Soft Skills: What are they and Why do you need them?
You’ve surely heard the term before and you probably have some idea of what “soft skills” are. Over the past few years, people-oriented professional soft skills have been a hot topic in the HR community. To be more precise, HR folks talk a lot about the difficulty of finding candidates that possess soft skills along with the requisite “hard” technical knowledge that they need to succeed.
Let’s define exactly what soft skills are. Soft skills fall into six specific categories:
Communications – Examples of this type of soft skill are active listening skills, and the ability to speak and to write with an emphasis on conveying ideas and opinions in a clear, professional, and polite manner.
Decision-making and problem-solving – the ability to analyze and make a determination. This category of soft skills also includes creativity, abstract thinking, and the ability to learn from experience (and from mistakes).
Self-management – the initiative required for effective work. Examples of self-management soft skills include efficiency, a sense of urgency, the ability to adapt, working well under pressure and deadlines, and the ethical standards that govern personal behavior and interactions with others.
Teamwork – the ability to work and play well with others. Teamwork strengths include responsibility, accountability, and the ability to share ideas in a way that is positive and encouraging.
Professionalism – the characteristics that govern the quality of relationships with customers, peers, and managers. Attributes of professionalism also include the ability to accept direction and the sensitivity demonstrated in difficult business or personal situations.
Leadership – capability to see the big picture and to manage change. Leadership traits include the willingness both to lead and to follow and the ability to motivate others.
Soft Skills and Emotional Intelligence
These examples of the six categories of soft skills make it easy to understand why they are considered important. Soft skills describe the attributes of successful and productive employees and leaders. But there’s another important reason that you should focus on development of these characteristics:
85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Only 15% is due to technical knowledge.
This statistic stems originally from research conducted in 1918 at Carnegie Mellon by physicist and engineer Charles Riborg Mann. It has gained currency with more recent studies and research in a newer area that is termed Emotional Intelligence. The phrase was coined by two researchers, Peter Salavoy and John Mayer, and popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book with the same name (Emotional Intelligence). In the book, Goleman defines an Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) – a measure of a set of skills that include “control of one’s impulses, self-motivation, empathy, and social competence in interpersonal relationships.” 1 There’s an obvious relationship between Emotional Intelligence and soft skills. Essentially, it’s emotional intelligence that enables the soft skills characteristics.
According to Goleman, an individual needs an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of 115, only slightly above average, to master the technical knowledge needed to be a doctor, lawyer, or business executive. Once people enter the workforce, IQ and technical skills are often similar among those on the same career path. Emotional Intelligence is the differentiator that determines who moves up the ladder. 2
The major difference between IQ and EQ is that EQ can be developed. Emotional Intelligence can be learned behavior. In an article for the Harvard Extension School blog, Laura Wilcox explains that development of EQ involves conditioned management of the interaction between the emotional and the cognitive sides of our brains. Because emotions are instinctive, wrapped up with survival reactions, they occur more rapidly than the rational analysis of the cognitive side of the brain. When the cognitive side can’t keep up, emotions can “hijack our ability to reason.”3
Developing EQ involves controlling our ability to manage emotional encounters, and also development of techniques to avoid triggering “emotional hijacks” in the people we associate with. Increasing your emotional intelligence is both a matter of self-control and a conscious process that affirms the emotional needs of others. Soft skills and Emotional Intelligence are closely intertwined. It’s easy to understand that people with high EQ are more likely to have well developed communications, teamwork, and leadership skills.
Soft skills are in high demand but potentially short supply. 2016 research by economist Guy Berger, Ph.D., indicates that U.S. hiring managers are experiencing a “soft skills shortage.” In Berger’s survey, 59% of hiring managers responded that soft skills were difficult to find, while 53% experienced difficulty sourcing “hard” technical skills. 58% of respondents indicated that lack of soft skills among candidates is “limiting their company’s productivity.”5
Another fascinating report, commissioned by McDonald’s in the UK, examined the value of soft skills to the UK economy and the potential impact of a “soft skills deficit”:
We estimate that over half a million (535,000) UK workers will be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020, an issue expected to affect all sectors of the economy. In absolute terms, the accommodation and food services, retail, and health and social work sectors will be most affected.
