Soft skills for business and career development


July 09, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Research indicates that ideal employees have effective soft skills, for example, in Deloitte's (2016) Global Human Capital Trends report, they found that over 90% of executives rated soft skills as a priority for their employees. This suggests that you may be limiting your career development if you do not develop your soft skills. In this article, we will explore these skills.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are personal attributes, typically linked to how you work and interact with others, which are necessary for success and your career development. Soft skills make it easier to form relationships with other people which makes you visible for the right reasons, consequently unlocking more career-related opportunities for you.

Regardless of where you work and what job you have, you will need some soft skills. For many people soft skills are the most difficult skill-set to develop.

Differences between soft and hard skills

Hard skills are abilities directly linked to the job, usually called job-specific skills, such as, computer programming, data analysis, bricklaying etc. They are quantifiable, testable and easier to learn compared to soft skills - this table highlights their differences:

Soft skills Hard skills
Emotional Technical
Valuable for all jobs Valuable for specific jobs
Not easily learned Learned through training
Determines your success Minimum requirement

Both skill-sets should form a balance with the other to assist you in your work, for example, a library administrator will need IT skills and they must also effectively interact with customers and colleagues.

Top soft skills

Employers look for people who already have soft skills due to their difficulty to teach. Here are seven of the most important soft skills:

1. Communication

Written and verbal communication skills are important for the majority of jobs because they help you interact effectively will all of the people you encounter at work, such as, customers, networkers, traders, colleagues etc, and build strong relationships. You need to be able to communicate well in all platforms: face-to-face, video calls, over the phone, via email etc.

Man using vocal communication

Alongside this is the necessary development of active listening - a technique where you focus on what the other person is saying rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.

Characteristics of an effective communicator:

  • Active listening
  • Adaptability - adapting your communication styles to support the situation
  • Clarity
  • Confidence and assertiveness
  • Constructive feedback - giving and receiving it
  • Emotional intelligence - identifying and managing your emotions, as well as other people's emotions
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal skills - social skills which are especially useful in building strong rapports
  • Interpretation of body language - this will help you understand how someone is feeling
  • Open-mindedness
  • Patience
  • Simplifying the complex
  • Storytelling

2. Teamwork

For a business to function effectively people must work well together in order to achieve a common goal. The quality of work improves when people use their individual strengths and skills together in collaboration.

To be a team player is desirable for an employer because:

  • There will be less conflict
  • It's less likely that people will leave
  • The workplace will be more attractive for prospective employees

Some people struggle with teamwork because they believe that they know how to do the job better than anyone else and they do not trust others to do their roles. This can create conflict and hurt the overall effectiveness of the team.

Group of people at a business meeting

If this is something you find difficult assist your colleagues whenever you can and ask your colleagues for their opinions and ideas - be enthusiastic when colleagues offer their own ideas.

Characteristics of an effective team player:

  • Active listening - listen to the concerns, opinions and ideas of others
  • Assertiveness and not aggression
  • Collaboration and cooperation
  • Coordination
  • Delegation - if someone has (stronger) skills necessary for a task then delegate as this aids the overall outcome
  • Empathy
  • Following the leaders' guidelines
  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Helping others problem-solve
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Knowing yourself e.g. your role, strengths and how you can best help.
  • Mediating to bring about agreement
  • Negotiation and compromise
  • Self-awareness
  • Sharing information and ideas
  • Sharing the credit
  • Showing appreciation and value for others' skills, experiences and contributions
  • Supporting the plan even if you don't completely agree

3. Adaptability

When things don't go the way you thought they would you need to adapt to the situation. The workplace is always changing - there are constantly shifting trends. Employers will feel more comfortable if they have employees that can adapt to this change and are proactive in learning how to deal with it, such as, attending training sessions or conducting their own research.

Remain positive if there is a change and accept it rather than resist it. Pass your learning on to your colleagues so their transitions are easier. An employee that can work in this way is very valuable.

Characteristics of effective adaptability:

  • Analysing
  • Calmness
  • Curiosity - you want to learn about the new item, method, technology, etc.
  • Decision-making
  • Discipline
  • Flexibility
  • Focus
  • Handling of unexpected demands
  • Open-mindedness
  • Optimism and positivity
  • Organisation
  • Patience
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-management - taking responsibility of your own learning
  • Self-motivation

4. Problem-solving

Most jobs have elements of problem-solving - this is where you think of solutions to deal with a problem. Usually the top performers deal with difficult challenges because they have strong problem-solving skills. This type of creative thinking can lead to improvements within the company.

Characteristics of an effective problem-solver:

  • Analysing
  • Creativity
  • Decision-making
  • Determination
  • Initiative
  • Lateral thinking
  • Logical reasoning
  • Negotiation
  • Observation
  • Perseverance
  • Persuasion

5. Leadership

You may not be in a leader's role but employers look for these qualities to determine whether you can make important decisions and manage situations and other people. They want to see whether you can grow beyond the job.

Leadership with paper origami

Leadership skills are a mixture of all the other soft skills as you will be able to work independently and within a team but you also take charge and guide the team to work more effectively. Leadership is the skill least developed by yourself which is why many leadership courses exist.

Characteristics of an effective leader:

  • Ability to work with minimal guidance and supervision
  • Accountability and responsibility
  • Active listening
  • Authenticity
  • Conflict resolution
  • Decision-making
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Empathy
  • Flexibility
  • Generosity
  • Modesty
  • Motivating
  • Selflessness
  • Strategic planner
  • Supportive
  • Trustworthiness
  • Delegation
  • Crisis management
  • Constructive feedback and encouragement
  • Seeing the big picture
  • Providing clear guidelines and instructions

6. Work ethic

Having a strong work ethic proves to your manager that you believe that work is important because, for example, you are punctual, organised, you meet deadlines, you remain focused etc. It means that you can work independently but also follow orders.

You may even have to carry out jobs below your level of experience but this will only show your employer that you're willing to get the job done regardless. Having a strong work ethic is usually a natural ability or you may have been socialised to regard it as important.

Characteristics of a strong work ethic:

  • Accountability
  • Achieving high standards
  • Attentiveness
  • Commitment
  • Competitiveness
  • Discipline
  • Honesty
  • Initiative
  • Maximising your strengths
  • Optimism - even when experiencing challenges
  • Organisation
  • Persistence and perseverance
  • Productivity - completing tasks effectively and efficiently
  • Professionalism
  • Punctuality
  • Reliability
  • Responsibility
  • Seeking constructive feedback
  • Self-direction
  • Self-motivation
  • Self-supervising
  • Time-management

7. Time management

Trying to do everything at once isn't an efficient way to work and it can often lead to you feel disorganised and stressed. Time management is a way of delegating your time for specific activities. This allows you to manage your workload and time effectively so you can be as productive as possible. You must be able to prioritise your tasks, complete them before they become urgent and know when to delegate certain tasks to others.

Time management diagram with clock

Characteristics of effective time-management:

  • Decision-making
  • Delegation
  • Focus
  • Goal setting
  • Organisation
  • Planning
  • Prioritising
  • Responsibility
  • Self-awareness
  • Stress management and resilience

iCIMS Hiring Insights (2017) found that "Ninety-four percent of recruiting professionals believe an employee with stronger soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience but weaker soft skills." It's now vital to develop these skills if you want to progress in your career as they will set you apart from others.