What might we mean by soft skills?

POSTED: December 22, 2021

I wrote this paper as part of the VAKEN project, and as a contribution to a publication titled Arcada 25 år – En internationell högskola med nordisk profil. The final paper required some reformulating to better fit the overall theme of the book, and the surrounding chapters. I include the original paper here.


Although many educators, researchers and trainers use the term “soft skills” it seems to have no generally accepted definition and no settled meaning. People write articles and essays as though “everyone knows what we mean”. The lack of a clear definition poses problems at several levels: from comparing or devising lists of “soft skills” to finding ways to assess or evaluate progress in developing them. In this paper I examine the origins and current uses of the term, situate ideas of soft skills within a pragmatist view of truth, and relate that to the HEXACO schema of personality factors. From this I draw conclusions about the nature of soft skills, their taxonomy, and the ways in which we might legitimately assess them.

The paper springs from the work of the VAKEN project which brings together academics from seven partner institutions, representing six countries in the Nordic / Baltic regions (Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania), with Arcada acting as the lead partner. VAKEN has a brief to devise a methodology and working process through which students and trainees can improve their soft skills.

Introduction: the issue

In 2016 The World Economic Forum published a list of The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (Gray, 2016) This offered a set of predictions about the skills that people would need most in 2020 to gain employment and compared this list to a similar set of ten skills that potential employees needed in 2015.

Figure 1: The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The lists differed in two ways. Firstly, two new entries appeared: “cognitive flexibility” replaced “active listening” and “emotional intelligence” replaced “quality control”. Secondly, the order of the entries changed. However, despite the changed order, “complex problem solving” came first in both lists and four of the top five items remained the same.

Taken together these lists imply that the importance of some skills shift over time. We should expect this because, in another publication, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means and how to respond, the WEF suggests that the fourth industrial revolution will
“affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships”. (Schwab, 2016)
The skills the WEF suggests that we will need to cultivate all focus on interactions with other people and our own internal psychological processes. In other words, they describe what many people understand as “soft skills”.

However, when comparing lists compiled by different authors, it rapidly becomes clear that the term “soft skills” can have multiple meanings, many of them vague and ill-defined, and that researchers take different approaches and adopt different attitudes to using the term.

In 2011, for example, a Social Europe report Transferability of Skills (Balcar and Blažíčková, 2011, p. 7) noted that
“two terminological approaches to skills have been identified during interviews in the companies, whereas one perceives skills as a general term covering transferable (generic) skills and specific skills, while the other perceives skills as a synonym for specific skills and transferable skills as a synonym for soft skills.”
Here one sizeable set of interviewees does not acknowledge soft skills as a useful term at all, preferring to divide skills instead into “specific” versus ”generic” or “transferable”.

At the other end of the scale, some researchers have defined almost limitless numbers of soft skills. One paper (Mahasneh, 2016) defines 497 separate soft skills as those needed within the construction industry, and then groups these into 32 different clusters. The skills listed range from “ability to deal with pressure” and “coping with complexity” to “global citizenship” and “self management”. Some of these seem similar to those proposed by the WEF while existing within a much larger and more varied cohort.

If attempts to calculate a number for recognisable soft skills produce results that vary from zero to several hundred then it should not surprise us that searching for a definition of what constitutes a soft skill also proves elusive. One article called Soft Skills Should be a Part of Curriculum (Suresh, Surisetty and Srinivas, 2018, p. 973) attempts to provide a definition by stating that
“We can meaningfully define that Soft Skills are the personal attributes, personality traits, inherent social cues or communication abilities needed for success on the job, and are less quantifiable than hard skills that include specific knowledge and abilities”.
With all due respect to the authors this seems to offer a jumble of abilities, attributes, skills, and traits without suggesting what they contain in common, how they relate to each other, or why we should regard them as skills that we can learn or improve.

At the beginning of the VAKEN project this vagueness mattered greatly to us. The word “vaken” means awake or alert in Swedish and Norwegian and derives from the Old Norse word “vakinn‎”. The current VAKEN project (, 2021) “is working on a process that enables training and assessment of soft skills in real-life context with guidance from coaches and in collaboration with companies”. The institutions involved in the project (Arcada, the University of Akureyri, Kauno kolegija, University College Lillebelt, TTK University of Applied Sciences, Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences, Vilniaus kolegija) decided to focus on the four top soft skills listed above: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and people management. We agreed that we not only needed to understand what we mean when we describe these as “soft skills” but to have evidence and research to draw upon if called upon to explain why we describe them in this way.

