Updated: Sep 15, 2021
You hear soft skills being thrown around whenever you apply for a job, but what do they entail? Learn the 5Ws and 1H of soft skills and how you can package them as marketable assets for prospective employers.
If you are a product of the Singapore education system, it’s likely that you’ve seen your life as checkboxes. The narrative is not all that complicated: achieve all the milestones by society’s definition of success, and claim your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The end result? A smooth path towards a cushy job. During our parents’ time, this was the holy grail. When it comes to job stability, academic qualifications mean the world’s difference in and of themselves.
In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, that promise has evolved.
It’s not news that graduating from university no longer guarantees a well-paying job. Emphasis has been shifted away from qualifications and towards skills. Local employers are more inclined to hire those with more on-the-job training experience. Even Google has launched its own Google Career Certificates designed for job seekers to break into the industry at a fraction of the cost of a traditional university degree.
The search for better opportunities, and especially to foster a concrete sense of purpose has birthed a new generation of workers who spend less than two years in a position. Previously shunned by employers, this practice of job-hopping is now increasingly embraced as a strategic move that builds resilient and adaptable employees with insights across different industries.
Amidst the constant change, we see the exponential emphasis on the role of soft skills. Before we explore the ‘why’, let’s unpack what soft skills entail.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are interpersonal attributes marked by an individual’s ability to relate and work well with others. Common examples of soft skills include communication, teamwork and leadership.
However, don’t be fooled by its name. There’s nothing “soft” about soft skills at all. The art of mastering human interaction and relationships is a delicate craft; they are amongst some of the toughest abilities to acquire and hone.
In contrast to hard skills, an individual’s soft skill proficiency is a lot more difficult to quantify. Its mastery is not contingent on specific occupations, seniorities or technical capabilities. Rather, they are influenced by an individual’s character. General dispositions such as personality traits, social and communication skills come into play when we evaluate the ease of working harmoniously with another individual.
Who needs soft skills?
It’s no surprise here when we say EVERYONE needs soft skills! Also often referred to as interpersonal or people skills, soft skills play a pivotal role in any individual’s career success. One way or another, everyone – whether they are in back-end or client-facing positions – has to interact with others. A strong command of soft skills in the workplace helps to facilitate human connections. Getting along well with co-workers, partners and clients enables employees to thrive individually and professionally in the workplace.
Why are soft skills important?
Because employers are looking for it
The importance of soft skills is easily overlooked and dismissed as resume fluff. After all, it’s not exactly highlighting something that we can visibly measure.
But as hiring managers continue to comb through heaps of resumes, soft skills are helping them seek out ideal candidates from adequate ones. A recent survey conducted by NTUC LearningHub found that 65 percent of employers identified soft skills as the top priority for their workforce.
Personality traits such as adaptability and resilience are usually inherent in nature, meaning that they are difficult to teach. Learning or unlearning certain characteristics can be an arduous process. The axiom, “Hire the heart, train the brain,” thus holds particularly true during these turbulent times where resources are limited, and companies hire to meet both immediate operational needs and long term business goals.
Because the future of work depends on it
In the age of rapid digitisation, the ability to connect on a human level is one thing that no advanced artificial intelligence can learn to replicate.
Economic Development Board (EDB) managing director Chng Kai Fong said in his keynote address during an education conference that soft skills will help people stand out and differentiate themselves. As opposed to Singapore’s favourite stance towards planning for the long-term, Mr. Chng stressed the importance of being adaptable to short-term stimulus in building future-proof employees.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Minister Lawrence Wong calls for the incremental development of soft skills through every stage of the education journey to help graduates become ready for the future of work.
“The way forward is for us to double down on our human strengths... It's not to be taken for granted that human soft skills are natural and innate and that everyone can do it well. We need to practise and get better at it."
- Minister Lawrence Wong
When & where do you need soft skills?
In your workplace
The workplace is essentially an interpersonal space where relationships have to be built and fostered. Having soft skills helps employees facilitate the constructive exchange of perspectives and conducive resolution of conflicts. In the long term, workers well-versed in noncognitive skills contribute to a healthy and productive work environment. Practiced on a company level, people and teams collectively thrive.
In your life
Naturally, personal and professional successes are inexplicably intertwined. The ability to empathise and connect with others nurtures relationships, and a mindset of resilience helps one tide through even the toughest seasons in life.
Before we delve into the ‘how’, let’s clear some misconceptions
1. Soft Skills vs Transferable Skills
Soft skills are sometimes called transferable skills, but it’s not exactly one and the same. While soft skills mostly are transferable, certain hard skills can too be carried across vastly different job positions and industries. Examples include computer or software proficiencies in managing Microsoft Suite Office or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools such as Salesforce and HubSpot.
