Time to rename soft skills as essential skills

by May 14, 2019

Rename soft skills as essential skills to find success in your company


If we rename soft skills as essential skills, will people finally give them the recognition they deserve?

If you have ever spent time prepping for an interview, or been through the process of hiring someone new, then you have probably heard the term ‘soft skills’. In any hiring process employers initially look for specific hard skills. These are quantifiable skills or qualifications that enable you to do a particular job well, such as coding skills, a law degree, or an engineering qualification. But soft skills are also factored in and are becoming increasingly important. As our workplaces change at an unprecedented rate, these intangible skills are now so critical that many believe it’s time to rename soft skills as essential skills, or even complex skills.

Soft skills have traditionally been seen as more feminine traits, but in a 21st century knowledge economy have they even become the new hard skills of our time?  A growing number of companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Ernst and Young don’t necessarily look for a college degree, which suggests they must be looking at other skills.



What are soft skills?

How can we define the illusive soft skill?  And how do you go about assessing them, or proving  to someone you possess them? The Collins English Dictionary defines the term “soft skills” as “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

Soft skills can cover any of the following:

  • social skills
  • communication
  • character traits
  • emotional intelligence
  • attitude
  • outlook
  • problem solving

Soft skills are usually transferable skills that can be used across different roles and spheres. Younger generations in particular are changing career paths more regularly. Therefore soft skills, that can be deployed in any role, have become necessary in the job market.

But as they are not technical skills that can be proven with a certificate or test, they can be hard to measure. This means employers often assign them less value and importance in the hiring process. As we start to rename soft skills as essential skills, we can see that this is a mistake

Our Returner Roll-Up Session can help you to learn how to identify your transferable skills today.

Why soft skills are important

Soft skills, in most spheres, can be equally important to success in most roles.  92% of talent professionals and hiring managers say that soft skills are just as important, or more important, than hard skills. Almost all professional roles involve some level of interaction with other people, be that with clients, vendors, bosses or colleagues. A candidate working in logistics who can successfully negotiate with suppliers, will naturally be more successful in their role than one who can’t. Equally a manager who can’t build a positive atmosphere and rapport among their team will be less effective motivating the team.

Assessing soft skills in a new candidate can determine if they will also fit in well with the company culture and integrate with their team mates. Employers need to understand the link between high performance, business success and good company culture. Research from Personnel Psychology suggests that top performers are up to 400 times more productive, which impacts team success.

Role of AI

The rise in AI and technology in the workplace, also means we will see an increase in the value placed on soft skills. Kai-Fu Lee, a leading pioneer in artificial intelligence, predicts that AI could replace up to 40% of jobs.  This is a disconcerting statistic. Lee highlights that it is any repetitive job, such as factory work and routine “white-collar” tasks which are at risk for replacement by AI. This covers a range of  fields, including accounting, HR, law and marketing. What AI cannot replicate is human emotion and response. Robots (as yet) are unable to bring unique, creative, and empathetic skills into the workplace or relationships. Soft skills will be the main weapon to avoid a robot takeover of our organisations.

Are soft skills misnamed?

If soft skills are so important, why are we calling them soft? The word soft naturally devalues their importance and the way we view them. 3Plus posed the question to our network. The majority of the career experts we spoke to preferred to call these qualities “people skills,” “complex skills,” or “essential skills.”

“There is nothing soft about engaging your team; it’s essential!” said Olivia Verhulst, Mentor at CONNECT-INSPIRE-ENABLE-SUPPORT.

“I never call them “soft skills” … I call them People Skills,” added Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach.

Mark S Babbit, Leadership and Career Mentor, Blogger, Speaker, Author, said on the subject: “The phrase is not at all representative of the impact these skill sets have on hiring specifically, and the workplace in general.”

Loaded language

And it is true; soft is a loaded term. If we have established soft and hard skills to be of equal importance, why is that not reflected in the language around them? And as generally empathetic communication and people skills are associated with women, using the term “soft skills” perpetuates gender bias and stereotyping.

Tracey McTague, Founder at Rideshare Safe, suggested: “The term “soft” is biased, implying that these skills are not as valued as “hard” skills like science and engineering.”

Perhaps then, it is time to change the stigma around soft skills and give them a name that reflects their importance.

rename soft skills as essential skills

Problem pitching soft skills

Traditional interviews can be ineffective at assessing soft skills. Questions like “Why should I hire you?” or “What are your biggest professional achievements?” are vague. They naturally lean towards listing hard skills rather than finding out about character and other more intangible traits.

Everyone in an interview is trying to impress. You might ask someone about their biggest flaws, but there is nothing in that question that enforces an honest answer. Candidates who are prepped, coached and well researched, can easily give away an unrealistic picture of who they are.

For candidates, Dorothy Dalton Career Coach suggests that: “Preparation is key. For every major soft skill, it’s important to have a story to illustrate how you dealt with or responded to a specific problem or situation. Focus specifically on those listed in the job advert or profile if it is for an interview.”  

So how can we change the way we interview to get a more thorough and realistic picture?

If you struggle with confidence, we can help you with our Returner Roll-Up Session on Building Your Confidence.

How to assess soft skills

Well a good place to start is to define what we want to find out in the interview? Once we decide that, then it is easier to know what questions we need to ask. Mark Babbit offered an insightful list of objectives we should be aiming to discover about a candidate in an interview:

  • What style of leadership appeals most to this candidate?
  • In which type of culture and climate will this prospect thrive most?
  • How motivated are they by performance and results?
  • Are they relationship builders?
  • Will they organically and productively engage with colleagues, customers, and leadership?
  • Are they likely to feel a genuine sense of belonging within our community?

