I have been in the corporate world as an electronic engineer for 10 years. I started a job in the first quarter of this year. Some months into it in a 1-1 my boss said that I lack "soft skills". I am not sure what exactly this means and why I never encountered this type of feedback before.
I agree with the others here that soft skills generally refer to interpersonal skills and would suggest asking your boss about specifics.
But I would just like to add that it's not necessarily referring to social or communication skills.
It could be anything related to job performance but not specifically about the job. These things could be anything such as computer skills such as typing speed, mouse control, ability to use certain programs, ability to research, organisational skills, punctuality, etc.
Though it is most often referring to social or communication skills/abilities, it is next most often used to refer to cognitive abilities; the ability to problem solve, decision making skills, critical thinking, creativity, resourcefulness, etc.
It could even refer to things like personal presentation, hair, clothing, neatness of desk, sitting without fidgeting, etc.
So yeah, without context (or maybe even then) and personal reflection it can refer to a great many things. (though the fact that you didn't ask for clarification in the moment is pretty telling). Reflect on all these things and I suggest in your next one on one you bring it up again;
hey boss, last time you suggested my soft skills were lacking, I've been reflecting on this and am eager to improve myself, (maybe mention that you think a, b, c are the areas where you could improve), could you further elaborate on the specific soft skills/areas I need improvement in?
My boss said that I lack "soft skills", what does this mean?
The best way to find out the answer is to ask the boss in a 1:1 meeting. Maybe, your boss can give you some concrete examples, and tell how you should improve on those situations.
Here are some basic definitions of soft skills that are shown on the web:
What are the examples of soft skills?
Soft skills, also called people skills, are the mix of social and interpersonal skills, character traits, and professional attitudes that all jobs require.
Teamwork, patience, professionalism, effective and respectful communication skills, taking constructive feedback and criticism well, getting along well with your coworkers, friendly collaboration and good time management with the team,... are just a few examples.
how come I never encountered this type of feedback ever before.
Maybe, in your previous companies, you worked in different roles and in different environments with different bosses and coworkers, who have different personality from your current coworkers, and current boss. Thus, those former bosses may not think that you lack soft skills while the current boss does.
The perception and definition of soft skills can be very subjective.
I don't know what industry you are in, but think of the stereotype of the engineer being socially awkward or saying something that may be correct, but is inappropriate or even rude—that is most often what people mean by 'lacking soft skills'.
Although the other definition is good. A better conceptual definition would be:
"All the skills that are tangential and secondary, but none-the-less needed for your job"
So, if you think about the above stereotype of an engineer - all the hard skills would be things related directly to engineering (materials science, formula knowledge, etc.) and all the soft skills is everything else that is needed in the workplace, but is secondary to the actual job.
These can vary from job to job. What might be a soft skill to, say, an engineer is a job requirement for a salesperson.
In terms of what you lack - I would talk to my boss and find out exactly what they mean—as there are a myriad of areas that you might be weak in.
And just to add: Don't look at this as an admonishment; look at it as an opportunity to grow and be better, by working on those areas of your character that perhaps need improvement.
Soft skill are interpersonal skills. They range from tact through the ability to read body language cues to more sophisticated skills like manipulation, telling lies and their counterparts resisting manipulation and detecting lies.
Broadly speaking soft skills are most valued by people who lack hard skills. It is tempting to dismiss these people as useless and ineffectual, but these people don't need hard skills, they just need to take the credit for the efforts of people who have hard skills but lack soft skills.
I learnt this the hard way. I hired a fellow who interviewed well. He didn't have ideal skills for the role, but the rest of the applicants were rubbish. Things happened and for a few weeks I was too busy dealing with real problems to keep him supplied with work. He took the opportunity to present himself as the face of the work I was doing to our head office interstate and the first I knew of this was an email asking me to join in congratulating the little weasel on his promotion to tech manager of our office.
My reply-to-all of "I don't think I will" accompanied by a summary of the above and pointing out that the appointment violated written HR policy did not win me any friends at head office. Management is generally in the group of people with more soft than hard skills.
This stuff matters. You can't ignore it. Learn some soft skills. At a minimum, learn to keep an eye on what the soft-skill people are up to. Tact is hard for people like us, especially when we are justifiably angry.