This paper therefore marshals evidence and research drawn from a wide range of sources, which it pulls together to form a coherent view of soft skills. It places this within a historical context and locates it as a specific usage of personality trait theory. It begins by asking who first put forward the idea of soft skills and why. It moves on to examine the ways in which the original ideas have become psychologised and then seeks to place them within a wider psychological framework, specifically as interpersonal and intrapersonal actions explicable in terms of the HEXACO model. Finally, it argues that this approach provides us with a set of well tested methods for both training and evaluating soft skills, as well as placing those skills within an accepted and easily understandable framework.

An historical starting point

The use of the term soft skills began as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. As with many innovations during that period it began with the US Army.

In 1968 the U.S. Army introduced a doctrine known as “Systems Engineering of Training”, officially described in a document known as CON Reg 350-100-1 (US Continental Army Command, 1968). This approach to training “is based on evidence that the objective of each task to be performed in …[a]… speciality can be precisely defined and measured”. Using an adapted form of Taylorism (Taylor, 1913) the US Army decided that they might divide skills into two sorts: those involving machinery and thus requiring highly specific skills, and those requiring more general skills. The former should have strict specifications, while the latter may not. However, they noted that the “absence of a published … standard for a task does not mean that a standard does not exist for the particular task. These standards may be implied or derived.” (Gray, 1968, p. 28)

In a related 1972 training conference paper What are Soft Skills? Paul G Whitmore listed
“command, supervision, counselling, and leadership” as soft skills and defined them as “job-related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper, e.g., inspecting troops, supervising office personnel, conducting studies, preparing maintenance reports, preparing efficiency reports, designing bridge structures.” (Haines and Hunt, 1972, p. 4)

Following on from the idea that soft skills may have implied or derived standards, the CONARC conference report concluded that “those job functions about which we know a good deal are hard skills, and those about which we know very little are soft skills”. (Haines and Hunt, 1972, p. 7)

We should note that the “Systems Engineering of Training” regarded the process and method of categorising job-related skills as having one key Taylorist purpose. It trained soldiers with the intention of having them fit into the hierarchy and structure of the army. The US Army assumed that any soldier should have the capacity to carry out any task as ordered; that every soldier would fill a predefined role; that any soldier could replace any other soldier; and that, while acting in a role, every soldier would suppress any feelings or thoughts of their own.

The US Army did not regard soft skills as personal attributes, nor as qualities that people possessed for or within themselves. Rather the term described a standardised way of dividing up and structuring jobs based upon “implied or derived” standards (US Continental Army Command, 1968, p28) so that they could become topics in uniform training courses that any qualified soldier could attend.

Soft skills in their original formulation, then, offered a method of training soldiers in those kinds of tasks which might require different methods for completion depending on the contexts within which they occurred.
“For example there is probably only one way to change the oil in a given vehicle. At the other extreme, behavior, actions and processes are either implied within some context, or application on-the-job is quite generalized. An example might be the requirement that a commander be able to motivate or lead troops, wherever and whenever the situation calls for it.” (Haines and Hunt, 1972, p. 6)

The psychological turn

By the late 1980s commentators and futurists like Alvin Toffler had noticed the increasing requirement by employers for generalised interpersonal skills. Toffler wrote that “more and more of the work in all three sectors [agriculture, manufacturing, services] consists of symbolic processing or “mind-work”. (Toffler, 1990, p. 74)

Today, continuous change has become the only constant. Toffler correctly predicted that jobs-for-life would disappear as mind-work increased in importance and prominence, and that people would need new skills to move from job to job, including to new kinds of jobs. Specific job-related skills can become obsolete very quickly and new skills need learning. One apparently important generic skill, then, consists of an ability and willingness to keep learning new job-related skills.

