There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the difficulties employers are having qualified candidates for jobs, even among candidates with great education and credentials. The missing factor? The so-called “soft skills.” As an employer told me recently: “We hire based on what you can do, and fire on who you are.”
At a first glance that seems harsh, but let’s unpack this statement a bit more. You get hired based on your performance at an interview – a one-time (or two- or three-time) encounter that you’ve prepared for extensively. Everyone is on their best behavior. Once you get settled into the tasks of a job, the ways that you interact with others – what you’re like on a day-to-day basis – become incredibly important. Employers can train an employee on your skills, but they can’t train attitude.
So how do you know what qualities to emphasize? The following list of skills showed up most often in my informal survey of articles about the importance of soft skills:
How well do you work with others? Teamwork means more than just sharing a job description or dividing up tasks. Members of a high-functioning team can collaborate, resolve internal conflicts, and negotiate responsibilities. What’s your role in a team? Are you the informal leader who keeps everyone on task? The one who makes sure everyone has a voice in the process? The Steady Eddie who holds the team together? Be prepared to give examples in an interview.
In a competitive job market, you never get to say, “That isn’t my job.” How do you react when someone asks you to do work that’s outside your area of responsibility? How do you prioritize equally urgent tasks? Can you hit your deadlines without a supervisor telling you what needs to get done? Are you dependable? Having a can-do attitude and prioritizing appropriately shows that you understand the importance of your role in the company – and others will, too.
Communication is more than just the ability to talk to other people. When you talk, do others understand your message and priorities? Are you a good listener? Are you paying attention to your body language and non-verbal communication? Can you convey information in writing? Are you good at explaining things to others? The communication skills that are called for will vary by environment; having solid examples ready for an interview shows your self-knowledge and demonstrates your understanding of the job for which you are interviewing.
Nobody wants to work with someone who’s always negative, cranky, or brings their personal problems to the workplace. Positivity is contagious – stay optimistic and upbeat and put your best foot forward at the start of each day. Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of deadline pressure, external pressures, or personality conflicts shows confidence and reinforces other soft skills, including teamwork, integrity, resilience, communication skills, and more.
The ability to consider problems in a new light is valuable in any line of work – unexpected issues always come up, and being able to think on your feet and solve a problem quickly can make a huge difference in a company’s bottom line. Are you a problem solver? Can you try alternate approaches until something is done right? Can you look past “the way it’s always been done” and consider new solutions? When a new project or process is rolled out, you’ll be the person that leads the way for the rest of the team.
Accepting feedback/having accountability
The way in which you accept feedback and take responsibility for your actions says a lot about the quality of your character. This is an important thing to remember in interviews! If you were faced with a difficult situation, such as being terminated, what you learned from it and how you handled yourself afterward can give a potential employer confidence that you can learn from your mistakes and become a better employee.
Wikipedia defines soft skills as “personal attributes that enhance an individual’s interactions, job performance and career prospects.” Soft skills can be a differentiator between equally-qualified candidates, and can determine who stays with a company during tough economic times. Technical skills are important to launch a career, but soft skills are essential to maintaining one.