Employer Resources Professional Development

Hard skills vs. soft skills: What they are and why both matter

In business and management, a common taxonomy divides skills into “hard skills” and “soft skills.” This taxonomy originated in the 1970s to categorize different abilities and has since become widely used in hiring, training and evaluating employees. Varying types of skills are essential to professional success, but understanding the difference between hard and soft skills can be particularly helpful for managers and leaders. 

Hard skills are technical abilities and knowledge needed to perform specific tasks such as coding and equipment operation. Soft skills are interpersonal, social and emotional abilities related to how people interact, such as collaboration, leadership and problem-solving.  

The skills taxonomy is popular because it provides a simple framework for identifying strengths, gaps and development needs. It reminds managers that employees need hard skills to accomplish specific work and soft skills to collaborate and grow. Well-rounded teams have a mix of technical experts and relationship builders, with management that understands the difference between knowledge and skills. 

What are hard skills? 

Hard skills are the technical or specific abilities you can define, measure and learn. They’re often connected to a particular task or job and acquired through education, training programs, professional development, industry certifications and on-the-job experience. These skills are usually easy to quantify, so they can be listed on a resume or job description — or as outcomes for a course or learning program. 

Hard skills examples 

Your hard skills will vary depending on the nature of your job. Some common examples include: 

  • Computer programming: This is the ability to write, test, debug and maintain the source code of computer programs. This skill is crucial for roles in software development, web development and data analysis. 
  • Project management: This involves planning, executing and overseeing projects to ensure they are completed on time and within budget. This can translate to many industries and jobs. 
  • Data analysis: This is the ability to gather, model and visualize data to support decision-making processes. It’s essential in fields like marketing, finance and operations. 
  • Digital marketing: This involves promoting products or brands via digital channels. It’s important for marketing specialists, SEO experts and content creators. 

In every industry, certain hard and transferable skills can be valuable across different fields. It’s important to regularly assess the technical skills needed for a job and industry and prioritize developing them. 

What are soft skills? 

Soft, interpersonal or people skills are about how you interact with others. They’re not specific to a job or task and are trickier to measure than hard skills. But they’re crucial to building a community as well as establishing and maintaining client, customer and colleague relationships. 

Soft skills examples 

Not all soft skills are intuitive, but they are teachable and can be honed over time. Examples of soft skills include: 

  • Communication involves conveying information clearly and effectively. Good communication is essential in almost every job to ensure everyone is on the same page. 
  • Leadership is the ability to guide, inspire and influence others to achieve a common goal. It’s crucial for managers, team leaders and executives. 
  • Problem-solving involves identifying, analyzing and solving problems that arise in the workplace. It’s important for roles that require decision-making under pressure or innovation. 
  • Teamwork is the ability to work well with others to achieve a common goal. It’s necessary in any role that involves collaboration or team projects. 
  • Adaptability involves adjusting to new conditions or changes in the workplace. It’s crucial in today’s fast-paced work environments where change is constant. 
  • Time management is the ability to use time effectively and productively. It’s important for meeting deadlines and managing multiple tasks or projects. 
  • Emotional intelligence involves recognizing and understanding your own emotions and others’ emotions. It helps manage relationships, resolve conflicts and demonstrate empathy. 

Within your organization, specific soft skills may be highly valued. Some companies prioritize creativity and innovation, while others value empathy and emotional intelligence. Knowing — or helping to define — the soft skills your company values can help you support development in those areas. 

Why do both hard skills and soft skills matter? 

In professional development, the question whether hard or soft skills are more important can be debated. Some people argue that hard skills take the lead as they directly impact job performance. However, others believe that soft skills hold more value as they enable professionals to work effectively in teams and adapt to changes. 

However, both hard skills and soft skills can be crucial for success. They complement each other, and a balance of both is often necessary for a well-rounded professional profile. Even though one skill may be more apparent than the other in certain contexts, neglecting one can lead to a skills gap that may hamper productivity and efficiency. Therefore, it’s essential to assess both skills and proficiency when it comes to technical and non-technical abilities. 

