Hiring for soft skills to succeed

In workplaces everywhere, groups of people from diverse backgrounds are expected to come together to accomplish shared goals. While technical skills and business acumen are imperative, having the right mix of personal values, traits and characteristics is equally important when it comes to succeeding at work.

Most of us have experienced strain from working with a toxic or difficult colleague. Productivity and job satisfaction suffer when companies bring in people with low self-awareness, negative attitudes or poor communication skills.

Diane Kessel Knight, owner of Kessel Performance Consulting – a management coaching and consulting practice – agrees. “I have seen teams derailed by one really smart individual who didn’t play well with others. It can be demoralizing to have this person on the team and team performance really suffers.”

One bad hire with poorly developed “soft skills” can upset the entire apple cart. What exactly are soft skills? If technical competencies determine whether a worker can do a particular job, then soft skills reveal the attitude and demeanor of the worker as they go through the course of the workday.

Kessel stresses the importance of soft skills or emotional intelligence. She said, “Let’s face it, turnover, hiring and training are expensive propositions, so finding the best ‘fit’ is really important to employers.

“These days, organizations have to do more with fewer people, so work environments can be more stressful. Who would you rather work with – the person who stays cool and calm under stress or the person who gets hijacked by his or her own emotions?

“Under stress, the ability to listen well and demonstrate empathy and respect for others’ points of view becomes even more important. Being able to influence others starts with an understanding of someone else’s point of view.  People with a high level of emotional intelligence understand this and are especially good at it.

“The rapid pace of change is another challenge in business today. People who can be flexible, understand the need for change, and help influence others to change will be highly sought after.

“People are easier to work with when they manage stress well. Teams get more work done when individuals can get along and handle conflict productively. Salesmen sell more when they have the skills of optimism and resilience that help them overcome rejection. It just makes sense for an employer to look for people with these types of soft skills,” Kessel said.

The soft skills that are almost universally sought by employers include:

Communication skills, both written and verbal. Can you express yourself clearly in one-on-one conversations, in group settings and in written form? Are you able to effectively resolve conflict with others?

Self-awareness. Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is one aspect of self-awareness. Self-awareness also helps us recognize and monitor our inner thoughts and emotions.

Self-confidence. Employers want to hire people who exude confidence and who are committed to continued learning. It is important to know the value we provide and be able to accept constructive feedback without becoming defensive.

Empathy. In addition to knowing ourselves, we also need to be able to understand and appreciate other points of view.

Positive attitude. Employees who remain positive and upbeat regardless of what is going on around them generally perform better than their negative counterparts.

Team skills. The ability to effectively participate in teams and influence group success is key in any company or position.

Job searchers typically sprinkle their resumes and cover letters with a variety of personal qualifiers to impress potential employers: exceptional communication skills, strong team player, known for having a positive, upbeat attitude, etc.

Recruiters see these phrases so often that they tend to read like meaningless drivel. Rather than simply providing a laundry list of superlatives, candidates can weave brief explanations of their personal competencies into their written marketing pieces. Focus on the soft skills that are most applicable to the position being targeted.

During interviews, candidates can then expand on these examples with detailed stories and talking points about previous experiences. Ideally, we should come to an interview armed with relevant accomplishment stories that reveal our technical expertise and personal character.

Kessel said, “Prepare stories that demonstrate your ability to adapt to change and even lead others through it. Share a story that shows how you are able to understand other points of view and effectively resolve conflict. Also, be sure to explain how you have contributed to team performance.”

Many people bristle at difficult interview questions designed to identify soft skills and determine fit. Some candidates almost get resentful about being asked about weaknesses and conflict. Others balk at the idea that they have ever made a mistake or failed to achieve a goal.

This type of reaction exposes a lack of self-awareness and confidence. Given the importance of landing the right position, candidates should appreciate an employer’s efforts to screen for soft skills. Rather than dodging tough questions or offering up trite responses, candidates would do better to share actual weaknesses or failures.

Kessel said, “It can be counterintuitive to think that prospective employers would want to hear anything about you that might be perceived as unflattering, but knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being able to learn from failures are actually hallmarks of emotional intelligence.”

If you can tell a story during an interview about what you learned from one of your setbacks or what you are doing to overcome a weakness, you will have the edge over the ‘perfect’ candidate.”

It is important to note that no one is flawless and employers are not looking for perfection. The good news is that soft skills can be learned and cultivated through training, counseling and professional development. Emotional competencies are never fully mastered but they can be continually improved throughout our lives.

We all possess a unique mix of talents and skills as well as positive and negative qualities. We have the potential to perform beautifully and sometimes we make mistakes. The goal is to become aware of how we shine and then commit to a lifetime of polishing our rough edges.

Carrie Pinsky is a Fort Collins-based career and HR advisor. She can be reached at carrie@pinkskywriting.com.

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