Every Question You've Ever Had About Soft Skills (But Didn't Want to Ask)

You’ve found it—a description for an open job that you think would be the perfect fit for you. You quickly scan through the requirements.

So many years of experience? Check. Proficiency with that certain software program? Check. Strong leadership skills? Well… uhhh.

Alright, so maybe you’ve never actually been tasked with leading or managing a team in a professional environment. “No big deal!” you tell yourself, “That’s just one of those throwaway skills I can list anyway—that’s what tailoring your resume is for, after all!”

No so fast. While it’s tempting to look at those soft skills as freebies that you can slap on your document just to sneak by those pesky robots that are scanning for keywords, they actually carry far more weight than that. And, much like everything else in the job application process, you need to be honest about what you possess—and where you fall short.

So, with that in mind, how much do they factor into the selection process? I chatted with two experts to get the lowdown on everything you’ve ever wondered about those seemingly generic requirements.

OK, What Exactly Are Soft Skills?

“Soft skills are how you function in the workplace, such as teamwork, collaboration, time management, creative problem solving, and communication,” explains Theresa Merrill, Muse Career Coach and LinkedIn Marketing Expert.

To simplify this even further, you can imagine your hard skills as the things that are easy to quantify —like a certain degree or a fluency in a foreign language, for example. However, soft skills are much harder to assess and far more subjective.

“Additionally, many hard skills are skills you can acquire through formal education and training, whereas soft skills are not necessarily focused on in the classroom and are either innately developed or built through experience,” adds Al Dea, Management Consultant, Career Strategy Writer, and Muse Career Coach.

How Important Are Soft Skills?

While you might be tempted to think of these soft skills as formalities that employers list in their job descriptions just for some added legitimacy, they truly are important.

“Soft skills can be the differentiator in the job search,” says Merrill, “We know that the most qualified person for the job doesn’t always land it. Why is that? It’s often because they were unable to communicate effectively—that’s a soft skill—and forge a connection—another soft skill—with the hiring manager.”

Think about it this way: If you don’t have the technical capabilities required to do the job, you might be well-liked in the office, but actually executing the work will be a constant challenge for you. On the flipside of that coin, possessing the technical know-how—but not the soft skills—will usually end up with you having great ideas, yet being unable to actually communicate and implement those.

For that reason, these capabilities that are harder to quantify should always be considered important. But, with that said, there are times when they carry more or less weight—based on the role and where you are in your career path.

“I would say there is a correlation in the importance of soft skills and how much of your job is focused on engaging and collaborating with other people, especially diverse groups of people,” Dea Shares, “I also think that the higher up you go in the organization, the more you’ll have to use your soft skills.”

How Can You Improve Your Soft Skills?

Rest assured, there are plenty of tactical things you can do to take your soft skills up a notch.

If you need to give your communication skills a bump, for example, try taking a class in public speaking, accepting more assignments that require you to get in front of others, or ask for direct feedback and tips from the people you know who are great at communicating their own ideas.

Beyond that, Dea recommends that you focus on becoming more self-aware.

“I think at the core of soft skills is a sense of self-awareness and empathy,” shares Dea, “Self-awareness helps you understand who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you bring to the table. Empathy helps you understand who you are in relation to other people around you. So, if you truly want to develop exceptional soft skills over the long haul, I would start by working on developing self-awareness and empathy.”

So, Should You Still Apply for That Job?

Let’s get back to that opening that sounds perfect for you. You check all of the boxes—except for that one pesky soft skill. What should you do? Can you still toss your hat into the ring?

Both of the experts agree: absolutely! As long as you’re willing to prove yourself in other areas.

“I’m a big believer in the idea of the ‘growth mindset’ and that you can evolve and learn over time,” Dea says, “As such, I think if you spend time improving specific soft skills so that you can excel in that job, you can make the case that—even if you don’t have everything right now—your existing skillsets in other areas will make up for that. Over time, you will become stronger in those soft skills where you need development.”

“Smart candidates express their desire to develop their soft skills—we can all improve our communication skills—while simultaneously showcasing their technical aptitude,” Merrill adds.

Let’s face it—there’s a lot that’s required of you when you’re in the middle of the job search, and it’d be great to get a few freebie skills that you could slap on your resume without so much as a second thought. But, spoiler alert: That’s not what soft skills are for. Yes, hiring managers really do give serious consideration to your less quantifiable competencies as well.

The good news is that your soft skills can be improved with a little bit of time and commitment on your part.

So, rather than throwing a word like “leadership” or “communication” onto the skills section of your resume and crossing your fingers it doesn’t come up again, invest the effort into actually refining that strength. In the end, you’ll be much better off!

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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