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What Are Soft Skills in Business?

Manager helping direct report improve skills.

Not every business skill is quantifiable, measurable, or teachable. Certifications, software know-how, and second languages are all examples of important bullet points to include on your resume, but some of the most valuable skills in business are honed through interpersonal relations and on-the-job experience. These types of skills are often referred to as “soft skills.”

To better understand the difference between a "hard skill" and a "soft skill," let’s look at some examples:

Examples of Business Hard Skills

  • Data Analytics
  • Accounting
  • IT
  • Computer/Software Programming
  • Foreign Language

Examples of Business Soft Skills

  • Delegating
  • Decision making
  • Mentoring 
  • Assertiveness
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

How do I know if I have a soft skill?

Since soft skills are a bit hard to quantify, it can be challenging to determine which ones you have. Start by asking yourself, “Has anyone at work ever singled me out for a performance that involved a soft skill, like communicating, teaching, or managing my time?” If so, you likely have that skill. 

Another good way to determine if you possess a soft skill is to think about your most successful on-the-job endeavors. It is unlikely that your hard skills alone pushed you over the finish line. When you identify the ‘secret ingredient’ you applied – like, motivating your team, maintaining positivity, or adapting to the unexpected – you’ll start to understand how you are already using your soft business skills effectively.

Top 10 Business Soft Skills

There is a wide variety of soft skills that matter for different industries and career positions. Oftentimes, it’s a grouping of soft skills that add up to a valuable strength. 

We’ve compiled a top-10 list of soft skill areas that boost performance in business.

1. Leadership

High-level leadership positions tend to carry added responsibility, so they often bring prestige and elevated pay. This makes leadership an attractive soft business skill to acquire. However, leadership isn’t just useful for c-suite positions; leadership can manifest in setting an example for your coworkers or taking initiative to improve workflow by speaking up.

Not everyone is a born leader, but if you have a knack for guiding projects, communicating a vision, or motivating teammates, you probably have leadership potential. 

If you’re new to leadership or if you would like to sharpen your leadership skills for your current role, start with something manageable, like your department’s team of assistants or a small project on which you can take the lead.

2. Communication

There are many benefits to practicing good communication in business. It can help you articulate goals, connect with coworkers, or land an account. Your style of speaking, grammar, and body language all contribute to the impression you make with key players and the efficacy of your message. 

Writing is also an important way to strengthen communication. The more we write, the more we clarify our ideas by seeing them on paper. Business plans, project proposals, and financial reports all benefit from good writing. 

The proper and most effective style of communication will vary across different company work cultures, but it is important to remember to listen as much as you speak. When we allow others to express themselves and we listen actively, we gain essential insights.

3. Flexibility

“Adaptability” and “agility” – close cousins of “flexibility” – have become buzzwords across many industries. This is partly because of the accelerated pace at which so many organizations are doing business. Now more than ever, the best laid plans can take sharp turns, so cultivating the ability to make quick and effective adjustments is a smart move in business.

On an interpersonal level, flexibility is a business soft skill that is also instrumental in adapting to new team dynamics – new hires, new supervisors, or a new CEO. Changes in leadership can shift the direction of a company and streamline processes. While this is generally very positive, it requires a willingness to think and relate in new ways. 

4. Problem Solving

It is inevitable that problems will arise at work – many of them unexpected. The first step in problem solving is to accept the challenge and commit to the most positive outcome possible.

When tried-and-true solutions fail to solve a problem, it can take some outside-the-box thinking to come up with the right fix. That said, you don’t have to be a creative visionary to be a creative problem solver. Eyeing challenges from different perspectives, soliciting input from teams separate from your own, and asking bold “what if?” questions can all contribute to creative problem solving. 

Having the temerity to assess the results of your problem-solving efforts is also a great way to demonstrate your work ethic, which is a soft skill that matters in just about every workplace.

5. Teambuilding

Gathering the right team isn’t always about finding people with the sharpest skills and the most experience. A great team is one populated by individuals with strengths that  complement one another. When motivated by a purpose, a strong team works well together and feels productive. Team-building therefore encompasses an array of soft skills that include communication, motivation, and mentorship.

