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The Soft Skills That All Hiring Managers Are Looking For

Listen up, job seekers! Forget your technical chops—here are the qualities you really need to succeed.

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What are soft skills?

Congrats! You’ve earned your diploma and think you’re ready to land your dream job—but first, you need soft skills. Although you might have the technical know-how, or “hard skills,” to do the work, your future employer might be looking for something more. One survey showed that job candidates rated themselves higher than employers did on whether they had the skills necessary to do the job. So what are soft skills? They’re people skills like communication, leadership, and dependability. Soft skills can’t be quantified, which makes them hard to measure, hard to identify in job applicants, and even harder to teach on the job—but having them will make you stand out as an employee. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report found that 92 percent of hiring professionals say soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills.

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You look for innovative solutions

It’s an oft thrown-around term, but true outside-the-box thinking is a skill in itself: the ability to not be hemmed in by previous thought patterns but instead have a willingness to look beyond. A new report from LinkedIn lists creativity as the number one soft skill companies need most in 2020; a World Economic Forum report lists it as number three for 2020. The most creative workers employ “lateral thinking,” or deliberately forgo traditional notions in favor of looking at alternate options. You can also use “divergent thinking,” which is basically brainstorming many different ideas in a short period of time. A divergent thinker is always looking for more possibilities, which employers can use to problem-solve existing issues and take their company in new directions.

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You follow through

It’s great to have all the biggest, most creative ideas in the world, but you also have to have the attention span and motivation to make them happen. Too often, employees are all talk, but when it comes to actually getting the job done, they falter or get distracted by their next big idea. A good worker can stay on track, balancing a sense of creativity with a sense of commitment to the current task. A valuable employee “follows up and follows through, and is reliable and trustworthy—that is someone you want on your team,” says career expert Michelle Tillis Lederman, founder of Executive Essentials and author of The Connector’s Advantage. “You can think of it as personal accountability, to do what they say they are going to do,”

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You’re a critical thinker

Along with creative thinking, critical thinking and critical observation are also sorely needed by employers—and sorely lacking in today’s information-overload culture that prizes a fast pace over a deep dive. And in fact, in today’s “fake news” world, the ability to analyze information without bias to form a judgment is more important than ever. In Cengage’s survey, critical thinking came in as the number four most important skill (67 percent of employers); The World Economics Forum report listed it at number two. However, in MindEdge Learning’s State of Critical Thinking Survey, 59 percent of recent graduates said they were “very confident” in critical thinking skills; yet over half failed a nine-question quiz designed to test it.

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You’re emotionally intelligent

Perhaps even more important than your IQ is your EQ, or your emotional intelligence, which includes being self-aware of your own emotions, plus having the ability to perceive others.’ “The biggest differentiator between the average performer and star performer is their EQ, not their IQ,” Lederman says. “Technical skill can be learned, but the more challenging aspects are the interpersonal skills required to navigate environments with diverse personalities, politics, and competing agendas.” Employers now realize that this sensitivity to others’ emotions is necessary among colleagues, which is why both LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum listed emotional intelligence on their top skills list for 2020. “Creating productive work relationships is critical to success, longevity, and happiness on the job,” Lederman says. Here are the things you need for emotional intelligence.

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You’re professional

In today’s world of social media, it can be tempting to post every aspect of your life, including your unpopular opinions and all your wild and crazy times. But even if you think your privacy settings are locked up, remember that anything posted on the internet could be seen by a potential employee. A report from Pew Research Center found that nearly a third of workers ages 18 to 29 (plus 16 percent of those 30-49 and six percent of those 50-64) have discovered information on social media that lowered their opinion of a colleague.

And in the workplace, the colloquial, emoji-filled way you chat with friends on social media might also spill over into your verbal and written communications with your boss, clients, and colleagues—which, depending on workplace culture, might not be seen as desirable. “Be clear on how you want to be known, and consider your personal brand in all communications whether in person or online,” Lederman says. “Be consistent in being the person you want others to view you as.” Here’s how your employer knows everything you do online.

