Navigating the job market or hunting for a promotion? Odds are you’ve heard the phrase “soft skills” bandied about. If you want to become a manager one day, you’ll need soft skills. If you want to stand out from other job candidates, you better showcase your soft skills.
Yet, pinning down a definition can feel like grasping at straws. People often turn to stock phrases like “being a team player” or “possessing leadership qualities” to describe it. Sometimes they’ll say it’s having emotional intelligence, but even those answers remain nebulous.
There’s a reason for all this — the term “soft skills” is broken, according to Matt Monnot, an industrial organizational psychologist. Soft is a pejorative to describe things that are “lenient, dull and unscientific,” Monnot and Jennifer Parlamis, a University of San Francisco professor, argued in a research paper.
What Are Soft Skills?
As a result, skills like curiosity, resilience and adaptability get overlooked and taken for granted, Monnot said. We assume they’re innate traits or ones that should’ve been learned in elementary school — but they’re not.
Just like we spend years learning how to code or do calculus, soft skills are tangible abilities that can be honed and developed.
What Are Soft Skills, Really?
Soft skills is a catchall term that encompasses the interpersonal and critical-thinking abilities we rely on at work. It’s the ability to communicate a coherent idea, to compromise with partners on a project and to brainstorm a creative solution to a difficult problem.
11 In-Demand Soft Skills to Develop
- Body language
- Attention to details
For a long time, there was no distinction between hard and soft skills — they were just skills. The term first appeared in the late 1960s, Monnot said, when the U.S. Continental Army Command wanted to understand why some units outperformed others using the same machines and procedures. During its investigation, it discovered the difference lay in those units’ mastery of nontechnical skills — like the ability to communicate, motivate and adapt — which it defined as “soft skills” to stand in contrast to the more tangible technical skills.
If you find the term vague and wanting, you’re not alone. In fact, the U.S. Continental Army Command argued that the term should be eliminated during a 1972 conference, Monnot and Parlamis explained in their research paper. Meanwhile, organizational psychologists and HR leaders have tried to rename nontechnical skills everything from emotional intelligence to grit to character to better convey their importance in the workplace.
Monnot argues for renaming them CORE skills, which stands for competence in organizational and relational effectiveness.
The point is that both hard and soft skills are essential to a successful career, whether you spend most of your time writing code or talking with customers, Monnot said.
“Skills are skills. Period,” Monnot said. “We can select based on them, we can train you on them and we can get you better at them. In fact, what has conventionally been called soft skills are actually what are most predictive of leadership effectiveness.”
Why Do Soft Skills Matter?
While hard skills hog most of the spotlight in job interviews and in work evaluations, soft skills are what help you land a job and get promoted.
Talented engineers get overlooked all the time because they can’t communicate their vision or ideas for a project. Charismatic sales representatives lose out on deals because they aren’t effective listeners. Data scientists miss critical information because they took too rigid an approach analyzing data.
“You could be the smartest person in the room, but you don’t get prioritized if you’re not able to communicate,” said Vivian Shen, who’s the founder of educational platform Juni Learning, which focuses on developing both technical and soft skills for children.
Thanks to the rise in automation software, which have taken over more technical tasks, companies are increasingly valuing soft skills over hard, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research report on the value of soft skills. Job descriptions have moved away from rigid categorization and require more cross-collaboration. As a result, workers today need to be able to solve complex problems in team-based settings.
“Social interaction is perhaps the most necessary workplace task for which there is currently no good machine substitute,” wrote the report’s author, David Deming, a Harvard University research associate.
At consumer-to-consumer marketing tech startup Statusphere, CTO Cassandra Wilcox has noticed a shift in the way engineers are hired from earlier in her career. Most of the focus used to be on hiring savant coders who could plug headphones in and write code all day. But she’s found that it’s more important to hire someone who excels in soft skills.
Someone who can speak with users, lead a project when a manager is out and communicate the technical vision to other teams in the company is more valuable than someone who can write flawless code.
“We’re trying to build cross-functional product teams where the recommendation is everyone on the team is developed in the ability to be a product lead,” Wilcox said. “We’re not just going to hire an army of engineers, we’re going to look for people who have these [soft skills] so we can build a team of creatively effective people.”
