Soft Skills 101: Definition, Importance and Examples

Soft skills are an essential asset for every professional. Our guide will walk you through everything you need to know about soft skills, and how they can benefit your career.

Importance and example of soft skills concept

The term ‘soft skills’ is commonly used, but what they are or why they are essential isn’t widely discussed.  

Soft skills are more important for job success than ever before. While many employees focus on hard skills and aligning these to jobs and applications, soft skills are put to one side or assumed to be learned passively as people go about their day-to-day jobs. Despite this, a recent study suggests that 89% leave their positions in the first eighteen months because they do not have the right soft skills. 

But before you can develop soft skills, you must first understand what they are. Here, we will walk you through the meaning of soft skills, why they are essential and six different types to focus on in the workplace. 

What are soft skills?

Soft skills often refer to a suite of non-technical skills frequently transferrable across most industries, jobs, and workplaces. They are as crucial for entry-level roles as they are for senior or C-suite positions. 

Because of their transferability, soft skills are highly sought-after by recruiters and employers and are often included in job descriptions or competency frameworks. Soft skills are focused on abilities such as productivity, initiative, creativity, communication, or organisation. Consequently, they can be part of someone’s working style, personal brand, or attitude.  

Hard skills are different from soft skills in that they are more specific to a particular role and often a lot more tangible in nature. Examples of hard skills could be using a specific human resources system such as Workday, coding skills, sales ability, or even foreign languages. 

Why are soft skills important?

Aside from their transferability, soft skills are valued by employers because, in many cases, they facilitate the development of hard skills. In 2019 LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report concluded that soft skills are as necessary as hard skills, if not more critical to career success.

For instance, say you have the necessary technical and professional skills to work in coding. It is all very well to have exceptional coding ability, but if you lack communication skills or can’t work in teams, this will cause many issues for employers and probably wouldn’t be as productive as someone with a more refined set of soft skills.

Specific soft skills also illustrate how willing or able someone is to learn, grow, and develop. Other soft skills, especially those directly connected to attitude, will help employers understand if the person is a right fit for a particular organisational culture

Soft skills can also become the deciding factor when it comes to candidate selection. With the job market becoming increasingly competitive, many candidates focus on acquiring hard skills, as these are often the easiest to develop, either by taking courses or gaining specific experience. On the other hand, soft skills are commonly honed over time through coaching, feedback, and learning from successes and mistakes.  

Recruiters will initially select candidates based on their hard skills by reviewing their CVs and résumés and then narrow this selection down by assessing soft skills through interviews - which allow for a more accurate understanding of soft skills competence. 

Finally, soft skills particularly matter if an employee is making the transition from employee to leader. As you make your way up the career ladder, you tend to leave behind the reliance on hard skills and rely more on soft skills, many of which are directly connected to effective leadership, such as negotiation skills, communication, or conflict management. Understanding systems and techniques is often the role of line staff; leaders without a strong soft skills portfolio will find this transition very challenging. 

Types of soft skills

There are many different types of soft skills, covering all manners of abilities and competencies. All of these are valuable inside and outside of work, and none should be ignored or neglected.  

Because there are many soft skills, it helps to categorise them into a few main areas of expertise. The six main types of soft skills are as follow:  

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Work ethic
  • Critical thinking
  • Leadership
  • Positive attitude

Communication

Commonly regarded as a top skill, communication concerns your ability to convey meaning to a person or persons. Communication skills also include your ability to understand and receive messages relayed by someone else to you. Communicating a message also comprises transmitting the meaning or purpose behind it. Therefore, an essential part of communicating is not just what you are communicating but also how you communicate it.  