During this period of change in which “mind-work” has become increasingly important, ideas about soft skills have gradually become psychologised. They have shifted from something that employees or would-be employees learn from external tuition to something that people develop within (and for) themselves. They have ceased to have any work-specific or even professional characteristics and have become viewed as internalised personality constructs. We can catch a glimpse of this reassessment and redefinition in the following quotation from a participant in a pilot soft skills training program in the USA in 2008.
“Soft Skills make a difference because they will help you deal with situations in everyday life, such as job interviews, getting along with others, and just communication with people. Soft skills also help you find yourself…and really make a difference because they help you to think critically.” (RaeMisha Sierra, in ODEP, 2008: p 139)
From this perspective people no longer need to develop soft skills as part of their employment, rather, they need to have already developed soft skills in order to become the kind of people who get employment in the first place.

Once psychologised in this way, soft skills become “character traits that enhance a person’s interactions, job performance, and career prospects” (Parsons, 2010). We can now say that the “greatest feature of soft skills is that the application of these skills is not limited to one’s profession. Soft skills are continually developed through practical application during one’s approach toward everyday life and the workplace” (Samat, Annual and Rashidi, 2019, p. 2). Furthermore, unlike “hard skills, which are about a person’s skill set and ability to perform a certain type of task or activity, soft skills are interpersonal and broadly applicable”. (Parsons, 2010)

This view guides a paper called Executive Perceptions of the Top 10 Soft Skills Needed in Today’s Workplace that Marcel Robles wrote in 2012. She pointed to the Collins English Dictionary (2012) definition of soft skills as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude”. Soft skills, she went on, “are character traits, attitudes, and behaviors — rather than technical aptitude or knowledge. Soft skills are the intangible, nontechnical, personality-specific skills that determine one’s strengths as a leader, facilitator, mediator, and negotiator”. (Robles, 2012, p. 457)

Similarly, in a report in 2014, Sara A. Schochler noted that “Soft Skills, often referred to as one’s Emotional Intelligences, have been identified as the most critical skills in the current global job market. Our current state mandated tests do not measure these important skills.” (Schochler, 2014, p. 1)

An initial definition

The shift from the original view of soft skills as externally required aspects of a job-at-hand to the contemporary view of soft skills as portable personal assets has altered not only how we see them, and how we define them, but also how we categorise and locate them. As noted above, in subtle but important ways soft skills have become psychologised. Under the guise of the quantified self (Lupton, 2016), and with the advent of bio-hacking (Greenfield, 2020), all personal attributes have come to seem trainable, and training them has, in some cases, taken on the form of a moral imperative (Schwab, 2016)

From what we have noted so far, the minimal criteria for a believable definition of soft skills might include the following:

1. People can generalise the skill.

Using a screwdriver counts as a hard skill because you can screw many different objects together but you cannot easily generalise the skill to very different tasks. Numeracy, however, might count as a generalisable soft skill: mental-work that the possessor can apply to many different (and different kinds of) practical tasks.

2. The skill has a scope or a range.

If we count numeracy as a soft skill (and some lists do) then we might insist that it must include all four aspects of basic arithmetic. In contrast, we might regard knowledge of algebra or trigonometry as out of the scope of this skill: in other words we will count you as numerate whether or not you understand algebra.

3. People can learn the skill and, through practice, can get better at it.

Recognising one’s own bias counts as a soft skill, as does an ability to make people feel welcome, because studies have demonstrated that we can improve our abilities at these through practice and training. Having no fear, on the other hand, would not count as a soft skill until someone can demonstrate a practical training method for improving fearlessness.

4. The skill has such properties that we can find ways to measure or point to people’s progress in developing it.

If people can better get at something then it follows logically then some people will improve their skills faster and to a greater extent than others. If a skill has a scope or range then we ought to have the means to say where on a scale a person stands.

From this vantage point we might regard soft skills as:

1. Concerned with social (interpersonal, but also intrapersonal) development;
2. learnable or improvable;
3. demonstrable or assessable.

In The Principles of Psychology William James asserted that “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.” (James, 1890, p. 43). The above criteria would seem to combine thought (and thought about thought) with practical actions in the world.

If we regard soft skills as actions that gain value by increasing competencies we might expect that some people already have some soft skills by virtue of what they seem like as people. We might, for example, expect people who see themselves as extroverts to feel happier at presenting publicly than those who think of themselves as introverts. If people “naturally” acquire different soft skills in different amounts in the overall process of acquiring personhood, so that some will have to work harder to increase their ability to make confident public presentations and others will not, then we need to take this into account as we develop our definition. Not everybody will start at the same place on whatever scales we define, and not everyone will progress to the same level.

