Defining the Power of Soft Skills: The 12 Most Important Missing Basics

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

So many business leaders and managers at all levels fall for the myth that soft skills are a “nice to have” rather than a “must have”—simply a luxury they cannot afford to prioritize. That is a huge mistake.

Hard skills are easier to define and measure, yes. Hard skills are critical, and they deserve lots of attention, but don’t let anybody fool you: Soft skills are every bit as important. For the vast majority of your workforce, soft skills are the key to your success in the workplace and competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Soft skills are the source of a huge amount of power that is always right there hiding in plain sight—a tremendous reservoir of often untapped value—a secret weapon for any smart organization, team, leader, or individual performer.

Yes, the hard skills—the technical skills—are absolutely required in any job. That’s every bit as true at the low end of the skill spectrum as it is at the high end. Right? Even if you are a cashier in a convenience store, you simply must know how to operate the cash register and make change to do the job. That’s the bare minimum. After all, you can’t do the job if you can’t do the job. But that’s only half the story.

The many soft skills, which I put into those three old fashioned buckets—professionalism, critical thinking, and followership—are where even the most technically proficient employees in any field can go terribly wrong. Or incredibly right.

Think about it: Even if the cashier can operate the cash register and make correct change, there is a big difference between a cashier who is always a little bit early to work and doesn’t take long breaks and one who is chronically late or disappears for long stretches of time. There is a big difference between the cashier who is bright eyed and the one who is bleary eyed; the one who is smiling and the one who is rolling his eyes; the one who can help a customer when something is wrong with his order and the one who is clueless; the one who is staring at her device and talking with her peers behind the counter and the one who pays attention to the customer; the one who mumbles and the one who says enthusiastically, “Would you like a beverage today sir?”

These differences may not be thrilling and sexy, but they matter. So much! They matter to your customers, to your vendors, to that employee’s coworkers, to you and every other manager, and these differences have a huge impact on the bottom line. Yes, your employees (of all ages) must have the hard skills to do the job, but the soft skills make all the difference—whether at the lowest end of the technical skill spectrum or the highest.

I focus on three old-fashioned categories of soft skills—professionalism, critical thinking, and followership—because they seem like the best way to capture the thousands of details of behavior that managers bring up in our surveys, interviews, focus groups, and seminars. In trying to make them easier to discuss and teach, I’ve boiled them down to just 12 missing basics:

Professionalism: The Missing Basics

  • Self-evaluation: Regularly assessing one’s own thoughts, words, and actions against clear meaningful standards; and one’s own performance against specific goals, timelines, guidelines and parameters.
  • Personal responsibility: Staying focused on what one can control directly—principally one’s self—and controlling one’s responses in the face of factors outside one’s own control.
  • Positive attitude: Maintaining and conveying a positive, generous, enthusiastic demeanor in one’s expressions, gestures, words, and tone.
  • Good work habits: Wellness, self-presentation, timeliness, organization, productivity, quality, follow-through, and initiative.
  • People skills: Attentive listening, observing, and reading; perceiving and empathizing; effective use of words, tone, expressions, and gestures—verbal, written, and otherwise; one-on-one and in groups; in-person and remotely.

Critical Thinking: The Missing Basics

  • Proactive learning: Keeping an open mind, suspending judgment, questioning assumptions, and seeking out information, technique, and perspective; and studying, practicing, and contemplating in order to build one’s stored knowledge base, skill set, and wisdom.
  • Problem solving: Mastering established best-practices—proven repeatable solutions for dealing with regular recurring decisions—so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. Using repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing decisions that are new but similar.
  • Decision-making: Identifying and considering multiple options, assessing the pros and cons of each, and choosing the course of action closest to the desired outcome.

Followership: The Missing Basics

  • Respect for context: Reading and adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs, and leadership in an unfamiliar situation.
  • Citizenship: Accepting, embracing, and observing, not just the rights and rewards, but the duties of membership/belonging/participation in a defined group with its own structure, rules, customs, and leadership.
  • Service: Approaching relationships in terms of what you have to offer—respect, commitment, hard work, creativity, sacrifice—rather than what you need or want.
  • Teamwork: Playing whatever role is needed to support the larger mission; coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating with others in pursuit of a shared goal; supporting and celebrating the success of others.

As you read and re-read the descriptions of the missing basics, you should be asking yourself: What are the highest priority behaviors for your organization, for your team, for different roles on your team, and/or for the various individuals on your team? Which behaviors are crucial to success? Which ones offer the greatest potential to increase competitive differentiation?

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at

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