“Knowing the answers to these questions is far better than attempting to guess which of the so-called “soft skills” they’ve mastered (or haven’t), and wondering if they are the right “fit” (or not),” he said.

Behavioural Interview questions

So how do we find out these criteria in an interview? Most of our experts agreed that it was all about the type of interview questions asked. Behavioural and situational questions are a fool-proof way to assess skills, work method, and attitude in a way that is based on fact.

Robert Pearl Starks, Product Leader at CareerPrepped.com, says he thinks having multiple data points is the key to assessing soft skills. “I get candidates to define the skill first in their own terms. Additional layers of evidence can then be gathered in a hiring process, such as portfolio evidence, that can further substantiate these claims. This assessment process is a data collection process. More data = less risk in the decision”.

“Directly asking candidates their opinions about how to best handle specific work situations, or how to solve specific operational problems, can provide very helpful insight into how the candidate operates,” said Susan P Joyce, MBA.

Questions like this allow employers to see how candidates would react in real life, role-specific situations. It also lets them observe how the candidates think on their feet, and react to and answer questions right there in the interview.

Meg Guiseppi, Executive Resume Master explained how getting third-party feedback is also helpful when assessing her clients’ soft skills when writing their resumes and profiles. “I’ll have them ask colleagues, co-workers, managers, etc. questions like “What was my most important contribution to the company?” and “What things did you know you could always rely on me to deliver?”

Questions to assess soft skills

Let’s look at some of the types of questions employers should be asking to get to the bottom of a candidate’s soft skills. These types of questions usually have no right or wrong answer, but they can give meaningful insights into the candidate and their soft skills. Although there is no magic formula, there are two key things to look for in a candidate:

  1. Self-awareness: you want a candidate who can make the connection between his or her actions and professional outcomes.
  2. Instincts: you want someone who would intuitively take the empathetic, team-oriented, and optimistic approach.

Here you can find an extensive list of questions to extract the soft skills out of your candidates.

9 areas to assess soft skills

Here are the main soft skills with some suggested questions to assess them:

1.  Communication skills:

  • Describe your communication style.
  • Your colleague is publicly belittling your work achievements. How do you handle that?
  •  Do you prefer written or verbal communication?

 2. Leadership style:

  • You know your manager is 100% wrong about something. What do you do?
  • How do you go about delegating responsibilities to a team?
  • What do you expect from a manager?

3.  Problem-solving:

  • Give an example of a time you’ve successfully solved a problem.
  • Describe a situation or time when you’ve had to be creative or unconventional in solving a problem.
  • What makes you a good problem solver?

4. Interpersonal skills:

  • How do you handle conflict?
  • What are the key ingredients to building good relationships with others?
  • Describe how you would communicate difficult or unpopular information to someone?

5. Negotiating skills:

  • How would you handle a situation where your boss asked you to pursue a course of action which you didn’t agree with?
  • Describe a difficult negotiating situation you’ve been in. What was the outcome?
  • How would change an institutional “this is how we always do it” attitude if you felt there was a better approach?

Improve your negotiation skills with this article that has 9 tips to negotiate a job offer like a pro.

6.  Decision-making:

  •   What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make at work? How did you decide?
  •   What do you do if you realize you’ve made a bad or wrong decision?
  •   How do you make your major decisions?

7. Confidence:

  •   Your project fails miserably. How do you deal with it?
  •  Have you ever done something at work through believing in yourself, although your co-workers or bosses told you not to do it?
  •   How do you prevent yourself from becoming over-confident? Is there such a thing?

8. Cultural fit:

  • Describe the type of work environment in which you are most productive?
  • How do you relate to team members who are different to you?
  • When working in a team, what role do you play?

9. Analytical skills:

  • Describe a time when you had to solve a problem, but didn’t have all the necessary information about it in hand. What did you do?
  • How do you weigh the pros and cons before making a decision?
  • How do you approach a problem you’ve never encountered before?

Can soft skills be learned?

Finally, the golden question: Are you born with soft skills or can they be taught? Scientific studies have shown that coaching can actually have a strong impact on career success, and soft skills can be learned and honed. They were seen to have a medium to high impact on performance. Coaching was also seen to enhance coping skills, emotional well-being and motivation. All isn’t lost for those people who don’t have the natural gift of communication, interpersonal and other soft skills, nor for those employers looking to boost soft skills in their employees.

The other element is that very often people are criticised for having weak interpersonal or soft skills. Dorothy Dalton says if this happens it’s important to get specific feedback:

“It’s very common to give vague and generic feedback in this area, especially to women. So be persistent and drill down to what exactly the communicator meant. It’s also important to recognise that we tend to place a higher significance on alpha values and behaviours (male coded), such as confidence and decisiveness and we under-value collaboration, listening skills and thoughtfulness. It’s important to make sure checks and balances are built into your recruitment systems and hiring processes to flag up any bias.”    

What we can take away though, is that we should continue to focus on developing soft skills. And that overlooking them in any aspect of talent management, from hiring to career advancement, will be a big mistake.

Soft skills can be honed and learned with the help of a Career Coach. Take a look at our selection of experienced coaches and find the best one for you HERE.

Hanna Greeman Contributor
Hanna is a languages and logistics specialist. She is currently living in Barcelona working as a Creative Copywriter.
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