What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person's relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered to be a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person's knowledge and occupational skills. Sociologists may use the term soft skills to describe a person's emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) as opposed to intelligence quotient (IQ).

Soft skills have more to do with who people are, rather than what they know. As such, they encompass the character traits that decide how well one interacts with others and usually are a definite part of an individual's personality. In a competitive labor market, employees who demonstrate they have a good combination of hard and soft skills often see a greater demand for their services.

Key Takeaways

  • Soft skills include attributes and personality traits that help employees interact with others and succeed in the workplace.
  • Examples of soft skills include the ability to communicate with prospective clients, mentor your coworkers, lead a team, negotiate a contract, follow instructions, and get a job done on time.
  • Hard skills are measurable and usually obtained through formal education and training programs.
  • Workers with good soft skills can help companies achieve higher levels of efficiency and productivity.

Understanding Soft Skills

Employers look for a balance of hard skills and soft skills when making hiring decisions. For example, employers value skilled workers with a track record of getting jobs done on time. Employers also value workers with strong communication skills and a strong understanding of company products and services. When communicating with prospective clients, workers with soft skills can put together compelling presentations even if their specific job is not in sales or marketing. Another valued soft skill is the ability to coach fellow coworkers on new tasks.

Company leaders often are most effective when they have strong soft skills. For example, leaders are expected to have good speaking abilities, but good leaders also are good at listening to workers and to other leaders in their fields. Negotiation is a big part of the job for many company leaders. When negotiating with employees, clients, or associates, leaders need to be skilled in staying considerate of what others want while remaining focused on pushing for what they want. Good leaders also need to know how to make their own work most efficient by strategically delegating tasks to workers.

Companies often like to hire employees who possess soft skills that mesh well with the rest of the staff, considering them to be a good cultural fit for the company.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Workers acquire hard skills through formal education, training programs, and concentrated effort. Hard skills are the quantifiable skills workers need to have in order to successfully perform a specific job. Employers often test or evaluate a candidate's hard skills before hiring. Examples of hard skills include computer programming, writing, web development, and graphic design. Some hard skills are more in-demand than others and employers may need to hire recruitment agencies or headhunters to fill jobs that require high-level skills.

Hard skills can be learned and perfected over time, but soft skills are more difficult to acquire and change. The soft skills required for a doctor, for example, would be empathy, understanding, active listening, and a good bedside manner. Alternatively, the hard skills necessary for a doctor would include a vast comprehension of illnesses, the ability to interpret test results and symptoms, and a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology.

Benefits of Soft Skills

Soft skills benefit businesses when they are practiced on a company-wide basis. For example, a collaborative spirit among workers is important. Team members who are able to work well with people of different generations and backgrounds are generally more productive and better able to focus on common priorities. Efficiency and output improve when workers collaborate by sharing knowledge and tools to get jobs done. The ability to learn new methods and technologies also is a desired soft skill for all workers.

Companies that value learning as a soft skill recognize various learning styles and encourage workers to pursue the methods that work best for them. Good troubleshooting is a soft skill that also is valuable to companies. For example, companies can operate more efficiently and increase productivity when all workers know how to troubleshoot software problems instead of relying on the information technology (IT) department for every fix.