Soft skills are the hard part

If you ask a handful of Zimbabweans what they think needs to happen for the country to come right, you are likely to find some useful suggestions.

Opinion: Thembe Khumalo

Thembe Khumalo
Thembe Khumalo

Similarly, if you enquire about what a struggling business needs, you will most likely get a good number of sensible solutions.

The same applies to relationships and families. The answers to problems are seldom very mysterious and like creative ideas, attend to be obvious in hindsight.

So why does it take us so long to solve problems then — at national and corporate level? It is because human beings interact all the time with human beings and yet we forget that we are all human.

It is the humanness in us that makes it so difficult to apply simple reason and common sense and to resolve problems quickly and easily.

Contrary to popular belief, we are not the rational logical creatures we seem to imagine we are. Our most important life choices are driven by feelings rather than facts, and we are engaged in a constant struggle to overcome our natural inclinations for modified behaviours which are much more straightforward than we can ever hope to be.

That’s why it takes us so long to solve simple problems. Because soft skills are actually quite hard to master.

Wikipedia says: “Soft skills are a combination of interpersonal people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients among others that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.”

Put more simply, soft skills are the stuff that helps people get along with other people, so that things can get done.

Soft skills are the ones that make some managers better than others at persuading people to do things they don’t want to do. They are essential skills for leaders.

Hard skills on the other hand are specific technical abilities such as mathematics, reading, typing that are easy to quantify objectively.

They are usually specific to a particular job, for instance, the ability to manage projects is an essential skill for an engineer, whereas the ability to measure is critical if you are a pastry chef. Both jobs, however, require the soft skills of flexibility, adaptability and problem solving.

For creative people, ideas are often easy to generate, but they can be difficult to communicate to others, and it can be even more difficult to persuade others to adopt them for the good of all.

A designer’s ability to create beautiful masterpieces can come to naught if he cant persuade those he works with that his work should be shared with the rest of the world.

That’s where learning how to communicate and collaborate with others becomes the more important part of bringing ideas to life. Without an audience, the creative’s work is not of service to the world.

Collaboration is a word we are hearing more and more lately. A collaborative spirit is the foundation of many disruptive businesses like Air BnB, Uber and other game-changers. Without a willingness to reach out to other humans and to be reached out to in return, the customers for such businesses would be non-existent.

The great thing about soft skills is that, like all skills, they can be learnt, and with repeated practice, they can be mastered. published a list of top soft skills and listed good communication as number one, followed closely by being organized in second place.

I always considered myself a reasonably organised person until my children told me I needed to improve in this area. They softened the blow by later saying, “Your friends told us you used to be very organized.” So apparently this is a skill I once had but now have lost!

Zimbabweans are said to be among the most educated peoples on the African continent, and we pride ourselves on this achievement, even though it has not resulted in a high quality of life for the majority of our people.

One downfall of our system, is that it focuses so much on technical skills, and doesn’t foster the development of soft skills, resulting in individuals who are not as well rounded, or well equipped for the modern workplace as they need to be.

One of the primary ways in which we demonstrate our capacity for teamwork and collaboration is our respect for time.

Understanding the value for her people’s time and respecting it enough to meet deadlines and be on time for appointments and meetings says much more about your character than it does about how busy you are. How would you rate us on this soft skill as Zimbabweans?

How might our nation be different if the people who leave our universities and colleges had as much technical knowledge as they do now, but also possessed the ability to solve problems easily, the ability to resolve conflict, to observe objectively and critically, and the ability to adapt. How different would our workplaces look then?
And what if these were the skills based upon which cabinet ministers were appointed?

If you couldn’t be a cabinet minister without demonstrating a key set of soft skills, would our country work differently, and would our fate be altered?

All is not lost however, because these skills can still be learnt. There is only a question of willingness to apply oneself to the task of learning, to risk the vulnerability that dealing with any change produces, and the commitment to see a process which might be difficult, through to the end.

In the final analysis, every job comes down to both character and competence. While the hard skills may determine competence, soft skills speak to character, and while each is important, my thesis is that soft skills need our attention because they are more difficult to measure, and they have for too long been ignored.

Thembe Khumalo is a brand-builder, storyteller and social entrepreneur. Find out more on or follow her social media accounts @thembekhumalo

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