Soft skills are hard to find…but not so difficult to cultivate

Just how important are soft skills in helping you advance in life? A study conducted by Harvard University noted that...

Just how important are soft skills in helping you advance in life? A study conducted by Harvard University noted that 80% of career achievements are determined by soft skills and only 20% by hard skills. Moreover, a public interest study conducted by McDonald’s in the UK predicted that over half a million people will be held back from job sectors by 2020 due to lack of soft skills.

The term ‘soft skills’ is not new. It was coined in 1972 by the U.S. Army which, at the time, assigned more weight to hard skills, as the latter were considered to have a more specific on-the-job application. However, later studies (similar to the ones mentioned above) came to strengthen the value of the role that soft skills play in one's life and accomplishments.

So what are these soft skills? They usually refer to a wide range of abilities, including people skillssocial skillscommunication skillscharacter traits, attitudes, career attributes, emotional intelligence quotients, etc., many of which form the basis of our personality and how we are perceived by others. This set of skills, according to scientists, is mostly innate – “in the genes” – while "hard" or "technical" skills are acquired through study and/or practice and by exerting the right effort. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that anyone with a normal, functioning brain can accumulate a certain number of hard skills, such as how to operate a machine or draw up a balance sheet, but the same does not hold true for soft skills, which is precisely why they are so hard to find.

Employers tend to ascribe considerable value to their personnel’s soft skills, especially in those lines of business which call for a great deal of interaction with clients and/or colleagues. They know that there is much to be gained, both in quantitative (increased productivity and profits, reduced costs, etc.) and qualitative (heightened morale, increased workplace satisfaction, etc.) terms, by hiring and retaining employees who possess a great set of soft skills, such as good manners, optimism, graciousness, honesty, empathy and reliability. Hard skills can be added to complement this much more valuable skill set.

Although soft skills are wide-ranging, below is a "top ten" list of business-oriented soft skills as compiled by Eastern Kentucky University:

  1. Courtesy – Having good manners, knowing and implementing etiquette, being gracious and respectful, saying please and thank you.
  2. Flexibility – Being adaptable and willing to change, a teachable lifelong learner who accepts new things and is able to adjust.
  3. Communication – Ability in speaking, writing, presenting and listening. 
  4. Integrity – A person who is honest and ethical, with high morals and personal values, and does what’s right.
  5. Interpersonal skills – Being personable, friendly, nurturing, warm and empathetic, with a sense of humour, self-control, patience, sociability and social skills.
  6. Positive attitude – Being optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging, happy and confident.
  7. Professionalism – This means being businesslike, well-dressed, poised and with a good appearance.
  8. Responsibility – Being accountable and reliable, resourceful and self-disciplined, this person gets the job done, wants to do well, works conscientiously and shows common sense.
  9. Teamwork – Being cooperative, getting along with others, always acting in an agreeable, supportive, helpful and collaborative manner.
  10. Work ethic – This means being loyal, self-motivated, on time, willing to work hard and showing initiative.

Remember that impressions – especially first impressions – count a great deal. If you can master most, or even some, of the above soft skills, you will equip yourself with a huge competitive advantage when it comes to convincing a prospective employer or a prospect that you are the man or woman for the job.


A very special thank you to my personal friend Spyros Yiassemides for his invaluable help on the research for this particular blog post.