Epilogue: weasel-boy was my manager for a couple of months. At one point he tried a poor performance review. For my support person I brought a lawyer, because intimidation is a game two can play. Later there were staff reductions beginning with voluntary redundancies. After I accepted the offer, they discovered I'd been with the company through several acquisitions and got the carryover of long service entitlements in writing. Poker face is another soft skill. My payout entitlement was triple what they were expecting and nine times more than the weasel. I found another job much faster than he did, because hard skills. I know this because he called me, looking for work. Fool me once...
Your boss is telling you that your soft skills are less than sufficient in this organization. Ideally he would guide you with some actionable steps to improve, but unfortunately not in this case.
A few soft skills may be particularly important in Engineering workplaces:
Low-conflict engagement. Listen & understand other's viewpoints rather than disagreeing directly; then try to find a mutually acceptable solution. Prefer getting on a call to tit-for-tat email exchanges.
Active Listening. Very valuable -- part of #1 but worth practicing for it's own sake.
Bring solutions, not problems.
Communicate early & effectively about project planning.
Prioritize business value, not technical value.
Build relationships. Collaborate, connect on non work-related topics, value your team members, acknowledge their work & share credit.
Accept feedback. Accept & consider feedback, even when it's difficult. Try and figure out what you can improve and plan specifically how you can do better.
A few references on Soft Skills that might be partially useful:
To be honest, you may not be fitting well with this manager and (especially in a recessionary economy) your job may be at risk within this organization.
I would recommend you consider, yourself, where you might have made a bad impression & how you might improve; then engage with your manager on this basis to convey your willingness and ask his advice on where and how you can improve.
In parallel with this you should also take steps to refresh your CV and look for alternative employment if necessary -- your manager may be impressed by your willingness to improve, but this is not guaranteed.
More of a hypothesis/opinion, but to me, the fact that your boss told you that you "lack soft skills" indicates that your boss lacks soft skills. Directly calling out your weaknesses implies he/she could use soft skills as much or more than you do.
There surely are better ways to deliver the message, regardless of its truth value:
- Your boss could ask about your strengths and areas that you yourself would like to improve.
- Your boss could then mention opportunities for PD available in your organization or at the team level, gauge your interest and express support...without singling you out or framing it as personal criticism.
- Your boss could offer training in areas they consider 'soft skills' to the team at large -- again, to not single out anyone in particular and to make professional skill development have more of a community feel, than a chore for specific 'lucky' team members.
The fact that you never encountered such feedback before makes me lean toward thinking you don't have a soft skills problem. The fact that you decided to get a second opinion here also tells me you have no problem seeking feedback and learning -- both critical 'soft skills'.
Therefore, the wiser approach may be to treat your boss's patronizing comment as just that, a comment by someone who could use soft skills training themselves. A 'negative example' if you will, of how not to deliver feedback and how not to build relationships with subordinates.
I would recommend not to take it too close to heart. But just in case, focus on continuing being cordial, respectful and professional (while appropriately friendly and positive) in all your communication with colleagues, so as to leave as little as possible to 'pick on'.
There is quite a bit of discussion in other answers about what constitutes soft skills. Although useful as second opinion, what really matters is not how this community defines soft skills, but how your boss does.
With that in mind, and since your boss already started down this path, next time your boss brings up this point consider asking for specific examples (evidence) of situations that resulted in such evaluation of your deficiency in that area. Ask them to 'unpack' what they mean by soft skills, and where specifically you fall short on each of these types of skills. If possible, ask for this information in writing, so as to create a paper trail that may give you ammo for formal complaint in the future if you begin to feel being unfairly singled out or bullied.
If your boss does provide specific and well supported feedback and if it does appear that you could use improvement in some areas, ask for their suggestions on training opportunities through your employer to help close the gap.
Developing one's subordinates skills is one of the manager's responsibilities, whether they want/like it or not. If they identify a gap, them must take steps to close that gap through reasonable effort, including training, coaching, and mentorship. At the very least, they must make such opportunities readily available to staff.
In turn, it would be your responsibility to take up at least some of these opportunities, so be ready to invest a little in your PD if you go down this path. The worst that can happen is you'll pick up a few good ideas and actually improve in some areas, so you got nothing to lose and maybe at least something to gain. Good luck!