The importance of hard skills 

Hard skills are what make someone qualified for a specific job. Employers usually look for them when hiring because they’re easily measurable and give a clear idea of a person’s capabilities. For example, a software developer needs hard skills like programming and debugging, a data analyst must be proficient in data modeling and visualization, and a graphic designer requires expertise in using design software. 

Without hard skills, performing specific job functions is challenging, and you may not be considered for certain roles. That said, hard skills alone are not enough to thrive in the workplace. 

The importance of soft skills 

Soft skills are crucial for employees to navigate and respond to situations. These skills, tied to personality traits and interpersonal interactions, foster a positive work environment. They are essential for effective collaboration, conflict resolution and team success. 

Moreover, soft skills like adaptability and problem-solving are increasingly important in today’s rapidly changing work landscape. They enable professionals to navigate through changes and come up with innovative solutions. 

Upskilling hard and soft skills 

As a hiring manager, training manager or someone in a leadership role, it’s crucial to grasp how you can help our employees improve their hard and soft skills. While these skills go hand in hand, the methods to develop them may vary. 

Soft skill development often involves: 

  • Workshops on communication skills: Employees learn about active listening, non-verbal communication cues and articulating thoughts clearly. 
  • Leadership seminars: These sessions could cover leadership styles, how to inspire and motivate teams and the importance of emotional intelligence. 
  • Role-playing scenarios: Employees might engage in mock negotiations to practice persuasion and conflict resolution skills. 
  • Group activities: Team-building exercises can help improve collaboration, while public speaking groups can also assist in developing presentation and speaking skills. 
  • On-the-job experiences: Mentorship programs where employees can learn time management, adaptability and stress management from seasoned colleagues 

Here are some examples of what hard skill development often involves: 

  • Technical courses: Specific courses on software development might cover programming languages, database management and system architecture. 
  • Certifications: Marketing professionals may take courses about Google Ads to prepare for certifications in Google Search and Display. 
  • Simulations and labs: Engineering students often work in laboratory work, applying physics and materials science to real-world problems. 
  • Apprenticeships: Electricians and plumbers typically go through apprenticeships where they acquire hands-on experience under the guidance of a master technician. 
  • Task-specific training: A graphic designer might practice using design software through specific assignments to create logos, website layouts or marketing materials, with each task designed to enhance proficiency in particular tools or techniques. 

Having a solid foundation is important, but applying that knowledge and practicing continuously is equally crucial. Therefore, it’s necessary to upskill your employees and understand what areas need improvement. 

How to improve soft skills 

The best approach to improving soft skills is to identify improvement areas and provide employees with opportunities to develop them. Here are some steps you can take: 

  • Conduct a skills assessment: Have your team members rate themselves on different soft skills and compare their ratings with yours. This exercise helps identify areas that need work. 
  • Incorporate soft skills into training programs: This can help employees understand the importance of these skills and how they can be applied in the workplace. 
  • Provide mentorship and coaching opportunities: Mentors or coaches can guide employees in developing advanced soft skills, providing personalized advice and feedback. 
  • Encourage participation in social and emotional learning opportunities: Activities that promote social interaction and emotional understanding can help employees improve their interpersonal skills. 

Keep in mind that soft skills are not something you can learn overnight. Give your team members time to practice and provide support along the way. 

How to improve hard skills 

Improving hard skills requires more structured and formal training, but there are still ways to make the process engaging and effective: 

  • Identify skill gaps through performance evaluations: Use performance evaluations to identify areas where employees may need additional training or development. 
  • Online courses: These offer flexibility and convenience, allowing employees to learn at their own pace. They may also provide certificates upon completion, adding value to an employee’s professional profile. 
  • In-person training sessions: These provide hands-on learning opportunities and allow for immediate feedback. They can be particularly effective for teaching technical skills that require direct practice. 
  • Combination of online and in-person training: A blended approach can provide comprehensive learning, combining the convenience of online education with the practicality of in-person training. 

Employers and managers who take the time to upskill their workforce help their employees reach their full potential and contribute to developing a highly skilled and efficient team.