When you're applying for a job, you may think employers care most about your technical skills: the "hard skills" that equip you to do the work. After all, you've probably spent years honing your craft. You may have a degree or two (or more) in your specialty. So, your expertise is what really counts, right?
What are soft skills in the workplace?
Hard skills are important, of course. However, just as important are soft skills. What exactly are these elusive soft skills? Well, part of they're very nature is that they're difficult to define. Unlike technical skills (hard skills)—the specific training and ability to do your line of work—soft skills pervade industries and are a necessary skill set for all job seekers, students, and current workers.
While many job candidates possess the technical know-how to do the work, the applicants who rise to the top often possess personal attributes that give them that extra something else many employers are seeking. Soft skills in the workplace usually deal with human interaction—essentially working well with other people and having a good attitude toward your work and work environment in a variety of ways. These skills are more relevant to your personality than your education or technical qualifications.
Here are five soft skills in the workplace employees should have no matter what their industry is—and how you can improve them in order to land your next role or advance in your current one.
10 examples of soft skills that are important for your career
Critical thinking is essential to generating new ideas in the workplace. Employees need to be able to think on their feet and develop solutions to problems before they occur. Your ability to develop unique ways of completing tasks and alternatives to the status quo will make you successful no matter what your job is.
So you do you develop your critical thinking skills? Learning is the key to problem-solving and thinking creatively. So, find ways to learn. Read the news every day. Read books, too. Learn about how others in your industry and other industries have developed solutions to unique problems. Discuss non-work issues with friends and family members. This will get your mind generating new ideas and help stimulate your critical-thinking processes.
Being able to communicate your ideas and expertise effectively is essential to landing a job, as well as growing in your role. Communication is so important, in fact, that some people dedicate their entire careers to studying the art.
You'll have to communicate constantly over the course of your career. Think of how many emails you send in a single day. That's communication. So is a phone call with a client, a discussion with your boss, or a report.
Because communication is such a broad skill set, there are many different steps you can take to improve it in the office. For instance, if delivering a presentation effectively is an important aspect of your role, you might enroll in a public speaking workshop and practice delivering speeches to friends. If your writing skills leave something to be desired, ask a colleague to read over your work and give you feedback. There are also plenty of classes you can take to improve your business writing skills.
One important aspect of communication is listening when other people speak. No matter how great your idea is, wait until the other person has finished speaking—and really listen to what she has to say—before jumping in. This is an important and often overlooked aspect of making a colleague or client feel appreciated—which will, in turn, make others take notice and help you advance in your career.
3. Interpersonal skills
Being able to work well with others makes you a good team player. As much as having good people skills may seem like a personality trait—and not a skill that will really give your career a boost—it's essential to your success.
Help your colleagues. Offer to lend a hand with a project or just take on some of the slack. Your colleague will appreciate it, and your boss will notice. You'll also gain a reputation as a team player, which can lead to both short- and long-term success.
Another aspect of being a team player is taking responsibility for your actions. That means acknowledging when you've made a mistake, rather than putting the blame on someone else. Owning up to your mistake will get you much farther than blaming someone else will.
All industries have leaders. And while technical know-how in your area of expertise may help you advance in your career, in order to become a true, effective leader, you need to possess skills that go beyond knowing how to do your assigned tasks well.
Great leaders are mentors and role models for their employees. They know how to delegate and take a vested interest in the success of the people who work for them—not just their own growth.
Leaders also accept responsibility and constructive criticism from others (along with delivering it) and give credit where credit is due. That means praising employees for a job well done and highlighting their team's accomplishments to others.
If you're hoping to gain leadership skills, seek out opportunities to take on new responsibilities. Offer advice to coworkers, even if they don't report to you. While you shouldn't tell people what to do if you're not their manager, it can be helpful to offer supportive suggestions, especially if someone seems to be struggling.
5. Work ethic
Perhaps the most important quality of any professional is having a strong work ethic. Work ethic involves discipline, professionalism, and dedication. It means really caring about your work and striving to do your best.
Accept feedback. Don't get defensive when someone delivers constructive criticism; instead, think about how you can learn from it. Respect others, and look for purpose in your work. If you believe in what your company does and your contribution to it, you're more likely to work hard and deliver. Pay attention to details. Show up on time. It's the little things.
Showing employers and hiring managers that you possess soft skills is just as important as demonstrating your hard skills. The best way to highlight these skills is showing, rather than telling. If you're in an interview, use examples to illustrate times you've exercised your soft skills. Demonstrate them to the hiring manager. Use them on the job, too. They can get you far in your career—and help you stand out in a sea of qualified candidates and employees.
6. Time management
Being able to use your time wisely and productively is essential to doing your job—any job—well. You need to understand the time constraints of a project and be able to work within them. You also need to know how to prioritize, judging which tasks need and deserve your attention first.
Someone who frequently misses deadlines, misjudges the amount of time it will take to complete a task or project, or simply doesn't pay much much attention to the concept of time at work can detrimentally affect the entire team or company. Procrastinators beware!
If you're a chronic procrastinator, here are 25 Ways to Stop Procrastinating.
Above, we described how problem-solving can be a benefit of critical thinking. It's also a discrete skill on its own. While critical thinking is necessary for generating ideas in many different contexts, problem-solving comes in handy when something, such as a project or assignment, veers off course. What do you do then?
A good problem solver won't just develop solutions to existing problems: she'll anticipate problems ahead of time and develop an alternative—and creative—solution for addressing an issue that may arise at any point.
8. Conflict resolution
Are you the peacemaker in your office? It's a strong quality to have—and an indispensable soft skill in the workplace. Some who can both work well with others and help others work well together is a great person to have on any team.
While people who work in human resources and related professions may find this skill particularly useful and effective, every department needs someone who is good at helping deescalate tricky situations.
Conflict resolution doesn't just mean stepping in when your colleagues are screaming at each other. It can also mean accounting for the various personalities on a team and looking for solutions that work well for everyone, anticipating conflicts that may arise and preventing them from coming to a head, and helping team members understand other perspectives.
It's also not a quality that needs to be limited to the leader or manager of a group. Anyone can be adept at this soft skill and promote harmony at work.
Everyone makes mistakes. A good worker knows and accepts responsibility for her own errors, rather than putting the blame on someone else. She doesn't put the blame on other people, even if it was a group effort; instead, she owns her part in it.
Along with accepting the blame for the errors she's made, someone who has a sense of responsibility also acknowledges the work of others. She doesn't take credit for someone else's work; she offers praise where praise is due.
An employee who is adaptable often possesses the many of the other soft skills that make someone a strong worker, such as problem-solving, communication, and time management. Having adaptability in a work environment means knowing when to change course and being able to find other ways of completing tasks and projects.
This type of flexibility is useful in a variety of settings. Projects may not meet deadlines or the circumstances can change, and workers need to be adaptable in order to revise their approach and come up with other ways of tackling them.
Adaptability is also useful when larger organizational changes occur. For example, during mergers and acquisitions, individuals who are able to adapt to new management or contexts are the ones who are able to thrive.
Why you need soft skills in the workplace
Mastering soft skills in the workplace not only makes you invaluable at your current job; it also gives you the know-how to work in many different roles and industries. That's why soft skills are also known as transferable skills: you can take them with you anywhere. Start cultivating these skills to make yourself a better worker—and a more marketable one.