Don’t Soft-Pedal Soft Skills

The impact of COVID-19 on employees has highlighted the need for prioritizing soft skills

By Patricia Guadalupe

Barrie Lynn Tapia is a lawyer in Washington, DC, with her own practice specializing in child neglect cases and immigration law. In addition to the requisite bachelor’s and law degrees, she has a master’s in social work and is fluent in Spanish. Those impressive credentials have served her well, but it is also her people skills—otherwise known as “soft skills”—that have helped her succeed in a town crawling with lawyers.

For several years, Tapia worked at organizations and agencies where “hard skills”—technical skills—were in high demand while people skills were put on the back burner or, worse, totally dismissed. Some of those workplaces, for example, did not value communication skills, which meant that cases weren’t always given the attention they needed right away.

Says Tapia, “It’s almost like it was more important to fill out paperwork than it was to follow up with some of the cases.”

What are soft skills?

While employers certainly value a person with strong technical skills—someone who can get proficient on new software with little training, excel at number crunching, or understand a company’s work inside and out—interpersonal skills, or soft skills, are also highly valued. An employee who can’t get along with others, for example, often doesn’t last long in an office setting no matter how small or large the company. Other examples of soft skills:

1) A strong work ethic and dedication to the job. This includes dependability: which can be performing well under pressure or something as simple as showing up to work on time.

2) Being an effective communicator. For managers, this means that employees have clear directions for the task at hand and are given strong motivation.

3) Having a spirit of teamwork and being calm under pressure. What does an employee do when encountering a difficult person or situation? How an employee handles it demonstrates how well he or she is able to use soft skills, particularly in de-escalating potentially tense interactions.

How do soft skills differ from hard skills?

In Tapia’s case, a hard skill is her ability to speak Spanish with clients and translate documents for them so they are represented in a fair and just way. One of her soft skills is her ability to empathize with the minors she represents, who have oftentimes been shortchanged by society and have a hard time trusting anyone with authority.

“Many of the children I represent are victims of neglect—not only from their families but from incredibly slow bureaucracy—and they feel that no one listens to them,” she says. “This is why I approach each one not as a case in the docket but by listening, by having empathy and compassion, and by working hard for them, to show them that I really do care.”

Soft skills are growing more important at a time when many hard skills have been taken over by technology, automation, and outsourcing. Machines, needless to say, don’t have people skills such as the ability to empathize and work well with others.

Recent studies show that soft skills are indeed significant. According to a study of 274 companies conducted by Wonderlic, 93 percent of respondents said soft skills are either “essential” or “very important.” In another study, the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranked soft skills, such as “ability to work in a team” and “written communications skills,” higher than technical skills. In yet another study, LinkedIn found that more than half of the recruiters surveyed ranked soft skills higher than hard skills.

Additionally, the National Soft Skills Association reports that the years of emphasis for years on technical or hard skills instead of soft skills has come at a great cost in lost revenue.

Showcase your people skills

“I actually put soft skills on my résumé, and I think everyone should,” says Olivia Martínez, a constituent services representative in the Philadelphia office of Pennsylvania state senator Christine Tartaglione. Martínez says she sees at least four constituents a day, helping them with a variety of issues, from applications for assistance to working through government red tape. “Soft skills are essential in my line of work, and you may not see that if you don’t show people [on a résumé]. Sometimes we don’t have all the answers, but we listen and work hard to help as much as we can and show that we care, and hope we make whatever they are going through a little bit easier. A machine can’t do that.”

Martínez adds that, like hard skills, soft skills come from learning over time and watching how others do it. “Both of my parents have jobs that involve working closely with people, and I saw how working well with people resulted in better outcomes. That’s what I saw growing up, and they gave me empathy and compassion and a sense of responsibility,” Martínez says. Other soft skills, such as good communication skills, come from practice, she says.

