Have you heard about “soft skills”? They matter much more than you think when it comes to landing a job. Here’s the what, why, and how of soft skills.
How Soft Skills Can Help You Land a Job
Everyone knows that their resume is an important aspect of landing their next job. Far fewer people acknowledge the role that soft skills play in the interviewing or promotion process. In the modern workforce, an increasing number of companies are placing a growing amount of importance on soft skills. Whether you’re asking, “What are soft skills, anyway?” or simply don’t believe that personality matters as much as qualifications, here are some ways to understand what soft skills are, how you can improve yours, and how it can lead to the job of your dreams.
What Are Soft Skills?
Put simply, soft skills are what happens once you jump off the resume and into a real-life conversation. It is easy to assume that a high GPA or X number of years’ experience at a prestigious firm is reason enough for a company to hire or promote you over another candidate. It’s far harder to understand and cultivate the skills that go into every aspect of life–personal and professional–that cannot be measured on paper. Soft skills could be something as simple as how you come across in conversation with others or as complex and hard to quantify as your willingness to engage with complex problems that have unorthodox solutions and require curiosity, humility, and teamwork. A few recognizable terms that fall under the label of ‘soft skills’ include:
Communication entails everything from how you come across in simple daily emails or personnel meetings to your ability to read a room and adapt to situations as they arise. Effective communication skills are important because they help you more succinctly convey what you need personally or on behalf of a given project. Good communication enables you to manage potential problems and demonstrate your ability to grasp issues and both delegate responsibilities and solicit input.
This might mean not missing a beat when a last minute request or change of plans arises or it might be more emblematic of a larger philosophical attitude about changes in workforce, processes, or technology. Employers find much more value in employees who can quickly adapt to situational changes as well as broad changes in a given industry, because these employees do not become ‘obsolete’ or less productive as they dig in their heels and refuse to adapt to new team settings or new technologies that change the way their job is done.
While some might assume that today’s increasingly remote and independent workforce, enabled by technological advances, might not value teamwork as much as more traditional career paths once did, the opposite is typically true. The ability to work on a team will never become irrelevant or go out of style, because every company with more than one person is a team. And as coworkers become spread out thanks to satellite campuses and remote work opportunities, the ability to be a true player becomes more important than ever. Demonstrating humility and the ability to work with a team is a critical soft skill that employers need to see. Just like the best sports teams are not always the ones with the most stars, the best team players are not always the candidates with a staggering resume. When everyone ‘gels,’ each of them and the company at-large succeed.
Many people know what work ethic is, but not everyone knows how to properly demonstrate it. Oftentimes, it’s not by beating everyone to the office and staying until everyone has gone home. It’s often characterized by someone who can demonstrate an alacrity while on-task, a desire to learn and improve, and someone who is compelled by that last 3% of details that takes a project from “finished” to “great.” That phrase “Work smarter, not harder,” applies to work ethic more than you think. While some tasks require brute effort to be done well, in today’s workforce, the hardest workers are usually the ones who attack problems with curiosity, passion, and a desire to solve them in meaningful, thorough ways.
This is one of those soft skills that can almost be quantified. There are plenty of tests which are not as straightforward as, say, the SAT, but which do measure your ability to solve abstract or complex problems. This skill is not directly linked to education or accolades, but rather demonstrates a mental malleability that allows someone to set aside what they know in favor of exploring all possible options. People with good problem solving skills can add lots of value to a company as they can identify problems and create unique solutions that are seemingly independent of job title or hierarchy.
The measure of a great leader is a moving target, but most people know it when they see it. At various times in history, great leaders have been iron-fisted and sat in ivory towers; at others, they have led from the frontlines or sat in a modest cubicle just like everyone else at the company. Instead of approaching leadership as a formulaic emulation, a great leader should have the ability to read the situation, identify a desired outcome, and humbly make things happen. Soft skills cannot, strictly speaking, be ‘taught,’ though there is plenty that you can do to foster soft skills in your life and improve how they are perceived by others. The fact that you are reading about and interested in improving your soft skills is a serious step in the right direction; little can happen to improve soft skills without a sincere desire to change in one or more areas.
Improving Soft Skills
Whether you want to be a better leader or better convey your desire to be a team player, there is one thing that all soft skills have in common. In order to demonstrate them, you have to let go of the sense that you prove everything with a printed resume. Instead, relax and focus on being yourself in phone screenings and in-person interviews. Assume that if your resume is good enough to get you an interview, you don’t need to ‘sell’ it anymore. Instead, sell yourself by not selling yourself. At least not in the traditional, touting all your accomplishments sense. Good leaders rarely talk about how great they are and team players never dwell excessively on their own accomplishments. Feel out the conversation and find opportunities to level the playing field and focus on the person you’re talking to, ask questions about opportunities for collaboration, and explore the company’s future plans. This shows that you’re curious, forward-thinking, and flexible to change rather than demanding a rigid certainty. Of course, simply simulating good soft skills will come across as insincere; that’s why you can’t read a quick how-to guide and suddenly be an expert leader. Instead, cultivate some qualities you admire by making a concerted effort over time. Believe that you can lead a team or share responsibilities with people who are younger and older than you. Harness your natural curiosity in a way that’s compatible with your career. Find characters in TV shows or current events who you think are effective communicators and pay attention to what makes them compelling to listen to or easy to understand.
Soft Skills Matter Everywhere
The nice thing about soft skills is that, unlike being proficient in Microsoft Word and Excel, they apply to all aspects of life. Being a better communicator and listener is a priceless skill for every aspect of life, and being a team player is helpful in every type of interaction and human relationship. This is doubly beneficial–it means that building up these skills matters everywhere, not just in the office–and it means that you get to practice no matter where you are. With more employers lamenting the decline of soft skills every day, the biggest differentiator in your job interview may not have anything to do with your degree or job experience at all. For many people in the increasingly crowded and competitive job market, that should come as a relief. And for those who are stressed out by the idea of something that matters so much not being something qualitative that you can learn by reading a book or taking a practice test, relax! Stress typically disrupts most important soft skills and shows up in your body language. When was the last time someone told you to relax as part of your job search? Soft skills matter, and they’re quite pleasant to work on, too. This article has been republished with permission from mastersincommunications.org