing Soft Skills is a new frontier that has not yet been thoroughly mastered, due to the nature of Soft Skills being behaviour based and not analytical. Some of the organizations that use Soft Skills Assessments would be: The States Department of Defense uses a personality test called the (TAPAS).4 Other organizations like DeakinCo5; SHL6; Mayer- Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) presented by MHS7 all present tests measuring some form of soft skills and emotional intelligence.
However, there are challenges to testing softs skills. Connelly (et al. 2010) suggest peer review as a much safer way of assessing soft skills, as it showed ratings by others were more accurate, less biased, and more predictive of future outcomes.

Soft Skills and ROI?

In their article “Derive Hard Numbers from Soft Skills” and based on their research Phillips (et al. 2015)8, firmly believe that companies that invest in Soft Skills will see the results regarding their Return on Investment (ROI). They say: “Soft skills create agile organizations, develop innovative companies, make the best places to work, and build the most admired companies. Soft skills bring out the best in people as their behaviours and competencies are shaped to fit the strategy of the organisation, the desired work climate, and the ever-changing, unpredictable landscape.

Soft Skills in Education

Despite the increase in technology their remains considerable gaps in students learning abilities especially when it comes to critical skills needed for Tertiary education like, focus; self-regulated learning; critical thinking and problem-solving.
A plea to include non-cognitive in education could be seen in a 2012 report by the National Research Council entitled “Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century”. In this report, they highlight the fact that: “Business and political leaders are increasingly asking schools to develop skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and self-management often referred to as “21st-century skills.” (Ed, Hilton and Pellengrino 2012).
Soft Skills education has also been the theme of work by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)9, an organization with a mission “to establish social and emotional learning as an essential part of education”. CASEL believe that the questions students these days are asking are not information based (anything that can be Googled). The questions they are asking are: “Who am I? How do I work with you? How do we build a team”?


It is essential that if we are leaders in any way shape or form that we consider the significant importance of Soft Skills development. It is never too late to develop yourself and your team. Hard skills can only take you so far; soft skills will take you further!