Soft skills and diverse backgrounds

While soft skills are fundamental to job performance, they can at times be highly subjective, says Noreen Sugrue, a sociologist and research director at the Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago-based public policy think tank. And she notes that the subjective aspect of soft skills can work against women, especially women of color. For minority women in the workplace, Sugrue says, skills such as being “personable” and “professional” can be perceived in a variety of ways. Women—minority women in particular—who are assertive and have strong personalities are often viewed negatively compared with men who have those same soft skills.

“We must first identify the kinds of soft skills that are important in the workplace, such as work ethic, punctuality, and knowing how to ‘read’ a room and how to establish a culture and environment where people can collaborate. Those are good soft skills,” says Sugrue. “But then there are those, such as being ‘personable’ or ‘nice’ or looking ‘professional,’ that one has to be careful not to use against women, especially minority women. What are the soft skills we would never measure a white man’s performance against? Think about that.”

You want to avoid being subjective with metrics that are hard to measure, Sugrue says. “I think we have to ask, what are the skills that get the work done and are necessary for collaborative, functioning, and productive work?”

One way to avoid being overly subjective is to ensure that there is a diverse team of people in decision-making positions. In contrast to a team comprising people with the same mind-set, a diverse team looks at a variety of skill sets. “A minority woman, for instance, asks a different set of questions than a white woman or man does,” Sugrue says. “Having that variety [among those making hiring decisions] means a better workplace.”

Sugrue offers a few tips on equitable hiring for soft skills. “Look for ways of interviewing that take more effort upfront. You create multiple interview situations with diverse teams that can gauge and get a sense of what to look for and what to ask. Get creative in how you think about evaluating potential candidates based on the metrics devised by a diverse group of decision makers.”

And, she emphasizes, soft skills are not interchangeable. “A soft skill that works for an office manager may not be the same soft skill that works for a schoolteacher or education administrator or someone running a large department. The hard skills for one position are different from those for another, yet we think that soft skills are supposed to transcend jobs. Thinking that is a mistake. Tailor soft skills to the specific job using a diverse set of metrics.”

While having a good toolbox of hard skills is certainly necessary in the workplace and is usually the first thing recruiters and employers look for, soft skills in an increasingly competitive job market can have an impact not just on the employee but also on the company itself.

“Employers who look seriously at soft skills when hiring—and continue to nurture those—have a workforce where employees feel productive, valued, and trusted, and are enthusiastic about their work,” Sugrue says. “That is a big positive for the employer.” DW

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist who covers Washington, DC, for NBC Latino, Latino magazine, and NPR’s Latino USA.

The Soft Skills Checklist

1) Emotional intelligence: The ability to interpret and understand emotions—one’s own as well as others’—is critical. Emotional intelligence is also the ability to handle pressure while helping others, and noticing how behavior affects the work. Excellent listening skills are vital to this strength.

2) Communication: Good communication means being able to work collaboratively, in addition to being open to ideas and the possibility of doing things in a different way. Communication involves being clear with others about goals, expectations, and questions.

3) Teamwork: This skill entails joining with others to reach for collective goals while respecting each person’s responsibilities and point of view.

4) Flexibility: The ability to adapt to new environments and priorities is a greatly valued trait in the workplace. Industry experts say that the best way to be flexible is to expect the unexpected while responding to changing situations.

5) Critical thinking: This is the ability to look closely at an issue, evaluating it by breaking it down and looking at every possible angle. Critical thinking involves decision-making based on reasoning rather than hunches.

6) Leadership: Good leaders inspire, encourage, and care about those they work with. Leadership is not a skill for managers and CEOs only—it is key to taking ownership of even the smallest project.

7) Time management: Proficiency at time management means being able to prioritize tasks, in addition to showing up consistently for the work. A strategy for the wise use of time is imperative for getting things done.

8) Work ethic: Diligence, dedication, and effort are a few components of a solid work ethic—the recognition that hard work is itself rewarding.

9) Interpersonal skills: Empathy, a sense of humor, and genuine caring go a long way in nurturing a positive, productive work environment.

10) Integrity: An honest and ethical approach to work and relationships should be at the foundation of the workplace.

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