Thinking Out Loud

Fundamental Skills

It’s past time to rename “soft skills.” Soft skills, as we all know, are people skills: getting along, communicating well, exhibiting interpersonal finesse.  Calling them soft skills has been a way of differentiating them from hard skills, although no one really uses that term. Hard skills are those associated with numbers: quantitative analysis, efficiency and making hard decisions “based on the numbers,” while you set aside your feelings.

I propose that we start using the term fundamental skills. The dictionary uses words like “primary,” “general principles,” “relating to essential structure or function” to define fundamental. And that’s a good fit, because the people part of any endeavor is essential—fundamental. Fundamental also implies that all of us need facility with these skills, which are not specialized to fulfill a specific job or function. They are required by everyone to one degree or another in our personal or work lives.

Businesses and organizations increasingly talk about the importance of fundamental skills, especially when people aren’t getting along and workplace tension doesn’t dissipate. Then a manager or someone from Human Resources brings in a consultant for a team-building or communication skills refresher.

It’s easy to see how the world of numbers has a language unto itself. It’s not so easy to define the language of human relationships yet we see many individuals who are able to navigate relationship with ease and have a knack for understanding others, establishing trust, and collaborating. In today’s business world you must know how to collaborate successfully. It’s not enough to know how to do a job, be organized, and get your work done on time. Relating successfully to other people is increasingly necessary as working in teams is becoming the norm.

The new, conventional wisdom is that all of us working together will have better results than all of us working individually. The smartest person in the room isn’t smarter than the collective team, and working on a team requires a good grasp of fundamental skills.

Fundamental skills come more naturally to some than to others, just as number skills do, but we teach number skills to everyone in schools. We don’t teach fundamental skills. We expect that they are learned by cultural osmosis at home, at school, on the playground, and honed in the adult world. Granted we do learn by trial and error. The process, however, could be learned more efficiently and effectively if we as a society recognized the value of fundamental skills and made sure they are included in our schools and our professional development programs in business and organizations. So let’s stop using the term soft skills,which implies less importance, and start calling them what they are, Fundamental Skills . . . and treating them accordingly.

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