Emotional intelligence is also responsible for 90 percent of what enables a person to move up the career ladder. As a soft skills trainer, Scott Asai has seen countless high-performing individual contributors fail when they make the leap to manager because they lacked the nontechnical skills needed to manage people.
“If you don’t have the ability to listen and the ability to effectively communicate something to an internal customer like your colleagues, then you need [soft skills] training ... No job is 100 percent solo.”
“The skills that got you promoted aren’t necessarily the skills that help you as a manager,” Asai said. “So I like to emphasize things like communication, leadership and emotional intelligence because those are the things that really help you succeed at a middle management or higher management level.”
Even as companies transition to remote work with less personal interaction, soft skills are still important to develop. A poorly written Slack message can lead to an argument. The inability to read facial expressions during video meetings can mean you miss out on important cues during a presentation. Effective employees today need to not only be good communicators, they need to be able to communicate asynchronously, which can be more challenging.
“In an office, you have to have the skill of having a positive appearance, good body language and being there on time. Being remote … what’s most important is that you can use asynchronous tools effectively,” Wilcox said. “It’s maybe even a more sophisticated set of communication skills to learn.”
Still, people often take soft skills for granted, said Renissa Readus, who runs LPE Institute, an organizational training consulting firm. But ignoring these skills — even when you spend most of your time on a computer — will only set you back in your career.
“If you don’t have the ability to listen and the ability to effectively communicate something to an internal customer like your colleagues, then you need [soft skills] training,” Readus said. “No job is 100 percent solo.”
How to Develop Your Soft Skills
So, now that we can agree soft skills are important, how do you develop them?
It can be difficult to know where to start. People often assume soft skills can’t be learned. They’re either like personality traits or something you should just intuit. It’s an assumption Connie Sung, an associate professor in rehabilitation counseling at Michigan State University, frequently encountered during her research on the school to work transition for people with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism or ADHD.
But it’s just not true, Sung said. Soft skills can be taught and learned.
Sung launched the Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training program to help people with neurodevelopmental disorders build the nontechnical skills they need to thrive at work. The program tackles 15 soft skills — including positive attitude, enthusiasm and teamwork.
The key to developing them comes down to taking time to research the skill just like you would a technical ability and then practicing, be it by yourself, at work or with a friend. It does require some self-awareness about how you appear to other people, which can be difficult in social situations. So, recording yourself or asking for feedback as you practice these skills is critical.
Within ASSET, they do that through a mix of video demonstrations, role-playing exercises that are recorded and then feedback sessions.
Based on Sung’s research, students not only showed an increased aptitude in those specific soft skills, but they reported more confidence in social interactions. That often leads to continued soft skill development throughout the person’s career, Sung said.
“If the person is confident about what they do, they’ll be willing to try and improve [their soft skills],” Sung said. “We call it self-efficacy. It’s their own belief in their own ability to do certain things.”
That said, you don’t need access to a training program to work on your soft skills. Unlike hard skills that require certification courses to complete, you can and should practice your nontechnical skills every day. Doing so can have a lasting impact on your career.
Collect Feedback to Identify Your Soft Skill Strengths and Weaknesses
The first step is to identify your soft skill strengths and weaknesses. Granted, this can be tricky.
Hard skills have a clear division between the right and wrong ways to do something. If you enter the wrong code syntax, you’ll get an error. With soft skills, it’s a lot easier to think you’re good at doing something when you’re actually not because there isn’t the same amount of feedback.
“When you talk to somebody, they don’t end the meeting and say, ‘Wow, you made me feel really bad when you said that,’” Shen said. “You don’t get that feedback that your [emotional intelligence] is really low.”
The best way to evaluate your soft skills is to first take a Big Five personality test, which evaluates your personality on a spectrum of five traits: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Some common assessment options include the Hogan Assessment and the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised.
These tests help you see how you present yourself to other people, Monnot said. There’s a reverse side to every trait, which can also help you see where you need to improve your soft skills. For example, while you may score higher in neuroticism, a trait that helps you be more organized, you may need to work on your flexibility.
“When you talk to somebody, they don’t end the meeting and say, ‘Wow, you made me feel really bad when you said that.’”
“We like to think of ourselves in a certain way, but we show up to people in a different way all the time,” Monnot said. “Having the feedback and understanding of how you show up, your reputation is much more important.”
