Hard Truths About Soft Skills

Soft skills such as communication ability, aptitude for interpersonal relations, and emotional intelligence often are downplayed. With skills such as HTML coding increasingly valued, those who excel in non-technical ways often find themselves at a disadvantage when looking for a job. But the results of a recent CareerBuilder survey lead me to wonder if the luck of those with non-technical strengths soon may change.

The nationwide study, conducted online by Harris Interactive, included 2,076 hiring managers and Human Resource professionals across industries. Employers were asked: If you had two equally qualified candidates, which factors would make you more likely to consider one candidate over another? Their responses included:

  • The candidate with the better sense of humor: 27 percent
  • The candidate who is involved in his or her community: 26 percent
  • The candidate who is better dressed: 22 percent
  • The candidate I have more in common with: 21 percent
  • The candidate who is more physically fit: 13 percent
  • The candidate who is more on top of current affairs and pop culture: 8 percent
  • The candidate who is more involved in social media: 7 percent
  • The candidate who is knowledgeable about sports: 4 percent

There is no doubt of the importance of the technical skills that enable an employee to get the substance of a job done—whether that’s Website management, leading an engineering project, serving as the head of a legal team, or directing a research and development team. But an all-too-common observation about those with strong technical skills is that they lack interpersonal and communication skills.

The ideal is for every work group to consist of a combination of those with strong soft skills and those with stronger technical skills. That’s the ideal, but how often are managers able to pull off putting together this kind of well-balanced team?

A company with high-performing work groups may have gotten some help from its trainers and learning professionals. The role of trainers in developing strong work groups that strike a balance between those with technical skills and those with strong interpersonal abilities is in the training of managers.

Those leading departments or work groups are usually the ones who make the final selection during the hiring process, so the first step may be to train new managers to hire for a balanced team—to consider both technical and soft skills during recruitment. Next, managers can be taught how best to mix and match employees when assigning work projects. It helps if managers first have an understanding of personality types, so a tutorial in personality differences in which managers are given a personality assessment, such as Myers-Briggs, may be in order. They should be taught how the varying personalities interact with each other and how to read the personalities of their employees.

Last, it is essential that managers show as much respect for the strengths of those with strong soft skills as they do for those with strong technical skills. That means considering soft skills when deciding on promotions and merit-based salary increases.

If you want high-performing work teams that deliver winning products and services to customers, then your focus in recruitment and employee development should broaden to include both the hard, as well as soft, core of your workforce.

How do you ensure your managers understand the importance of both hard and soft skills, and are able to recruit and develop employees accordingly?