05/11/2016 12:21 EDT | Updated 05/12/2017 05:12 EDT

Why Soft Skills Beat Hard Skills In Business

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Close up of a coworkers working together

The value of soft skills has surpassed that of hard skills in the workplace. This may be hard to hear for technically-focused people.

For those climbing the organizational ladder (and others already at the top) the ability to earn the trust and loyalty of colleagues, clients, and prospects through exceptional soft skills now tops the value of technical expertise as the hunt for prospective leaders continues.

Several studies support this way of thinking. For example, Career Builder's 2014 national survey shows that 77% of employers said that soft skills (skills such as likeability, attitude, and the ability to communicate well with others) are just as important as hard skills (knowledge and expertise that is learned and developed throughout one's career). According to research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and Stanford Research Center soft skills are responsible for 85% of career successes, while only 15% is attributed to hard skills.

Defining Hard and Soft Skills

Hard skills can include:

  • Knowledge base: Often kick-started in academia or even through life experiences, this is the knowledge base for any industry. For example, being able to identify discuss trends within an industry.
  • Practical application: Designing and assembling a complex product, whether it be an investment portfolio, a tax return, architectural blueprint, electrical specifications or technical user guides.) While individuals will need to communicate with others to get the job done, their first priority is to ensure a successful project outcome versus building relationships with others as a condition of the project's success.
  • Technological skills: With the constant stream of new, applicable technologies pouring into most industries, professionals need to stay on top of the skills necessary to provide a service or product that is on par with competitors.

Soft skills culminate with earning trust and getting on with people while ensuring the job is completed successfully. They are evidence of your ability to get along with other people in your personal, social and work life. Often associated with one's Emotional Intelligence (EQ), my top ten soft-skills include:

  1. Effective listening
  2. Self-motivation
  3. Ability to delegate and learn from others
  4. Time management mastery and an ability to work under pressure
  5. Communicating clearly and convincingly
  6. Use of humour at appropriate times
  7. Creativity when problem solving based on an ability to see and work with due acknowledgement of the 'big picture'
  8. Being confident and assertive versus arrogant and over-powering
  9. An ability to negotiate and defuse tense situations in the workplace and socially while setting clear boundaries
  10. Being able to weigh different views and find common ground while maintaining focus and meeting shared goals

However, the most important soft skill I have learned during 30 plus years as a personal communications consultant and writer is the ability to listen effectively and put myself in my audience's shoes. Whether in conversation with one person or presenting to 100, I strive to communicate in a way that resonates with my audience using terms and ideas that mean something to them.

What is driving the increased emphasis on soft skills?

Numerous professionals (including myself) are exploring the roots and results of digital disruption that all but removes opportunities for real-time, face-to-face communication. Less face-to-face communication makes it harder to build relationships and to build trust. The focus on technology has created a silo effect in the workplace as employees increasingly telecommute versus meeting at the office with colleagues and customers. The result can lead to relationships in cyberspace without establishing a sense of bonding and socialization. This can distance us from one another.

In the past, we often thought the smartest (or 'go-to') person at a company was the one who played the most senior role, brought hard skills to a complex technical job, and managed the largest number of employees. I am now more inclined to gravitate to the person who best engages me by asking about my roles and interests (versus talking about themselves), listens carefully to my responses, and participates in a memorable, two-way conversation. The new "smart" is about effectively engaging others at work and socially to build knowledge and networks through trust and authenticity.

Hard skills drive our businesses and progress in many vital areas, such as healthcare, finance, technology, and manufacturing, to name just a few. But if we're going to see true success, we need to do a better job of communicating that knowledge in the written and spoken word.

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