One of the most important components of the teambuilding skillset is the ability to activate talent. Sometimes even the strongest and most capable team members can lose track of their all-important “why” – especially on a project with tight deadlines and a heavy workload. Reminding your team that their unique contributions matter can make all the difference in how people come together to perform. 

6. Time Management

Time management goes hand in hand with productivity. When you’re able to effectively make the most of your time, you are more likely to meet deadlines and complete tasks efficiently. This translates into a stronger bottom line for your company.

In addition, effective time management skills are vital to in-demand positions in the current business job market, like Senior Project Manager and Operations Manager. 

To be the best time manager possible, take a proactive approach. If you notice that an element of your team’s day-to-day is costing valuable time and not yielding meaningful results, bring that information to your supervisor. If you can offer an alternative time-saving solution, you’ll be a time-management all-star!

7. Persuasion

It takes a degree of salesmanship to be persuasive, so this skill is highly useful to employers who need “buy-in” to happen among stakeholders or clients. When buy-in happens comprehensively, initiatives are more readily executed and companies are better able to keep pace with their competition.

Persuasion can happen one-on-one or in front of a large audience. While public speaking can also fall into the “persuasion” soft skill area, some people are not comfortable getting up in front of a crowd. Even the ability to deliver a strong message to a small group can be useful to your employer, so don’t limit your definition of your persuasiveness.

8. Collaboration

In a truly collaborative environment, a good idea becomes a great one. It isn’t enough to email back and forth on a topic; the best collaborative environments allow for different points of view to come together in real time.

To achieve this type of collaboration, a conversation leader must take responsibility for setting the right tone. It is always best to cite what is positive about an idea before saying “no,” and being gracious about everyone’s willingness to offer input is also key. Positive reinforcement fosters the type of openness on which collaboration thrives. 

At the same time, placing parameters and clear expectations around your collaborative process will keep participants focused on solutions and ideas that work best for your initiatives.

9. Seeking Feedback

Feedback is how we learn about our strengths and improve upon our weaknesses. A willingness to hear and process feedback is necessary on any job, but why wait until your boss or supervisor offers it up? By being proactive about your job performance, you show that you are invested in your company’s goals and your contribution toward those goals. You also project the confidence needed to ask: “How am I doing?” 

To request feedback in a manner that is respectful of your superior’s time and focus, reach out in advance via email to suggest a quick sit-down at their convenience.

10. Conflict Resolution

In business, conflict can arise inside many different interactions – between negotiating parties, officemates, and buyers/vendors, to name a few. The ability to resolve conflict can make work more peaceful and productive, and can salvage partnerships that affect the financial health of your organization.

Conflict resolution calls upon many soft skills, like assertiveness, diplomacy, reading body language, and practicing empathy. In some instances, conflict resolution can be managed in an informal capacity; it is an act of “smoothing things over” or pressing “reset” on a relationship. In this way, it is not unlike being the peacemaker in a family squabble. In other cases, it calls upon more formal training as a mediator.

Pepperdine Graziadio Business School MBA students can enhance their business soft skills with a concentration in Dispute Resolution. This curriculum is offered in partnership with the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, which offers one of the top-rated dispute resolution programs in the country.

Pepperdine Graziadio business students have access to a variety of certificate programs that elevate both hard and soft business skills. 

Why do soft skills matter?

Soft skills can make the difference between hitting or not hitting deadlines. They can also be instrumental in building trust and motivating your team. A soft skill can elevate you as a candidate for a promotion – especially if that role involves client relations. Companies rely on employees with solid interpersonal skills to represent their brand and initiatives.

In short, people hire people they like. Soft skills, in some instances, can supercede hard skills when you convey that you fit in well with an organization’s culture. Most employers are looking for a solid combination of both hard and soft business skills, so you will surely set yourself apart by putting your energy into the development of both.

The great thing about soft skills is that they are almost always “transferable” skills. This means you can take these talents to different jobs and industries. If you feel you need to build out your repertoire of soft skills, you most certainly can. With adequate interest, observation, and practice, you can acquire some of the most in-demand of business soft skills.

Learn these and other business skills at Graziadio Business School!