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You have integrity

“Integrity” is one of those hard-to-define terms that is nevertheless crucial to success in the workplace, and in life. It’s about being honest, ethical, and always doing the right thing—which, in a high-stakes job, can sometimes be hard to do. Employers, though, will value integrity as another sign that they can trust you to execute the company’s goals and mission with the best of intentions, even when no one’s looking. “Infuse into your interactions the qualities about yourself you value the most,” Lederman says. “Try this: Imagine yourself in the witness box in a court of law needing to defend something you said or wrote—can you? Do you want to?”

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You have a growth mindset

With a fixed mindset, you believe that your abilities and talents are unchangeable; but with a growth mindset, you’re open-minded enough to embrace the challenge of getting better and branching out in new directions. A LinkedIn Learning Report noted that employee growth mindset was one of the top challenges for the company’s talent developers—so if you already have it, you’re ahead of the game. “An open-minded person leverages curiosity to explore possibility—they slow their thinking down to stay in a place of curiosity versus conclusion,” Lederman says. “Openness is the foundation for connection [with others], and to be open we must be open to being wrong. That will enable collaboration and innovation while minimizing group think.”

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You’re a quick learner

According to the World Economic Forum, five years from now over a third of skills considered important in today’s workplace will have changed, thanks to advances in areas like “smart” digital technology, machine learning, and biotechnology, which have become part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Because of this, the ability to learn new skills has become as important as the skills themselves; Cengage included learning new skills as one of the top things employers are looking for. “Technology and automation will continue to change and replace jobs, but there are skills that cannot be automated,” Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, says. “Today’s learners and graduates must continue to hone their skills to stay ahead.”

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You go for it

Because hard skills are changing so rapidly, you don’t need to walk into an interview thinking you possess all the technical training you need. In fact, LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, said in today’s work environment, it matters less what degree you have—or if you even have one at all. “We’re looking for people with the dedication, with the work ethic,” Weiner said at a recent Arizona State University/Global Silicon Valley (ASU GSV) Summit, per Inc. “We want to give them a shot. And what we’re finding is, these people are incredibly talented, and they need a chance.” So if you’re holding back because you’re concerned about the school you went to—or didn’t go to—don’t, because employers are looking for hires with the passion and drive to go for what they want.

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You get where people are coming from

“Communication” doesn’t mean just having a nice phone voice—it means being perceptive and understanding of others’ motives. “I always say, ‘The best way to get what you want is to figure out why someone else wants you to have it,'” says Lederman. “In other words, seek to understand their motivation. When you do, you can present your ideas, request, or any communication through that lens.” You can also try these tips for writing a resume that will get you hired.

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You’re relatable

One survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that 78 percent of employers seek candidates who can work in a team, making it the most desired skill. To do so, you’ll need your coworkers to find you open, available, and relatable. If you’re closed off, you will put people on the defensive, which makes it harder to work together and have your ideas accepted. Lederman says one of the “pillars of trust” in a work environment is authenticity. “You can’t connect with and trust someone who isn’t being real,” she says. Another is vulnerability. “This is not about being weak, it is about being open and sharing imperfections for others to learn from,” she says. If your colleagues can relate to you and feel they can trust you, they’re likely to be amenable in turn. Good thing that machines can’t be as relatable as you—these jobs will be automated in the next 25 years.

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You’re good on your own

Today’s pared-down workforce means your bosses might not have time to hold your hand and make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to—they’ll just want you to get the job done. According to the NACE survey, 65 percent of employers look for initiative in a job candidate. “Without self-motivation you will not reach your full potential for success,” Lederman says. “It’s the highest level of self-mastery.” This internal drive means that you should be able, in effect, to be your own manager. “It’s useful to be predictably capable of handling tasks with little or no direct supervision,” says career consultant Miriam Salpeter, founder of Keppie Careers and author of 100 Conversations for Career Success.

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You’re curious

Taking initiative doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions—in fact, requesting clarification is actually proactive. It’s more efficient to make sure you’re moving in the right direction before completing a task rather than waste time on the wrong track. “Being able to ask for help when needed is an important skill that doesn’t get a lot of attention,” Salpeter says. “Most employers would prefer to hire someone who knows when it’s time to ask questions and request assistance than someone who thinks he or she already knows everything.” Although you might feel asking questions makes you look stupid, it actually displays an inquisitive mind. These are the worst mistakes first-time job hunters make.