So, it’s important to collect feedback from other people. Asai suggests reaching out to peers, mentors and managers and asking them what skills you need to work on.
“Sometimes what happens is that it’s kind of like driving a car. When we fail to look in the sideview mirrors, we don’t see our blind spots,” Asai said. “We may feel like, ‘I’m a good listener,’ but if someone is like, ‘You’re not really a good listener,’ … that should hold more weight because when you’re talking someone else is listening. It’s not fair for you to be a judge for yourself in that situation.”
As you gather input, you’ll start to notice patterns. If multiple people tell you you could be a better listener or that you come off disorganized, those are great places to start improving. The more proactive you seek out that feedback, the better, Asai added. If you wait, it’ll only come up when there’s a problem down the line.
Improving Your Soft Skills
Working on soft skills, however, is different from developing a hard skill. You can’t just learn an equation that makes you a great listener or a creative thinker and call it a day like you can with hard skills.
People often overestimate the work that goes into building those relational abilities, Asai said.
“In theory, soft skills can be talked about as ‘Oh yes, they’re important. I agree with them,’” Asai said. “But to me, these are skills that you have to really practice, and practice with other people.”
Once you’ve identified your weaknesses, start with watching videos or reading books that focus on that skill. If you struggle to negotiate or motivate people, for instance, reading a book like How to Win Friends and Influence People or Start With Why: How Great Leaders Can Inspire Everyone can give you some helpful tips and techniques.
14 Books to Improve Your Soft Skills
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Start With Why: How Great Leaders Can Inspire Everyone by Simon Sinek
- Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear
- Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiate As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury
- Let’s Talk About It: Turning Confrontation Into Collaboration at Work by Paul Marciano
- Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity by David Allen
- Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
- The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work by Natalie Nixon
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
- Persuade: The 4-Step Process to Influence People and Decisions by Andres Lares
- People Skills for Analytical Thinkers: Boost Your Communication and Advance Your Career - and Life by Gilbert Eijkelenboom
- Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
From there, it’s a matter of approaching each interaction with the goal of practicing that skill. If you want to be a better listener, engage in a conversation with a peer and focus on asking more questions next time you reach a disagreement. Ask them why they think a certain way, how they came to a particular conclusion or what other ideas they’ve considered. This opens up a dialogue and sets you up to find a common understanding.
Or, to improve your teamwork, set a calendar alert to ask your colleagues if they need help on a project.
You can also work on them through outside hobbies, Shen said. If you want to improve your creativity, you can practice a new skill like painting to get your brain thinking in different ways. Or, if you struggle with seeing eye to eye with your manager as a software engineer, attend a hackathon and work as the project manager. Taking on a new role like that allows you to experience the challenges your manager deals with every day, which will help you empathize with them.
Sometimes it’s just reflecting on your interactions and refocusing on a particular skill. Occasionally, Shen will notice her communication needs to be clearer and tighter. So, she’ll focus on making her next few emails and conversations more succinct.
“In meetings, if I find myself talking more than a minute at a time, I’ll be like, ‘OK, shoot. I’m talking too much. I need to rein it in.’” Shen said. “So, I’ll sometimes spend a day noticing certain things in a meeting and retrain myself for those.”
Just remember, there is no mastering a soft skill. It’s something that requires constant feedback and practice.
“Research and understanding is big,” Shen said. “Then find ways to apply them in your daily life so you can see if it impacts you positively or negatively. … Then, finally asking for feedback. When you have applied these skills, did people notice? It’s a constant loop.”
What Soft Skills Should You Focus On?
One of the problems with soft skills is its broadness. It’s tough to know what skills actually fall under the bucket, so people typically only focus on one or two areas, like communication or teamwork.
While those skills are important, it takes more than clear communication to connect with people and thrive at work. Below are some of the most important soft skills that will help you become a more productive and effective employee.
Just because you’re good at telling someone what to do doesn’t mean you’re an effective communicator. It’s a common mistake Readus sees leaders and employees make. Readus defines communication as a two-way street. It’s the ability to both share information in a clear and concise way and to listen to what the other person is saying. Failing to listen is often where lines get crossed and people end up in preventable disagreements.
“You can have the best work ethic, but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate, that affects you as a person, affects how you produce work that affects your production,” Readus said.