Constellations & Clusters

The constellation of skills that the WEF identified (Gray, 2016) began with:
– Complex Problem Solving;
– Critical Thinking;
– Creativity;
– People Management.

We can make a very strong argument that these all describe clusters of soft skills rather than actual learnable skills. We can (and ought to) break every one of them down further. What, for example, might we actually mean by “critical thinking” or “creativity”? What specific, improvable skills constitute “acting creatively”?

Once we start breaking these clusters down into smaller, apparently improvable skills we can uncover an almost infinite amount of potential soft skills. At one point in the VAKEN process we listed acknowledgement, active listening, assertiveness, bonding, communication, comprehension, decision making, diplomacy, divergent thinking, empathy, focus, goal setting, imagination, negotiation, note-taking, openness, planning, self-reflection, relaxation, reporting, team building, timetabling and wayfinding as just some of the potential “soft skills” we needed to think about. Some of these might themselves benefit from further deconstruction. Does empathy, for example, contain active listening, bonding, and self-reflection as constituent parts or merely relate to them in some way? Secondly, should we see them as skills we can learn or improve or as personal attributes we happen to possess?

The matter of how we can tell an improvable skill from an inherent attribute, raises a fundamental issue. Let me offer a personal example to demonstrate this. People tell me that I cannot sing. In fact, some people try to stop me as soon as I attempt to. We could say that I have not received a proper musical education or we could assert that, since birth, I have suffered from “a specific musical deficit” (Peretz et al., 2002, p. 185) usually labelled congenital amusia (Peretz et al., 2002; Celesia, 2013). A group of researchers in Montreal have described amusia as resulting from “impoverished communication in a right, or perhaps bilateral, temporo-frontal neural network” (Peretz and Hyde, 2003). Why does my musicality, or lack thereof, matter in terms of the argument here? Simply this: if we believe the descriptions and explanations offered above then no amount of singing lessons will prepare me to join a choir. In other words, “ability to sing” cannot count as a learnable soft skill for me and approximately 4% of the population because we can neither sing nor improve our singing abilities (Peretz and Hyde, 2003). It may, however, count as a soft skill for those who can already sing because, for them, singing lessons will enable them to sing better. This has consequences. If we decide that certain people cannot improve their singing while others can then we might need to decide something similar for colour blindness, shyness, or fear of heights. How then can we know for certain that everybody can learn divergent thinking or empathy or self-management, or anything else that we may want to add to our list of relevant soft skills? How, in fact, can we tell who can learn what?

How to choose?

We also face the difficult question of relevance. Simply put, how can we determine our criteria for choosing one item rather than another from our potentially infinite list of soft skills? We can refer to the list of soft skills assembled in an online article called The Top 60 Soft Skills at Work (Phani, 2007) for examples of the problems we will face in deciding this.

The first ten skills listed in this article include:

1. Math.
2. Safety.
3. Courtesy.
4. Honesty.
5. Grammar.
6. Reliability.
7. Flexibility.
8. Team skills.
9. Eye contact.
10. Cooperation.

This list differs from others we have examined and differs even more as we go down the sixty items.

Assuming that we consider “math” as a synonym for numeracy, we might, for reasons described earlier, decide to treat it as a soft skill, within certain limits. However, skill number 38 in this list refers to the “Use of rulers and calculators”. Should we count this an element of numeracy or an additional soft skill? We might consider it generalisable and therefore a soft skill, although we might instead declare that it should count as a low-level hard skill since the use “of rulers and calculators” involves manipulating tools rather than any kind of mind-work.

A drug free example

Skill number 21 in this list of The Top 60 Soft Skills At Work (Phani, 2007) simply says: “Being drug free”. This raises several interesting questions.

At first glance it seems to suggest that employees should learn to master the skill of “not being stoned at work” and we might reasonably take the view that that usually counts as a prerequisite for most forms of employment and not as a skill that employees might learn or practice.

However, if we look at this more deeply we might decide that we do want to allow it as a meaningful soft skill. If, for example, we view people in the twenty first century as increasingly reliant on chemical assistance then we might want to claim that learning to operate without chemical support could count as a soft skill that everyone should learn. In this view, the learner will gradually come to live without any use of alcohol, antidepressants, antihistamines, aspirin, blood pressure medication, caffeine, cocaine, marijuana, paracetamol, tobacco, and so on.