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People look to you

“Leadership” falls into the “sweet spot” on the soft skills list from The Bloomberg Job Skills Report. These are traits that are more desired but less common among job candidates. But what does being a leader really entail? It’s beyond telling people what to do. Instead, it means motivating others—even if you’re not actually the manager, by “providing positive feedback when an employee does well, collaborating with team members to set company goals so their opinion and ideas are valued, and creating an environment where employees are allowed and encouraged to be their best selves,” says career counselor Eileen Sharaga, who has a background in psychology and business. This fosters a positive feeling among the staff, which leads to better productivity. “The foundation of a good leader is the ability to build relationships with people,” Lederman says. “The number one reason employees disengage and quit is their relationship with their boss—people believe in the person, not the company.” These jobs are generally safe and recession-proof.

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You’re a good listener

According to a poll by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC, creator of the GMAT), the top skills that companies desire all have to do with communication. But this doesn’t just mean talking—the second most desired trait on the survey was listening. This is huge in conflict resolution. “Active listening provides all parties to feel heard and understood,” Sharaga says. This also can help you get to the root of a conflict, which Salpeter says isn’t always obvious. “Listening is an often forgotten skill,” she says. “Know and understand both sides and identify a way for each side to feel as if they ‘won.’ This takes maturity and an ability to see beyond the immediate outcome.” You must be able to take in and process what’s really going on before you can respond with your ideas, Sharaga says.

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You can be counted on

If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it, you’re going to find yourself out on the street. NACE’s survey found that 72 percent of employers look for a strong work ethic on a candidate’s resume. Your colleagues, as well as your boss, need to be able to depend on you to turn in good work. “‘Accuracy’ and ‘consistency’ are probably two great words to describe a dependable worker,” Salpeter says. Lederman says this soft skill also has to do with building trust among your team. “Trust is about the expectation of predictability,” she says. “You won’t get that without consistency.”

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You’re decisive

In order to make solid decisions, you have to be assured of your ability to do so. “Our belief in our skillset and competence is essential in making choices for the betterment of the company,” Sharaga says. Your boss will be relying on you to have an opinion and to voice it, so a wishy-washy attitude will make you a less valuable employee. Making a bad decision in some instances might be better than not making one at all—although of course, it helps if you really do know what you’re talking about. “Perhaps it’s not confidence in your ability to make decisions that’s most important, but having the knowledge to be able to make them appropriately,” says Salpeter.

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You’re level-headed

To be a true professional, you have to keep your emotions in check, because your emotional state will affect those around you. “Energy is contagious,” Lederman says. “If you are allowing your mood swings to impact your productivity, you can also expect it to impact those around you—and almost always negatively.” Being frustrated and impatient is not conducive to a positive work environment. But, if you can take a beat to calm yourself (try some deep breathing), you can step back and solve the problem you’re facing with a clear head. Try these tricks for looking for a new job when you already have one.

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You have grace under pressure

Let’s face it—work can be stressful, no matter what job you have. A yearly survey from the American Psychological Association has consistently found that the majority of Americans experience long-term workplace stress. But if you allow that pressure to consume you, you won’t be able to be productive. The first way to deal is to identify what sets it off for you—deadlines, speaking at meetings, criticism from your boss—and then you can find stress management strategies to head it off at the pass. “Understand your triggers and what grounds you, and seek to be responsive rather than reactive,” Lederman advises.

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You express yourself

Communication is multi-faceted, so along with listening and responding you need the verbal and written skills to state your position clearly—desired traits that are numbers one and four on GMAC’s survey. “No matter how skilled and talented you are, if you’re unable to effectively express yourself to your team and employer, your skills may be completely overlooked,” Sharaga says. In addition, you need to be adept at all forms of changing technology. “Workers accustomed to texting may need to improve their verbal communication so they can engage successfully via phone conversations,” Salpeter says. “Today’s job seekers may need to practice and improve their video communication skills to excel at a video interview.” These are the 10 best careers to pursue right now.

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You pay attention to the clock

One of the ways you can better handle stress at work is time management and organization, which was ranked on one poll as the second most in-demand skill. Missed deadlines are not going to reflect well on you, so look for ways you can become more efficient. Learning how to focus your energy on one task at a time can help you move through all you have to do quicker. “Multitasking is a myth!” Lederman says. “Multitasking only works when the tasks are repetitive and don’t require mental input. When you are in high mental tasks, block out everything else and you will be more efficient.” Sometimes we waste time because of the way processes are set up in the company, so if you have a better idea, suggest it to your team. “Schedule regular team meetings to check workplace progress and productivity, and collaborate going forward on what needs improvement while also stating what’s going well,” Sharaga suggests.

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You go with the flow

Today’s workplace moves fast, so you need an attitude that keeps you flexible and adaptable—a skill 63 percent of employers look for, according to NACE. “Business process, strategy, technology, and goals are constantly changing,” Lederman says. So don’t get stuck in one way of doing things. Plus, you’re going to have to deal with various personalities and approaches to the tasks at hand. “We all work differently and if you can’t adapt to different communication styles you will have a harder time connecting, collaborating, and influencing,” she says. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up for what you think would work best. “Still question the reasons, seek to understand the vision, and then look for where you can contribute and have an impact,” Lederman says.

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You play well with others

Remember the rules you learned in kindergarten—sharing, having manners, and taking turns all foster a more effective and efficient team. A study from Harvard found that social skills are actually rewarded by the labor market, as jobs that require these skills are growing. But if you’re always trying to one-up others or get ahead at the expense of your coworkers, the environment will quickly turn toxic. Be honest about your motivations and goals instead of being shady. “Transparency—providing information and reasoning—is essential to building trust,” Lederman says. “Without the information, people make up their own stories, which are not the ones you want being shared.”

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You’re sure of yourself

If you have confidence in yourself, your ideas are going to be presented—and received—better. “You can’t get what you want if you are not able to communicate it clearly, concisely, and in a compelling way,” Lederman says. Whether you’re in a sales job or not, you need to be able to sell what you’re saying. “With confidence, a person has a more positive self-outlook which helps foster a more positive work environment and team,” Sharaga says. Plus, being able to self-promote and network will help you advance. “Having confidence in networking is crucial because with it comes great self-awareness of what you can offer, and the ability to want to expand and connect with others,” she says. Not to mention having the courage to negotiate a higher salary or promotion.

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You want to grow

All this confidence, though, does not mean thinking you can do no wrong. “Arrogance is a signal of insecurity, which can represent a lack of skill,” Sharaga says. “Being confident will allow you to openly accept constructive criticism and take what others offer in advice in stride.” This means taking responsibility for your actions and admitting mistakes instead of blaming others, and always looking for ways to improve. Also, the ability to accept that others’ suggestions might be better than yours will allow for true collaboration.

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You sweat the small stuff

Employers know that the devil can often be in the details, so they want employees who aren’t going to overlook anything. In a recent survey from education and technology company Cengage, attention to detail came in as the number two desired skill, with 70 percent of employers looking for it. Being detail-oriented and conscientious reflects a pride in your work and a responsibility to get the job done right, all the way down to the nitty-gritty. “Conscientiousness is about being careful, or diligent,” Lederman says. “To be conscientious implies a desire to do a task well and to take obligations to others seriously.” It’s one of the things wildly successful people do every single day.

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You persist

Whatever job you get is not always going to be smooth-sailing—there will be bumps along the way. What sets you apart as a strong and valued worker is your ability to bounce back when things don’t go in your (or your company’s) favor, which means having a positive outlook for the future as well as the problem-solving skills to make it happen. In fact, Bloomberg’s Job Skills Report lists strategic thinking as the number one desired trait that’s also less common among job applicants. This resilience is the kind a motivation that “enables us to overcome obstacles, persevere when things don’t go as planned, and is the drive we need to reach our goals,” Lederman says. Next, read about the signs that you’re in the wrong career.

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Parents Magazine online, among others. Her work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.