Soft skills are a critical ability to have and utilize in life and work. They make a huge difference to how people “experience” you and your ability to fulfill any task or role you have as at their core they are about human interaction. Before getting into the 10 Tips of How to Develop Soft Skills, it is important to develop your understanding of what soft skills are and why they are important.
What are soft skills and hard skills?
There are two categories of skills that are important to know:
Hard skills – these are specific knowledge and technical abilities required to accomplish certain tasks, which are quantifiable, and you can learn them through training, education or on the job.
Soft skills – these are defined simply as “personal attributes, characteristics and competencies that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people,” at work and in life. They complement hard skills and can also be referred to as people skills or interpersonal skills. “As this term implies, these are skills that are less specialised, less rooted in specific vocations, and more aligned with the general disposition and personality of a person.” https://www.wikijob.co.uk/content/interview-advice/competencies/soft-skills
When I explain soft skills to people I always say, this is the software, the glue that enables us to make connections with individual people, in groups or teams and in processes. Soft skills are not easy to measure or quantify, and they are equally hard to develop as they are usually learned behaviours over time and through socialisation.
Examples of Soft Skills
There are many examples of soft skills, and to navigate them, it is easier in a workplace setting to view them at three levels that interact with each other and should not be viewed or utilized in isolation.
- Personal level soft skills – these are skills that are focused on you the individual and allow you to lead and manage yourself in relation to others.
For example: self-management; time-management; adaptability, self-motivation, positive thinking, empathy, openness, self-awareness etc
- Team level soft skills – these are skills focused on how you interact and work with others in a team or in group settings, despite your level or role in that particular group.
For example: communication, teamwork, collaboration, coordination, facilitation, conflict management, flexibility, dependability, work ethic etc
- Organisational level soft skills – these skills are critical for those who lead organisations and are tasked with processes such as strategy and change.
For example: strategic thinking, decision-making, leadership, integrity, problem solving, emotional intelligence, analytical skills, decisiveness etc.
Why focus on Soft Skills?
We do not exist or work in isolation, it is therefore important that we possess skills that allow us to interact effectively with our environment, other people and the tasks we need to fulfill. Below are some great points for why soft skills.
“Business projects often require employees to work as a team, making employees’ abilities to have positive interactions with others just as valuable as the technical tasks they’re asked to accomplish. As a result, business leaders are seeking workers who possess team work, collaboration, communication, problem-solving skills, and other emotional and cognitive capabilities to work in multimember, multidisciplinary teams that are geographically and/or culturally dispersed.” https://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/soft-skills
Soft skills are transferrable from one role or organization to another, as they are personal attributes. Different roles and organisations will require and emphasize a different set of soft skills more than others. For example, in the image below these are the 2018 Most Valued Soft Skills for Chief Information Officers, those who work in Information Technology roles. SOURCE: https://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/soft-skills
Behaviour or Competency-Based Interviewing – presenting Soft Skills
Another reason job seekers, employees and employers are focusing on soft skills is the fact that behavioural and competency-based interviewing has become more the norm. This is a type of interviewing where you are expected to respond to behavioural questions in a way that demonstrates that you have the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience of what you are being interviewed for.
An example of a behaviour competency-based interview question: You will be required to work in a team and practice teamwork. What is your experience of team coordination and doing this collaboratively?
Your response using the Situation, Task, Action, Results (STAR) Method could be:
Situation: in my former job, I worked in a global team
Task: I was responsible for organizing a team retreat
Action: I consulted each team member on goals, timing, venue, dates. I worked with a small team to help me plan. We developed a draft agenda and shared with stakeholders for feedback. I requested for volunteer facilitators and we allocated each other sessions. We agreed on a way of working.
Results: We scheduled the retreat at a time and venue that worked for most team members. We developed an agenda that was owned by everyone. We practised collective leadership in facilitating the retreat and we were mutually accountable. We received very good reviews on the process and outcomes of the retreat.
10 Tips on How to Develop your Soft Skills
Even though soft skills are difficult to develop, it is not impossible to develop them. Below are 10 tips on how you can do it.
- Have a baseline – conduct an assessment using various methods. There are self-assessment tools online you can use. If you have received any feedback reports at work or in other spaces use these. Also ask people you work with, family and friends to give you 360 degree feedback – we all have blindspots🙂.
- Pick one (1) soft skill – doing this well requires work and focus, so I would advise you to work on one skill at a time. As a starting point, for the soft skill you want to develop, identify the behaviours associated with the soft skill because you will need to demonstrate these behaviours. Example of behaviours for communication skills is in the image below:
3. Use different learning methods to increase your knowledge, understanding and practice of the soft skill. A proposed list is below for you to create your Personal Learning Ecosystem:
- Read relevant materials – books, articles, blogs etc
- Watch videos
- Listen to podcasts
- Go for training – this can be online or in a face to face training program. There are many free online short courses on every soft skill you need to learn. Ask me 😊.
- Work with a Mentor or a Coach
- Practice peer learning – find a work peer or friend who best practices the skill.
- Join a group and learn with others – this is good for support and accountability.
- Learn through practice
- Access experts, this is anyone in your view who practices that soft skill well, do you can learn from them.
- Write about what you are learning and share – journal, blog etc
- A great example is this image of a Professional/Personal Learning Ecosystem from Jane Hart
- Set SMART goals and plan for action – develop an action plan informed by the soft skill’s associated behaviours and appropriate learning methods. Ensure your efforts are timebound so that you are able to measure changes and adjust as necessary.
- Apply the learning – an important part of this learning process is applying the insights and behaviours to your work and life. This way you can observe incremental progress and work on emerging new behaviours associated with the soft skill you need to work on. Be practical!
- Accountability Partner/s – consider having someone or a group of people to hold you accountable, cheer you on and support you, as behavior change is tough. Schedule regular check ins and reviews to keep you on track.
- Feedback – you will need to proactively request for feedback from the people you live with, work with friends and anyone who oversees your work. They are your “free” mirror for this personal change commitment.
- Journal tracking – keep a journal online or in a notebook to track your development and capture your progress and insights. This self-reflection is a powerful learning method.
- Career Portfolio – this is one way of capturing and packaging your soft skills practice as part of work experience and career progression over time. You can use the Soft Skills Behavioural Competencies STAR Method, given as an example above. Capturing these as you go along means you don’t forget your experience examples and you can take these STAR examples and use them anytime as needed in life and work.
- Practice, Practice and Practice – you need to practice often until you gain unconscious competence in the soft skill. This means you get to a point where you practice the soft skill without thinking about it.
Soft skills have been identified as a workplace trend and important skills to develop for you to be well positioned for the future of work. There are several reports and discussion papers that speak to this. Look out for my next blog on soft skills ~ a trend to embrace to be well positioned for the future of work.
Individuals: If you need support on how to utilise this career information for career planning, job search, career progression or CV/resume review as an individual, whether currently employed or not, get in touch using the e-mail address provided.
Organisations – If you need support in contextualising this labour market information to your organisation, feel free to contact me on the e-mail address provided.
Written by: Ennie Chipembere Chikwema, Career Coach and Learning Specialist
LinkedIn Profile: https://za.linkedin.com/in/ennie-chipembere-chikwema-81a30910a
Date published: 23 April 2019