We might then ask: where does this view come from? Do we admit the premises from which it arises? Do we agree that not taking paracetamol lets a person live a better life than they would by taking it? “Being drug free” can only arise as a soft skill from a very specific view of the world and how it should operate. It arises from, and as part of, a larger framework: a religion, a view about the purpose of life, a view of the “correct” relationship between people and nature.

Using this as an extreme and unusual example we can see that all soft skills will arise from within a larger framework of some kind. To make any inroads into categorising soft skills we will therefore need to identify a broader framework within which to place them.

We will need to anchor our ideas about soft skills to something larger and reliable. To do this we need to decide whether they take the form of personal aspects of wellness, or of our life-world, or whether they simply count as modern work skills. The evidence suggests that we should take the former view.

Trait theory

Personality psychology suggests that people have different dispositions along different axes:
“the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up your personality. While there is no single agreed-upon definition of personality, it is often thought of as something that arises from within the individual and remains fairly consistent throughout life” (Cherry and Gans, 2019)

To expand upon this, we can view personality as
“the set of psychological traits and mechanisms within the individual that are organized and relatively enduring, and influence his or her interactions with, and adaptations to, the intrapsychic, physical, and social environments” (Larsen and Buss, 2005, p. 4).

Views differ about the status of personality types or traits. According to Psychology Today,
“The idea of a personality “type” is fairly widespread. Many people associate a “Type A” personality with a more organized, rigid, competitive, and anxious person, for example. Yet there’s little empirical support for the idea. The personality types supplied by the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) have also been challenged by scientists. Psychologists who study personality believe such typologies are generally too simplistic to account for the ways people differ. Instead, they tend to rely on frameworks like the Big Five model of trait dimensions.” (Psychology Today, 2020)
Theories based upon types, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers and Myers, 1980) suppose a model in which people’s personalities remain static constants throughout their lives. Trait theory, on the other hand, suggests that dimensions or factors “can be defined as habitual patterns of behaviour, thought, and emotion” (Novikova, 2013). In this view traits form dispositions and can (to some extent) change over time. “For example, according to type theories, there are two types of people, introverts and extroverts. According to trait theories, introversion and extroversion are part of a continuous dimension with many people in the middle” (Bradberry, 2009). In type-based approaches, then, someone “is” a personality of a specific type, whereas in trait theory people “have a disposition to” act in specified ways when in specified situations.

Personality traits

We can approach personality traits, and the questions surrounding them, from a pragmatic and position. The pragmatic view begins with the postulate that all personalities arise socially and then suggests that we can see personality traits as habitual approaches to problems that arise in specific situations. Like all habits they may prove difficult to train and resistant to change, but we should not regard them as inherent or entirely “given”.

The pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead put it thus:
“The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience. After a self has arisen, it in a certain sense provides for itself its social experiences, and so we can conceive of an absolutely solitary self. But it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside social experience.” (Mead, 1956, p. 217)
Mead did not conjure this view of the self from thin air, for it has arisen in other cultures; most famously, perhaps, as “part of the Zulu phrase ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which literally means that a person is a person through other people”. (Ifejika, 2006)

We learn personhood through observing and participating in the social groups to which we belong, but we do not all start off with the same tools. We begin with a personality that has genetic roots; in other words, much of our dispositions have a genetic basis, but we have the ability to countermand them through reflection and through thinking about our thinking.
“Overall, the results of behavioral genetic studies converge on the conclusion that personality is substantially heritable, with the heritability estimate around .40, meaning that 40% of individual differences are due to the genetic differences in the population However, this is an average estimate. It seems that the study design has a significant moderation effect. Heritability estimates from twin studies are slightly below .50, while estimates from the family/adoption design are substantially lower, slightly above .20 (Bratko, Butković and Hlupić, 2017)
We inherit dispositions not imperatives, and we can, to an extent yet fully determined, act outside the scope of our dispositions by taking attitudes towards them, by reflecting upon them, and by thinking about our thinking. As the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce noted, “We can, in some measure, control even outward events; far more, all that take place within us… On the other hand, there is nothing, not even our thoughts, over which our control is complete.” (Peirce, undated, p. 13)

The HEXACO model

A comprehensive schema of human personality, then, would provide a foundational framework for thinking about soft skills, and about how learners might develop and improve them.

