In a nutshell: Empathy, communication, adaptability and other soft skills might be hard to measure, but will contribute greatly to your success in the workplace.


You might prize your ability to crunch any number, analyze any data set, prepare any report and dissect any trend. But these hard skills, by themselves, might not make you a better employee, manager, leader or entrepreneur.

A century ago, the Carnegie Foundation published a study by Charles Riborg Mann that said technical skills only accounted for 15% of an individual’s success. The more important contributors and predictors to success, Mann said, were the hard-to-quantify qualities that today are called soft skills.

The Mann study is no longer in print, but it continues to direct and inform discussions about the need for soft skills in the workplace. The National Soft Skills Association says that while there are many different definitions and interpretations of the term “soft skills,” the subject is generally meant to include interpersonal and communication skills. Many would also agree that professionalism, adaptability and emotional intelligence are soft skills.

People who fail to work on their soft skills might find themselves at a disadvantage in the job market. “The U.S. labor market has been growing polarized between high-skill and low-skill jobs, but common to both ends of the spectrum is the need for soft skills,” said Josh Wright, the chief economist for talent acquisition solution provider iCIMS. “Whether home health aides or white-collar data scientists, the human element is the key to many of today’s fastest-growing jobs.”

Here are some of the most commonly recognized soft skills, and how you can practice and refine them:

Communication Skills

One of the most important traits of good communicators is that they know it’s not just about the words. Most of communication is nonverbal — expressed through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. An oft-repeated statistic says that only 7% of all communication is conveyed through words. Researchers today will debate about the accuracy of that figure or how meaningful it is, but there’s little professional doubt that nonverbal communication is extremely important and provides much-needed context.

The American Management Association says posture and eye contact are important for improved nonverbal communication. In addition, listen carefully to your voice to make sure the volume and tone match your message.

Interpersonal Skills

Unless your job is to sit alone in a bunker all day — and we haven’t seen any listings for that on the major job search sites! — you’ll need to interact with people. Even people with sole proprietorships will need to deal with clients and suppliers. Strong interpersonal skills can help you build stronger relationships with others.

There are many dimensions to interpersonal skills, but generally they all relate to the ability to work well with others. Forbes identifies 20 important interpersonal skills; some of the top ones are:

  • Trust
  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Open-mindedness

A positive attitude is helpful when dealing with others. Unstuck, a popular digital coaching app and website, says that practicing gratitude can help provide perspective and happiness. Consider keeping a gratitude journal, providing compliments to others, learning from bad situations, and not taking things for granted.

Emotional Intelligence

People with a high degree of emotional intelligence aren’t just able to identify their own emotions. They’re also able to harness and manage them, which can play a large role in how they relate to other people.

Professionals now understand the large role that emotional intelligence plays in the workplace. “Organizational psychologists are finding that leaders must have the ability to understand social interactions and solve the complex social problems that arise in the course of office life,” writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne in Psychology Today. “From resolving disputes to negotiating high-powered deals, business leaders need to be able to read each other’s signals, as well as understand their own strengths and weaknesses.” says the first step in improving your emotional intelligence is to identify your own feelings and those of others. With that knowledge, you can inform your own decision-making and understand how those choices may affect other people’s feelings.


Today, the only constant in the workplace is change. Things no longer evolve at a smooth pace. Technology, processes, policies, people — these are all areas where you can see a lot of rapid disruption.

“It’s too easy to get caught up in the old way of doing things,” writes Dan Gannon. “At first it was productive and profitable so you stick with it and get comfortable, but eventually a new president or CEO will come in and shake everything up. Your daily routine, office space and sometimes even your job title may change. How well you manage that as an employee will ultimately determine your success with the company and the new direction.”

To deal with change, you must first be open to doing things differently. Try to discover the reason behind the change, so you can understand your organization’s goals and vision. Don’t insist that the way things were done in the past is the only path for the future. Look at the changes as opportunities to learn new things that will help you succeed.


Worried that you’re not projecting a professional image in the workplace? There are a few quick fixes that you can implement immediately. Make sure you adhere to your company’s corporate culture — you don’t want to be the guy wearing T-shirts if everyone else is wearing button-down shirts. Be on time for meetings and appointments. Follow through when you’ve made commitments.

Confidence, candor and performance are three of the keys to professionalism identified in an article. The Balance, a personal finance and professional development resource, says grumpiness, swearing and gossiping will make you appear less professional in the workplace.

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