A version of this article was previously published in the December 2015 edition of Quality Progress magazine.
Last summer while visiting my hometown, I ran into Sam, an old friend who works in a senior technical position for a very large organization. In the course of our conversation, Sam told me about a recent discussion he had with his division’s manager about the possibility of moving up in the company. He was trying to find out if his boss would recommend him for a promotion to a particular supervisory level position that had just opened. His manager’s reply was provocative. He said, “Sam, you’re excellent at your job. I don’t know what we’d do without you. But before I could recommend you for a team leader position, you’re going to have to work on your soft skills.”
Ouch! As soon as Sam said, “soft skills”, I knew what his boss was getting at. Having studied engineering and economics in college, and then working with technically adept people ever since, I’ve met my share of introverted, arrogant, or otherwise socially impaired colleagues who were very competent in their hard skills – programming, statistics, metallurgy, etc. – but were simply difficult to understand or get along with. As two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of the landmark best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman skillfully explains,
“The rules for work are changing. We’re being judged by a new yardstick: not just by how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also by how well we handle ourselves and each other. This yardstick is increasingly applied in choosing who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted … The new measure takes for granted having enough intellectual ability and technical know-how to do our jobs; it focuses instead on personal qualities, such as initiative and empathy, adaptability, and persuasiveness.”1
Adding to Goleman’s examples, soft skills encompass a range of attributes loosely grouped into two categories: self-management skills such as resilience, persistence and perceptiveness, and people skills such as active listening, effective mentoring, and clear communicating. It is these skills, according to a 2014 Harris poll of over 2,100 hiring managers, that when coupled with your training and technical abilities, will earn you the career position you desire. That study revealed that a whopping 77% of hiring managers believe that soft skills are “just as important as hard skills” when evaluating potential candidates for a job. Sixteen percent said they were even more important.2
Studies identifying which soft skills are the most important in business vary based on the specific industry and rank within an organization. An IT director, for instance, will require a different (and certainly broader) set of soft skills than an entry-level manufacturing engineer. However, both executive and apprentice will require skills that fall under one of the three categories: communication, teamwork, and the willingness to learn.
Communication is the lifeblood of every organization. Without it, each person remains an island, isolated from everyone around them. And so, utilizing a spectrum of communication skills to achieve the organization’s goals becomes the real work of its leaders. These skills include actively listening to the concerns of your subordinates and superiors, properly confronting difficult situations within your department, and the ability to teach concepts and procedures to new audiences. It is the right communication that unites an organization’s members behind a single purpose or strategy.
Some display communication skills more naturally than others, but mastering these skills is more of a journey where each new situation provides an opportunity to learn. For example, some people can effectively provide one-on-one coaching to a protégé but find it difficult to present new information in a group setting. Improving your communication skills is accomplished by learning the fundamentals of a method, such as negotiating a resolution to a conflict, and then inserting yourself into situations that requires use of what you have learned. Much like taking music lessons, learning to play an instrument and actually playing it overlap quite a bit.
Another contrast between hard and soft skills is that a job hunter’s hard skills are typically spelled out on their resume, but their soft skills do not begin to reveal themselves until the interview. In other words, it is your hard skills that get you the interview, but your soft skills that likely separate you from the other qualified candidates for a given position. Your ability to “get along” with other people is being evaluated by your potential employer from the moment you walk into an interview. Every time I sit across the table from a job candidate, I ask myself, “Will he/she fit into our team?”
Assessing someone’s ability to collaborate with others however is difficult in a single interview setting. It usually takes multiple interviews and reference checks to determine if a person possesses the attributes helpful for working well on a team. For a person seeking a promotion within their organization though, their ability to function effectively on a team is already known and will determine much of their success. Marty Brounstein, leadership consultant and author of “Managing Teams for Dummies”, identifies ten key qualities of an effective team player. These include: reliability, active participation, flexibility and a pattern of treating others in a supportive and respective manner. Solid team players, as Brounstein explains, “look beyond their own piece of the work and care about the team’s overall work”3. By doing so, they also position themselves for greater opportunities within their organizations.
Willingness to learn
The willingness to learn is a hallmark of every great leader. As W. Edwards Deming once tersely stated, “Learning is not compulsory…neither is survival.”5 Likewise, advancing professionals in every field do not just draw from their reserve of experience to achieve their goals, but are continually adding to their proficiencies. The willingness to learn is also a choice. When you’re reading the news and encounter a word you have never seen, do you skip over it? Or do you right click it to search for its definition? The willing learner tends to right click.
The willing learner is also more likely to raise her hand in a training session to ask for clarification, or seek out the opinion of a mentor regarding a sticky problem, or receive criticism without reacting defensively. This type of curiosity and adaptability is a trait that nearly every employer values.
Thankfully, obtaining these soft skills is not simply a matter of getting a good draw in the genetic raffle or being endowed by the “Soft Skills Fairy”. But instead, like their hard skills counterparts, these too can be learned and honed. By seeking out the right information, practicing what you have learned, and then soliciting from others honest feedback about your progress, you can further develop your soft skills and become a more effective and harmonious part of the world around you.
Reading the right books or taking a class that teaches these skills is a fabulous place to start. “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, by Dale Carnegie, is the seminal text on developing people skills. Dave Ramsey’s “EntreLeadership” or John Maxwell’s “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” are also excellent, more contemporary books on the topic. Articles or training videos from organizations such as Udemy.com or edX.org will also provide several entry points for developing your soft skills.
Joining new teams or committees at work –– something outside your current sphere of influence –– make excellent forums for putting your newly learned skills into practice. Volunteering at your local school, church, or food bank, or offering to mentor younger members of your community will also give you tremendous opportunities to interact with new people in new ways.
And lastly, solicit some candid feedback from those around you, especially people you recognize as having a firm foundation in the soft skills that you lack. Nothing will open the door of feedback like asking someone, “How can I improve the way I interact with other people?”
The evidence is clear: Soft skills pay dividends. When coupled with the appropriate hard skills, soft skills open doors of better job opportunities and promotions. But actively listening and engaging with the people around you, exercising empathy, and utilizing an ever-widening range of soft skills will also lead you toward becoming a more enjoyable and inspiring person. And that journey is a reward in itself.
1. Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bantam, 2000.
2. Jennifer Grasz, Overwhelming Majority of Companies Say Soft Skills Are Just as Important as Hard Skills, Careerbuilder.com, 2014.
3. Marty Brounstein, Managing Teams For Dummies, For Dummies, 2002
4. Frank Voehl, Deming: The Way We Knew Him, CRC Press, 1995.
Ray Harkins is a manufacturing professional and online educator living in Warren, Ohio. He teaches a variety of low-cost, high-quality manufacturing and business-related courses at Udemy.com. Click on the following coupon codes to receive substantial discounts on courses: