Hard truths about soft skills

Hard skills will get you an interview but it’s soft skills that get you a job.  

Academic qualifications and experience might get your foot in the door but a lack of skills such as self-motivation, effective communication and time management is likely to limit on how successful you will be either securing a position or gaining a promotion. Whilst hard skills are easily identified and measured, soft skills are more challenging to quantify. The very term soft skills can seem somewhat derogatory, the “nice, soft, fluffy, add-on stuff”. However as this term is generally accepted as encompassing someone’s ability to lead, negotiate, solve problems, communicate, empathise and work effectively with others in a team, it actually describes crucial business skills and there is nothing “soft” about them.  

It is not just at managerial or supervisory levels that this holds true. Soft skills are vital across the board as they help organisations use their technical expertise to the maximum advantage; they contribute to a positive work environment and become all the more important during tough times. Being flexible and able to adapt to the changing needs of an organisation also qualify as soft skills, as do being able to collaborate with others and influence situations through lateral and more creative thinking. 

Of particular relevance to the business environment here in Cayman is the ability to deal with differences, multiculturalism and diversity. Very few companies are untouched by the ever-widening influence of other cultures both on island and when interacting with clients worldwide good soft skills facilitate better communication and people’s ability to manage differences effectively.  

Those who are just entering the work force also need to work on their soft skills. Gaining technical or academic qualifications is important and school leavers and graduates now have technical skills and greater computer aptitude than ever before through working on line and interacting via social media. But the workplace continues to require employees to have the skills of interpersonal communication, empathy and teamwork. Without recognising this and working to develop their abilities employees may be jeopardising their long term career chances.  

So how do we go about improving our soft skills to benefit not only our own career progression but our organisations’ success? The good news is that we all have some form of soft skills, which are innate and just need to be drawn out and polished. It is also perfectly possible to learn them. In a recent article about those starting out in the workplace Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, expressed the belief that the best way is to get some work experience. “It is in every young person’s interest to try and gain experience that exposes them to the workplace,” he says. “This is not only because of the obvious benefits in terms of hard skills but in the most progressive companies, managers are looking for people’s ability to communicate clearly and openly and to listen and respond empathetically. They also want them to have equally well-honed written skills so that their correspondence (including emails) doesn’t undo all the good work their face-to-face communication creates.”  

While this is sound advice, sometimes getting this type of experience is hard, if not impossible, for those still waiting to break into the workforce, but there are other ways. Get involved with groups or clubs and take the time to observe others’ behaviour. Challenge yourself to communicate face to face when you might not ordinarily do so. Research and sign up to a communication course; not only will you learn from the course but you will demonstrate additional employability skills such as initiative. Even if you are not naturally assertive, or are concerned about your ability to communicate, practise your listening skills. This is probably the most important yet hardest soft skill to master. 

While everyone can learn from day-to-day activities and observation of others in the workplace, formal training interventions are also very valuable. Expert opinion seems to be that soft skill training is being viewed as more and more vital. In a recent UK survey of 292 Learning & Development professionals, 63 per cent showed that it was a priority in the coming year to develop soft skills of all employees. Historically soft skills training has centred on classroom style settings but organisations are now tending toward a blended approach combining interactive workshops with on-line learning. The e-learning component is often available in bite-size chunks through personal computers and smart phones; an approach designed both to appeal to younger learners and to fit in more easily with business demands as they mean taking less time is taken away from the desk. 

However you choose to do it, resolve to work hard at improving your soft skills in 2013 and you will improve your employment prospects and contribute positively to your business’ success.