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Soft skills for leadership and employees to hone

October 27, 2022 - 23 min read


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What are soft skills?

Why do soft skills in the workplace matter?

Examples of soft skills that are crucial at work

How to spot soft skills in employees and candidates

How to help employees with soft skill development

A team’s soft skills should never be undervalued. Teams need the ability to develop and encourage soft skills in all team members.

After all, a company’s most valuable asset is its workforce. Without skilled employees, even the most successful company wouldn’t last long.

It’s difficult enough to find talented people with the necessary technical skills to accelerate your organization. But the qualities that make the best employees aren’t always the hard, technical skills. 

Employees also need human skills.

Human skills are what develop people into good leaders and excellent team players. These are the skills that help people connect with others — customers, suppliers, partners, and co-workers. They also help people adapt and develop themselves, no matter how much technology changes.

These are also known as soft skills. They can be difficult to recognize and hard to measure.

Let’s dive into what these soft skills are and how you can find and develop them in your workplace.

What are soft skills?

So, what does having soft skills mean?

First, understand what soft skills are: they’re general skills applicable to more than one specific job or situation. They have to do with the way you approach a task or situation. These personal attributes help employees and leaders alike succeed in their place of work.

Other names for these include human capabilities or transferable skills. Some of them are also called interpersonal or people skills.

Unlike hard skills or technical skills, these skills aren’t straightforward to learn. They’re more difficult to quantify. Often, the way they show up may be related to someone’s personality traits.

For example, proficiency in a foreign language is a hard skill — you have to know the vocabulary, grammar, and how to structure statements and questions in that language. Communication skills, on the other hand, are soft — you have to have an idea, tell a story, and understand what your audience needs to know and how they will receive it.

People who are good at communicating can apply those skills across many formats and languages. Conversely, a person may know several languages yet not be an effective communicator.

Most soft skills are innate in that we are all born with the capability. That doesn't mean that everyone is good at using them, however, or that they can't be further developed. Even if soft skills are innate, people can still continue to develop them over time, with the right experiences and environment.

Why are soft skills important in the workplace?

According to the LinkedIn Global Talents Trends report:

  • 91% of talent professionals think soft skills are crucial for the future of recruiting and HR.

  • 80% say soft skills are increasingly important to their company’s success.

  • 92% say that soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills when hiring.

  • 89% say that bad hires typically lack soft skills.

So why is that?

While someone may need hard skills to perform the basics of their job, they’ll also need to solve complex problems, interact with others, and adapt to change.

Soft skills are necessary to:

Hard skills are easier to teach than soft skills, which is why bad hires often have hard skills even though they lack soft skills.


Why soft skills are essential for leadership

There are a variety of leadership styles, and each requires different hard and soft skills. What set each apart, however, is the soft skills a good (or great) leader employs. 

We often look at leadership skills through two lenses: what they do and how well they do it. For example, what is their communication style and how well do they inspire their teams? In addition to keeping teams aligned and motivated, these are some of the benefits of leadership honing in on their soft skills:

  • Better executed work since team members understand the expectations and parameters of their roles and their goals

  • More collaboration when employees feel psychologically safe and empowered, and when they trust their leadership

  • Enhanced creativity from teams who feel trusted, whose bandwidth is considered, and who are inspired

  • More agile teams who can respond to changes quickly and effectively

  • Streamlined processes and planning thanks to enhanced communication and storytelling abilities

Soft skills vs. hard skills

We’ll take a closer look at specific soft skills in a moment, but it is important to have something to compare them to. So let's look at both hard and soft skills.

On the other end of the spectrum is hard skills. While soft skills often relate to intangible personality traits, hard skills are the job-specific technical proficiencies that an individual gains over time. 

To further illustrate the difference, are some examples of hard skills:

  • Copywriting

  • Video editing

  • Foreign language proficiency

  • Software development


  • Graphic design

Examples of 9 essential soft skills for employees to own

So which soft skills should your company be looking for when hiring and training employees? There is no definitive list of the most important soft skills, but certain themes tend to show up: noticing, caring, being flexible, and working with others.

According to the Linkedin Global Talents Trend, the top five most in-demand soft skills that companies need but have a hard time finding are:

  1. Creativity

  2. Persuasion

  3. Collaboration

  4. Adaptability

  5. Time management

Let’s explore these five skills and three other examples of soft skills we believe are essential.

1. Creativity

Creative thinking can help employees come up with better solutions to problems. Creativity is really about using resources in new and different ways, and putting them together in different configurations, to address a need. It’s essential in any workplace.