The so-called Big Five model, originally developed in the 1960s, came into prominence in 1993 when Lewis Goldberg published The Structure of Phenotypic Personality Traits in The American Psychologist. It has seen continuous use since then. More recently Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton reanalysed some of Goldberg’s original data, with his support, and extracted six core factors from which they derived the HEXACO model.

The Big Five and HEXACO schema have broadly similar factors but differ on the number of dimensions. The HEXACO scale adds an “Honesty-Humility” factor. It has “six broad categories of personality characteristics” (Lee and Ashton, 2012, p. 19): Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness.

Figure 2: the dimensions of the HEXACO model (shown in Lee & Ashton, 2012, p17)

Using the HEXACO model as a foundation, we can extrapolate a group of related actions (active listening, planning, acting diplomatically, presenting in public, etc) related to each factor. Importantly this process locates the actions that constitute soft skills within a pre-existing model that has had almost twenty years of research and testing to support it, and itself builds upon a previous well-tested model.

We do not venture into new territory here. Others before us have noted the need to house soft skills within a wider and deeper framework. The OECD report on Skills for Social Progress (Miyamoto et al, 2015) also draws upon personality research to locate social skills. The report says that
“The framework presented here is broadly in line with other existing frameworks, particularly the “Big Five” personality taxonomy. However, it also draws upon other theoretical perspectives (e.g. positive psychology and personal strivings) and existing frameworks (e.g. Character Framework from the Center for Curriculum and Redesign; Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Framework and; KIPP Character Framework) that look at those individual characteristics that education stakeholders can foster through adequate practices.” (Miyamoto et al., 2015, p. 37)
This serves to remind us that we cannot address soft skills as discrete phenomena. We must see them as actions of (and within) larger frameworks.

These skills have plasticity, as actions related to the dispositions that comprise personality, but not infinite plasticity. Learners can improve but the extent of the improvement will relate to their unique combination of personality characteristics. Moreover, as demonstrated by the example of amusia cited earlier, not everybody will necessarily have an ability to improve every soft skill.

Soft skills as actions & activities

Soft skills have primarily social and interpersonal/intrapersonal functions, and spring from the social nature of consciousness and personality. They represent those aspects of personality that people can train or enhance. Soft skills comprise goal-oriented actions or activities that, when used regularly, gain value by increasing personal competencies. Actions, by definition, take the form of verbs. The hoped-for results of the actions take the form of nouns. Thus we innovate and, if we succeed, we will have created an innovation. We act diplomatically while we negotiate in the hope of producing a successful outcome. Acknowledging the differences between verbs and nouns can have direct practical outcomes in terms of fostering new skills. For example,
“research on women negotiators found that framing negotiations as opportunities for “asking” as compared with opportunities for “negotiation” mitigated gender differences found in previous research.” (Parlamis and Monnot, 2019, p. 227)
Soft skills form active processes, linked to personality factors. We identify soft skills using the lexical method and we may find hundreds of such skills in a direct parallel to the hundreds of personality traits that Gordon Allport, who first conceived a theory of personality traits, identified. “In total, the Gordon Allport personality trait theory proposes that there are more than 4,500 different traits that are possible within each person. Over time, these traits have been re-examined and synonyms have been removed, but there are still around 200 identifiable personality traits that can be present in any combination” (HRF, 2017). Raymond Cattell subsequently reduced these to 16 factors (Cattell, 1957) which, he claimed, would prove suitable for most purposes. We can similarly reduce the number of soft skills with which we concern ourselves to the relatively few we have uses for in our practical projects.

Framing Soft Skills

Since soft skills relate directly to personality traits, we can use the 6 personality factors in the HEXACO model as the basis for clustering soft skills. If we accept the top four skills proposed in the WEF report (Gray, 2016) – Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity, People Management – as those most relevant to our practical task, we will find these spread unevenly across the HEXACO dimensions. This provides us with a useful starting point for thinking about training and assessment. Lee and Ashton have prepared domain level scales for the HEXACO model, and additional facet level scales (Lee and Ashton, 2009) including a scale for Creativity (which appears within the Openness domain). They also show an example of an interstitial scale (for altruism-antagonism); one that draws upon facets from across domains.

