Soft skills have hard value.
Despite what the name suggests, so-called ‘soft skills’ are often the deciding factor in a competitive recruitment process.
Too often job seekers set their focus on the hard skills they possess which qualify them for the job in a technical sense, when employers are increasingly looking past such abilities to find the right ‘fit’ between company and candidate.
That’s because success in the workplace often comes down to the personal qualities we possess, and to the emotional intelligence we apply to problems and challenges.
Soft skills and hard skills are not opposities – they complement each other. But all too often the latter is given precedence over the former.
Here is our guide to what constitutes a soft skill, why they are so important, and how best to leverage your soft skills as a job seeker and in the workplace.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are best understood by what they are not. ‘Hard’ skills are the things we instantly recognize as acquired skills, such as ‘computer programming’, ‘graphic design’, ‘project management’, or ‘accountancy’.
Hard skills are things we learn through our education, work experience, or both – and which we wouldn’t be much good at if we hadn’t specifically trained ourselves in that area.
Soft skills are a little different. Often they come naturally, and in some cases they can’t be trained or learned in a classroom. Soft skills have a lot to do with personality, character, and outlook.
That’s not to say some people are blessed with soft skills while others aren’t. We all have them. Some people just exhibit more of a certain soft skill than others do.
These skills do, however, develop over time. Adopting good habits and acting thoughtfully are two of the most powerful catalysts for improving one’s soft skills.
That said, soft skills can be tricky to pin down. The same qualities can overlap across some of the different ‘abilities’ we talk about. And, in this area, we often use different names for the same things.
To keep things straight, here is our list of the most important skills and abilities that we would call ‘soft skills’:
- Critical thinking
- Diligence (or work ethic)
Why soft skills are important to employers
Recruiters are never just looking for a candidate that can successfully complete the tasks assigned to them. In the vast majority of cases there will be more than one candidate who meets this requirement.
One of the top priorities for companies when hiring new staff is “cultural fit” – which is another way of saying that they want to maintain a certain harmony within the workforce.
Teams made up of people with complementary personalities tend to enjoy working together, and as a result stay together for longer and work more successfully.
Soft skills v hard skills
While soft skills and hard skills are far from being exclusive categories, they can be compared.
Soft skills can be said to have the edge over hard skills in a number of ways.
Without the soft skills to work successfully with others, and to motivate yourself and organize your work, hard skills aren’t so much use.
Soft skills will always be a decisive factor when deciding between two candidates of equal strength, especially as they appeal to the emotions of recruiters and fellow colleagues.
At the end of the day, however, soft and hard skills are complementary – and both are essential to succeed in any position.
Soft skills to list on your CV (with examples)
Consider which soft skills will prove most important for the positions you’re applying for. List these skills on your CV and expand on them in your cover letter.
Here is a breakdown of the most important soft skills, with examples of how they may be applied to the workplace.
(Focus on developing these if any could be particularly useful in your field but are not currently your strong point).
Communication skills are crucial for working with others, and good, clear communication (such as effective writing) can prove vital for fostering efficiency.
Good communications skills might be in evidence during a complicated, sensitive or highly-pressured project – especially as a project manager. Strong communication skills are often called for when dealing with demanding or unhappy colleagues, clients, or stakeholders.
Leadership is not something we just choose to do, it’s a skill or quality that some of us possess or develop.
Key to good leadership is motivating those you lead, setting the right example, and giving clear directions to those around you. As a manager, you may have successfully moved your team in a new direction, or hit an important target or deadline by helping the team pull their collective weight.
Critical thinking is all about analysing a particular issue and breaking down its component parts for evaluation. It requires the space and time to think deeply.
An instance of this skill in your work life could be the proposing of a new solution (or solutions) to a complex problem or business challenge.
Bringing a positive attitude to work is important, and highly valued by employers concerned with keeping up morale.
Using a positive attitude effectively in the work place may involve you playing a key role in helping maintain a positive attitude toward a project or challenge that your colleagues were beginning to despair or grow downbeat about, and which was eventually overcome.
Being able to stay motivated is central to maintaining consistent performance and enjoying your work.
The ability to self-motivate will come in especially handy during tough times in your work, such as a pile up of work, a problem in your personal life, or a particularly taxing or difficult work task. Staying motivated will help you get through it and move on to better things.
Diligence (or work ethic)
Not everyone has a natural inclination toward hard work. This skill can also be learned, and is relevant to all areas of your work life.
An instance of using a diligent attitude to great effect may be a time where you were under pressure personally, and needed to just knuckle down for a time to produce a positive outcome and prove what you’re capable of.
The ability to work collaboratively as part of a team is fundamental to working successfully with others – and to arriving at new solutions to old problems as a collective.
Your teamwork skills would be in evidence on a project you took on with your colleagues, and in which you worked closely together. The more you have worked with colleagues across different departments, the better you will come across as a team player.
Good organization is essential for complex and multi-faceted workloads, and helps you to prioritize your work.
When managing or contributing to a complex, wide-ranging and long-lasting project, good organization skills will prove indispensible to success.
Forging relationships with your colleagues is a big part of settling in to a new work place. Empathy helps you to make connections with others and make them feel valued.
Providing support or assistance to a colleague in need may be a sure sign of your empathetic tendencies, as will be your desire to work as part of a team and to share the credit around for a job well done.
Finding creative solutions to problems and business challenges is becoming increasingly valued by employers, and can set applicants apart from other similarly-qualified candidates during the recruitment process.
Examples of using creativity in the workplace will involve having developed new ideas and concepts either individually or as part of a team to address problems or to meet key objectives.
Though we choose what careers to pursue and jobs to apply for, there are many aspects of our work life we don’t control. Adaptability is a measure of how well we cope with different conditions and environments.
Demonstrate your adapability by highlighting times where you have been challenged by a new environment and overcome it.
Talking up your soft skills in an interview
There are two ways to get your soft skills across in a job interview: talking about them, and demonstrating them.
When talking about soft skills, always be sure to support your claims with examples (like the kind suggested in the previous section), and clearly identify the soft skills you are talking about.
Don’t assume everyone else has the same personal qualities and abilities as you.
Demonstrating your soft skills should come naturally, but if done with deliberate intent it can be even more effective. Consider ways in which you can support your case with appropriate body language.
Using soft skills in the workplace
Soft skills really come into their own when applied to the workplace.
What soft skills you need, and how you use them, will depend on your role, but more individual skills such as organization, diligence, and self-motivation will tend to take you a long way in any position.
If you find yourself in a leadership role, take leadership skills seriously. You may be able to improve these by attending leadership courses and by observing successful managers and more experienced senior colleagues.
Teamwork, communication, and empathy are essential soft skills for working successfuly with others – but not everyone excels in these areas. Sometimes setting a good example can help those you work with develop abilties that don’t come as naturally to them.
Identifying what soft skills you will most rely on in a job will help you to develop and grow in the role over time.