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Soft skills: why they matter

By stephenbailey Jun 24, 2019
Soft skills matter because without them your career is unlikely to go anywhere. They’re essential to gaining employment and advancing down any chosen career path. The good news comes in the dictionary definition. Soft - “easy to mould” Skills - “the ability to do something well” To start any career you need certain hard skills. Being an engineer requires specific technical skills. Optometrists must know how to inspect an eye. Graphic designers have to navigate Adobe software with ease. To develop any career you need good soft skills. Many graphic designers can work InDesign and create incredible art, but not all are successful in their careers. The engineer who goes the furthest isn’t necessary the technical whizz, but the one with the most rounded set of soft skills. This article explains why soft skills matter and why they are becoming more important than ever. It discusses the most important soft skills for a successful career, as well as how to impress these skills to advance your career.

Soft Skills Are More Important Than Ever

The contemporary workplace is accelerating a shift in skillsets that started way back in the 1950s. Industry was formerly a place of specific hard skills, with an onus on becoming highly specialized in a particular task. Today’s workplace demands employees who can perform many tasks and roles, simultaneously.

Why are soft skills important?

The Workplace Demands Soft Skills

Soft skills matter more than they ever have. It’s no longer enough to have a certified hard skill. A competitive, contemporary industry demands more. Developing your career requires more, because once you’re in employment it’s the soft skills that differentiate you from your peers.

Customers and Clients Demand Soft Skills

Every job involves some form of customer or client interaction, even if you aren’t always aware of it. The degree of interaction tends to magnify when you move up the career ladder. Clients and customers aren’t interested in your qualifications. Let’s take an everyday example. Almost every dentist can do a good job on your cavity but everyone prefers to visit a dentist with good communication and interpersonal skills, somebody who is flexible and makes you feel at ease. Do you ask to see a dentist’s certified qualification? Do you ask if they can fill your cavity? Or do you assume based on their soft skills?

Without Soft Skills Your Hard Skills Are Useless

You might be a whizz around Indesign but if you can’t communicate and negotiate it will be hard to develop a career in graphic design. All dentists have the hard skills required to fill cavities and fit crowns – the most successful dentists are those with complementary soft skills. It doesn’t matter how good you are at something, or what your qualifications proudly declare. Without soft skills your specific abilities become redundant, underused or incomplete.

Soft Skills are Always Being Developed

A dentist learns to fill a cavity. A designer learns text wrapping. Once the skill is mastered it’s the same for every patient or client. In contrast, soft skills are continually evolving. Think of how the dictionary definition applies to you: moulding your ability to do something well. There is no qualification or score to aim for. You can always improve. You are always learning from people within the workplace and further afield. You will have weak areas that need addressing. And you will have strong soft skills that set you above the rest. Yet you won’t stop developing these skills until the day you retire.

Soft Skills Will Matter Even More in the Workplace of the Future

The direction of travel is clear to see. As automation and technology changes the workplace, the focus moves from specific task-based work to transferrable soft skills. You will need them, so they should be integral to your thinking, now and in the future.

They Are Essential for Career Growth

The further you move up a career ladder the more soft skills will be required. Think negotiation; conflict resolution; teamwork; working under pressure; decision making. It’s unthinkable to imagine a senior manager without these skills. So start thinking about them now.

The Top Soft Skills and Why You Should Be Thinking About Them

Below is not a definitive list of soft skills. Nor is it easy to separate these skills. All of them overlap in some way and you should think of them as a skill set, rather than detached individual skills. Of course you are better at some and not so good at others. That’s the nature of us all. For a really successful career you will need a solid grounding in all these soft skills, along with a handful of strong standouts. Don’t be daunted by this list. Many 16 – 25 year olds don’t even realise they are already using these skills. Everyone starting a career hasn’t had ten years of industry experience to cultivate their skill set. What’s important now is to recognise these skills and understand how they will help you in the forthcoming years. Simply being conscious of them is an important step in your development. There will be events and experiences that help to provide a sharp edge to your soft skills. And there will times of success where it’s important to recognise that your soft skills made the difference.

1. Work Ethic

Soft skills matter and are all about you. You must work hard to cultivate them. And it all starts with your work ethic. Of course employers want employees who work hard. That doesn’t mean you should be slaving away for 80 hours a week. A good work ethic is about thinking and acting positively whenever you are in the workplace.

2. Communications – Especially the Clarity of Communication

You’ve been developing communication skills since the moment you entered the world. Workplace communication skills grow with experience but they are not much different to communicating with friends or family. The emphasis of all successful communication is the same: a clear message that is understood by your audience. It doesn’t matter if you are using sign language or shouting to a crowd of thousands; clarity is the keyword here.

3. Flexibility – Leaving Your Comfort Zone and an Upbeat Attitude

Flexibility is a bit of a nothing word. Of course you can be flexible. Everyone is flexible at certain times and in certain situations. But you don’t always want to be flexible and we can all be stubborn when we want to be. Whether you’re in university, an internship or a job, the question isn’t whether you are flexible. Rather, it is do you have an upbeat attitude and embrace the need to be flexible? And are you flexible enough to leave your comfort zone? The answers need to be yes. Part of developing your soft skills is working on your own internal mindset and maintaining the upbeat attitude at all times.

