People usually think soft skills are set in stone: Either you have them, or you don’t. On the face of it, it’s true. Some people naturally do have better people skills or a stronger work ethic than others.
Like anything, though, you can build soft skills with hard work and a touch of self-awareness. You don’t need to do it alone, either: Tools like the Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment™ can make you more aware of your strengths and shortcomings, which is the first step to enhanced self-awareness and improvement.
We’ll cover several topics in this post, including:
- What’s the difference between soft skills and hard skills?
- Why are soft skills important?
- What are the most important soft skills?
- How do I improve my soft skills?
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What’s the difference between soft skills and hard skills?
Soft skills are a set of knowledge and talents used across almost all jobs. Examples of soft skills include emotional intelligence, time management, adaptability, creativity, and related traits. In contrast, hard skills are job-specific, like knowing how to use Excel or a forklift.
In practice, the distinction isn’t always so clear. Programming is considered a hard skill. At the same time, programming requires problem-solving, which is considered a soft skill.
Soft skills also aren’t any easier to obtain than hard skills. Ask any salesperson—they’ll let you know exactly how hard communication skills are to hone. Both soft skills and hard skills can take years to cultivate.
Finally, neither hard skills nor soft skills are inherently better than the other. Employers value both. You might have the best technical skills in the world, but if you can’t talk with your coworkers, hiring managers won’t take a second look at you. Like with behavioral traits, certain skills are better for certain roles.
Why are soft skills important?
Employers look for soft skills for a reason: They make you better at just about everything.
Soft skills keep us adaptable. When we’re thrown into an unusual situation—like when we learn a new tool or start an unfamiliar project—we need general skills, like critical thinking.
Soft skills also act as a force multiplier for your hard skills. Listening skills help you understand the scope of a project, or minimize misunderstandings. Leadership skills help you delegate tasks, meaning you can focus on the work that matters most. A positive attitude helps you overcome setbacks more quickly by keeping things in proper perspective.
Soft skills help you achieve career success at every stage. When you’re just starting out, recruiters may overlook a gap in hard skills if they feel your soft skills are a good fit. It’s easier to teach a process than an attitude or behavior. If you’re interested in pursuing promotions, soft skills become even more important—after all, no one wants a manager who doesn’t know what teamwork is.
Finally, soft skills are transferable skills. If you’re feeling unhappy in one career, soft skills give you the flexibility to pursue what you really love without starting from scratch.
What are the most important soft skills?
1. Interpersonal skills
Interpersonal skills aren’t just about knowing how to make your coworkers laugh. They’re about knowing how people work. Interpersonal skills include active listening, conflict resolution, public speaking, verbal communication, being a team player, and other social skills.
Interpersonal skills may help you nail the interview process, but they’re also important on the job. Employees with strong interpersonal skills can get their team members to focus on what’s most important, which not only improves their own efficiency, but makes their whole team shine.
2. Problem-solving skills
Problem-solving is the ability to overcome new obstacles at work. Good problem-solving improves your existing hard skills: When you’re up against an unfamiliar project, you can learn new approaches or come up with a novel solution.
Unexpected events always crop up at work, which is why problem-solving is one of the skills employers value most. When they hire someone with problem-solving skills, they’re not just investing in one skillset. They’re investing in someone that can upskill and grow.
Sometimes the right choice isn’t so obvious. We may have to deal with conflicting information, or not enough information at all. Some employees respond by shutting down or looking to someone else for help, while employees with decision-making skills make a tough choice and stick with it.
Decision-making is important at the top rungs of the organizational ladder. Even at lower levels, though, employers consider decision-making a top soft skill: They can trust strong decision-makers to get the job done, even if the end goal is unclear.
Dependability, often known as grit or determination, is the ability to overcome obstacles, to produce great results even when tired or stressed. Dependable employees put in more discretionary effort and rarely cut corners.
Dependability is a key soft skill in any career. When employers know they can count on you, you’re that much more likely to sail through the job interview.
5. Time management
Suppose you have 10 tasks to complete by tomorrow. Do you know which ones are most important? Which ones can wait?
We often think of time management as the ability to get things done, but it’s also about knowing when we can’t get things done. Employees with good time management can identify when a project needs more time, and will tell their supervisor before it’s too late. When they’re short on time, they’ll put the most important work first.
Organization is one of the most important professional skills you can have. It involves complex skills, like project management, but also simpler ones, like effectively using your calendar or keeping a clean work environment.
Employers prioritize organization because it makes you better at nearly everything. Organized people find it easier to manage time, solve problems, or even make decisions, because they don’t need to rely on their willpower or intuition. Instead, they rely on systems.
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How do I improve my soft skills?
If you don’t have some of the soft skills above, you might be worried. Maybe you’re disorganized or you get discouraged easily. Does that mean you’ll never be able to land a job interview?
Of course not! While soft skills are based in part on personality traits, they’re not set in stone. Even the shyest person can learn to become a better communicator. We recommend you use the steps below.
1. Identify your weaknesses.
You can’t improve your soft skills if you don’t know what to improve. You might not know your weaknesses, and that’s okay! If you’re not sure what they are, taking a talent assessment is a great place to start. Once you’ve figured your strengths and weaknesses out, jot them down on a piece of paper.
2. Identify your desired strengths.
Compare your strengths and weaknesses to the job or promotion you want. Do you mostly fit the job descriptions, or are there major gaps? No one can be good at everything, so it’s important to focus on the soft skills that really count.
3. Create an action plan.
Once you know where you need to improve, you can start taking concrete steps. There’s no one easy answer: Different soft skills will require different approaches.
For example, if you’re not as organized as you’d like to be, you might consider taking an online course in project management. If your social skills are iffy, it can help to sign up for a public speaking class, or make a point to network and meet new people.
For each weakness, brainstorm 3-5 ways you could improve. Try to make these S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
4. Get to work.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Soft skills take time and effort to improve. Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t see results in the first week or month. After all, the benefits of soft skills last a lifetime.
Soft skills are the key to career success. If you put in the work to master them, there’s no job or promotion that’s out of reach.