Let’s say an existing customer service process isn’t effectively helping customers. Creativity can help leaders and employees think differently about what customers need and what isn't working. Instead of just trying to fix a problem, creativity can also help them develop innovative new ways to serve customers much better.

2. Persuasion

Persuasion is one of many crucial social skills. It stems from influence instead of direct power. Someone who can persuade and influence people can help resolve conflicts or disputes. 

When people agree on an outcome and a process for achieving it, more work gets done. 

Here’s an example.

A project is at a standstill because three people have three different ideas for how to approach the problem. 

One person's ability to persuade the other two of why their solution is the most likely to be viable and cost-effective, and therefore the first thing they should try, allows the group to commit and move forward.

3. Collaboration

Teams work best together when individual members know how to work effectively with each other.

People can come together to solve challenging problems instead of tackling them alone. Collaboration is also an effective way for employees to learn and develop new skills faster.

Even for employees who usually work alone, collaboration is important. No one person can have all of the information, expertise, and resources to address any complex problem. At one point, they will need to share ideas, questions, and issues with someone else and work together to figure out solutions.

For example, a software engineer and a project manager may need to collaborate to create workflows that make sense for each of them.

4. Adaptability

Adaptability helps employees and leaders thrive when dealing with change. Things are unlikely to remain the same at all times, in your company or the world around you.

With adaptable teams and individuals, you’ll be able to perform well and maintain a healthy work ethic even during times of change. 

COVID-19 is a great example of rapid and unexpected change. People who thrived during the pandemic were 16% more likely to see themselves as adaptable throughout change.

5. Time management

Almost everyone works under the constraint of limited time. Employees who can manage their time often get more done and have less stress.

Time management is also crucial when dealing with client work. For example, if a tight deadline is coming up, it’s important to understand dependencies and know what to prioritize across the team in order to get everything done on time.

This helps the company meet commitments, delight customers, and increase productivity.

6. Communication

Communication skills matter even for employees who don’t communicate with customers or clients.

Everyone in the workplace needs to communicate with one another. For example, managers need to make their expectations clear to the people who report to them. They also need to be able to explain team progress and dependencies and make their need for resources clear to leadership. 

Employees need to effectively express their questions or doubts in a way that their peers or manager can help them. Poor communication can come across as a sign of unclear or lazy thinking. Effective communication generally requires some time and effort.

Improving communication skills for employees can make it easier to get productive work done. It can also reduce issues caused by communication mishaps. Additionally, it makes it easier to give and receive feedback.

7. Critical thinking

Critical thinking encourages curiosity. It also strengthens your problem-solving skills.

People with critical thinking skills can think for themselves and look beyond what they see.

For example, a leader will need to use critical thinking when settling a dispute between two employees.

8. Organizational skills

Someone who is well-organized will be more effective.

It also makes it easier for someone else to pick up their work if they are sick, the workload changes, or they decide to leave the organization.

For example, an accounts payable clerk should find effective ways to organize which invoices they need to input and which are already settled.

9. Active listening

This skill falls under communication, but it is so important that we’re pulling it out as its own exceptional skill. In addition to stellar listening skills, an acute active listener can pick up on the nuances of the conversation and be an active participant –– even when they are not speaking.

This includes:

  • Making eye contact

  • Being present in the conversation rather than splitting your attention

  • Speaking up only to better understand the other person rather than offer advice or voice your opinions

  • Being aware of non-verbal cues and using them yourself

Exhibiting strong active listening skills helps the person on the other side of the conversation feel valued and heard. Both of these states are essential for a high-functioning team.

Of course, there are many other soft skills that are valuable, depending on how you define them. For example, skills around empathy and emotional intelligence are clearly related to communication, persuasion, and collaboration. Curiosity, courage, and imagination work with critical thinking and creativity to help teams be more innovative. 


How to spot soft skills in employees and candidates

According to the Linkedin Global Talents Trend, 57% of recruiters struggle to assess soft skills accurately.

Before you can spot soft skills, you need to establish what you’re looking for. Start by creating a list of soft skills needed for the position. The examples we covered should help.

As mentioned before, soft skills are more difficult to evaluate than hard skills.

When you know what you’re looking for, you can make sure you prepare to spot these specific skills. 

Here are some tips to make it easier for hiring managers to spot soft skills, both for your employees and for new candidates.

How to evaluate a candidate’s soft skills

Let’s look at four strategies you can use to evaluate the soft skills in a candidate you’re interviewing:

1. Ask behavioral questions

According to the Linkedin Global Talents Trend, 75% of talent professionals use behavioral questions to assess soft skills. 

Here are some examples of behavioral questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you experienced a lot of pressure at work. What was causing this pressure, and how did you overcome it?