4. Controlling Your Emotions

The workplace is not an easy place to be. You’ll get frustrated and angry. You’ll move through the highs and lows. There will be times you want to cry and times you want to walk away. Then there will be times when you become too involved, or challenges in your personal life will spill into the workplace. All of this is completely natural. Controlling these emotions is perhaps the most important soft skill of all. Studies show a high correlation between regulating emotion and productivity under pressure. Anxiety and frustration impair decision making. So it’s important to develop an awareness of your stress triggers. Doing this will help you catch your behaviour, before it spirals into an unhelpful emotional reaction.

5. Interpersonal Negotiation Skills

Negotiation is more than sales. It’s not necessarily what you practice when bartering over the price of a taxi in a new country. Good interpersonal negotiation takes place every day. It requires a confidence and clarity in both your ability and opinion, plus the flexibility to navigate a path that works for you. Sometimes you will be winning. Sometimes not. Over time you’ll get better, as long as you are prepared to negotiate.

6. Collaboration

Your career could develop in a million different directions and every single one of these will require good teamwork skills. Collaborating successfully in a team means you must have the intuition and acumen to play both leader and listener, dependent on the situation. Employers want team players. Other employees want to work with team players. A good team player is receptive to the responsibilities and needs of others, as well as perceptive about what is required for the collective good.

7. Personal Accountability and Responsibility

Everybody makes mistakes. Some sweep them under the carpet, an approach that elevates anxiety and brings long-term challenges. Others accept responsibility, showing both humility and the willingness to learn. Employers always favour the latter approach. It’s not bad or wrong to make a mistake or poor decision. Everyone does it, all the time. The key is to take responsibility and acknowledge the mistake. The sooner you do so the easier it is to rectify.

8. Leadership, Mentoring and Motivating Others

Not everyone is a natural leader. Leadership is something you’ll learn from experience but it’s a soft skill that you demonstrate without directly managing others. Everyone can be an inspiration, especially to their peers. Leadership in the workplace is about being that inspiration – not all day, every day, but in a way that makes a difference.

9. Conflict Resolution

Resolving conflicts sounds a little scary. It’s not. This is a soft skill that draws on all the others. You solve a conflict by problem solving, communicating clearly, showing leadership, making clear decisions, using interpersonal negotiation skills, and controlling your emotion. Improve the other skills and conflict resolution should come naturally.

10. Problem Solving

Problem solving requires good analytical skills. Take your emotion out of the situation, approach a problem with a clear mindset, and reach a solution efficiently, usually with the aid of good teamwork. Not everyone is naturally critical or creative. That’s okay. What’s essential is having a mindset that focuses on solving, not problems. You don’t need to solve the problem on your own. Good analytical skills also concern choosing somebody to help you, and learning from how they go about it.

11. Decisive Decision Making

This is an easy one. As discussed before, it’s not wrong to make a poor decision, as long as you take accountability and recognise the error as soon as possible. The worst thing you can do is not make a decision. Limbo-land isn’t useful for anyone. If you need more time then make a positive decision to stall, rather than let the issue slide without thought of a conclusion. During a career you’ll get better at making the right decisions, by assessing all the relevant information and anticipating all the possible consequences. But even before starting a career get into the mindset of being decisive.

12. Working Under Pressure and Managing Your Time

Almost everyone in a career-focused role will find that there is not enough time in the work day. And that the pressure of time makes working more stressful. Decisive decision making is essential to managing your time efficiently. When working under pressure you must be able to compartmentalise and prioritise varied tasks. You must think clearly about what is important and what you simply don’t have enough time to do. This is something you can (and probably are) practicing already.

13. Inclusion

Some may argue that inclusion is an attitude rather than a soft skill. You certainly need to have a positive attitude towards inclusion, one that goes beyond all legal expectations. Inclusion is a skill you can cultivate. By being proactive about inclusion you’ll develop many of your other soft skills as well. It is a process of learning and problem solving that starts with a positive work ethic.

14. Purpose

Why are you going to work every day? Obviously to earn money and hopefully develop a career. But what are you achieving? Why are you there? Somebody with an attachment to the organisation or company’s mission is more likely to stay motivated, as well as provide a meaningful personal contribution. Having such a purpose, beyond your own self interest, can be the glue that sets you apart, especially during tough times.

Impressing Your Soft Skills

When Searching for Employment

Developing the complete repertoire of soft skills is going to take time. Yet you already demonstrate many of these in everyday life. Hard skills can be shown via qualifications, yet something more malleable and abstract isn’t as easy to demonstrate. Simply stating that you are a good problem solver or communicator can have an undermining effect. When applying for jobs the best way to impress soft skills is to show, rather than shout. Provide examples of when you used these skills to bring about a positive outcome. So when writing a skill-based CV remember to include soft skills along with your qualifications. Then before an interview think of personal examples that draw on multiple soft skills.

In Your Career

The brilliant yet scary thing about soft skills is that you are impressing them at every moment you are in the workplace. Compare this to hard skills, many of which you learnt and mastered but never used again. These soft skills are the key to your career development and the sooner you think proactively about improving them, the sooner these skills will impress others.  
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