Career & Education

4 soft skills you need to win at work by 2020

Dr Hume

Sunday, March 17, 2019

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In early 2019, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, told the World Economic Forum about her soft skills, the foundation of her personal and political brand: “I am very proudly an empathetic and compassionately driven politician...We need to address the societal well-being of our nation, not just the economic well-being and gauge the long-term impact of policy on the quality of people's lives,” she said.

Rather than make her appear a weak leader, as some of her critics argue, Ardern's articulation of a politics of kindness, empathy and well-being has endeared her to the New Zealand public and won her massive support around the world.

But soft skills are more than a political tool; they are essential to success in today's workplace. In fact, soft skills are making a comeback. Recent reports from the World Economic Forum, Harvard Business School and the Financial Times assert that demand for soft skills is set to rise by up to 36 per cent by 2020. This means that soft skills are fast becoming top priority for many businesses.

Soft skills are essentially “people skills” — a combination of your social skills, communication skills and character traits. Unlike hard skills which are tangible, technical and job-specific and which you can develop through education, certification, on-the-job training and other types of programmes (for example, coding, technical drawing and accounting), soft skills are less specialised, less rooted in specific vocations and more aligned to your personality and general disposition. They include empathy, work ethic, conflict-resolution, reliability, problem-solving and listening skills, emotional intelligence, and, believe it or not, common sense.

Employers seek people with soft skills because almost every job requires employees to interact with each other in some way to get tasks done and to establish a good and productive working environment. Soft skills are also deemed to be transferable, meaning they can be deployed at any job, in any context.

So focused on getting top marks for their hard skills, many professionals are often reticent about selling their soft skills, seeing them as exactly that — soft.

“Will my soft skills sound too froufrou at job interviews”?

This was a question a client, a senior executive no less, posed to me during a recent personal branding coaching session. She was visibly queasy and hesitant about articulating her soft skills, and kept her focus on her hard skills. Corporations, however, now expect seasoned employees to demonstrate essential soft skills in order to stay competitive and especially new graduates seeking jobs to leverage their soft skills to help them land jobs.

Four of the most important soft skills you need to succeed are:

1. Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills are the way you get along with people. These skills can make or break your professional interactions. Other aspects of your professional profile are undoubtedly important, but interpersonal skills give you an extra edge, showing employers that even if you may not be the most experienced candidate, you can bridge the gap with how well you get along with others. According to popular job search site, Zip Recruiter, “Developing and applying your interpersonal skills can advance your job search, enhance your resume development, increase job interview prospects, and help you get ahead”. To improve your interpersonal skills, Zip Recruiter suggests that you show that you can talk to anyone, demonstrate the ability to convey information usefully, illustrate that you can remain calm under pressure and exhibit how you fit into company culture.

2. Listening Skills

The ability to listen is an underrated skill but is among the most important for success in the workplace. Listening means paying close attention to, and making sense of what we hear. Research suggests that 60 per cent of the errors made in business come from poor listening. Communication specialist Alison Doyle asserts that professionals can demonstrate good listening skills in two ways: attentive listening and reflection. “Attentive listening involves holding eye contact, nodding, having good posture, and mirroring the speaker's body language to show genuine interest in what they are saying. In addition to these nonverbal cues, you must also allow the speaker to finish their thought in its entirety. Reflection is the repeating and paraphrasing of what the speaker has said to show that you truly understand what they are telling you.” (Doyle, 2016).

3. Teamwork

The ability to work as part of a team is a key factor in achieving success. Successful businesses value employers who can be team players, seeing collaboration as essential to improving workflow, team relationships, productivity, and efficiency. To demonstrate that you are a team player, it is vital that you are able to listen to the ideas or concerns of other members, brainstorm solutions to problem, build consensus and compromise when necessary to move the group forward. Team work also involves following through, meeting deadlines, giving credit for the contributions made by other members of the team, being open to new ideas and taking responsibility for mistakes.

4. Communication Skills

The ability to communicate with others is a critical soft skill. Communication in this context is not the ability to write, which is technically a hard skill. I am referring to the ability to articulate your ideas, engage with others, including colleagues, top managers and clients. In the digital age, employers demand employees with effective communications skills. This means being able to convey and receive information in person, over the phone and via e-mail. Communication skills help you to be approachable, put others at ease and, generally, to build relationships effortlessly. They are crucial because they also help you get hired, land promotions and help solve conflicts when they arise. If you have a naturally reticent disposition, never mind; effective communication skills can be learned. Sign up for a public speaking class. You will find the techniques you learn there can be applied to daily communicative routines in the workplace.

5. Discover and Promote

By 2020, soft skills will be in demand more so than ever before. For professionals to succeed and advance in their industry, they must discover, engage and promote their soft skills. The first task clients (and my college students) in my personal branding coaching programme undertake is a discovery of their personal attributes, their soft skills. I ask questions such as “what words describe your personality” or “what personality traits do people compliment you on or likely to see as a strength”. I get responses such as kind, approachable, fun-loving and compassionate.

Most clients simply ignore this crucial knowledge of the self. My parting advice is this: make a list of your soft skills. Create a narrative around each. Write down why you believe yourself to be empathetic, for example, and make sure to include examples of professional experiences where you have demonstrated those soft skills. Leverage your soft skills. There are numerous opportunities to do so — during interviews, for promotional and other self-pitches, during day-to-day tasks at your job. It is superlatively important to have hard skills but part of the unique value you offer is your treasure trove of soft skills. Lean on those. It'll give you a well-needed boost of personal influence and power.

Dr Hume Johnson is associate professor of public relations at Roger Williams University and a branding communications strategy consultant. She is the author of Brand YOU: Reinvent Yourself, Redefine Your Future . She can be reached at

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