by Julia Gain
What’s the difference between professional skills and soft skills? Professional skills, also called technical skills, are a type of skill we use in the workplace. These skills cover all the knowledge and experience we specifically use to do our jobs, like writing, programming, graphic design and marketing techniques. They’re specific to what we do in our professional life, as opposed to our personal life, and there are as many skills as there are jobs! We learn these skills through education and work experience, and keep developing them through our career.
Soft skills are non-technical skills related to the way we act and interact with other people in the workplace. Soft skills include time management, empathy and pro-activeness. These skills are similar to attitudes rather than tangible knowledge. Some soft skills are close to character traits and what we consider as part of our personality, like loyalty and optimism. We’ve developed these skills ever since our first interactions as children, without
knowing it. We use them all the time in our personal life as well, to interact with families and friends.
Why is it so important to value professional skills?
Soft skills have become more and more important in the workplace. We’ve learned how essential they are to foster motivation, productivity and a healthy work environment. But, research shows that we tend to value soft skills a little too much, while forgetting about the technical ones! The sociologist Daniele Linhart, studies the way management affects us. Her research shows that focusing on human qualities rather than professional skills creates confusion. It makes it harder to separate who we are as human beings and what we do.
In other words: it makes work personal. This can lead to stress and psychological damage. It makes people vulnerable when faced with criticism or conflicts. It also prevents developing professional skills and moving forward.
This major change in the way we consider skills affects many aspects of how we work. It has an impact on how we interact in the workplace and even on how we hire new employees. Many job descriptions highlight soft skills, like “positive attitudes,” “communication” and “working together” rather than the technical skills required to do the job. This impacts the way future candidates consider the job and the skills required to do it before even starting. Future employees may feel their skills are unimportant, or worse – that anyone with their personality, regardless their experience and knowledge, could do the job.
In the workplace, it’s not always easy to tell. Are you valuing soft skills too much? Are you forgetting about professional skills? What’s the difference between a casual work environment and an unprofessional environment preventing improvement?
Analyzing your feedback
Here’s an easy way to tell if you’re providing feedback focused on professional skills. At the end of the day, write down everything you’ve said to people about their work performance on a piece of paper. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there any facts?
- Did I name any skills? If so, which ones?
Can the skills I named also be used to describe personalities?
If the feedback you offer is either vague or can also relate to a type of personality, you’re probably not giving the feedback people need to grow as professionals. Personality-related praise, on having a great attitude or being optimistic, is nice, but if it’s the only feedback you offer then you’re not creating the productive and motivating work environment you need
This leads to stress, less motivation and less productivity in the long run. On the other hand, valuing professional skills the way you should, increases motivation and productivity. Everyone needs recognition. Getting the feeling that what you know how to do, and what you specifically bring to the team is necessary contributes to a sense of purpose. It’s an essential feeling to foster the motivation needed to move forward. It’s also the first step towards improvement. Focusing on professional skills enables people to get better at what they do. It’s a precise and tangible goal they can work towards. In the long run, improving professional skills boosts productivity.
The Twelfth Principle of the Agile Manifesto emphasizes the importance of technical skills for efficiency:
Regular reflections on how to become more effective – Self-improvement, process improvement, advancing skills, and techniques help team members work more efficiently.”
How to value professional skills the way you should?
Here are two tips on how to value professional skills:
#1: Offer feedback, not compliments, keep it professional. It’s great if your workplace is a friendly environment and colleagues get along well. Talk about the specific skills you hired them for and the skills they use in their day to day job. However, be clear: name the skills you’re talking about. When giving feedback about professional skills, be precise. Use facts. Which skills are you talking about? On which project? How did they use those skills?
#2: Ask questions: asking questions is a great way to foster a feeling of recognition and purpose. Too often we shy away from asking questions, as if not knowing everything is embarrassing. But, that’s precisely why we work together. Asking questions about your colleagues’ skills emphasizes the importance of their job, and more importantly, their knowledge and experience.