Our meritocratic culture emphasizes the importance of packing your resume with job-specific skills along with hard skills like software, statistics, different languages, or coding—but without soft skills (a.k.a. emotional intelligence), that knowledge becomes virtually useless in the workplace.
Surveys show that hiring managers are more likely to prefer candidates who use soft skills to make themselves more likable over candidates with lower emotional intelligence. “Hard skills” may help you get a foot in the door by landing you that first interview, but it’s up to you to hone your soft skills so you can get hired and flourish in a team.
“Our research indicates that the single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of relationships on the team.” Says Abby Curnow-Chavez, co-author of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Organizations. Soft skills are essential to employers because no one works in isolation anymore—even virtually! If you cannot communicate well, work as part of a team, or demonstrate a willingness to learn from your mistakes, it won’t matter how qualified you are on paper. An organization cannot succeed if its members’ lack of emotional intelligence deters success and lowers profits, so don’t underestimate the importance of honing your soft skills in the workplace.
Related reading: "Why Emotional Intelligence Is Crucial in Business Today."
What Are Soft Skills?
Soft skills, also known as emotional intelligence or EQ, are interpersonal skills that help you build relationships, navigate conflict successfully, and lead effectively in the workplace. Soft skills are the opposite of hard skills: job qualifications related to technical knowledge, such as programming or computer skills, project management, or presentation and writing abilities.
While hard skills are still necessary, companies are increasingly valuing soft skills in their hiring processes: a 2018 survey of 4,000 professionals conducted by LinkedIn found that training for soft skills was most companies’ number one priority. And this year has presented companies with far more challenges due to COVID and related complexities.
So, what soft skills do companies value most? Fast Company identifies five of the most important soft skills in the workplace as:
Why Are Soft Skills Important in the Workplace?
The evidence shows that soft skills matter to employers: 90% of top performers in the workplace have high EQ, and people with high emotional intelligence make, on average, $29,000 more each year than those without strong soft skills. But why?
Well, from infancy, our brains are hardwired for relationship-building and connection. Logically, then, the importance of relationship-building and connection in our lives extends into the workplace. Daniel Goleman, a leading emotional and social intelligence expert, has said, “CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise—and fired for lack of emotional intelligence.” My experience working in companies for the past couple of decades validates Goleman's finding. Not only are leaders fired for this deficiency, so are employees!
Empathy and self-knowledge play an incredibly important role in leadership positions and are equally vital to successful collaboration on teams. Teams naturally learn from their managers and supervisors and adjust their behavior accordingly. Neuroscience backs this up: particles called “mirror neurons” in our brains lead to a trickle-down effect, where team members model their leader’s behavior.
Leaders with high emotional intelligence value their employees, are good communicators and know how to make potent use of their skills. They handle conflicts with diplomacy; control and regulate their emotions to provide effective, meaningful feedback; and take an appropriate level of interest in their employees’ lives outside of work. Because emotionally intelligent leaders understand their teams so deeply, they can quickly make difficult decisions for the organization and its members.
Giving effective feedback, however, might be the most critical skill an emotionally intelligent leader develops. Feedback contributes to the overall growth of its team and members. And, when a leader has high EQ, employees are naturally more receptive to what they have to say. On the contrary, research shows that humans can interpret criticism as a threat to their well-being when feedback is given ineffectively. When criticism is delivered constructively, both the team and the organization as a whole can improve their performance.
How to Develop Interpersonal Skills at Work
Many people wrongfully assume that emotional intelligence is something we are born with. But while soft skills may come more easily to some, anyone can strengthen their emotional intelligence with a bit of practice.
Small steps to enhancing your soft skills go a long way toward helping your coworkers feel heard and understood. Here are a few to try:
- Pay attention to body language. Using positive body language can promote connectedness, convey mutual respect and confidence, and improve employee engagement while minimizing conflict. The simple acts of making eye contact and using open, friendly body language make you more approachable and help others feel welcomed.
- Practice giving constructive feedback. Providing feedback to others is as vital for you as it is helpful to others. Giving honest feedback also prevents emotions from building and coming out unexpectedly. Expressing what’s on your mind will allow you to release frustration or minor resentment in a productive way, thus improving relationships while giving coworkers the opportunity to strengthen their skills.
It’s helpful to prepare yourself to give feedback by thinking of three things you appreciate or respect about the person ahead of time. This simple practice will help you achieve an attitude of openness and acceptance rather than annoyance and judgment. A common technique is sandwiching criticism between two compliments; however, this is often used indiscriminately and insincerely so others can think it is manipulative. Be sure that all feedback given is genuine for the best results. Even constructive criticism can be easily received when expressed with respect and a desire to help or empower others.
- Improve your listening skills. Active listening is an essential skill in any workplace. It prevents communication breakdowns by allowing us to be present and averts knee-jerk emotional responses. Authentic, engaged listening requires friendly eye contact (when appropriate), focused attention, listening without interrupting, asking for clarification, and using gestures and responses that match the conversation’s tone. The nuances of active listening take practice to master, but they are worth the effort. Also, empathetic listening goes a long way toward improving your interpersonal relationships by showing others that you genuinely care about what they experience and have to say.
Soft skills enable success in the workplace by helping teams build stronger relationships and make decisions with mutual respect and compassion. Mastering your interpersonal skills will make you a more marketable job candidate, improve your relationships with coworkers and supervisors, and teach you valuable leadership lessons.
To help your team and leaders thrive by improving communication, empathy, and active listening skills, contact Heartmanity for Business to hear about our workplace training. Transforming business cultures is our business!