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What the Hell Are ‘Soft Skills,’ Anyway?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

The HR department at my company keeps talking about needing “soft skills” for promotions into management. What are they, and how do I get them? — Randall B., Portland
I like to say that soft skills are the new catchphrase for things such as communications, sociability, adaptability and emotional intelligence. They’re the counterpoint to hard skills you traditionally study (e.g., science, math, languages) or knowledge that’s certified (e.g., legal, medical, engineering).

Companies are placing an emphasis on soft skills because they’re difficult to develop and nurture. Hard skills are typically quantifiable: I can test your language proficiency, coding skills or math prowess. Soft skills are more “I know it when I see it” observations. For example, are you compassionate? Do you inspire others? Can you empathize with colleagues?

Soft skills have become more important over time because of strategic business interests such as…

  • Globalization. Operating in a global business enterprise requires cultural awareness and sensitivity, greater listening skills, humility and an open mind.
  • Collaboration. More and more business activities are done in teams. In these environments, businesses are looking for people who can persuade, negotiate, communicate and positively influence others.
  • Leadership. Type-A personalities are no longer the preferred leaders. Instead of domineering and autocratic leadership traits, organizations are looking for individuals with demonstrated abilities to inspire, mentor, motivate and engage others.

But don’t take my word for it. Surveys indicate that everyone from CFOs to CIOs recognize that soft skills are now a prerequisite for business success. They’re also highly teachable. Your HR department probably offers courses that can help you learn the soft skills necessary to progress in your organization. Practice them enough, and they can rival all of the hard skills that used to be the things that got you promoted.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.