This post was orginally published on https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220727-soft-skills-the-intangible-qualities-companies-crave
Technical prowess is important for securing a job. But lower-profile skills like communication and critical thinking are becoming just as crucial – if not more.
In order to do your job effectively, you need hard skills: the technical know-how and subject-specific knowledge to fulfil your responsibilities. But in a forever-changed world of work, lesser-touted ‘soft skills’ may be just as important – if not even more crucial.
These skills are more nuanced, even low-profile: think personal characteristics and behaviours that make a strong leader or a good team member. Especially amid the normalisation of remote work, where collaboration and the ways to innovate have changed, companies are beginning to catch on to the importance of these intangibles when building out diverse, successful teams.
As a result, employers are increasingly considering a candidate’s soft skills as closely as their experience and explicit technical specialties, say experts.
For some workers, some soft skills are innate – personality traits that make someone a naturally good communicator or analytical thinker. But for others, developing and honing soft skills can be more challenging. Yet it is possible for every worker to develop and hone these characteristics as well as learn how to show them off. And that, say experts, is something we should all be doing.
What are soft skills?
There is no definitive list of soft skills, but the term essentially refers to abilities beyond the technical. Confidence with certain software, for instance, is a hard skill; on the other hand, knowing how to analyse different software packages to figure out what a company should be using requires critical thinking: a soft skill.
Another major soft-skill area is communication. Effectively communicating with colleagues, clients and management requires dexterity and emotional intelligence. Empathy, teamwork and compassion are also skills that fall under that same umbrella.
The term ‘soft skills’ itself is just jargon, says Eric Frazer, author of The Psychology of Top Talent, and assistant professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine. “From the standpoint of behavioural science, it really refers to a series of mindsets and behaviours. Some examples of soft-skill mindsets might be someone who’s a continuous learner, or someone who’s highly resilient. Many behaviours – critical thinking, active listening, imaginative problem solving to name a few – are also soft skills.”
“The same skills that enable workers to operate successfully within company hierarchy and rise to the top also breed successful interpersonal relationships”
In essence, he continues, the term is just another phrase for ‘people skills’. “It’s about a person’s sense of self, and how they relate with other people.”
Many soft skills are highly practical, like efficiency, prioritisation, organisation and time management – all traits that are becoming increasingly critical for remote and hybrid workers. “People who are high performers have the discipline to structure their day, and to be highly effective within a set time frame,” says Frazer.
And soft skills aren’t merely useful at work – they’re generally invaluable. The same skills that enable workers to operate successfully within company hierarchy and rise to the top also breed successful interpersonal relationships, for instance.
A notable shift
As many of the highly technical parts of work are becoming increasingly automated, or replaced by technological tools, companies are instead looking for workers who can problem-solve, juggle larger responsibilities and work well with others. The ongoing labour shortage also has organisations focused on longevity: employees who have the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to grow into leadership positions offer a lot more value.
Additionally, soft skills have become even more important in the post-pandemic, largely remote work landscape. For instance: communication can be much more nuanced and complex when workers don’t see colleagues face to face. Adaptability, too, is a soft skill – and the past two years have called for a lot of it.
As a result, employers are actively soliciting candidates who have these intangibles. In a 2021 review of more than 80 million job postings across 22 industry sectors, education non-profit America Succeeds found that almost two-thirds of positions listed soft skills among their qualifications. And across all the job postings, of the 10 most in-demand skills, seven were ‘soft’, including communication, problem solving and planning.
The same report showed certain types of positions prioritise soft skills even more: they were the most desired qualifications for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business-operations jobs and 81% of engineering jobs – a fact that may be surprising, since it’s a field generally considered highly technically focused.
“When we look at today’s workforce,” says Frazer, “there’s definitely been a shift away from just having what I would call ‘tacit knowledge’ and ‘tacit skills’… meaning, you’re just good at what you do. If you’re an engineer, you’re good at coding or designing. If you’re working in finance, you’re good at numerical data analysis.” Where organisations have shifted, he says, is “there is a deeper understanding that people have to come first, before performance”. It’s not to say that technical skills have fallen by the wayside, he adds, but companies have increasingly come to realise emphasising the interpersonal skills that hold organisations together are what “drives great results”.
Global job site Monster’s The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlook revealed soft skills such as collaboration, dependability and flexibility are among the skills employers most prize in workers. Yet, executives report struggling with finding candidates who have well-developed soft skillsets – and have for years.
Part of that, says Frazer, is that skills like imagination and flexibility are difficult to quantify. “Inventories and questionnaires don’t really capture these attributes with any great precision,” he says. And candidates aren’t necessarily highlighting those abilities on their CVs or LinkedIn pages, though perhaps, he adds, they ought to be.
Articulating your ‘moon-shot mentality’
This increasing emphasis on soft skills may unnerve some workers, especially those who are not naturally good communicators or “born leaders”, as Frazer says. But he adds that these are learnable skills, even if some people may have to work a bit harder. “People who want to get better at their jobs, or be better workers, or have better work-life balance, understand and appreciate the value of constantly sort of fine-tuning these mindsets and behaviours.”
We tend to be aware of our strengths, but honing interpersonal skills starts with soliciting feedback to identify your weaknesses and blind spots. Improving them may mean forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. If you want to improve your imaginative thinking or problem-solving, for instance, try sitting in on brainstorming sessions with the company’s creatives.
“In one report, soft skills were the most desired qualifications for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business-operations jobs and 81% of engineering jobs”
Emotional intelligence can be increased, too, by developing social awareness and learning to regulate your own feelings and respond to others with empathy. On top of improving job prospects, that has added benefits: research shows people with high emotional intelligence are less likely to experience stress and anxiety.
As hiring managers increasingly search for people with these intangibles, they may tailor their interview questions to try to uncover a candidate’s soft skillset. “When you ask someone, ‘give me an example of a time you were really resilient in your professional life,’ or, ‘tell me a story that highlights your moon-shot mentality,’ you’re asking them to demonstrate those mindsets,” he says.
As for the interviewee, “let’s say you’re asked, ‘what’s your approach toward continuous learning?’” he continues. That’s a moment to show the interviewer you’re willing and excited about learning, and have the skills to do it. “The best response would be to say, ‘well, I went to this conference last year; I attend this webinar once a month; I just finished reading this book; I subscribe to this industry periodical.”
To best prepare for situations like these, candidates should identify their strongest soft skills in advance, and be ready to demonstrate them, he says. The technical skills and experience on your CV will always be important, but in the changed world of work, they’re not enough: you’ll still need to convince recruiters you possess the softer skills that will help you succeed.