The annual overall expected loss of production due to expected soft skills deficits is anticipated to amount to just under £8.4 billion per year by 2020. If the current weaknesses in the UK’s soft skills base are not addressed, we face an economic penalty that will impact on sectors, businesses, individuals and society as a whole. To tackle this, individuals, businesses, education institutions, and policy-makers should take action to recognise and promote soft skills.6
There is a direct connection between soft skills and the key performance indicators that are important to business – productivity, efficiency, quality of products and service, and ultimately revenue and profits. Technical skills are certainly required for organizations to succeed, but factoring soft skills into the hiring equation makes good economic sense for employers.
How do you Communicate your Soft Skills?
It’s also clear that exercising your emotional intelligence can give you a career advantage. Soft skills are in demand and you’ll certainly want to emphasize them if you’re making a career move. There’s a problem, though. Announcing that you have a high emotional intelligence quotient during a job interview won’t go over well. In fact, it probably demonstrates that you lack EQ. Likewise, you might not want to add a Soft Skills section to your resume. It may be true that you work and play well with others, but somehow the statement doesn’t fit in a list of core competencies. It just sounds braggadocios.
A better strategy demonstrates EQ and soft skills with the stories you tell, specifically in the narratives you use to describe your accomplishments in your resume and interviews. Let’s look at a short example that could be included in a corporate resume:
Successfully coached team leaders to improve understanding and utilization of new quality management system. Negotiated objections and created enthusiasm for the program by illustrating efficiency benefits to individual workers, increases in team productivity, and 11% reduction in manufacturing waste.
The bullet point is two sentences, but it tells a clear story of how the candidate championed a new quality management system. The results are there and soft skills are emphasized – coaching, negotiating, and creating enthusiasm.
Federal hiring is mostly suspended at present, but soft skills and emotional intelligence will be in demand when agencies are eventually allowed to fill vacancies. For SES jobs, language that demonstrates soft skills fits naturally into the required executive core qualifications. Narratives that demonstrate soft skills should also be included in the body of USAJobs resumes.
You’ll also want to rehearse your stories for interviews. The way you express yourself verbally provides a direct example of your communications skills. Make sure to weave examples of teamwork, problem-solving skills, and creativity into your narratives.
Want to find out more about your Emotional Intelligence?
If you’d like to get a better sense of your own emotional intelligence, you can take a test. There are several free EQ tests available online, including a very detailed evaluation from Psychtests. Try one out to get a sense of your soft skills strengths and weaknesses.
When you’re ready to make your next career move, CareerPro Global can help you with a corporate or federal resume that demonstrates your accomplishments, your technical skills and the soft skill competencies that businesses seek. We’ll help you convey your emotional intelligence by example and work with you to refine the narratives you’ll use to illustrate all of your hard and soft skills.
Ready to get started? We hope you’ll get in touch for a free career consultation.
Barbara Adams is the founder and CEO of CareerPro Global, Inc. and has led the company since 1990. She is recognized as one of the pioneers in the career services industry and a titan of the resume writing industry. Barbara has built CPG into one of the largest and fastest-growing premier career services organizations industry-wide. She is committed to CPG’s core factors that include quality product, exceptional customer service, a successful proven process, and taking care of her people. Barbara has Co-Authored numerous books, including:
Roadmap to the Senior Executive Service
Roadmap to Becoming an Administrative Law Judge
Job-Winning Military to Civilian Resumes
Roadmap to Federal Jobs
She also co-authored the certification requirements for the Master Military Resume Writer (MMRW) and the Master Federal Career Advisor and Trainer (MFCA-T) certifications.