Soft skills: why it’s important to consider them

Published on 23/07/2019 by Franck La Pinta and Sonia Navarrete

Soft Skills

The term ‘soft skills’ can also be translated as ‘human skills’, and it relates to the interaction between a person and other people. More specifically, these skills make it possible to interact effectively with our environment, to identify and adapt to the profile of others (also called empathy), or to adapt to an uncomfortable or new situation. These human skills can appear subjective, sometimes intangible and valued differently depending on the company’s own culture – unlike hard skills, which are easier to identify and evaluate.

Hard skills correspond to demonstrable knowledge, technical know-how and the ability to reproduce a task or a sequence of tasks with a well-defined objective and in a given context. For example, knowledge of a computer programming language, mastery of a foreign language, plumbing or knowledge of the rules of financial analysis are hard skills. Hard skills are quickly becoming obsolete due to technological developments such as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. 

By contrast, soft skills are taking a central place in the assessment of the skills of candidates – due to digital transformation. Soft skills are considered an essential element to support and succeed in the digital transformation of companies. Soft skills are valued because they are considered essential for a company that must adapt, anticipate and reinvent itself in a constantly changing economic, technological, regulatory and social world.

The 10 essential soft skills

It is difficult to determine a list of skills that fall into the category of soft skills. However, there is a list of soft skills established by the World Economic Forum (WEF), as part of the “Future of jobs” study carried out in 2016 in 15 countries, which identifies 10 essential soft skills. 

This list is interesting because, on the one hand, it is based on the vision of employees of these skills, and on the other hand, because the WEF makes soft skills one of the main performance advantages for companies, in an environment that will soon be dominated by artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics or nanotechnologies.

Below is the list of 10 soft skills:

  1. Complex problem solving: understanding all dimensions and components of a new situation to identify ways to solve it; sometimes referred to as “holistic vision”.
  2. Critical thinking: avoid repeating past habits (either experiences or decisions) and question oneself in order to try to find new solutions.
  3. Creativity: think out of the box, and not be afraid to go into the unknown to look for new approaches. This is the only way to bring out innovative solutions that will create value in the future.
  4. People management: identify and develop the skills needed for a project and engage and motivate people to form a team and carry out the project successfully.
  5. Ability to work with others: to bring together skills and people to achieve a common goal, to adapt to other people and teams and to take into account their personality and expectations, and to listen without losing sight of the goal to be achieved.
  6. Emotional intelligence: identifying and interpreting one’s own emotions and those of others to improve the effectiveness of relationships between oneself and others, and assessing the positive or negative impact of one’s emotions and those of others when making a decision.
  7. Judgment and decision-making: in the face of the explosion of available data, knowing how to identify the right information to use, being able to conceptualise several possible scenarios and anticipate the results of the different options to guide one’s decision. 
  8. Service orientation: to understand the other person’s needs and expectations in order to solve the problem, as can be done in a relationship with a client. This skill may be similar to empathy, but with a solution-seeking objective.
  9. Negotiation: avoid confrontation of opinions and seek compromise with a solution that satisfies both parties. In other words, looking to achieve the win-win.
  10. Cognitive flexibility: moving quickly from one concept to another, quickly integrating a change in environment, situation and people. 

The importance of soft skills in HR

It’s easy to understand why this subject has become central for companies in a period of digital transformation. The basis of recruitment is to identify the skills needed by candidates to carry out the tasks attached to a position. The objective of the recruitment was therefore to identify specific technical skills, i.e. hard skills: to possess knowledge and master specific gestures. The recruiter relied mainly on past experience to validate the application.

The development of the “sociology of work” has seen the emergence of concepts such as human relations, interactions, motivation, needs and communication. Companies have moved from the production chain to the social community. Commitment and adherence to the company’s culture and values have become key to achieve performance. Recruitment has naturally evolved to gradually integrate soft skills into a candidate’s assessment criteria. We are then less concerned with the defined tasks than with the achievement of a mission and objectives, for which it is essential to take into account the elements of the working environment.

With digital transformation and the difficulty in predicting the future, this predominance of soft skills has increased: the recruiter is less focused on looking for past experience, which will quickly become obsolete, but more for potential, for the ability to support a future that still remains to be defined. Life skills are more important than experience or diploma.

Just as it’s easy to identify and evaluate knowledge and technical skills, so the evaluation of soft skills can be biased by the subjectivity of the recruiter. It is therefore necessary to rely on recruitment tools and tests that allow this assessment to be objective. Several solutions exist which often consist in putting candidates in a simulation of a professional situation in which they will have to rely on soft skills: practical cases, serious game or group assessment for example.

Soft skills, more essential than ever

Soft skills are nowadays essential to companies because of the challenges of adaptation and anticipation linked to the constant transformation of working methods, expectations and uses of employees and customers alike. Human resources, by integrating soft skills into the main HR processes (recruitment, training, talent management, etc.), have an essential role to play in supporting this business transformation. More broadly, HR teams must reflect on the impact of digital technology on human relations, because soft skills are closely linked to culture, corporate values, the company’s leadership model, but also to economic and financial performance. They are the basis of employee engagement. 

In short, soft skills are at the crossroads between the individual expectations of employees and the collective objectives of companies. It is therefore essential to identify, value and develop them.