One simple action: Next time you speak with someone, practice active listening. Before you formulate a response, listen to everything the person has had to say and seek clarification. This prevents assumptions and redundancies in conversation because you’re coming from a place of understanding, Readus said.
When teamwork comes up, people inevitably draw parallels to athletics, Readus said. But teamwork in the context of work is different. In sports, everyone has an assigned role and their job is to play that role. The quarterback doesn’t fill in on the offensive line when there’s an injury.
At work, however, teamwork is the ability to connect with your colleagues and take on tasks outside of your scope of responsibilities because that’s what needs to get done. It’s about setting aside your defined role, say, as a junior engineer, to help a member of the quality assurance team run a test to push the project across the finish line. It’s a skill that requires being aware of the scope of the project, understanding when to offer help and knowing when to ask for help.
One simple action: Set an alert on your phone to reach out to a colleague each day, and then ask them how they’re doing or what they’re working on. You’ll be surprised how many people either ask for help or just need someone to talk with, Readus said. It’s an easy step to boost collaboration and be a team player.
This skill is all about being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes and acknowledging their experience. It’s not easy. You have to be willing to set aside your ego, drop all assumptions and seek to understand the person’s perspective — even when you disagree.
Developing this skill as a manager helps you resolve conflicts, connect with your employees and get the most out of them. As an individual contributor, you can’t build a great product if you don’t know what the other stakeholders want out of it. If you refuse to see other perspectives, you will end up rubbing people the wrong way.
One simple action: Take the time to ask people questions to understand their perspective instead of assuming you know what they’re thinking. As a manager, for instance, practice asking your employees “How can I support you?,” rather than telling them what they need to do. It’ll enable you to assist them on their own terms instead of on yours.
This is the ability to work with another party to come to a joint agreement. There are a number of situations where this is important. It can come in handy when you’re talking about a course of action for a project, working with a customer on developing a feature or interviewing for a job, said Yadi Caro, host of the Hardcore Soft Skills podcast. To do it well, you don’t need to be the toughest bluffer in the room. It’s about researching the topic, understanding what the other party wants and knowing when it’s best to walk away — what’s known as your best alternative to negotiated agreement.
One simple action: Before you enter a brainstorm session or salary negotiation, do some research. Identify what the market rate is for your salary or the pros and cons of the alternative course of action on a project. Think through your position and what you’d be willing to give up to come to an agreement. Then practice with a peer or friend. Most importantly, when the time comes to negotiate, go in with an open mind. It’s not about winning or losing, but finding a place of common ground, Caro said.
They say 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, and while that may not be entirely true, a significant amount of information is conveyed through body language and facial expressions. This soft skill is all about controlling how you communicate through your posture, gestures and facial expressions and how you observe other people’s body language. Why does that matter in a remote workplace? Well, Zoom meetings are still a thing, and controlling your facial expressions and posture along with reading the room can go a long way toward clearing up miscommunications.
One simple action: Before a presentation, record yourself and observe your habits. While you may cross your arms for comfort, it could make you come off as cold or disinterested. Watching a video of yourself can help you see what you may be communicating without even knowing it.
This is the ability to be present in whatever activity you’re doing. It can be a challenge with the constant pinging of Slack messages and other notifications all vying for your attention, but mindfulness is key to being more productive and focused on the task at hand, Caro said. It’s an overlooked skill that comes up frequently when she interviews psychologists, authors and motivational leaders about soft skills for her podcast. It’s an important ingredient to being a better listener, which is what makes it such a valuable soft skill.
One simple action: Take time each day to meditate or do some breathing exercises, such as box breathing or alternate nostril breathing. Phone apps and resources like Calm, Headspace and Ten Percent Happier also provide guided meditation to help you unplug. Spending even a few minutes to sync with your breath has a number of benefits, including an improved sense of calmness and more focus on the moment.
This soft skill often gets overlooked as either a personality trait or something that’s only important if you’re an artist or writer. But creativity is crucial to getting work done whether you work with paint and canvas or numbers and code. It involves thinking outside the box, being open to new ideas and then whittling them down to the most realistic options. Often the best solutions come from following a hunch and trying something new, Shen said.
One simple action: Try out a new hobby that works a different part of your brain, whether that’s learning an instrument, painting or carving. Steve Jobs famously took a calligraphy course that ended up inspiring Apple’s font, Shen said. Even if you aren’t successful at it, the process gets you more comfortable with trying new ideas, failing and improving on them.
