For centuries, employers have focused their hiring process on the importance of experience and hard skill, the technical and logistical abilities of their employees to do the job at hand. Hard skills are incredibly important in the business world because they define capability. Hard skills are what you go to school to learn, pick up on the job, and hone in years of experience. They are what allows engineers to design and refine, what allows accountants to manage their numbers and make wise financial decisions, among hundreds of other examples. But without soft skills, each skilled specialist would be an island. Without soft skills, there would be no business world at all.
Soft Skills Make the Business World Go ‘Round
The entire concept of business is collaboration and partnership for mutual profit. A single production chain will involve a dozen or more businesses working together. Each connection doesn’t happen automatically, it is enacted by people who meet each other, are polite and friendly through several meetings, communicate clearly, form a comprehensive plan, and work together to implement it. Even the simplest business partnership requires layers and layers of soft-skill interactions before the hard-skills ever come into play.
Even in the basic hiring process of acquiring more hard-skilled employees for your company involves an incredible application of soft skills. How many phone calls, emails, and meetings are required before a new employee is onboard? The hiring manager unconsciously or consciously judges candidates based on how well they interact socially during the interviews and how well they communicate their expertise. The candidates also judge potential employers by how well they are treated during the interview, whether they feel valued or disrespected, and if they feel they would get on well in the company culture.
While these things have been an ‘unspoken’ part of business since our street-market origins, it’s time to speak up.
Nothing Happens Without Soft Skills
If business is a big machine, soft skills are the circuits. How does an order make it from the top of a company to the technicians and specialists who implement it? How does performance and results information make it back up the chain from the ground-level teams? Communication. The Execs and managers use their soft skills to explain what they want to their subordinates who in turn use their listening skills to comprehend what is needed. Ground-level teams use their communication skills to write reports that are easy to understand and help the higher-ups continue to make good decisions.
When a talented specialist takes on a project, their hard skills do not prevent them from accidents and misinterpretations. So how does their manager get them back on track without offense or simply pulling the brakes on the project? They use their soft skills to identify where the misunderstanding occurred and then gently correct their star team member with constructive critique. We all know these skills are vital in the business world, but somehow they have been drastically underrated in the actual decision-making processes.
Hiring for Hard Skills, Discovering Soft Skills After the Fact
One of the biggest mistakes made in the business world regarding soft skills is the hiring process. Back around the founding of our nation, resumes were not yet the standard way to convey your expertise. Instead, we relied on reference letters from previous employers and these conveyed far more about an employee’s soft skills than our modern techniques. An employer would write not only about how well their previous employee had worked, but also how well they worked -with- their coworkers, superiors, and customers. This mattered a great deal in the pre-internet time.
Compare that to how we hire today. Resumes focus entirely only on hard skills and employment dates. Employers only want to know if you are familiar with the technology if you have experience working this machine or implementing that industry method. While these things are vital to quick onboarding and finding immediately useful employees, the problem lies in the de-emphasization of the soft skills. An employee who lists “Good listener” is likely to be seen as frivolous and even too soft for serious business.
However, employers often find out about the importance of soft skills the hard way after the hiring process. Someone with all the right credentials who seems awkward in interviews may be revealed to be a surly coworker, bad at working with others or communicating, and in effect slows down team productivity instead of effectively contributing to it. Or they wind up in conflicts with their co-workers or are constantly filing complaints instead of resolving issues personally. This is the folly of hard-skill hiring.
Training Hard Skills and Expecting Soft Skills
Finally, let’s take a look at in-line training and professional development programs. Many companies understand the value of taking an employee with some hard skills to start with and increasing their abilities through training over the course of their employment. However, this training usually focuses exclusively on hard technical skills. A script technician, for example, may take training to become a software developer for the company. But then their new manager is surprised when they don’t have the communication and collaboration skills to work on group projects with the other programmers.
Soft skills are something most professionals are forced to learn on-the-fly, which means mistakes and misunderstandings in the process are the norm. Employees learn what works in the moment rather than what works best and there are often mistakes made because no two employees are working with the same set of soft skills. Many people think that soft skills are something you have or you do not, like being naturally charismatic versus being ‘unlikeable’, but being a good coworker and teammate can be learned even by skilled but uncharismatic employees.
Adapting to the Soft-Skill Reality
The time has long since come for businesses to realize and accept the importance of soft skills as the conveyancer of hard skills. Without the ability to communicate, no business can be conducted. Without the ability to collaborate, teamwork and joint efforts are impossible. And without the ability to resolve differences diplomatically, mistakes and misunderstandings become train-wrecks instead of temporary setbacks.
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