We might regard our other three soft skills as interstitial, although confirming this will require further inquiries and testing. We might hypothesise that Complex Problem Solving and Critical Thinking draw primarily from facets of Conscientiousness and Openness while People Management draws primarily from facets of Honesty/Humility, eXtroversion and Agreeableness. If further research confirms this we can begin using scales drawn from the HEXACO personality inventory to form an initial picture of every learner’s personality dimensions.

Figure 3: A Young Woman’s HEXACO score as the basis for initial discussions

We can utilise this representation as the basis for an initial orienteering process in which learners begin a process of self-reflection. In doing this we make explicit the framing of soft skills within a larger framework.

Learning & improving soft skills

A framework for soft skills serves to classify various interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities, attitudes and attributes. People can learn soft skills in three distinct ways. Firstly, they can learn through processes of meta-cognition and self-reflection. Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton, the originators of HEXACO, have written that
“each of us has often behaved a bit differently after considering how a high-H person would approach a given situation. We haven’t achieved anything remotely approaching perfection in this regard, but we do find ourselves trying to be more straightforward and less self-important, more ethical and less materialistic” (Lee and Ashton, 2012, p. 165)
By reflecting on a situation from the perspective of another, they have managed to alter their behaviour. By reflecting upon this alteration they have started to shift an habitual set of responses.

Some amount of our personality traits, which include our soft skills, arrive with our genes, but much or most of our traits take the form of habits we have come to think of as “part of our selves”. Through thinking about our thinking we can cause our habits to shift. Peirce defined habit as “a tendency to repeat any action which has been performed before”, which Eliseo Fernández has rendered more specifically as “a tendency to enact the same tendencies every time the same precipitating circumstances are enacted” (Férnandez, 2010, p. 6) Peirce points out that “it can be proved that the only mental effect that can be so produced … is a habit-change; meaning by a habit-change a modification of a person’s tendencies toward action, resulting from previous experiences or from previous exertions of his will or acts, or from a complexus of both kinds of cause”. In other words we can cause our habits to change through subjecting them to intense mental scrutiny; to a process of meta-cognition.

Secondly, people can learn to improve their interpersonal and intrapersonal skills through mental exercises of the kind proposed by, for example, gestalt therapy (Perls et al, 1951) These do not treat the formation or alteration of specific habits or tendencies, but rather the tendency to form habits at all. Maturation, as Fritz Perls wrote, “is a continuous process of transcending environmental support and developing self-support, which means an increasing reduction of dependencies“. (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951, p. 1)

Thirdly, and perhaps most relevantly for the present discussion, learners can improve soft skills in laboratory settings of various kinds. Learning by doing has a long history of allowing people to learn skills that nobody can teach them – with learning to ride a bicycle offering the most common example.

Cross-Border Assignments: laboratories for soft skills

The VAKEN project has built upon the results of Nobanet, a previous Arcada-led Nordic / Baltic project. This spent considerable time developing cross border assignments, with real-world outcomes that involved close collaboration between educators, students, and businesses. These take the form of intense sprints (Mitchell, 2017) in which a company challenges students to provide solutions for a complex and real problem. These offer laboratory situations as closely as possible aligned with real-world working life. The only differences lie in the carefully structured stages of the process and the presence of coaches, guides and mentors.

The laboratory setting allows for what Shuman et al refer to as “fidelity and complexity”. Referring to the development of this kind of teamwork, Shuman says that “fidelity is defined as the similarity of the training situation to the students’ present and future working conditions. The higher the fidelity, the more superior the transfer of learning to the workplace.” (Kechagias, 2011, p. 248)

Kechagias goes on to specify that for
“the experience of on-site training to become a genuine learning process, it must boast at least three characteristics:
1. integrating well planned and coherent experiences with skills to be developed; ‘
2. promoting reflection over experience;
3. facilitating the integration of experience through self-assessment, the analysis of consequences, and the promotion of transference to other situations.
The learning process during on-site training calls for a form of tutoring that embraces features including coaching and mentoring. In coaching, the supervisor offers students advice and guidance, and reaches agreements with them about substantive action plans designed to improve their training in particular skills. The broader process of mentoring may be defined as an on-going process whereby the supervisor, who is known as the ‘mentor’, instructs and guides new or inexperienced work colleagues in their process of adapting to their job and to the organisation. Lastly, the person carrying out the tutoring/guidance role in one way or another is known as the ‘tutor’.” (Kechagias, 2011, p. 250)
This closely resembles the laboratory settings that the VAKEN project have begun to develop.