  • Give me an example of a time you failed. How did you deal with failure?

  • Tell me about a time when you had to collaborate with someone who had a very different personality from you.

2. Ask situational questions

According to the Linkedin Global Talents Trend, 58% of talent professionals also use situational questions.

Here are some examples:

  • What would you do if you needed to convince someone to do things a specific way?
  • How would you explain a challenge you’re experiencing to a client?
  • How would you organize your time to ensure you met a difficult deadline?

3. Ask problem-solving questions

As with the other type of questions, you can do this with candidates or existing employees.

Ask someone to come up with a solution to a problem using hard skills first. 

Next, add a constraint to the problem to see how well they adapt to change.

Here’s an example: 

Tell whoever you are evaluating that they have to come up with a plan to deliver a project in 60 days. 

When they are done, add more constraints. You could tell them they now only have 45 days. How would they handle this differently? 

Pay attention to the way they approach the problem and encourage them to talk through assumptions and tradeoffs and how they would bring in other perspectives.

4. Use online tools to prescreen candidates before an interview

There are tools available to assess soft skills in a systematic way. This creates less bias than subjective ways to assess these skills. 

The tests can provide you with rich insights that can tell you more about someone’s strengths and weaknesses.


How to spot soft skills in your employees

Along with evaluating the soft skills of job candidates, you can also take steps to spot them in your current employees. Let’s take a look at three ways to do this:

1. Observe them on the job

One of the best ways to spot soft skills in your employees is to observe them on a regular basis.

Notice how they:

  • Communicate with others

  • Solve problems for their work

  • Manage their time

  • Organize their work

  • Adapt to changing conditions in their work

Many skills will speak for themselves. For instance, you’ll notice if someone manages their time effectively. Don't jump to conclusions, however. Pay attention to what they are doing, but also ask them about why they might be doing something that seems inefficient. Efficiency is less important in roles that benefit from creativity and developing others.

Other soft skills may be even more subtle. For example, a knack for leadership may only show up when the opportunity presents itself.

2. Ask for feedback from people who work with them

If you can’t observe someone enough to spot soft skills, get feedback from those who spend time with them.

This can include their colleagues, but also their customers or clients.

Even if you can observe them, it’s a good idea to get someone else’s perspective. They may have a different point of view that can give you more insight.

3. Perform regular one-on-ones

You can evaluate how an employee evolves over time by having regular one-on-ones with them.

During a one-on-one, you can see their more human side. You can learn more about what soft skills drive them.

You can also coach them and learn about their development goals.


How to help employees with soft skill development

Here is how you can encourage soft skill development at work:

1. Provide soft skills training and other educational opportunities

In a 2018 McKinsey survey, 66% of respondents believed that retraining was important to resolve potential skills mismatch. 27% believed retraining is the main way to achieve this.

Only 35% of U.S. respondents didn’t believe retraining was important at all.

Invest in soft skills training courses to help employees develop existing skills and new soft skills along the way.

2. Encourage mentorship

Formal soft skills training isn’t the only way you can encourage soft skill development.

If you can create a culture of mentorship, leaders will have the necessary environment and tools to empower others.

This mentoring can lead to the transfer of soft skills.

3. Offer opportunities for employees to reflect and practice

Offer a safe environment for your employees to practice and fail with soft skills. 

This means avoiding punishment and providing constructive feedback instead.

Employees who don’t feel safe trying new things won’t find it encouraging to develop themselves.

4. Give opportunities for leadership

Give a chance for employees to step up as leaders outside of formal positions. Those who take on leadership roles will need to adapt and develop their soft skills.

This also gives you the opportunity to find potential leaders to invest in.

5. Encourage teamwork

Find more ways to get your employees to collaborate. The more they do it, the more they will improve.

This can generate innovative ideas and solutions that wouldn’t have happened if each person worked on their own.

6. Provide personalized coaching

The annual costs of skill gaps are about $135 million.

Traditional training works well in some cases. But according to BetterUp data, traditional instructor-facilitated training only generates less than 2x ROI for companies, and sometimes far less.

These techniques also help employees retain only as little as 25% of what they learned after a week.

On the other hand, BetterUp coaching generates a 3.5x–5x ROI.

This is because coaching helps leaders unlock their own potential. This helps drive greater engagement and performance.

Coaching also helps employees manage their own stress. This can lead to better health outcomes for the company.


Prioritize soft skills in your organization

People with valuable soft skills can provide a competitive advantage in your industry.

Diversity in soft skills can lead to more innovation and healthier work cultures.

Help your employees develop their own inner potential and improve their soft skills by coaching with BetterUp.

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Published October 27, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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