Ever heard the term ‘soft skills’? It’s become a bit of a buzzword over the last few years – ‘soft’ ‘transferrable’ or core skills are just a set of skills we all need for work. They’re a bit harder to measure and teach than ‘hard’ skills, which means they can often be pushed to one side.
In practice, core skills are often listed as ‘personal requirements’ on job ads, alongside required hard skills – let’s take a look at a job ad:
The technical or ‘hard’ skills are the kinds of things you need to know to that specific job in that specific workplace. So if you’re applying for a job as an emergency nurse, you’d be expected to be able to use the medical equipment in the Emergency Department if you get the job. Employers often require you to prove you have the technical skills required to do the job, which means you need to show them your degree, certificate, or other qualification.
The core or ‘soft’ skills are the things that make you good at your job, so in this example the core skills address your ability to work with others, communicate effectively, and manage deadlines.
There’s a perception that these core skills are a ‘nice to have’ not a must have, when hiring candidates. This is because employers often struggle to find candidates that meet all the technical skill requirements, so they choose a candidate with the technical skills but less developed core skills, over someone without all the technical skills, even if they have better core skills. Because of this, there is less of a focus on core skills in preparation for work – many schools, universities and training institutions focus on technical skills and push core skills to one side, or hope they’ll be absorbed by osmosis at some point.
- Easy to measure and evaluate
- Specific to a role or task
- Tricky to teach on the job
- As long as the person meets the base standard, improved technical skills will have little impact on productivity
- Not taught directly in schools or universities
- General to many roles and tasks
- Can be improved through mentoring and good management
- Improvements in core skills deliver increased productivity
But core skills are vital – they give you the power to do your job well, engage with the work you do, and utilise your technical skills to the best of their ability. For an employer, core skill competency directly impacts on productivity in the workplace, increasing profit, creating a positive workplace culture, and addressing issues which slow down productivity. In fact, core skills have been shown to have more of an impact on your performance, health, and satisfaction at work than your IQ, such as in this study on self-discipline. We’ve identified ten core skills through our research, and these include skills that allow you to apply your technical skills, manage your interactions with others, stay on task, and persevere when things get tough.
The Ten Core Skills for Work
Skills that help you keep going:
Skills that help you work with others:
- Interpersonal Skills and Communication
- Collaboration and Teamwork
- Entrepreneurial Skills
- Planning and Organisation
Skills that help you improve:
If you are adaptable, you are able to respond appropriately to change. This could mean that when things change at work, such as you take on a new role, or the boss installs a new computer system, you are able to adjust quickly to the new situation and continue your work with the minimum interruption. With low adaptability, you will take longer to get used to new environments, workplaces and situations, and the other people around you will need to compensate.
To be adaptable, you need to be able to:
- Understand why the change has occurred
- Proactively seek ways to modify your behaviour to meet the new situation
- Adjust your mindset to suit the new way of doing things.
Adaptable people find it easy to settle in to new workplaces, adjust quickly to problems or hurdles when they arise, and can often help other less-adaptable individuals to transition.
Resilient people are able to bounce back quickly when things go wrong. We can’t always control what happens, but people who have a higher level of resilience are able to look for solutions when things go wrong. This could mean they find a work around to deal with the problem, or that they adjust their mindset to accept what’s happened and move forward positively. People who lack resilience will struggle to cope when things go wrong, and are more likely to look for quick fixes that remove the pain without addressing the problem.
Resilient people can:
- Push through temporary discomfort to achieve their goals
- See the bigger picture and understand why something has gone wrong
- Avoid burying their head in the sand and resorting to bad habits when things go wrong
Resilient people are proactive and seek positive solutions, and are less likely to become disengaged with their work. They won’t give up when things go wrong, and chances are they’ll be more productive than less resilient employees.
Confident, motivated people who show initiative get more done. As a core skill, initiative can keep you on task and on track, and a higher level of initiative can have a big impact on what you achieve. Low initiative stops us from seeking new opportunities and looking for ways to do things better, and can lead to disengagement at work.
People who show initiative are able to:
- Look for new and better ways to do things at work
- Feel confident and positive about their performance
- Take the lead and foster a positive culture
People with initiative can be an asset for any workplace, as they not only deliver increased productivity but they also motivate others to become more productive.
Interpersonal Skills and Communication
Strong communication skills help you relate to others and work effectively. There are very few jobs that exist which don’t require communication skills; we all need to share our plans, ask for assistance, and transfer information with our team and other stakeholders, and effective interpersonal communication skills help get the message across quickly and easily. Poor communication skills act as a roadblock – if you can’t understand the message, or can’t convey your thoughts, then everything else becomes more difficult.
Good communication skills allow us to:
- Share information with the team, customers, and our industry
- Understand what is expected of us and what tasks we need to perform
- Work cooperatively with others
- Read, write, speak, and listen as required
Having a high level of interpersonal skills means you are able to empathise with others, read body language, and adjust your communication style as needed for each situation. Strong written and spoken communication skills, combined with the ability to listen, can reduce friction and increase productivity in the workplace.