Adaptability is all about being able to pivot what you’re doing on a moment’s notice. When your manager has a special project or an idea reaches a dead end, you have to be willing to go with the flow and adjust to that new situation, said Ankit Sharma, head of talent for Search.io, which provides an AI-powered internal search browser for company websites.
Change isn’t easy; it breeds uncertainty. But learning how to embrace those moments can make you a more flexible team member. Being able to pitch in on a customer call, assist a teammate to push a project across the finish line and juggle your usual responsibilities only serves to make you a more valuable employee. And as we’ve learned the last two years, life and work can be unpredictable. You have to be willing to go with the flow.
One simple action: Volunteer to help with a task outside of your regular responsibilities. The more you put yourself in new situations, the more flexible you’ll become.
No matter what job you do, you’re bound to encounter obstacles. Maybe code you’ve written isn’t performing the way you expected it to or you’re met with a string of rejections in sales. Resilience is the ability to push through those challenges and come up with creative solutions.
One simple action: Find a task that you struggle with at work and then set a goal to improve it. As an introvert, Sharma used to struggle with networking — a necessary skill for a head of talent. So, he volunteered regularly to help out at meetups and networking events to confront that fear over and over until he felt comfortable talking to new people. Confronting those challenges head on helps you develop thicker skin, which in turn, will make it easier when you encounter a new challenge, he said.
Attention to Detail
This is about having a complete understanding about your task and making sure you don’t miss anything important. You don’t have to analyze a task down to its last semicolon, but you do need to identify the important bits of information and understand how a task fits into the larger picture of a project. Often this requires shifting the focus from what you think is best for a project and instead focusing on what the customer or company needs.
One simple action: Practice listening, planning and prototyping before you execute a task. The more time you spend in the beginning on understanding your assignment, the less likely you are to miss important details that could derail your final product.
Curiosity involves seeking out and being receptive to new information. It’s acknowledging what you don’t know and then asking questions to learn more. It’s a critical skill that will help you keep improving in your job and make you easier to manage. It also translates into leadership, where being willing to ask your employees questions and seek new ways of approaching a task will allow you to bring the most out of them.
One simple action: Ask open-ended questions to learn from other people. If you encountered a difficult task, ask a peer or manager what you could’ve done differently or how that person would’ve approached it.
How to Make Your Soft Skills Pop During an Interview
Resumes are built on hard skills, but the market is saturated with like-skilled candidates. The key to standing out is through your soft skills.
“I’ve taught coding enough that I believe anyone is capable of learning to code,” said Wilcox, CTO at Statusphere. “Those soft skills, those human-to-human connections are actually more challenging at this point than solving technical problems.”
That said, it’s not always clear how to do that. Sure, you could list your soft skills on a resume, but it won’t mean much to the hiring manager. Instead, the key is to articulate how your soft skills apply in a work setting, Asai said.
“People are satisfied with saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me. I’m good at being organized,’ but what does that mean?,” Asai said. “Just because you’re good at being organized doesn’t mean it’s going to translate over to a job. … To me, it’s the application piece.”
“Those soft skills, those human-to-human connections are actually more challenging at this point than solving technical problems.”
Come to the interview (or feedback session) with specific stories and examples that highlight your soft skills. If you’re an engineer who’s great at empathizing with others, talk about a time when you put yourself in the shoes of the customer to solve a pain point of theirs. Following the STAR format (situation, task, action, results) can also help you frame your responses.
Just don’t forget to apply your soft skills during the actual interview process, said Sharma, head of talent at Search.io. When employers provide technical challenges, they’re also testing your soft skills. They want to see how you handle stress, whether or not you’re curious and how well you can communicate your process.
If a candidate talks about being resilient, but then they give up on a technical challenge, it comes across as fake. If you share a story about being curious and then you back it up with questions after the interview, however, you’ll stand out from the pack.
“In a behavioral [interview], it comes down to the prep and recalling some of those stories,” Sharma said. “On the technical side, it comes down to just being yourself. In a problem-solving situation, you don’t want to try and be someone you’re not.”
Even if companies aren’t evaluating your soft skills outright, your ability to relate to others and think critically will still influence your hireability. After all, no matter what job you do, it still involves working with people. And people don’t want to work with jerks.