What Are Soft Skills, and Which Are Most Important at Work

What Are Soft Skills, and Which Are Most Important at Work

Soft skills are more like traits. They reflect your interpersonal skills, time management style and emotional intelligence.

Smiling woman presenting at a meeting

You’re sitting down for a second round interview for a new job. The hiring manager has your resume in hand. They look it up and down, place it on the desk, and ask you a series of interview questions that seemingly have nothing to do with the carefully constructed bullet points on the page. 

Tell me about a time when you managed conflict. How do you react to stress? What’s an example of a time that you collaborated? How do you define leadership? What are your best problem-solving skills

These questions aren’t designed to illuminate your past work experience. Rather they’re designed to illuminate what hiring managers call “soft skills.” 

What are soft skills? 

Soft skills are more like traits. They reflect your interpersonal skills, time management style and emotional intelligence. For instance, adaptability is a soft skill – it means that, if a deadline is changed or organizational structure shifts, you’ll take changes in stride. 

You often can’t put soft skills on your resume because they’re often not obtained through formal training. Soft-skills are often also transferable skills—they’re skills that employers in a variety of fields will all want.

From the hiring manager’s perspective, your soft skills will also reveal what it will actually be like to work with you, how well you thrive under certain pressures, and what roles you may grow into over time. Explaining your soft skills can sometimes feel like getting grilled during an interview, but odds are, you probably possess some of the soft skills you need to succeed.

Soft skills vs. hard skills

You can also think of soft skills as companions to “hard skills” or technical skills. These are your tricks of the trade that make you an asset to the company, but they don’t tell the hiring manager anything about what you’ll be like to work with. For instance, a hard skill might be computer programming or law knowledge. Often these skills are job-specific. 

Hard skills might help you land an interview, but a hiring manager will almost certainly ask you about your soft skills to determine if you’re right for the job. That’s partially because these skills are paving the way for the future of work. Jobs requiring both cognitive and social skills are the only ones that have shown consistent growth since 1980, a 2015 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed. In short, soft skills are important, and will likely only continue to be so. 

6 Most important soft skills to advance your career 

To identify your soft skills, you’ll have to examine your own personality traits, and work history. Begin by thinking back to some of your previous successes, and you may find that your technical skills were actually cloaking your soft skills. 

  1. Time management: Have you ever kept a major project on schedule from ideation to execution? That requires the soft skill of time management. You’re likely good at setting short term goals, that all act in service of a larger one. 
  2. Interpersonal skills: Do you have close and amiable relationships with your direct reports or colleagues? That may be a sign that you not only possess good interpersonal skills. It’s also likely a sign of emotional intelligence.
  3. Emotional intelligence: This is the capacity to control your own emotions and empathetically manage those of others. If you think about how you respond before you react, can put yourself in another person’s shoes, and see the positives in challenging situations, that’s a good sign you’ve used emotional intelligence in the past. 
  4. Leadership: Additionally, if you often hear your colleagues note that they’re inspired by your work ethic, or general approach, that may be a sign that you’re also perceived as a leader at your organization. Leadership is also a soft skill (and, importantly, you can still be a leader even if you’re not in a managerial role). 
  5. Communication skills and critical thinking: Are you an exceptionally talented writer or editor? On the surface that suggests you have good communication skills (written and verbal). However, it also suggests you’re a good critical thinker. You can spot logical errors in arguments, and are good at synthesizing information quickly. 
  6. Resourcefulness: Have you ever figured out a new way to solve a problem? Do you try to figure things out yourself before asking for help? That suggests you’re also resourceful—a critical soft skill that’s often hard to demonstrate on a resume. 

How to convey your soft skills when it matters 

You can prove to your employer that you know how to code. But you often can’t earn a certificate that will prove to your employer that you’re actually adept at a soft skill, like conflict resolution. To convey them to a hiring manager (and to yourself) you have to tell a story that highlights how you utilized a specific soft skill. 

For instance, if a hiring manager asks: How do you handle conflict? They’re likely looking for insight into how you communicate with others in stressful situations. Use this as a prompt to go back through your employment history and highlight a situation where you successfully interfaced with others and solve a problem. 

Your goal is to tell a story that shows rather than tells the hiring manager how you deploy your soft skills. One way to organize this story is to use the S.T.A.R. technique—this technique has been recommended by career experts and psychologists who study job interviews. 

S.T.A.R. stands for: 

During your job search, remember: you possess far more skills than your resume shows. Soft skills are a huge asset, as long as you find the best possible way to package them. 

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