Collaboration and Teamwork
Most people work as part of a team, and even people who work by themselves will collaborate with customers and clients. Teams can work in the same office, across multiple workplaces, or even remotely – in fact, as many workplaces move to remote working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, effective teamwork skills have become even more important. Good collaborators understand that they can achieve more if they work with others, and understand the importance of cooperating to get the job done. People who struggle to work in teams have a negative impact on the entire teams productivity, not just their own.
People who work well in teams can:
- Consider the needs of others and have strong listening skills
- Cooperate on projects and achieve group goals
- Share information effectively with good situational awareness
Employers value team players because they reduce friction and conflict in the workplace, and are more likely to deliver results for the business. Developing teamwork skills can require a change in mindset.
Entrepreneurs are often seen as business owners with a high tolerance for risk, but there’s more to entrepreneurship than that. People with strong entrepreneurial skills are innovative, motivated, and able to work independently. They often bring a new way of looking at a problem, and can be invaluable in the workplace, as their mindset allows them to spot not only the problem, but also identify and implement possible solutions. They also have the confidence and initiative to carry their solutions through to completion.
People with an entrepreneurial mindset:
- Look for ways to be more efficient and productive
- Are able to articulate their ideas and advocate for their solutions
- Can work independently without requiring external motivation and feedback
An entrepreneur in the workplace isn’t just looking for ways to start their own business, but they will bring new ideas to the table. Fostering entrepreneurial thinking can increase work engagement, and has flow on effects for productivity.
Planning and Organisation
Possibly the most important core skill, your level of planning and organisational skills impacts on everything from how likely you are to turn up late, through to your ability to manage complex projects to completion. Strong organisers can juggle multiple responsibilities, stay on top of their task list, and ensure deadlines are adhered to (as often as possible, anyway).
If you have strong organisational skills, you will:
- Manage your own workload and proactively spot problems
- Stay up to date, on time, and on track
- Ensure you have the tools and resources needed for the task
Employers value strong planning and organisational skills because it reduces the burden on them to ensure employees are on track.
Innovative and creative thinkers are able to create solutions using their ingenuity and curiosity. Strong innovators will look for more effective and productive ways to do things, and can find creative solutions to problems. Known for out of the box thinking, people with strong creative thinking skills can analyse a problem and workshop alternative solutions. They also understand how to use the ‘trial and error’ process to hone in on an effective solution.
Innovators are able to:
- Assess a problem and identify where things have gone wrong
- Consider possible alternatives and test their ideas
- Persevere when their ideas don’t work as expected and seek alternatives
Strong innovation skills give employees the tools to come up with new ideas and find optimal solutions, rather than relying on existing processes and solutions.
A person who can critically analyse a situation is able to understand why something has happened, rather than taking a situation at face value. Critical thinking skills often come into play with other core skills, for example, when combined with communication, critical thinkers can understand the meaning behind what’s being said. Strong analysers can use their skills to identify where improvements could be made.
People with critical thinking skills can:
- Analyse a situation using multiple perspectives
- Avoid making obvious errors by proactively considering what could go wrong
- Understand why they do the work they do
Critical thinkers in the workplace are more likely to understand the meaning behind their role, which increases the chances of them engaging with the work. Plus, critical thinkers can reduce wastage and increase productivity through analysing processes and identifying areas for improvement.
The ability to actually solve problems has several elements – first, a person needs to be able to identify the problem using critical thinking skills, then they need to come up with an innovative solution, and finally they need the initiative, resilience, and planning and organisational skills to implement the solution. Without effective problem solving skills, you are less likely to be able to respond when things go wrong, and more likely to abandon goals when faced with roadblocks.
Problem solvers are able to:
- Work out what the problem is in a particular situation
- Come up with implementable solutions to the problem
- Evaluate and execute the best solution effectively
Employers benefit when their employees are able to come up with effective solutions to their problems, reducing the burden on management and removing barriers to increased productivity.
What can you do about your skills?
The first step is to work out where you are strong, and where you could be better. Once you know where your strengths lie, work out if your current job is making use of these skills. If there’s a mismatch then think about what you want to do – do you want to improve the skills you need for your current role, or look for other roles that would allow you to play to your existing strengths?
- This could mean that if your strengths lie in communication and teamwork, but you work alone, you would benefit from seeking out roles where you can work with others.
- If you’re an innovative and critical thinker with strong entrepreneurial skills, then perhaps you should look for roles where you can implement solutions.
It is possible to improve your skill levels, and achieving a higher level of competence in all core skills will be beneficial, so if you’d like to improve you could seek out learning opportunities which address each specific skill.
Do you know which core skills your employees have? If you don’t, then there’s a chance they’re not in the most productive role.
Despite the prevailing opinions about hiring and firing, it is going to be easier to teach someone to use a new software platform or till system than it is to teach them to show initiative or collaborate with others, so you may be better off in the long term in hiring the candidate with the stronger core skills and then investing in technical training.
Shifting your focus to getting the most from your employees’ existing core skills could be an easy way to improve productivity, your culture, and employee engagement without requiring a large financial investment.