Assessing soft skills

Assessment can take two forms: formative or summative. Because of the psychologised nature of soft skills we have proposed a purely formative assessment process. We concern ourselves with providing feedback that assists learning and enables learners to incorporate the feedback into their tasks to further improve their performance.

The HEXACO personality inventory can provide a starting point for this process since it offers a general picture of a learner’s personality traits, and these measurements in turn provide valuable information about their baseline soft skills levels.

These tests all involve self and peer assessment. As Kechagias has pointed out, “Self-assessment can only be effective if learners understand the expected level of performance, so the expected performance must be expressed in terms that are accessible to them”. (Kechagias, 2011, p. 302). He also points out that
“Self-assessment is an important attribute of lifelong learners. Those who master it are able to take responsibility for their actions and to improve their performance. Self-assessment involves the cognitive processes of reflection and evaluation. A capacity for self-assessment, that is for making judgments about one’s work, is necessary for effective learning.” (Kechagias, 2014 :302)

Because of the nature of the VAKEN sprints this self-assessment takes place while the learners perform complex tasks inside a fast-moving project. They work in open-ended settings which have no predefined endpoints, only goals. This places pressure on the learners because “Performance-based assessment is a type of testing that calls for demonstration of understanding and skill in applied, procedural, or open-ended settings” (Baker, O’Neil Jnr and Linn, 1993, p. 1210). This, in turn, forms a part of the overall point of the exercise since, as noted earlier, the ability to learn, and to learn from learning, has become a vital personal asset in the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

A detailed understanding of the HEXACO personality inventory provides a template for tempering self-assessment with peer assessment, since the construction of the inventory requires both and demonstrates how they work together. Assessment then will not take the form of a summative set of qualifications but rather a formative set of suggestions designed to further improve performance.

A final question

We now have a definition of soft skills that
makes a coherent sense;
fits comfortably within a known framework; and
can withstand interrogation.
One question remains: does “soft skills” seem like that right phrase to describe all this?

This paper has argued that we should see “soft skills” as part of an individual’s personality; as a bundle or (mostly) learned habits. We should not necessarily see these as standing in contrast to anything we might wish to call “hard skills”, and indeed that implied relationship might hinder rather than help both academic discussion and the progress of individual learners.

Jennifer Parlamis and Mathew J Monnot have proposed that we should drop the term and replace it with CORE skills. In their words,
“CORE is an acronym that stands for Competence in Organizational and Relational Effectiveness. The skills that contribute to success in modern organizational life comprise those that are both relational and organizational. For example, relational skills include notions such as positive attitude, trustworthiness, effective communication, leadership ability, cooperativeness, responsibility, initiative, ability to manage emotions, team and self-awareness. Organizational skills encompass ability to influence others, read and manage other’s emotions, manage conflict, negotiate, coach and mentor, understand organizational contexts, and develop meaningful networks.” (Parlamis and Monnot, 2019, p. 227)

Changing an existing and well used term might not prove easy, and the effort needed to affect a change might not, in the end, prove worthwhile. I raise this here as a discussion point not as a recommendation. Having said that, we might note in closing that the 1972 CONARC report itself concluded that “no distinction should be made between hard skills and soft skills and recommended that the term ‘soft skills’ be eliminated from systems engineering terminology”, as noted by Jennifer Parlamis and Mathew J Monnot (Parlamis and Monnot, 2019, p. 226).

The VAKEN project has committed itself to creating a process that educators and trainers can adopt across the whole Baltic and Nordic regions. We will therefore need to address this final question seriously for whatever we decide will, quite literally, affect the ways in which others talk about our work and how they relate it to their own work.


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Footnote 1:
Owen Kelly holds the position of principal lecturer emeritus at Arcada, a university of applied science, in Helsinki, Finland.

Footnote 2:
I would like to thank all the partner institutions in the VAKEN for their help in developing the ideas presented here. I would particularly like to thank Mikael Forsström, Flavius Streianu and Christa Tigerstedt for their contributions to the ideas presented here.

Footnote 3:
Since 2015 I have written all my articles, books and essays in E-Prime (Kellogg & Bourland, 1990; Bourland et al, 1991). I have done this:
1. for the sake of readability;
2. because it remains congruent with my aims in writing and publishing; and
3. as a contribution to the development of academic discourse.