13 Minutes of reading
The ultimate guide to soft skills
According to a study conducted by leading global employment website Monster, 90% of employers believe that soft skills will become more important over the next few years. But why?
While it’s clear that technological progress is leading to task automation and increasingly advanced artificial intelligence, robotics will never be able to replace human interaction in the same way that it can replace hard skills. As a result, human qualities and interpersonal communication, or soft skills, are being held in higher esteem by businesses.
Soft skills are closely related to transferable skills, interpersonal skills and even behavioural skills. Each of these categories gives a slightly different colour to the term “soft skills”.
In this article, we’ll present the differences and subtleties of these highly prized skills.
What are soft skills?
Defining soft skills
Defining soft skills isn’t straightforward, as they cover an entire set of skills linked to human behaviour. The term itself appeared back in the 60s, when the US army attempted to distinguish between “hard skills” – that is, the skills required to operate machinery or equipment – and other, non-technical skills, which were termed “soft skills”.
Soft skills have a much broader definition than hard skills. The danger, of course, is that the category becomes a catch-all for lots of general skills, without any kind of hierarchy or order. For example, it can be easy to mix up someone’s emotional state in a given moment (such as frustration upon receiving a disappointing result) with innate and fixed personality traits (like shyness) or with more palpable skills that can be gained over time (such as time management). Another reason why soft skills seem boundless is because they tend to be easily transferable to other sectors and jobs.
So, how can we come up with a clear and concise definition for soft skills? In a nutshell, soft skills are the durable skills, either innate or acquired, associated with how an individual interacts with other people. While hard skills are the “what”, soft skills are the “how”.
- interpersonal and people skills. We can also refer to these as behavioural skills. These refer to the personal qualities that have a positive influence within a team and within a company more broadly.
- soft transferable skills, defined as aptitudes and abilities that are applicable to many different roles, regardless of sector.
Organisation, creativity, critical thinking, attention to detail, stress management but also emotional intelligence, relationship building and leadership all fall under the soft skills category.
Soft skills and hard skills: what’s the difference?
As we’ve alluded to, hard skills and soft skills are defined by how they differ: a hard skill isn’t a soft skill, and vice versa.
Hard skills refer to the technical competencies required to perform a function or role (or several). For instance, social media management is a key skill for community managers or content managers. Key skills are also known as job-specific skills.
In contrast to soft skills, hard skills can become obsolete. The reason for this is that jobs – and the skills required to perform them – are in constant flux.
So, when it comes to hard skills vs soft skills, which are better? Actually, neither are better than the other. In fact, the two skill sets complement one another.
Why soft skills and hard skills go hand in hand
In all likelihood, an employee who is technically brilliant at what they do but lacking in soft skills will not add much value to their organisation. The quality of their work will suffer enormously if they aren’t able to communicate effectively, organise their workload, adapt to unforeseen circumstances or integrate well into a team.
Equally, someone who has plenty of interpersonal qualities, such as being able to lend an ear to colleagues, being creative and paying attention to detail, but has gaps in important hard skills will not be an effective employee.
So, in a contest between hard and soft skills, neither come out on top, as we’ve seen. Crucially, they both complement one another. It’s a case of striking the right balance between hard and soft skills, and the right balance depends on each specific job, workplace and business culture.
For employers, it’s a case of recruiting candidates with the right combination of hard and soft skills.
Soft skills in 5 categories
How can we classify soft skills? Here, we’ve attempted to create as exhaustive a list as possible of soft skills, organised into key categories. The categories are fairly general and can be adapted to the business function or department to which the employee belongs.
Here are 50 or so examples of soft skills, split into 5 key categories.
Communication and ethics
Expressing your ideas clearly and effectively along with tailoring your message to your intended audience are essential aptitudes in business, particularly for managers. Ethics, meanwhile, is about recognition and helps employees feel good about themselves.
The following skills can be found in this category:
- professional awareness;
- being well presented;
- being courteous, cordial and kind;
Organisation and efficiency
These two attributes often go hand in hand. An employee who knows how to prioritise and order their tasks will be much more efficient and productive. Moreover, they’ll have a good overview of everything they have on their plate at all times, which will give them a sense of ease and confidence as they perform their role.
Soft skills in this category include:
- being on the ball;
- strategic planning;
- setting objectives;
- ordering and prioritising tasks;
- time management;
- punctuality and respecting deadlines;
- resources management;
- having a good work-life balance.
Social and emotional intelligence
Social and emotional intelligence enable an employee to slot into a team seamlessly. This means being prepared to help others and contribute to a healthy and positive working environment.
