What Are Soft Skills? Hiring Managers Reveal Why They Matter
A job search can be a draining process. You’ll sift through tons of job descriptions, and each description is packed with requirements and preferences from employers. While it’s easy to get bogged down in demands for technical skills, don’t let it discourage you.
While obviously some technical abilities are non-negotiable, there are other broadly applicable skills—soft skills—that can help a candidate make up for some of these technical shortcomings. In this article we’ll take a closer look at what soft skills are, why hiring managers value them and what you can do to highlight them in a job search.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills, also called transferable skills, are the foundational traits and abilities that allow you to build relationships, earn respect and effectively manage yourself as a well-rounded professional. They stand in contrast to industry-specific technical or hard skills that you can learn in training or through work experience.
Chances are you’ve been developing your soft skills for years without even knowing they had a name. Examples of soft skills include:
- Communication: The ability to write, read and communicate both verbally and nonverbally
- Critical thinking: The capacity for problem-solving, creativity, logical reasoning and reflection
- Digital fluency: The ability to understand and use digital tools
- Diversity & teamwork: The ability to effectively collaborate and empathize with people from a wide variety of backgrounds
- Ethics & professional responsibility: The ability to behave professionally and apply ethical principles in decision making
- Information literacy: The ability to find, evaluate, and effectively use information
Why are soft skills important?
Simply put, hard skills may get you an interview, but soft skills can help you get the job and keep it. If your technical skills are on par with other candidates, your ability to communicate and build a connection with hiring managers can be a tiebreaker of sorts. At the least, having a solid baseline of soft skills can help keep you in contention—an iCIMS report found that 75 percent of recruiting professionals have cut an interview short because a candidate didn't demonstrate the soft skills they were seeking.1
Soft skills don’t become irrelevant once you land the job, though. When aiming towards a raise or a promotion, evaluate both your performance and soft skills. Often soft skills are a differentiator for leadership positions—that same iCIMS report found 94 percent of recruiting professionals believe an employee with strong soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience and weaker soft skills.1
Being a valuable modern employee isn’t solely about your ability to check boxes and master technical subjects. You also need to be versatile and able to navigate situations where the best answer isn’t always clear—and soft skills are the key to this.
How to improve your soft skills
While it’s true that many of these traits are sort of “built in” in through life experience, don’t worry too much if these don’t come naturally to you. There are plenty of ways to learn and grow in all the soft skills we’ve discussed.
Consider finding a mentor to help you see blind spots in your skills. Local professional organizations may offer mentors for students. Or simply ask someone you admire to be your mentor or recommend one. It doesn’t hurt to have more than one mentor to help you grow specific skills.
Volunteering can help you grow many different skills depending on the nature of the organization. Not-for-profit organizations often need volunteers to help them run their programs, advocate or use their professional skills to further their cause. “Since volunteer experience involves working with a diverse mix of people, you'll automatically pick up stellar teamwork skills that will let you gel better with others,” says Jagoda Wieczorek, HR manager at ResumeLab. It also proves to recruiters that you’re the type to take action and go the extra mile.
In your free time, you can create projects for yourself that will allow you to target specific skills you’re trying to develop, suggests Michael Alexis, CEO of Team Building. For example, creating a blog or podcast can help develop your communication skills. Starting a small business or volunteering with a nonprofit organization could push your problem-solving and critical thinking skills to new heights.
Take stock of what you’re consuming via entertainment or social media as well. Many of these algorithms are designed to suggest content to you that it knows you’ll like, so don’t be surprised if you’re seeing similar content from different accounts. Stefan Kollenberg, co-founder and CRO of Crescendo, suggests intentionally breaking out of that feedback loop to gain additional perspective.
“Diversify your social media feed to include experiences of people that are very different from your own lived experience so that you can start learning about their culture,” Kollenberg says.
Remember, your soft skills have been refined over years of formal education. Every group project, writing assignment and lab has been an opportunity to improve and refine your foundational skills.
How to talk about soft skills in an interview
Though any hiring manager would agree on the importance of soft skills, they can be hard to quantify. “These skills are tough to share on a resume,” says Laura MacLeod, human recourses consultant. “How do you list empathy? And who can vouch for it? Even in the interview, soft skills are not so easy to prove or demonstrate.”
But showing your soft skills isn’t impossible. It just takes a little work. MacLeod recommends not only emphasizing your soft skills in interviews, but sharing specific examples to illustrate how you apply them in your life and on the job. Giving employers an idea of how your personality comes to life when you’re working with a team can also help you avoid clichés, like—“I’m a team player,” or “I’m good with people.”
For example, MacLeod says to recall times when you’ve worked on a team project where members had conflicting views and share how you handled it.
“Were you the leader who made sure all voices were heard, and then helped mediate and resolve the conflict? Maybe you were one of the team and you took the role of helping evaluate each view and coming to consensus. Maybe you were the one to support the person whose idea was not used,” MacLeod says.
When it comes to your resume, leveraging your soft skills may sound tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, how you communicate on your resume and cover letter are great examples of your soft skills. Start by making sure your resume and cover letter are typo-free and grammatically sound.
Remember to show, and not just tell. Saying you’re an excellent communicator has much less impact than giving concrete examples of times where your communication ability was excellent. Anyone can say they’re amazing—it’s up to you to prove it.
Put your skills to work
Not only can soft skills help you succeed in the workplace, you also can put them to work and improve them as you earn a degree. Learn what soft skills you’ll utilize and develop in college in our article, “How to Be Successful in College: The Recipe for Future Students.”
1iCIMS, The Soft Skills Job Seekers Need Now, [accessed February, 2020] https://www.icims.com/hiring-insights/for-employers/the-soft-skills-job-seekers-need-now
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.