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Lynne Maureen Hurdle

Are Soft Skills Hard Skills to Incorporate?

Why Corporate America Needs to Consider the Push Back Conversations

Footage Firm, Inc.
Source: Footage Firm, Inc.

As Forbes, Fortune and Entrepreneur magazine are calling for more companies to teach soft skills to their employees, I am reading more and more about the push back against these very skills. In all transparency, as a Conflict Resolution Strategist, I have been facilitating workshops on “soft skills” for over 30 years. I have been invited to share their usefulness in both corporations and education. I guided skeptical leaders through the implementation of these skills in their daily lives and persuaded young people to trade fists for words in neighborhoods that demand they do otherwise. I am a fan and yet the rumblings of discontent have me sitting up and paying attention.

A year ago, a colleague questioned me as to whether I thought that teaching predominantly poor African American and Latino children (my primary youth audience), the “soft skills” of conflict resolution, communication and managing emotions bordered on respectability politics. My knee-jerk reaction was “No, of course not. These are vital skills for success and staying alive in a world that is set up to limit their access to the people and places that can help them live up to their full potential.” Her question rattled me enough to explore the numerous articles that had begun to surface on this very topic. Folks were not just questioning, but denouncing ideas like grit, character development, managing emotions and conflict resolution skills. Rather than creating safety and respectful environments, they are teaching children from marginalized communities that there is something wrong with who they are and how they behave. Respectability politics at work in their eyes.

In the article “The Definition, Danger and Disease of Respectability Politics Explained,” Damon Young explains that respectability politics is “generally defined as what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.” Joining this argument from the opposite side of the fence are those whose voices have been freed by Donald Trump’s resounding push back against political correctness. The “Let’s just tell it like it is… it’s the American way” crowd have been very vocal about their displeasure with years of not being allowed to “call a spade a spade.” Oh, I do mean that literally. In a Time article published during the Republican convention, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski is quoted as saying, “America is plagued by political correctness run amok.”

Now soft skills are being setup to be the next great solution for more happiness, less conflicts, better teamwork and greater productivity in corporate America. Is this perfect timing or an offshoot of the systems that control this country? One is left to wonder given the simultaneous push for more diversity in the C-suite. In an Uptown Professional magazine article writer, Roger O. Crockett relays an interaction between a black man and his white boss in corporate America. The employee was told, “I don’t see you as a black man. I see you as a smart individual.” The up and coming leader was insulted. As relayed in the article in his mind, “he is unabashedly black and proud of an African American culture that, in large part, shapes how he thinks, sees the world and relates to other people.” As corporations push for better communication skills, what steps are they taking to ensure that conversations around incorporating culture emerge as a natural response? Is there a place in that discussion for those who question the merits of political correctness?

Breaking culture when it comes to soft skills requires us to pause and give some real thought on how to effectively and appropriately go about it and the reason they are so critical to the future of corporate America. There are ways that we can begin to design culturally appropriate models of execution. I will share five ideas for that next week. For right now, I am choosing to continue reading and to take it all in. I would love to hear what you have to say about it.