Career SkillsCogent Communicator

Why Engineers Say “Soft Skills Are Hard!”

By Susan de la Vergne

Soft skills. The phrase gets the cold shoulder from many engineers and engineering managers questioning the value of anything that can be called “soft.”

“There’s nothing ‘soft’ about my job! We only do hard stuff around here!”

Calculating, coding, performance optimizing, testing, measuring, analyzing. Nothing soft about any of that!

Yet as desirable competencies for engineers, soft skills remain on the radar. Some people refer to these skills as “emotional intelligence.” But regardless which phrase you use, both refer to a variety of non-technical abilities, things like self-discipline, self-confidence, initiative, empathy, political savvy, influence, adaptability, and conflict management.

Those who study job performance — psychologists among them — say the difference between outstanding performance on the job and good performance is whether someone has some, even many, of these soft skills. If you take two people who are equally adept at their “hard” technical skills, it’s typically the one who has also soft skills who’s the exceptional performer. Both are competent at their jobs, maybe better than competent. But the one who can communicate well, see things from someone else’s point of view, and roll with change has the advantage.

In the book that first broke the research about why soft skills matter, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman sums it up this way: “Success takes more than intellectual excellence or technical prowess . . . . We need another sort of skill in the increasingly turbulent job market of the future, internal qualities such as resilience, initiative, optimism, and adaptability . . . . ” Dozens of books on this subject followed, many of them documenting the same findings in different industries and companies: the ability to relate to others, adapt to changing situations, listen and speak with empathy, and more are the competencies that not only complement technical abilities, but enhance them.

Engineers and Soft Skills

When soft skills don’t seem to come naturally, developing them can be challenging. That’s true for anyone, but it’s often especially so for engineering and tech professionals. There’s a reason for that. It’s because the abilities and characteristics that make engineers good at their engineering jobs often run counter to the abilities and characteristics needed for soft skills.

But … My Expertise!

For example, engineers value technical proficiency and subject matter expertise. In fact, expertise is highly prized in engineering and tech. It’s an intrinsic part of the culture. Most engineers have it and expect to find it in their colleagues.

But this trait can make it difficult to listen to opposing points of view. Experts may resist being corrected or criticized. And it can be hard to be patient with people who don’t get it when you expect them to demonstrate knowledge and proficiency.

I realize I’m generalizing. Not all experts dislike criticism, just as not all explainers grow impatient. But it’s often true. My goal here is to recognize how many engineers “are” on the job — not to stereotype at all, but to point out that some of the qualities that make you good at what you do as an engineer aren’t as conducive to being good at soft skills.

So, to that end, listening and patience are soft skills which, in some situations, are on a collision course with expertise.

Uncomfortable as it may be, sometimes the best thing to do is to let go of expertise, to be the person who doesn’t have to know.  Besides improving one’s listening and patience, it’s also a good way into another soft skill — initiative. Stepping up and volunteering to take on new work assignments in uncharted territory where expertise may not apply requires letting go of one’s reputation as the go-to guru.

The stories you hear about people who’ve enjoyed a great deal of professional growth — who for example started as utility linemen, climbing poles and maintaining power lines, and then went on to captain the technology department 20 years later — that’s how they got there: by taking initiative and stepping into the unknown.

And even if you have no aspirations of being captain, variety is fun. Growing your professional repertoire requires the kind of confidence that comes from letting go of customary ways of seeing oneself.

Ambiguity? Blech!

Something else about soft skills that often challenge engineers is that engineers like determinism. They like finding one right answer to a problem, sometimes with relentless devotion to the solution, pursuing it no matter how long it takes or how difficult it is to solve.

Somewhere down there it’s a math problem, and if it takes me all night or all week, I’ll figure it out!

That’s something that makes engineers good at their jobs—stick-to-itiveness, and understanding there is a deterministic right answer to be found!

Yet a lot of what happens at work is ambiguous and uncertain. There isn’t one right answer for every problem, just as there is more than one #1 priority. (You probably find yourself strung between multiple #1 priorities more often than you’d like!) Soft skills help us live with ambiguity, navigate between competing priorities, and be okay with with change.

Soft skills also help us to be willing to tune into the shifting positions of organizational politics. If you’ve ever reflected on how little appetite you have for office politics, that’s why. It’s a squirrelly sea of opinions and unpredictability, ambiguous on a good day, and so not like a math problem with one right answer!

So … Forget It?

So what now? Engineers aren’t good at soft skills so forget it?

Um, no. I didn’t tell you all that to talk you out of improving your soft skills, but rather to shed light on why you may find them challenging. Recognizing why something seems difficult helps with figuring out how to get past the sticking points.

In particular, if you’ve seen a shadow of yourself in any of these descriptions — an expert who prefers not to be challenged, an expert who isn’t always patient with those who aren’t, or someone who has little use for ambiguity — consider this: the things that make you a good engineer won’t be compromised by soft skills. Your expertise won’t be diminished if your patience increases. Your ability to derive a deterministic correct solution won’t deteriorate if you accept the annoying reality that things are often murky and misunderstandings are normal.

You might not have thought of it that way before, but take a closer look. If you don’t bother with soft skills, is it because you think your technical skills are enough and that practicing things like patient listening, empathy, and adaptability might draw down on your acumen? Or might impinge on your reputation as a take-no-prisoners expert problem-solver?

Or could it be the case that “hard” skills and soft skills can coexist, no only peaceably but fruitfully? And if that’s the case, which soft skill are you going to work on first?

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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