Hard truths about soft skills

Don’t underestimate how much they matter in your career success


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As a former school teacher, I occasionally run into former students, who are now all adults. If time allows, the conversation naturally turns to memories of when we spent time together in a teacher-student relationship many years earlier. Over the years, I’ve noticed an unmistakable pattern — what the former students remember and recall has nothing to do with lessons taught, curriculum goals or academic achievement, but rather what I was like and how I treated them as their teacher.

In short, their remembrances are rooted in soft skills I demonstrated (or didn’t), not so much in the pedagogical skills I was working hard to impart.

Soft skills, a somewhat unfortunate term because it implies to many weaknesses, is a reference to a vitally important set of personality and emotional attributes that we display daily to those around us. It points to the character traits, style and habits we exhibit when communicating and interacting with others. Our social reputations are largely comprised of what people think of our manner and individual qualities that are determined by our behaviors and emotional makeups.

Sure co-workers, when reflecting on each of us, will think of the proficiency or lack of competence we display when doing our jobs, but they will just as much, if not more likely, consider the type of people we are. Are we kind, considerate, communicative and in control of our feelings or aren’t we? Don’t underestimate how much that matters in the success of our careers.

Management knows that a nice guy who doesn’t have much talent to contribute doesn’t bring any more productive value than a highly efficient guy who can’t get along with people. Finding that right balance of hard and soft skills is a crucial challenge for those tasked with employee hiring, appraisal, and retention decisions.

Expect that when interviewing for positions or when it’s your time for a performance review to be conducted your personality characteristics will be factored in along with your technical qualifications.

The set of skills we call “soft” covers a lot of territory, everything from punctuality to empathy. However, there are some critical personality qualities that employers want and need in their employees in order to build truly high functioning workforces.

Having employees with these soft skills can bring a competitive advantage given how many staffs across multiple industries are riddled with workers and managers who are too engaged in dramas, politics and divisiveness at the expense of cooperative action.

Among the many soft skills we each should be trying to strengthen here are three that I think may universally advance our careers:

 • Adaptability: Given the rapidity with which change is occurring in almost all areas, having a flexible nature implies a willingness to learn and grow to meet demands in new ways when necessary. We will encounter ever more new co-workers as employment becomes more mobile and short-term, so knowing how to accommodate a wider range of people helps our ability to work with them.

 • Collaboration: Knowing how to be a team player when times call for such a skill has only grown in importance in recent years. It’s not unusual to hear employers say that they are willing train new hires in the specifics of how to function within a company or workplace culture just as long as they get people who are eager to contribute and know how to get along.

 • Conflict resolution: Clashes and strife of one sort or another are unavoidable, but these instances need not disrupt productivity if co-workers are enlightened enough to understand the value of systematically working out differences. Ever notice how invigorated a relationship with someone can be when you have both struggled with one another and have then mutually resolved your disagreements?

The good news is that we do not have to be born with soft skills in order to demonstrate them. They are largely learned behaviors. And since learning never stops, there is still time for all of us to enhance our basic interpersonal expertise. 

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.

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