Think of the difference between hard and soft skills this way: Hard skills are what you do. Soft skills are how you do what you do. They’re the personal character traits, qualities, and habits that make you uniquely you.
Your work ethic, your attitude, and the way you interact with other people are a few examples of soft skills. They’re the personal and interpersonal skills you bring with you to work and apply to your life every day.
Some soft skills are somewhat subjective by nature, such as your attitude, your character, and your appearance and etiquette. And some soft skills are more objective or practical, such as time management, work ethic, cultural awareness and critical thinking.
When the subjective and the objective/practical come together, they work in harmony to help you become not only a more well-rounded employee but also a more well-rounded person.
Cultivating strong soft skillsCultivating a complete, strong soft skills set can make a significant positive impact on both your immediate and long-term career and life success. In fact, after your soft skills set becomes as good as (or better than) your hard skills set, you’re all set to achieve great things. You don’t just survive in the workplace and in the world; you thrive!
If you ask people which of the soft skills is most important, you may find that different people rank different skills as number one. However, the general consensus is that the following ten are the essential skills you should work on developing.
- Attitude: Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your success in the workplace and in life. A positive attitude is necessary no matter what kind of job you have. Being optimistic and determined are the essence of what you need for career and life achievement, which is why more and more companies today look for attitude among job candidates. The company can later train for aptitude.
- Character: Good character doesn’t just happen. You develop your character every day by the choices you make in all you do.
- Diversity and cultural awareness: Having cultural awareness means you embrace diversity in the workplace and accept and appreciate differences among the people you work with. Cultivating cultural awareness allows you effectively and successfully socialize and work with people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.
- Communication: Poor communication can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and costly errors both in the workplace and in your personal life. To effectively communicate with others, you need them to clearly understand both your words and the actions that accompany them.
- Appearance and etiquette: Four seconds — that’s all you take to make a first, and lasting, impression on those you meet. Your appearance and your etiquette are often major factors in that initial impression, so think about what kind of first impression you want to make.
- Time management: Being on time — whether you’re arriving for an appointment or turning in a deadline-driven project — is important both professionally and personally. If you know someone who always arrives late, you may have first-hand experience with the frustration poor time management can cause.
- Teamwork: You may have heard the saying “There’s no I in team.” The ability to work and play well with others is essential because very few people work and live without needing to cooperate with others to reach a goal. After all, the ultimate goal of any company is to achieve overall effectiveness, but this strategy succeeds only when everyone on the team works together toward the same target.
- Work ethic: People aren’t born with a good work ethic. Each person has to make a choice to work hard regardless of whether they love what they’re doing or when it feels like a chore. When you demonstrate a good work ethic, those around you are more likely to notice and reward your effort.
- Critical thinking and problem solving: The ability to think for yourself and take ownership of your choices and decisions leads to a better understanding of the world and your place in it. Having your own point of view helps you make decisions to achieve successful outcomes, solve problems that arise, and communicate more effectively with others.
- Leadership: You demonstrate leadership through your everyday actions and interactions with others. A leader is effective because of who they are on the inside and how their personal qualities reflect on the outside. You don’t necessarily need a special set of talents to take a leadership role, but you do need to have a willingness to step forward to take responsibility for directing and encouraging other people.
What’s the big deal about soft skills?Soft skills go by many different names — people skills, core skills, human skills, 21st-century skills, transitional skills, employability traits, and interpersonal skills. You’ll most likely encounter some or of all of these terms on job applications and in job interviews. The terms may change from company to company, but the meaning behind them is the same, and it’s very simple: Soft skills make the hard skills work.
Soft skills make the hard skills work. This phrase bears repeating, and I use it often throughout this book. I hope you take it to heart so you can demonstrate it confidently and successfully in the workplace and in life.Here’s one way to look at it: Imagine buying some property at the top of a hill, but after you’ve made the purchase, you realize the path to get there is treacherous and overgrown. To get there, you have to clear the path, which will ultimately make traveling up and down the hill easier and more enjoyable. It will also make your property more appealing to other people. You have the hard skills you need to clear the path to the top, but do you have the personal perseverance to do the hard work? Do you have the positive attitude to enjoy the task? Do you have the character to keep your eye on the prize until you reach the very top?
Well, that’s where soft skills come in.
Soft skills can help you polish that ladder and really make it shine. Soft skills can make that ladder — and the goal at the top — look so pretty, so exciting, and so much fun that you can’t wait to start your climb. Soft skills can also make your hard skills shinier and more attractive to prospective employers and to other people.
That’s right. Soft skills improve your performance and opportunity for success not only in the workplace but also in life.
And in case you think the focus on soft skills is a hot trend in the business community that will soon burn itself out, I’m here to tell you that they’ve been important to workplace success for many, many years, as the following studies show:
- More than 100 years ago, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a study on engineering education authored by Charles Riborg Mann. In this study, 1,500 engineers replied to a questionnaire about what they believed to be the most important factors in determining probable success or failure as an engineer. Overwhelmingly, personal qualities (that is, soft skills) were considered seven times more important than knowledge of engineering science.
In the spring of 2006, the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management conducted an in-depth study on the corporate perspective new entrants’ readiness for the U.S. workforce.
The survey results indicated that far too many young people were inadequately prepared to be successful in the workplace. The report found that well over half of new high school–level workforce entrants were insufficiently prepared in the following workplace skills: oral and written communication, professionalism, work ethics, and critical thinking/problem solving.
- In a 2021 review of more than 80 million job postings across 22 industry sectors, the educational nonprofit organization America Succeeds discovered that almost two-thirds of job listings included soft skills among their qualifications, and seven of the ten most in-demand skills were soft. The same report found that certain professions, including management and business operations, actually prioritize soft skills.