2. Soft Skills vs Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, reflects the ability to recognise, understand and manage one’s emotions and those around them. It’s often used synonymously with soft skills. In fact, EQ itself is a soft skill determined by five key factors: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.
Individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence have healthy coping mechanisms in place to stay in control of their emotions. They tend to have the ability to pick up body language or subtle nuances in how others react, giving them extra insight on how they can adjust their behaviours accordingly.
To gauge your level of EQ, Regional Director of Hays Singapore, Grant Torrens suggests that you ask yourself these four questions:
Can you spot negative emotions in others?
Can you tap into positive emotions?
Do you listen to people?
Do you realise the impact of your own emotion?
3. Soft Skills vs Hard Skills
Soft skills are in no way inferior to hard skills, or vice versa. To truly excel in your career in the modern age, you’ll need a balance of both. It’s worthy to note that once you’ve secured your interview, recruiters are already familiar with your hard skills and qualifications. What they are looking out for is whether you are the right fit for the company as an individual. This usually boils down to your soft skills.
How can I improve my soft skills?
Soft skills are not taught in the traditional classroom, but opportunities to grow them are abundant. No matter how high we’ve climbed the ladder in success, adopting a growth mindset will help us reach farther in life. We are all but a work in progress.
Even the not-so-experienced have some basic foundation in soft skills. Think about some of the hiccups that you’ve faced in your workplace and how you resolved those situations. For those who are new to the workforce, think about volunteering or passion projects you’ve worked on before. How did you overcome your stumbles when the going gets tough?
Here’s how you can get started in honing your soft skills.
1. Look within
The first step to becoming better at something is to do some soul searching. To be brutally honest about your shortcomings is the only way you can learn from them. For some, this can be a difficult journey to navigate. Personal development is not a walk in the park, but hold faith that the discomfort will eventually bring forth a better you.
Ask trusted colleagues and superiors for their feedback regarding your performance at work. Be earnest and stay open-minded when receiving constructive criticism on areas where you have fallen short. On your own, intentionally carve out reflection time to process how you responded to tricky situations. Be kind to yourself – while you scrutinise the areas where you could have done better, give yourself credit where it is due.
“No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something”
Introspection also helps you discover where your talent lies. What are certain soft skills that come naturally to you? By being conscious about what you’re good at, you can then build them into strengths. Channelling consistent effort into your gifted areas propels you to reach your fullest potential. In time, you can expect to be counted on to deliver steadfast results in your areas of expertise.
Resources to unearth your strengths and weaknesses:
2. Learn by mimicking
We are all inherently social learners. A large part of who we are is a result of who we are with. When it comes to learning social skills, pay attention to how those around you interact with others.
What is it about their choice of words and body language that enables them to be exceptional team players?
How do they carry their points across with conviction while carefully managing diplomacy between colleagues?
As for training mental agility, talk to respected colleagues and mentors to uncover their thought processes whenever a problem surfaces. How do they look at an issue using different lenses and come up with solutions that work? Find out what makes them tick and how their motivations influence their mindset. What are the values that ground them during moments of hardship?
Once you are able to identify the positive traits you wish to emulate, you can start to plan for incremental changes in your thinking and behaviour.
3. Prioritise what to focus on
Before you begin, you need to decide which soft skills you want to work on. There are two approaches to this. The first is to refine what you’re already good at – turning your talents into strengths. For this approach, you step out of your comfort zone by asking for more responsibilities that lie within your natural talents. For instance, If you have a knack for problem-solving, show your bosses how you approach day-to-day issues with a mentality to improve processes.
The second approach is to explore new territory. Perhaps there are some soft skills that you wish to explore but lack the opportunity to build them. Learn to prioritise the soft skills you should focus on according to the needs of your career. It can be tempting to learn everything, but to be a jack of all trades is also to be a master of none.
4. Set goals and practice
Here’s how you can build 7 of the most in-demand soft skills requested by Singapore employers. Because soft skills are difficult to learn, it can be challenging to estimate how long you need to build them. Setting long-term SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) helps you to stay on track.
Specific: Is your goal clear and well-defined?
Measurable: Is there any specific criteria to measure your goal?
Achievable: Are you equipped to achieve this goal?
Realistic: Are you committed to reach this goal given the resources?
Time-bound: What is your deadline?
We all have our natural inclinations towards certain character traits. Some common examples include introversion to extroversion or a preference to work independently over teams. Even though they may seem ingrained in our human psyche, they are subjected to change.
Yes, you can change your personality. According to psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman, science tells us that repeated patterns of our thoughts, behaviours and feelings create our character. Though it may take some time to alter these patterns, people can ultimately change who they are.
It’s pretty uplifting to know that we have a degree of autonomy over who we want to be as individuals. Drop your excuses on how you’ve been conditioned to function in a certain way, now that you’re armed with the knowledge that you can be the change you want to see in yourself.
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