When looking at what it takes to find a job in your career of choice or to move to the next step in your discipline, we often think predominantly of technical skills — also known as hard skills. As in, what specific competencies do you need to complete the core duties of a role?
Being equipped with the necessary hard skills is undoubtedly important, but lately, there has been increasing focus on the other kind of skills — soft skills. More and more, employees and job candidates are being encouraged to focus on building their soft skills, which includes areas such as creativity, collaboration and adaptability.
But do companies really value soft skills more than hard skills? We’re going to take a closer look at this notion, why soft skills are important and how you can focus on building them for the sake of your career.
The Difference Between Hard Skills and Soft Skills
First, it’s important to be specific when we’re defining the two types of skills. Here’s how we generally categorize them:
Hard skills are often also called technical skills. These include a knowledge base in a specific practice, the ability to apply technical skills (like an accountant does, for example) and IT skills such as programming, data science and the like. It can also include more simply hard skills, like how to use a point-of-sale system. These skills relate directly and specifically to the role and processes you’re expected to complete.
Soft skills can seem a little more nebulous in comparison. They describe a range of abilities, competencies and qualities that, overall, build up an employee who helps improve the culture and cohesion of the workplace. People skills are often considered the most important soft skills, but this range also includes problem-solving, time management and even skills related to having a positive attitude and strong work ethic.
Clearly, there is a necessity for both kinds of skills in order to truly help one excel in their career. However, many professionals focus specifically on only building their hard skills. But employers and career experts are growing increasingly loud about the importance of ensuring a balanced skillset.
Which Soft Skills Are Most Valuable?
There isn’t a clear-cut answer or perfect formula as to which soft skills are most likely to help you succeed. The soft skills you need to excel can depend on your role, how isolated or connected your job is to team members and the culture and structure of the team you work on. That being said, the following soft skills are commonly considered highly valuable:
- Communication: It’s important to be able to communicate well to your specific audience both verbally and in writing. For instance, someone in a tech position needs to be able to clearly communicate technical matters to those who may be less versed in that kind of language, such as C-suite members whose high-level duties don’t necessitate them to know every in and out of the technical process.
- Effective listening: Closely tied to communication, it’s essential to be able to deliver your full attention when it’s needed, retain information and interject or question when necessary. It’s easy to listen without really hearing, so effective listening is about making sure you’re tuned into the conversation and fully understand what’s being discussed.
- Collaboration: This is self-explanatory to many, but rarely is the success of any process or project reliant on one person alone. Collaboration and teamwork demand good communication, but they also mean recognizing your place in a joint project, valuing the skills of others and helping build a positive, friendly work culture.
- Problem-solving: Critical analysis means that you’re able and willing to take action when something goes wrong, rather than immediately taking the problem to someone else. Being able to navigate unexpected challenges and achieve some self-sufficiency on a team can make an individual truly valuable to an employer.
- Adaptability: Many employees focus so much on their hard skills and the defined boundaries of their role that they struggle when moved outside of their comfort zone. The ability to be flexible and fulfill the role when it changes is highly sought after.
- Time management: From being able to meet deadlines to scheduling your work to make yourself more productive, the better you use your time, the more valuable work you can provide for the team.
- Leadership: This includes delegation, team motivation, clear communication around joint goals and the ability to set clear boundaries and defuse tensions within the team. A lot of skills specifically related to leadership are essential for any management or executive positions.
The “soft” in soft skills is something of a misnomer. Many of the skills named above require dedicated learning and can be taught just as much as a hard skill. The misconception that some naturally possess those skills and some don’t leads both employees and employers to miss the opportunity to train in them. If you’re aiming to develop your career, then you should be spending time developing your soft skills as well.
What Makes Soft Skills So Important?
Companies tend to overwhelmingly value soft skills at the same level as — if not more than — hard skills. But it’s important to know why that’s the case.
- They complement hard skills: It’s not a hard versus soft, this-or-that situation. You need a balanced skillset, and within that balance, technical skills are often bolstered by soft skills. For instance, a data scientist needs to be able to extrapolate solutions and conclusions from large volumes of digital data — a very hard skill. However, they also need the soft skill of good communication to effectively communicate their findings to colleagues.
- We are all increasingly interpersonal: In the modern workplace, communication and collaboration are more important than ever. Thanks to how easy digital technology has made it to communicate, we’re constantly messaging, sharing resources and working together. For productive and healthy work environments, teams must be filled with people who are able to collaborate and communicate well.
- They are rarer: Simply put, soft skills are harder to learn. While some courses and training methods focus on teaching them, it’s still much easier to find a course in just about any hard skill. If it’s a hiring choice between someone who is number one in their chosen hard skills but has no soft skills, or someone who is number five in hard skills but also brings skills in communication, time management and collaboration, the number five is more likely to get the job. Rarely does the hard-skill “savant” with no ability to work along with their team get the position.
- They’re essential for dealing with customers: If you’re in a role with any kind of front-facing duties, then you need soft skills to handle customers. To the same degree that customers value low prices and convenience, they also value how they’re treated by a company. If you’re unable to communicate and work with customers, you can end up leaving a bad impression that could risk the company’s relationship with that customer and overall reputation.
- Soft skills transcend roles: Many hard skills are highly relevant in multiple positions. There are very few skills that don’t have some cross-compatibility with other roles. However, soft skills are more than just compatible with a range of roles — they are compatible with all roles. No matter what direction your career takes, you’re always going to be able to make use of your communication, time management and leadership skills. In fact, the higher you climb up the career ladder, the further away you tend to get from your hard skills. Therefore, if you want to keep climbing, then you need to keep bolstering those soft skills.
A lack of soft skills can severely limit not only your relationships within the workplace, but also the growth potential of your career.
How to Develop Your Soft Skills
Soft skills make you truly stand out. Employers don’t always understand hard skills, and may not pay as close attention to the technical aspects of your role because it’s your responsibility to understand and carry out those aspects for them. What distinguishes you from others doing the same technical role is the soft skills you bring to it.
Here are a few ways to work on developing those soft skills:
- Consider finding a mentor who can offer you feedback and tips, and workshop new soft skills with you.
- Improve your communication and collaboration skills by joining public-speaking or presentation-practicing groups.
- Practice scheduling out your day to improve time management and productivity skills.
- Try to adopt more positive and optimistic attitudes about the workplace, your role and those that you work with.
As we’ve mentioned soft skills are harder to learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Once you know what those skills are, where you’re already exceeding and where you could use some improvement, you will start to see the opportunity to practice them more and more, and eventually transform the way you work and the way your employer sees you.