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Why Hiring Managers Should Prioritize Soft Skills

Jun 08, 2020

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.-1Whoever coined the phrase "soft skills" clearly didn't mean it as a compliment. So it's heartening to see soft skills in the workplace gaining much more coverage—and more respect.

Yet I would take it even further. What if instead of calling them soft skills—which gives the false impression they don't mean much—we reframed them as leadership skills, (a) because that's what they are and (b) no one ever questions the importance of leadership skills. 

Here's a closer look at ...

  • the answer to "What are soft skills?"
  • soft skills in the workplace: why they matter and which ones matter most
  • how to do a better gut check when you do get ready to hire again

What are soft skills in the workplace?

Soft skills is an umbrella term for the attributes that make someone easy to work with. The absence of these skills can undermine productivity, chip away at office morale, and lead to hilarious and necessary videos like this one: United Breaks Guitars.  

Soft skills in the workplace include ...

  • people skills, such as communication and teamwork
  • personality traits (e.g., resourcefulness and flexibility)
  • common sense (not discussing company secrets in the restroom or elevator)

Education and technical skills may be good and necessary. Yet neither can calm the patient in distress, solve the customer's problem, or inspire teamwork and cooperation. For those things, something more is needed.

Why soft skills in the workplace matter

Soft skills may be hard to quantify—but they're even harder to live without. If I've not convinced you of this already, maybe this will help:

In his book Hiring for Attitude, author Mark Murphy describes the 18-month study that showed nearly half of employees (46%) will fail in their first 18 months on the job. Most will fail not for lack of technical skills but for lack of interpersonal skills.

"I can't send her to personality camp." — straight-faced manager describing a difficult employee

There is, however, something worse than a 46% failure rate: retaining an employee who is failing, because a hiring manager doesn't want to deal with conflict or admit a poor hiring decision.

If either of those scenarios describes you, stop and ask what this avoidance is costing you. Better yet, ask your team.

You don't have to send someone to personality camp, but for the sake of your team and productivity, you do have to resolve the issue. How to do that is another topic for another day. But you can start by counting the cost of avoidance.

Which soft skills in the workplace matter most?

That depends on your company. Ask yourself, "Which skills, if improved dramatically, would make the greatest difference to my business?" You may be surprised at the simplicity of your answers. 

As an example, in my first job out of graduate school, on my first of sixty annual employer visits, I asked the graphic designer sitting across from me, "What's the most important skill for a graphic designer to have?"

I was expecting long narratives on light, perspective and color theory. Instead, he simply said, "Listening." Listening is one of the most crucial soft skills in the workplace. It is rarely taught.

[I do teach listening skills. Get in touch if I can help.]

Yet the absence of listening leads to more kinds of frustration than we have time to get into. (Who was it that said, "Big problems always start out small"?).

The graphic designer/agency owner who singled out listening went on to explain: Without the ability to listen to what the client wants and needs, you're going to miss the mark, waste time and money, and probably lose the client.

Listening is the antidote to all three. Other crucial soft skills in the workplace include: 

  • Problem-solving
  • Taking initiative
  • Using good judgment
  • Having professional boundaries

What else would you add to this list? Please leave a comment below. 

Hiring? How to do a gut check

For the same reasons you don't grocery-shop when you're hungry or date when you're lonely, it's best to think through a job requirement before it becomes urgent. If you don't, you'll fall prey to poor judgment.

Here are some questions to prevent this: 

  • Do I have the requirements in writing? Are they listed in priority order?
  • Have I set aside time to check references? 
  • What are my nice-to-haves and what are my must-haves? 
  • Do I have interview questions that will allow me to evaluate these criteria objectively? 

Example: If one of your must-haves is exceptional customer service skills, you might include a behavioral statement such as, "Tell me about a time you solved a problem for the customer." Or simply, "Tell me about a time when a customer brought you a problem." 

Both statements will reveal what the candidate considers a problem worth sharing.

But the latter, more cryptic version puts more onus on the candidate to come through with how (or if) they resolved the problem. It shows without your prompting how much they took initiative to solve the problem. 

Finally, when it comes to hiring the best candidate, little things can mean everything. Pay attention to how you feel.

For example, instead of asking, "Did the candidate have good people skills?" which can be hard to gauge, ask yourself "Did this candidate inspire confidence? Is he or she someone we'll want on our team in a crisis?"

If the answers are an unflinching yes, you may have found your next exceptional employee.

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