There are a number of soft skills that fall under this category:
- relationship building;
- generosity and helping others;
- cultural intelligence;
- being in the moment;
- professional awareness;
- self control;
- sharing ideas and putting forward your own views;
- team work;
- cooperation, collaboration and coordination;
- accepting criticism;
- being sensitive and in touch with your emotions;
- empathy and focusing on others;
- having confidence in yourself and others;
- stress management;
- equanimity (calmness and composure, particularly in difficult situations);
Creativity and innovative thinking
Being able to analyse and interrogate your work environment and professional challenges, not to mention the world around you, enables you to come up with new ideas and solutions.
Here are the soft skills that relate to creativity and innovation:
- making critical observations;
- critical thinking and challenging the status quo;
- being energetic and taking action when needed;
- conducting research to find solutions to problems;
- thinking logically;
- attention to detail and an ability to follow established and effective methods;
- being open-minded;
- the ability to think differently and defend new ideas;
- creativity and imagination;
- being artistic.
Management and leadership
Having a team that is productive, calm and motivated is indicative of healthy and effective leadership.
Here are the soft skills linked to this category:
- learning to learn;
- being able to motivate and coach your employees;
- hosting (meetings, team building sessions, etc.);
- leading by example and inspiring others;
- conflict management and resolution;
- giving constructive feedback;
- valuing and encouraging employees;
- remote management;
- decision making;
Why should companies invest in developing soft skills?
The professional world is constantly changing, whether due to technological evolutions, job transformations or economic uncertainty. To be able to adapt to these changes, soft skills are front and centre. Showcasing behavioural and transferable skills like adaptability and creativity is therefore becoming essential.
More broadly, it’s through people that change is enacted. In this sense, soft skills are at the heart of every agile organisation and ensure that relations and exchanges between teams are smooth and effective.
It’s also worth highlighting the importance of managerial skills.
Soft skills: a valuable asset for any manager
In the first instance, managers ensure that there is a strong link between the company’s operational teams and its senior executives. This intermediary role means that they must communicate clearly and seamlessly to uphold the quality of such exchanges.
Secondly, managing people is the very essence of their role when leading a team. Managers therefore need to possess a certain number of behavioural skills. Hosting, bringing together and leading a team to success requires a proven ability to communicate, remarkable emotional and relational intelligence and flawless organisation skills, among others.
However, several studies have not only shown that managers are not always prepared for their role but that they often learn managerial skills as they go along.
According to the global leadership consulting firm DDI World, 11% of managers surveyed had not been prepared for their management job when they had first started. Moreover, around half of the 1,000 managers that took part in the survey had encountered difficulties during their first year in post. While this might come as a surprise, the same proportion said that they had acquired managerial skills by trial and error.
The key takeaway? More than ever before, managers need to be aware of the importance of soft skills and acquire the interpersonal skills they are lacking.
How can managers support employees to develop their soft skills?
There are lots of different ways to develop soft skills. Soft skills can be acquired at work, during unfamiliar situations, through personal endeavours, the company culture, training and even through other co-workers. Essentially, every professional (and personal) experience can help to strengthen behavioural skills.
In this sense, training in soft skills can help employees in any kind of organisation. Ideally, each employee should be able to benefit from one or several pieces of training to help them brush up on weaker skills or address problems they encounter day to day. You can then help them to put this knowledge into practice and reframe it if necessary. The final step is to evaluate their performance, which will allow you to definitively check what they have learned.
With this in mind, Rise Up has developed a unique solution to help employees develop their soft skills. With Rise Up Content, employees can access a range of off-the-shelf training aimed at improving their transferable and behavioural skills. Knowing yourself, developing an analytical mind, creativity, networking, managing your emotions and possessing social intelligence are all topics covered by the training.
How can you enhance employees’ soft skills?
Soft skills are intrinsically linked to people. When it comes to improving soft skills, it’s a case of knowing your employees inside out as well as understanding how they act and behave within a team.
At the same time, it’s also important to have a clear and thorough vision of the company’s challenges and objectives. From there, you can draw up a list, or framework, of the soft skills that are essential to strong performance.
The key is to add value to behavioural skills and meet the individual employee’s training needs as well as the organisation’s needs as a whole. Teamwork, commitment, productivity, relationship building and even adaptability are often the most sought-after soft skills. Training employees will help to plug any skills gaps you detect.
Lastly, it’s worth bearing in mind that soft skills help employees to grow within their organisation. By enhancing behavioural competencies, organisations can create a stimulating work environment, find ways to evolve and assure high-quality management.