Do you work with someone who seems to always run behind? They miss deadlines and the entire team suffers.
How about someone who always comes up with the greatest ideas? They always think outside of the box.
What about someone who has difficulty looking clients in the eye? Or someone who stands in the corner with their hands crossed during company events?
What do these three scenarios have in common?
Soft skills are a vital part of being successful in the workforce. Time management, creativity and communication make up three of the many soft skills that employers look for in their candidates and employees.
Knowing which skills you possess and how to improve them is critical to your personal and professional development. Being that many people do not understand their importance, we decided to interview three professionals to gain their insights on the topic.
What are soft skills and why do they matter?
Let’s start with some technical definitions of soft skills…
According to the Oxford dictionary, soft skills include, “Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”
On the other hand…
Dictionary.com defines a soft skill as, “A skill or personality trait that typically is not learned or measurable and is especially valued in the workplace, as leadership ability or good verbal communication.”
The difference between the two definitions demonstrates why people have a difficult time understanding soft skills.
We interviewed Loralyn Mears PhD, the Founder and CEO of STEERus, a talent development program that builds out soft skills in Gen Zers, to gain her expertise on the topic.
When asked why these skills are important, Loralyn explained that although robots and artificial intelligence are being used in the workplace to complete technical tasks, they are unable to capture, “nuances and interpret what a person is really saying with their body language. That is what’s needed to foster success in the workplace.”
Soft skills allow us to better connect. Think of a time when you entered a customer service chat box. Could you tell whether a human or a bot was responding to you? Chances are you could! You can determine the lack of empathy, creativity and general personality when interacting with a chatbot.
Loralyn stresses that managing client relationships requires a good level of soft skills development. Skills like empathy, creativity and general interpersonal skills prove to be imperative in business.
Now that we’ve defined soft skills and understand their importance, let’s look at how to assess them.
How are soft skills assessed?
You can assess your soft skills like hiring managers in the professional world do all the time! Managers continuously evaluate these skills in their direct reports. They use this information to provide professional development and to gauge a potential fit for the company in the hiring process.
“Talk about one of their best experiences working as a team. What was their role, who else was involved and why did it work so well?” - Lisa Richardson
Anna Sinitsyna is an Industry Team Leader at InfoTrust who interviews candidates for associate consultant, consultant and senior consultant roles.
A portion of the interview process includes assessing a candidate’s soft skills. Anna utilizes situational and behavioral questions to gain a sense of the individual’s capabilities.
Anna’s situational and behavioral questions typically sound like, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with…” or, “Tell about how you made a mistake and learned from the situation.”
Think back to the last interview you completed. These questions may sound familiar, right? Anna, along with others involved in the hiring process, analyzes candidates’ responses to see if a desired soft skill is mentioned or demonstrated.
Lisa Richardson, Senior Director of Strategic Growth at Rightpoint, has a passion for strategy and consulting. Lisa tells us that identifying and assessing an individual’s soft skills is much easier during their employment. In her experience, she uses, “feedback to help celebrate strengths and offer brainstorming or reflection time on how to enhance soft skills using real scenarios as examples we can freely discuss together.”
During the interview process, both Anna and Lisa utilize behavioral interviewing questions. These questions provide insight into how an individual would react to a specific situation. Lisa asks individuals to, “talk about one of their best experiences working as a team. What was their role, who else was involved and why did it work so well?”
Soft skills are assessed during and after the interview process. Individuals of all experience levels identify the strengths and weaknesses of their coworkers. Hiring managers use these observations to promote professional development and the overall success of their organization.
For those who have recently completed their education or are near completion, training programs like STEERus provide great resources for assessing people skills. Loralyn notes that STEERus utilizes, “a couple of proprietary methods which include a Soft Skills Assessment and soft skills rubric to assess people, then we offer a personalized curriculum tailored to the gaps we identified.”
Training programs like STEERus can provide the much-needed training for those entering the workforce or those wanting to improve personally and professionally.
You can assess your strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay, be honest with yourself! Maybe you feel that you excel at communicating but struggle with time management and creative thinking. How can you build upon these skills and stand out in a professional setting?
How do I improve my soft skills?
So you assessed your soft skills or received feedback from a manager or coworker… What do you do now?
If you are assessing your skills independently or work for an organization that does not provide soft skills training, you can enroll in a program like STEERus. Loralyn notes that her program, “creates a custom curriculum, supports the learner with private and community coaching, then works with them on our interactive quizzes and games to assess as well as boost retention of what they learned.”
Programs can be an effective tool when your company does not offer specific soft skills training. Some companies and managers have their programs or training sessions that they utilize to strengthen their team’s abilities to grow professionally.
Lisa, at Rightpoint, likes to provide a comfortable and safe environment for her employees. She recognizes that, “Unlike more learned or mastered skills, soft skills are very dynamic and can feel easier or harder depending on external variables.”
Feedback must be provided in a comfortable and safe environment because soft skills can feel so personal. Remind yourself that the feedback is not a personal attack, but a tool to help you grow. Building these skills can alter your personal and professional career for the better.
Lisa also encourages her team to practice the necessary people skills. She asks her team to, “assess which situations challenge us to use them.” This exercise alerts team members to which skills they need to improve on and to prepare for encounters that may be similar in the future.
Anna’s company utilizes a particular training program to build these skills. She enjoyed the role-playing section of her soft skills training. Role-playing allows consultants to practice necessary soft skills before experiencing them in the real world. Employees also benefit from learning from one another during exercises like this.
If you are interested in building your soft skills but do not have access to a training program, start by asking your friends, colleagues and managers to provide feedback.
Which of these skills should you tackle first? We asked each interviewee which skills were most important to them and which skills were lacking in the professional world.
Loralyn notes that employers most often find a lack of critical thinking and professional communication in the workforce. We recommend building up these two skills, in particular, to stand out from other candidates and employees.
Which of the following skills are the hardest to fill at your company right now?
Like Loralyn pointed out, Wiley Education’s research in Reimagining the Workforce 2021 saw that 36% of employers look for candidates with critical thinking skills. Another 36% of employers seek candidates that excel in communication.
Anna seeks candidates that are, “very comfortable having an open conversation, being client facing and someone who has good prioritization skills.” She finds that passion, independence, curiosity, empathy and a love of learning are important soft skills in consulting.
These are some of the skills that many individuals in the workforce are looking for. Remember that soft skills are not only important for your professional growth but also your personal growth. Improving these skills will set you apart from others, whether that be in an interview, in the office or on a date.
Soft skills may seem to be complicated to define and assess, but we do it naturally every day. Acknowledge your strengths and your weaknesses, ask for feedback from peers and begin challenging yourself. We can’t wait to see how much you grow!
What do you think? Do you have questions about soft skills? We would love to hear your thoughts! Reach out via our contact form if you would like to discuss your thoughts or challenges further.