Generally speaking, employers evaluate employees on three broad criteria: experience, qualifications, and skills. In the absence or scarcity of the first two, the last one, skills, is the key factor for determining a candidate's suitability for a job. Traditionally, we classify skills as either hard or soft. Hard skills are technical skills—objectively observable and measurable. But soft skills are more ambiguous. They're personal qualities that relate to how well a person interacts with others. It's tough to measure that.
Recently, though, a new term has entered our vocabulary to reshape the way we look at so-called soft skills. The term is "power skills," and it may eventually replace the language we're accustomed to using to describe a person's more vague attributes. But what exactly are power skills and why are they important? Let's take some time to find out.
What are power skills?
Power skills are soft skills. So, why don't we just continue using the term "soft skills?" To understand why, we should look back at the history of both designations.
The history of the terms "hard skills" and "soft skills"
"Soft skills" entered the English vocabulary in the mid-20th century by way of the United States Army. It was a period of vast and rapid technological incorporation in virtually every facet of American life, including the military. In 1968, to facilitate the training of military personnel on the use of technology, the Army published a set of guidelines called "CON Reg 350-100-1: Systems Engineering of Training (Course Design)."
The publication led to the U.S. Army's Continental Army Command holding a training conference in 1972 where the first formal use of "hard skills" and "soft skills" appeared in papers delivered by the author Paul G. Whitmore. Whitmore saw the distinction between hard skills and soft skills as a difference between being a "machine operator" and a "people operator," respectively. So, because hard skills required the use of equipment, Whitmore offered a tentative definition of soft skills as "important job-related skills ... which involve little or no interaction with machines."
Whitmore also acknowledged that soft skills were a bit of a mystery. In his papers, he writes that hard skills relate to "job functions about which we know a good deal," but soft skills pertained to areas that related to areas of work that weren't well studied at the time. That is, the proper use of technology was an objective truth because you could observe the human input and determine whether it produced the desired output. Still, there was yet no way to measure the appropriate management of or interactions with people in the workplace.
Evolving connotations of "hard skills" and "soft skills"
Over time, the words "hard" and "soft" seemed to inspire opposing connotations in the public's view. "Hard" recalled necessity and real value, something to take seriously, whereas "soft" evoked almost a sense of triviality, or at least a secondary thing. Such a distinction almost belittles soft skills as unnecessary, though even the U.S. Department of Labor recognizes that soft skills may be even more valuable than hard skills for work readiness.
The undercutting of soft skills as a necessity would meet resistance during the COVID-19 pandemic and The Great Resignation. With teams going remote and employees becoming stronger advocates for their rights in the workplace, it became clearer what qualities employees really needed to thrive and that effective management wasn't totally about pushing people to strive for the numerical benchmarks of key performance indicators. Employees could gain more control over their careers by applying less concrete competencies, and managers could foster engagement by recognizing the needs of individuals and how they relate to fluid achievement standards.
All of the above developments led to a proposal to rebrand soft skills. In a report titled "2022 Workplace Learning Trends," Udemy Business, a company that specializes in training employees, discusses the need for reframing soft skills to reflect their high value. These skills are "critical to every employee's performance," so it doesn't make sense to describe them as they though they're lesser than. "These skills aren't just nice to have," says the report. "They're essential for changing the workplace."
"Over time, the words 'hard' and 'soft' seemed to inspire opposing connotations in the public's view. 'Hard' recalled necessity and real value, something to take seriously, whereas 'soft' evoked almost a sense of triviality, or at least a secondary thing. Such a distinction almost belittles soft skills as unnecessary, though even the U.S. Department of Labor recognizes that soft skills may be even more valuable than hard skills for work readiness."
Why "power" skills?
The question that remains is, "Why are we using the word 'power' to describe these skills?" Aside from the radically different connotation of "power" compared with "soft," the term "power skills" accurately describes the effect that such competencies have on the employee. The Udemy Business report explains:
"These skills are what give employees power at work. Power to collaborate, power to communicate effectively, power to lead. ... After all, these are core competencies that all employees need—whether they're in a financial, technical, administrative, sales, or marketing role."
And that's the story of how we left the dated notion of soft skills and entered a new era of employee empowerment.
Examples of key power skills
All right, then, power skills are soft skills, a concept with which most people are probably familiar. But some skills are more powerful than others. Here are the most important key power skills to look for in promising candidates:
Emotional intelligence is a broad designation that refers to the ability to recognize, comprehend, and deal with emotions, both your own and those of others. You may be able to see why it's such an in-demand power skill. It entails having empathy, which better enables you to forge bonds with others, which promotes engagement between individuals, and that applies whether we're talking about coworker–coworker or employer–employee relationships.
Speaking of relationships, they can't really form without genuine communication taking place. Verbal expression, written exchange, and nonverbal cues all impact how effectively we can build genuine relationships. These modes are how we present ourselves to others, how others relate to us, and how colleagues come to form opinions about one another. Effective communicators are often also great conflict resolvers, helping one side to appreciate the perspective of the other.
Teamwork and collaboration
Teamwork and collaboration relate to being able to work well with others, which is an extension of the whole relationship-building thing. Both skills involve interpersonal skills, qualities that draw people into your sphere, persuade them to trust you, and promote positive dynamics with them. Having them in your skills tool belt can set you up to succeed in a variety of work environments, both in-person and virtual.
Creativity is the ability to devise original things, ideas, or ways of doing things. Originality doesn't necessarily mean total newness, but it does involve at least a new angle, a fresh perspective. A business can gain a competitive advantage by presenting newness to the world, which is why creativity is such a hot commodity in the skills market.
Adaptability and resilience
The pandemic showed us how important it is to be able to evolve alongside forces outside of our control. It drove home the need to be adaptable to rapid change and resilient to challenges that initially bring us down. When you can acclimate yourself to the most difficult situations and bounce back from adversity, you have the foundation in place to thrive in just about any setting.
Why are power skills so important in today's workplace?
Aside from their role as the core of a broader skill set and their importance in building relationships, power skills are also extremely important today because of the expanding use of automation across a broad range of industries. Power skills are fundamentally human skills. They have no direct relationship to machines, and machines can't develop them. So, while artificial intelligence may be revolutionizing some aspects of hiring and operations, it can't replicate the way humans profoundly influence other humans. It can't inspire love and devotion from the people who get things done in the workplace.
More tips about skills in the workplace:
- As mentioned, a candidate's skills can make the difference between being a top candidate and an average one. You'd do well to prioritize power skills especially when a candidate has gaps in their resume.
- Being emotionally intelligent, one of the key power skills, requires understanding what employees want. And one thing that many employees want is a flexible work environment.
- Because power skills relate to optimizing your interactions with others, you can use them to identify and prevent causes of burnout in your workforce.