Soft skills vs hard skills and business success

January 11, 2023

As leaders grapple to adjust and adapt to changes in the market and their organisations, human resource teams are buckling down, scrutinising revised strategic plans and training plans. This “post-pandemic” business environment demands that human resource professionals formulate fresh, agile solutions to connect skill building to the fast-shifting needs of the organisation. Organisations are reskilling and upskilling to ensure employees are equipped to successfully achieve their business targets. In these challenging times of uncertainty, with limited training budgets, should companies focus mainly on developing the essential hard skills, or should part of the training budget be directed to developing the “nice to have” soft skills?

Difference between hard skills and soft skills

To be clear, hard skills are technical, measurable competencies that relate directly to a job. These skills allow individuals to perform job-specific tasks and responsibilities. They can be learned through formal education, apprenticeships or internships, certification programs, and on the job training. Soft skills, on the other hand, can be considered behaviours, work habits and sometimes personality traits, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and communication, that help people thrive in the workplace.

One key difference between hard skills and soft skills is how they are utilised in the workplace.
Hard skills are job-specific, relevant to each position and seniority level. Soft skills are useful beyond the boundary of the job description and may be used across job types and industries.

A simple way to categorise any skill is to think of hard skills as the “What”—what has to be done for a specific job, whilst soft skills are the “How”—how it is done.

What type of skill is more important?

When prioritising training needs, one may be tempted to focus on hard skills as the only gap to be closed. This seems logical as it’s the hard skills—the technical skills—that are directly related to the job and it’s easy to identify that skill gap. In addition to those salient, “must have” hard skills needed to execute the work and meet targets, it is critical that Human Resource professionals and managers also focus on the soft skills required to succeed in the job.

Research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center has all concluded that 85 per cent of job success comes from having well developed soft skills, and only 15 per cent of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge.
(The Carnegie Foundation- 1918).

This confirms that hard skills are the minimum requirement for a job, but soft skills allow the employee to excel in a job. Soft skills are the differentiator for success.
Soft skills such as interpersonal skills, critical thinking, the ability to influence, build a cohesive team are essential skills for success at work.

Business Success

Collective success at the individual level usually translates to success at the organisation level. To facilitate this success, management and Human Resources must partner to engender a culture that results in high employee engagement.

According to CultureIQ, decades of research show that improving overall culture is a far more effective way to improve business outcomes and propel growth. In this context, employee engagement, is seen as a direct outcome of a strong company culture.

How do you create a culture where your employees’ happiness is a priority when you’re still trying to bring some stability to your organisation? The answer lies in creating an employee experience where employees can identify tangible efforts of the organisation caring about their well-being.

In a work environment drastically transformed by the pandemic, where employees are experiencing burnout and reconsidering what they want out of work, the manager becomes the most critical factor in creating a caring employee experience and retaining people.

Managers who ignore the needs of their team, who bypass their desk without asking “how are you doing?” and are oblivious to when employees feel overwhelmed, actually nudge employees out the door. At companies where managers neglect to demonstrate care, employees are nearly 50 per cent more likely to apply for a new job (Employee Well Being Report-LinkedIn Glint, December 2021).

It follows therefore, now more than ever, managers need to have well-developed soft skills to attract and retain talent. Glint’s data reveals that employees who feel cared about at work are 3.2 times more likely to report being happy to work for their current company and 3.7 times more likely to recommend working for their company.

It is essential that organisations recognise that providing training for hard skills only is insufficient.

Managers should be trained in soft skills such as emotional intelligence-empathy, active listening, and communication.

Managers leaning in

The more you see managers leaning in to listen to employees, the better the soft skills are likely to be within the organisation.

At the individual level, this has a significant impact on whether an employee struggles or succeeds in their role. At the organisation level it creates employee loyalty and improves retention.

Organisations will do well to prioritise soft skills development, especially amidst the pandemic-induced uncertainty, where employee well-being is a precursor to business success.

Author: Charlene Pedro


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