The increasing importance of soft skills

When we’re young, our parents and teachers ask us what we want to be when we grow up. Aside from the unreasonableness of expecting a child to know what career they’ll fulfill in 15-20 years, there is another, less talked about, issue at play. Once the child decides, under unwarranted pressure, what her future entails, she’s guided towards acquiring the necessary skills for success in her prematurely chosen vocation.

These (hard) skills she acquires – programming, analytics, design skills, sales – become the absolute focus of her studies. The wannabe architect builds a skill set of maths and design. The budding computer scientist learns logic and code. Vital skills, yes. We all need the hard skills that relate to our chosen field. But are they all we need to be successful in our career?

This learning trajectory leaves out half of the picture. The life (or soft) skills that we’re seldom taught in school.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are rooted in how we behave, how we treat other people, how we communicate and many other difficult to measure behaviours.

Here are the most in-demand soft skills in 2020 according to LinkedIn:

  1. Creativity
  2. Persuasion
  3. Collaboration
  4. Adaptability
  5. Emotional Intelligence

It’s easy to see why these are essential career skills.

In 1985 you wouldn’t have been coding a rails application but you would be using creativity, persuasion and collaboration to further your career.

Hard skills change rapidly. But soft skills remain mostly the same.

In simpler terms: hard skills get you the job, soft skills help you thrive in it.

But there’s just one problem. Soft skills are very difficult to measure. Difficult to learn. And difficult to improve.

Difficult to measure, so rarely practiced

A World Bank development impact report shows that several surveys of U.S. employers identify a lack of soft skills as the area where young job-seekers have the largest deficiency. Daniel Goleman PhD, an expert on Emotional Intelligence, says the difference between a successful leader and an unsuccessful one is almost entirely due to their proficiency in these skills.

So you can possess all of the technical ability in the world, but if you’re not able to collaborate with others, it’s unlikely you’ll reach the top of your game.

Unlike hard skills, these soft skills are very hard to measure. A standard measurement doesn’t exist.

You can take an EQ (emotional quotient) test to measure your ability to recognise , evaluate and regulate your own emotions and the emotions of those around you and groups of people. Like an IQ test for soft skills.

I took one. And scored only of 40 out 200. Which isn’t surprising considering that I’m on the autism spectrum. And that makes it difficult for me to understand other people’s emotions. But what I lack in emotional intelligence I make up for in creativity and persuasion. So the EQ test is far from an exact science and isn’t something I’d recommend measuring yourself on.

Thankfully for me, emotional intelligence is a learned skill. And through mimicking others (which is how I learn social skills) I am able to get better at dealing with people. If I can improve my EQ, then you certainly can!

Outside of measuring your soft skills on some unscientific test, you should monitor how other people react to your dealings with them. Are they cold with you after a meeting? If so, you need to analyse what happened and work on improving any issues in the future.

We know that soft skills are damn hard to measure, but are we able to actively improve them?

How to improve soft skills

There are no step-by-step guides to being a better listener. There is no learnable linear path towards being a better person. These are skills that must be practiced in the real world.

Soft skills require deep participation with others. This makes learning them hard. You put code into a computer and it generally does what you want it to. You say hello, how are you to a person and you could get a million different responses.

That being said, there are a few resources I have found useful for improving my soft skills.

1- Working with a coach or psychotherapist

If you’re going to take this seriously, I recommend getting a coach. A coach will give you an outside perspective that a close friend or partner can’t give you. They’ll be critical of the areas you need to improve and help you set the goals in achieving them.

2- In-person training

Because soft skills so often affect other people, you need to learn them in a social environment. This isn’t like the time you learned hard skills by slaving away on code or design principles under a lamp in your bedroom. You can only recognise the improvements in your soft skills when you’re in contact with other human beings. Therefore, in-person training events trump online learning any day.

One side note – The Emotional intelligence course by Daniel Goleman PhD is very good, but that’s just one part of the vast array of important soft skills.

Ultimately, you need to want to improve your soft skills if you’re to hope for any results. The lack of measurability makes it very hard for the analytical types to know whether they are making improvements. Often your measuring yard stick is feedback from real people.

Before I go, you should read The Courage To Be Disliked. It’s based on Alfred Adler’s theory of interpersonal relationships and is an excellent primer for improving your soft skills.

Joseph Pack

I’m an indie maker with a CMO day job. Being blessed (occasionally cursed) with Asperger’s and ADHD means I view the world a little differently. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about creativity, persuasion, emotional intelligence and other essential soft skills.