Defining skills as either hard or soft is slightly misleading. It implies that one might be more difficult or the other less important. The truth, as always, has a nuance that the jargon misses. Anyone who has spent time in a work environment understands that the distinction between hard skills and soft skills is an artificial one, as they often overlap.
Yes, the distinction differentiates types of skills, and they are categorically different in many ways. However, they’re two sides of the same coin. To carry that metaphor perhaps to an absurd end, that coin is the price of admission into professionalism. People don’t only work with technical tools but with other flesh-and-blood individuals.
A combination of hard skills and soft skills is ideal for understanding methodologies and teamwork—one being useless without the other.
What Are Hard Skills?
Before going further, it’s important to make sure we’re on the same page when defining these terms. So, what is a hard skill? It’s a specific, teachable ability: something that can be measured and defined. A hard skill can be anything from being able to read to working with complex software programs.
You can quantify a hard skill. That is, it can be certified, or you might earn a degree in that discipline. Think of your resume. Those bullet points listing your qualifications for the job are an example of the hard skills you have mastered.
Therefore, hard skills are acquired through formal education or training programs. That can be in an academic environment or learning on the job as an apprentice. Usually, when referring to skilled labor, the job is one that demands proficiency in a hard skill. Though there are aspects of some types of manual labor that require soft skills, too.
What Are Soft Skills?
Soft skills are those that help with interpersonal issues. In other words, dealing with people. That might sound very general, and it is. Soft skills are notoriously difficult to define. But they include such areas as being able to clearly communicate, listen, be empathetic and the like.
Just because soft skills are elusive doesn’t mean they’re not in demand. Employers are looking for soft skills when they’re hiring. Personal attributes, personality traits, understanding social cues and being able to communicate effectively are all skills that stand out beyond the resume and are exposed during the interview process.
Related: 10 Most Revealing Behavioral Interview Questions for Employers
One reason that soft skills are less clear is that they’re akin to emotions and being able to read a person. It’s not something that can be taught in a traditional classroom setting. Therefore, they’re hard or impossible to measure or evaluate.
Differences Between Hard Skills and Soft Skills
One way to look at the difference between hard skills and soft skills is through the brain. Hard skills are usually related to the left brain, the logic center. While soft skills are more often associated with the right brain, the seat of our emotions.
Another difference is that hard skills are mostly unchanged. It doesn’t matter the industry or the job, knowledge of that hard skill is transferable. There might be a tweak here or there to accommodate a specific requirement of the industry, but overall reading, for example, is the same whether it’s a technical manual or a road sign.
Soft skills, though, are constantly changing. They are site-specific in a sense, in that they are adaptive to corporate culture and colleagues’ expectations. Communication, as an example, is different between technical professionals than it is among content producers. It changes again if tech is talking to content or vice versa. Also, how you talk to a coworker as opposed to a manager is using soft skills to determine the appropriate tone, language and what you say.
Where They Are Taught
Books, school, training, etc., are all effective avenues in which to gather hard skills. You can know them by the fact that hard skills are often designated levels of competency with degrees and certifications. They’re linear, in that there’s a direct path towards excellence.
Soft skills can be taught in school, but there’s no real metric to measure success or even a curriculum that is universally accepted as there is with hard skills. There is not a linear path forward. Soft skills are like what’s often referred to as street smarts. They’re learned through trial and error, in other words, through lived experience.
Balancing Hard Skills and Soft Skills
It should be clear that a combination of hard skills and soft skills is what employers are looking for. They want a candidate to have expertise in a certain hard skill required by the position, but if that person is unable to work well with others, then no matter how talented they are, there are going to be problems.
Related: The Dangers of Self-Serving Bias at the Workplace
Work is not solely mechanical or merely interfacing with a program or system. That is a big part of the job, of course, but that work isn’t done in a vacuum. People must work with other people, whether with a lazy coworker or a micromanager. Being able to do so with civility is the oil that allows any organization to run smoothly.
Another plus for soft skills is that they are valuable regardless of your place in the organization. You can be that mythical employee who works their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom and those same soft skills you had then will be applicable now. Soft skills are by definition ones that grow over time. They are an x-factor for any organization, in that they are unique, broad and diversify a company to run better.
How Hard Skills and Soft Skills Make You Stand Out
All this might feel a bit abstract. Yes, hard skills can range from being fluent in a foreign language and having a degree in some discipline to typing quickly, operating machinery or programming computers. Soft skills are more about communications, being flexible, having leadership qualities, teamwork and knowing how to manage your time well. But what about more concrete examples?
Examples of Hard and Soft Skills
Well, let’s start with a subject near and dear to us: project management. Projects that have project managers are better run because those project managers are trained and often certified in hard skills that involve planning, budgeting and scheduling. These are essential tools of the trade.
But a project manager is not just working on spreadsheets and balancing budgets, filling out Gantt charts and staying glued to their project management software. They’re team leaders who are responsible for assigning tasks to team members and helping them accomplish those tasks within the resources and time allotted.
That means a project manager is working with a variety of different types of workers, depending on the project, and must communicate as effectively with the manager on a construction site as the stakeholders in the boardroom. Therefore, project managers’ soft skills are as important as the hard skills they have.
Managing people is different than keystroke commands on software. People don’t always act as you expect or respond to what you say. Having the soft skills to work with a diverse group and be able to communicate effectively with them and resolve conflicts when they arise are just as important as allocating your resources smartly.
The same can be said of a profession that is more defined by excellence in soft skills. Say you’re a marketer and you live and breathe by how well you can understand consumers’ needs. That will require assembling panels and doing in-depth question-and-answer interviews with a diverse group of people, being able to empathize with them and communicate clearly.
But what do you do once you have all that data? It can be unruly, and no matter how intuitive you might be, you’ll want to have some hard skills in play to crunch those numbers and pull the pertinent information from it. That involves science and math, two hard skills, and other disciplines that can be studied in school. If you have that training it would only enhance your abilities to do your work.
Both hard skills and soft skills are crucial to performance, but there’s one more leg to stand on if you want to succeed. That’s having the right tool for the job. ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software that offers real-time dashboards to keep you current on your progress and online Gantt charts that makes scheduling collaborative. See what it can do for you by taking this free 30-day trial.