Here are some types of communication skills:

  • Active listening
  • Body language
  • Clarity/pace
  • Confidence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Empathy
  • Friendliness
  • Giving or receiving feedback
  • Open-mindedness
  • Public speaking
  • Telephone etiquette
  • Tone/intonation
  • Understanding the audience
  • Writing skills

Collaboration

Collaboration skills are all about bringing people together and fostering teamwork to accomplish common goals. This differs from leadership skills (in the sense that anyone in an organisation can collaborate, not just managers); collaboration skills increase the effectiveness in bringing together people, departments, resources, and ideas, ensuring that everything works in harmony to produce exceptional results. 

Some common collaboration abilities are listed below: 

  • Building trust
  • Change management/adaptability
  • Communication skills
  • Conflict management skills
  • Empathy
  • Goal setting  
  • Negotiation
  • Problem-solving
  • Strategic thinking
  • Win-win mentality

Work ethic 

Work ethic concerns the focus and drive one has on completing their tasks. Those who work hard, drive for great results and motivate others to do the same at work display excellent work ethic. The soft skill of work ethic is also about being dependable and trustworthy at work. 

Finally, work ethic is very closely connected to working fairly. Ensuring that corners are not cut, and honesty and fairness are considered in all that is done at work. Some examples of work ethic skills are: 

  • Attendance
  • Goalsetting
  • Integrity
  • Discipline
  • Productivity
  • Professionalism
  • Organisation
  • Reliability
  • Respect
  • Teamwork
  • Trust

Critical thinking

Critical thinking allows you to deeply analyse and understand your job, its tasks, and its input and outputs. This is an important soft skill to possess, as those who are good at it can drive the business forward, coming up with newer and more innovative ways of working. Critical thinkers are adept at picking apart problems and coming up with solutions. They are also logical, methodical workers who are able to spot patterns and meanings in data which can be beneficial for organisations and their reports. As such, people with refined critical thinking skills are highly prized. Some critical thinking skills include:

  • Analysis
  • Conflict management 
  • Focus
  • Observation
  • Logic
  • Persuasion/negotiation skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Reflective practice
  • Reporting skills
  • Researching ability
  • Self-evaluation skills

Leadership

Having great leadership skills means that not only can you effectively lead teams in terms of getting the job done, you can also inspire them to achieve great things, motivate them to contribute to short- and long term goals, and coach them to develop their careers. 

People with strong leadership skills are also highly effective at leading processes as well as people, understanding how to bring together human resources as well as systems to drive the organisation forward. Here are some key leadership skills: 

  • Active listening
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Conflict management
  • Empathy
  • Engagement and motivation
  • Goalsetting
  • Organisation
  • Presentation skills
  • Negotiation
  • Storytelling 
  • Strategic thinking
  • Written and spoken communication

Positive attitude 

A positive attitude is a great soft skill to have because it is so infectious. Those who are optimistic by nature will inspire others to do the same. They bring a workplace to life and motivate both themselves and others to achieve more. 

When times are tough, those with positive attitudes can be a saving grace, keeping people focused on what needs to get done. Some skills and abilities related to having a positive attitude are as follows: 

  • Remaining calm under pressure
  • Conflict management
  • Motivation
  • Negotiation
  • Organisation
  • Patience
  • Presentation skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Recognition skills

Soft skills are often developed over time and form part of who we are, both at work and in our personal lives. As such, it is easy to not focus on these skills, believing that they will grow and be nurtured gradually by simply becoming ‘older and wiser’. 

Focusing on your soft skills will ensure that you are consistently performing at your best and will also set you up for a successful career progression. Take some time to regularly reflect on your soft skills. Keep a journal or find a mentor and track progress on these skills. Asking for feedback is also crucial: seek advice from your manager and consider your main tasks or duties, in terms of which soft skills are more closely aligned to what you do. 

Finally, set action plans and targets to develop your soft skills, perhaps through a personal development plan.

By maintaining a focused approach to improving your soft skills, you will ensure that you will be ready to tackle every workplace challenge, meaning that results and rewards will follow.

Which of these soft skills do you this are the most important? Let us know in the comments section below! 

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 1 February 2018.