What are Soft Skills?
The phrase ‘soft skills’ is often used by employers, particularly when they are bemoaning a shortage of suitable candidates for jobs.
You will almost certainly have heard big employers complaining that millennials, school leavers, university graduates, or perhaps simply ‘young people’ lack the ‘soft skills’ needed in ‘today’s workplace’. What exactly does this really mean, though?
A wide range of skills fall under the heading of ‘soft skills’. They are also often known as ‘transferable skills’. They include interpersonal skills, sometimes called ‘people skills’ or ‘social skills’, but go far beyond this area.
This page defines and explains the term ‘soft skills’, and then describes the soft skills that are usually considered most important by employers.
Defining Soft Skills
soft skills, pl.n.
desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.
Collins English Dictionary, Complete and Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition.
Soft skills is the term used for those skills that are not technical or job-related.
They include social skills, interpersonal skills, and a positive attitude. These are the skills that define your relationships with other people, or how you approach life and work.
‘Hard skills’, by contrast, is a phrase usually used to describe job-specific skills.
Examples of hard skills include professional skills like bricklaying or accountancy, medical expertise such as diagnosis and treatment, or other skills that can be taught and whose presence is testable through exams.
Ironically, for many people, the so-called soft skills are often some of the hardest skills to develop. However, this does not mean that they cannot be learned or taught.
The Relative Importance of Hard and Soft Skills
Job-related expertise is essential in any profession and in many other careers. However, over the last twenty to thirty years, understanding has grown that perhaps the soft skills may ultimately be more important in determining levels of success.
Hard skills are therefore a basic minimum necessary to operate in that particular workplace.
Whether or not you are successful in your career may depend on how you relate to other people and to work: the so-called soft skills.
Principles of Competition
Think of soft skills in the light of competition principles.
Imagine you are a company producing something, let’s say light bulbs. You come up with a revolutionary new technology. Your light bulbs are suddenly much better than others and your profits go up.
But, after a while, your competitors get hold of the technology: you license its use, perhaps, or they develop alternatives. Suddenly, light bulbs are all the same again and your profits are suffering. You still need the new technology, but you also need a new competitive edge: perhaps a reputation for customer service.
Hard skills are like your technology: anyone can acquire them, with training, and they are necessary. Without them you will not be able to operate in the workplace. Soft skills are your unique selling point and give you a competitive edge in the workplace, and perhaps even in life.
Many people have characterised soft skills as those relating to Emotional Intelligence, the ability to recognise and manage your own and others’ emotions. However, in reality, they go beyond that, and into the wider realms of how you organise yourself and how you approach life.
The good news is that you can learn and develop soft skills as well as hard skills.
The bad news is that it is often much harder to do so, and there is no easy measure of success.
Like hard skills, soft skills require a lot of practice to make you really skilled at using them. Unlike hard skills, there are no exams to prove that you can do them. You measure your success in developing soft skills in how well you manage relationships with those around you. These include family, friends, and co-workers, as well as customers and those who provide you with goods or services.
What are the Most Important Soft Skills?
It is hard to say which soft skills are most important, because it will vary by situation.
However, this list is broadly what employers mean when they talk about ‘good soft skills’. They are, therefore, the skills that are most likely to enable you to build constructive working relationships with others, or to be a constructive and helpful employee.
Communication skills are almost always high on the ‘essential skills’ list in any job advertisement.
People with strong communication skills can build relationships (from the initial rapport-building through to a longer-term relationship). They can listen well and vary their communication to suit the circumstances. They avoid misunderstandings, and in general make any workplace work better.
If you spend time on nothing else, work on your communication skills.
Being able to make decisions is valued by employers for many reasons, and also essential to getting on in life more generally.
We all have to make decisions every day, from what we have for breakfast, to more important decisions like whether to apply for a new job or when to get married. Sometimes the actual decision doesn’t even matter; what matters is that you have made one and moved on.
Being able to make good decisions can also help with problem-solving, because it enables you to choose between possible solutions.
People who are self-motivated get on by themselves.
They do not need close supervision. They are good to work with because they are generally positive about life and can be counted upon to keep going, even when times are hard. Two skills that are closely linked to self-motivation are personal resilience, or the ability to bounce back when you encounter problems, and adaptability to change.
Leadership skills are the skills required to take the lead when necessary.
They include the ability to manage and motivate others, and to delegate work. These are the set of soft skills that we least expect someone to develop by themselves. Employers understand that it is hard to develop skills without being able to practise them every day. There is likely to come a point, however, when you may need to step up to a leadership position for the first time.
There are therefore many leadership training courses available and much has been written about how to develop your leadership skills. Our leadership skills pages describe many of the skills needed for effective leadership and how to develop your leadership style.
Team-working skills are broadly those required to work effectively with other people.
They are, therefore, basically interpersonal skills. There is plenty of thinking to suggest that good communication skills, particularly good listening skills, together with an ability to build rapport will go a long way to support your ability to work well in a team.
There are, however, some specific skills and areas of expertise that may be helpful if you need to work closely with other people. It is, for example, useful to understand about Belbin’s Team Roles, and the distinction between ‘task’- and ‘process’-focused skills.
Like leadership skills, creativity and problem-solving skills are highly valued because they are hard to develop.
There are many people who believe that creative thinkers are born, not made. There are certainly some people who find these skills much easier. But, like other skills, you can develop them if you work to do so and our pages on these topics will give you some ideas about how to do this.
7. Time Management and ability to work under pressure
These two areas, put together, can be summed up as ability to get the job done in the time available. They are also sometimes described as having a ‘good work ethic’.
Many would say that these two skills, which often go hand-in-hand, are more an attitude than a skill. The precise words you use, though, probably do not matter nearly as much as working on these areas. They are highly valued by employers, but are also very useful for organising a family or a team, and making sure that the job gets done at work or at home.
Positive thinking is the idea that you can improve your life, and the lives of those around you, by taking a positive attitude.
This is not in the least ‘fluffy’. Nobody can deny that it is pleasanter to work with someone who is enthusiastic, friendly, and has a can-do attitude. It is also quite depressing to work with someone who always sees the downside of everything. Employers look for people with a positive attitude because they help everyone to feel better about themselves. They also achieve more.
A Final Word
This list is of course not exhaustive. Just one glance round SkillsYouNeed will show you that there is a huge range of soft skills. Any given employer or individual may place more or less emphasis on these or others.
However, working to develop the skills in this list is likely to pay off in a job search, in any job or career on which you embark, and in life more generally.