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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Soft skills still hard to find

Soft skills remain crucial in our working lives, especially in light of the changes ahead with automation and AI. John Austin explains how to identify candidates with these skills, so you can get to know them before you make the hire.

You have a choice between two people to join your team. Would you rather have a colleague who has all the right skills, experience and qualifications on paper, but isn’t much of a people person and just doesn’t click with your team? Or, would you rather work with someone who is completely out of their depths, but is immediately collaborative and gets along with each and every member of the team? It’s a tough call—adeptness vs agreeableness—and often we prefer bringing aboard those who will fit in well from the very beginning, even if they are inexperienced.

Resumés are packed with elaborate descriptions of hard skills, but a resumé only gets a candidate a foot in the door. Then it’s often “people skills” or “interpersonal skills” that take precedence. So why don’t employers and candidates focus on these softer skills from the get-go? Beyond the fact that certain hard skills and experience are the requirement for consideration, interpersonal skills seem to be more subjective and harder to quantify. As a result, they are too often neglected in the early stages of the hiring process. That’s a mistake as most roles require a wide array of soft skills, some often more than hard skills.

In fact, as machine learning and AI continue to make inroads in the work environment it seems that soft skills are becoming even more important. Hard skills are teachable, so can be acquired by anyone—or anything. But for the immediately foreseeable future, human beings have the decided edge in soft skills, and automation can’t take the place of that.

But just what are the soft skills that employers should be looking for? Clearly, it’s something we can sense with people, but is it possible to define these skills so we can more proactively and logically seek them out? The answer is yes, and here are a few examples of soft skills that are the best predictors of success.


Have you ever worked with someone who knew what to do in even in the face of utter uncertainty? Well, being able to instantly adapt to new challenges through thinking on your feet is the key to this success. Learning agility is all about cognitive adaptation and being able to absorb information from past experiences and apply it to seemingly novel situations.

It is a complex set of skills encapsulating critical thinking, problem solving and the ability to find patterns where most people cannot—and it’s as important for fresh graduates as it is for experienced leaders.

Given the rapidly changing conditions of today’s business environment, you need people who are able to think on their feet when dealing with uncertainty. Making crucial decisions and getting things right the first time may often be the only difference between success and failure.


In every organisation there are those “creative” types who are constantly coming up with new ideas and have the kind of keen investigative mind that never stops until the answer is found. More than just thinking in the abstract with the right side of their brains, those who possess creativity and curiosity are often the trailblazers of innovation.

Constantly striving to be more than mediocre, creativity has been steadily climbing the list of the most desirable traits employers look for, and this is due in no small part to the increasing urgency to combat the automation trend.

Most modern-day machines have only achieved the ability to be more efficient and productive at things humans have pre-programmed them to do. So, the biggest challenge to the future development of AI is how machines can move beyond functions that are preprogrammed onto developing novel and innovative solutions. This makes creative people one of the few types of people that currently no machine or software program can easily replace.


Have you ever worked with someone who just clicked with the team straight away and could follow just as easily as they could lead? Those individuals who possess great interpersonal sensitivity can relate to others no matter how different the background. Being able to collaborate with any type of team plays a big part in also being able to manage any type of person.

This has never been truer today, where technology has stripped away the barriers for business across the globe. Relationship coordination is not just about leading others, but also knowing your role within a team and how you can support your team members.

By appreciating the benefits of diversity, you can be confident that a pleasant working relationship will be developed and maintained for any new person, no matter how unique. After all, we are all weird and wonderful in our own ways and not produced in a precision-controlled assembly line!


Those with the greatest intellect and natural ability are not always the most successful. A resilient attitude appears to be one of the more dominant factors for those who rise the farthest, going against the grain, failure after failure with the sheer determination to succeed.

This is known in the psychological world as grit and it is derived from the two key competencies of resilience and drive. This powerful combination allows far less able individuals to achieve amazing things that talent alone cannot guarantee. In fact, those who are naturally talented may frequently fail due to complacency.

The secret to reach or even surpass your potential is to possess a passionate sense of perseverance; one that ploughs through obstacles and adversity. The grittiest will be unfazed at going through the hard yards and chasing down narrow opportunities. They see the outcome at the end of it all and they know that what it takes to achieve that height is far from easy. The ability to remain calm, composed and optimistic in high-pressure situations coupled with a passion to actively seek out and overcome potential obstacles is true grit.


These are just some of the soft skills that are desirable for an employee to possess, and that can be defined and measured. It’s important to note, that none exists in a vacuum, but rather are better seen as part of an interconnected web of skills. For example, some of these skills can fit under or alongside the overarching theme of emotional intelligence, which is often looked at as a competency set in and of itself.

Others may be more refined manifestations of cognitive ability. However, what they all have in common is that they are more intrinsic than learned, and are all capable of being revealed through personality and cognitive assessments.

Far from psychological mumbo-jumbo, a personality assessment identifies and measures core traits that research has proven to determine job outcome. Backed by science and big data, these tests have been proven to reveal which soft skills a person possesses and to what degree. And contrary to what many people think, personality tests are designed with sufficient subtlety and sophistication that make them near impossible to manipulate. In fact, they contain questions that are designed to measure to what degree candidates are providing deceptive answers in order to influence the results!

Using personality tests will allow you to reveal these competencies through objective measures that then allow you to compare one candidate with another. Do you need someone with exceptional learning agility above all else, or do you need an all-rounder team player? The output will reveal these hidden soft skills before the hiring decision. All you need to do is decide on the right person who will fit perfectly into your workplace culture.

Of course, we don’t want a generic set of soft skills for every role out there. Competency models are often customised to fit the job description, so we can see which skills are “must haves” and which are “nice to haves”.

Soft skills cannot all be revealed through personality as some are constructed from a mixture of cognitive and personality assessments. Cognitive assessments measure underlying ability by placing candidates on an even playing field, cutting through past indicators of success. It is best practice to utilise both types of assessments in tandem to paint a complete picture of a candidate.

The ideal testing mechanism should be validated and backed by scientific rigour, so you can have faith in the results and make your decisions with absolute confidence that the output actually predicts what will be revealed later on.

Although testing for hard skills is not likely to go away anytime soon, the modern trend for predictive analytics is increasingly focused on measuring these so-called soft skills. The growing importance of soft skills in the digital era is just one reason, but so too is the recognition that soft skills are a better predictor of success. They are impossible to ascertain on resumés and cover letters, and what you see during an initial interview may often lead you astray.

Fortunately, with the help of cognitive and personality assessments you can screen candidates for these competencies without having to take them out for a trial run. Just as common sense is not so common, soft skills are much more important in practice than the name entails.

JOHN AUSTIN is managing director of Talegent. Visit:

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