How To Brush Up On Your Soft Skills For The Workplace

Non-technical skills like negotiation, networking and speaking in front of people with confidence can help you advance in your career.

By Melissa Wong        28 August 2023

The pandemic affected our jobs in more ways than one. It forced many of us to work from home for at least a couple of years, and the resulting social isolation caused us to miss out on learning soft skills like negotiating, networking, thinking critically, problem solving, teamwork, leadership, and speaking in front of others with confidence. But it wasn’t just young, new employees who lost out; even older workers in their 30s, 40s and 50s saw their soft skills decline during the pandemic, no thanks to job dissatisfaction and burnout.

Now that our work life is back to normal, soft skills are more important than ever. But how do you know if you’re lacking in them and how do you acquire and develop or re-learn them?

We asked Yeo Chuen Chuen, Managing Director of ACESENCE Agile Leadership and author of 8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility and the upcoming Leaders People Love, for her tips to brush up on your soft skills and use them to help you in your career.

Q: What are soft skills?

Chuen Chuen: Soft skills refer to non-technical skills. To excel in your career, you will always need both technical and non-technical skills to work hand-in-hand. Soft skills help shape how you experience your work, how others perceive you as an individual, and how effective you will be at your job in general.

Some examples of soft skills include:

  • Communication, including listening and oral skills and the ability to speak concisely and confidently.
  • Collaboration – this involves working with diverse teams and dealing with conflicts productively, and having cultural sensitivity.
  • Strategic thinking and problem solving – this is the ability to diagnose root causes, adopt big-picture and systems thinking, making decisions, and thinking creatively and logically.
  • Self-management or executive skills, which include time management, prioritisation, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, impulse control, emotional regulation and stress management.
  • Leadership – this includes motivating and inspiring others, demonstrating core values like integrity and honesty, dealing with moral dilemmas, and building relationships and partnerships.

Q: How do soft skills help us advance in our career?

Chuen Chuen: As workplaces become increasingly diverse, and also because physical boundaries have been broken with remote work – leaders (not only those with titles) need to learn to collaborate. To interact constructively, understanding yourself becomes highly important. In leadership development, we term this “personal mastery”, which means to understand yourself well, so that you can manage and lead yourself well.

The most common leadership challenge is when technical leaders advance in their organisation, only to realise that they cannot go further because their soft skills are limited. This is also why many leaders are now seeking executive coaching and other soft-skills training – they want that extra edge in order to get ahead faster. Ultimately, we become successful in our careers only when we can influence and collaborate with others, so if working with people is important to you, then soft skills are necessary.

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Q: How can a lack of soft skills negatively affect our career?

Chuen Chuen: Not having soft skills often means that you are a highly technical person who only cares about your technical area, ignoring all other collaborators.

Here are the downsides:

  • People from other technical areas may have difficulty understanding you, because you tend to speak only from one technical area, be concerned about your own priorities, and see the world from only one point of view.
  • Respect for your work may be limited to your technical area.
  • Stakeholder management will be poor or limited (this is one of the most requested areas for coaching, as stakeholders are very important for career advancement).
  • Eventually, people with limited soft skills will hit their Peter’s Plateau, a term coined by Canadian educator Laurence J Peter.

According to this principle, every person who becomes competent in their current job would earn a promotion, gaining access to another job that requires different skills. Should the person learn the new skills and prove competent, he or she will be promoted yet again to the next job level.

If, in the unfortunate event that the person finally reaches a point where the skills are not learned, becoming permanently incompetent, he or she becomes stuck at this final placement, which is termed Peter’s Plateau.

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Q: How have the pandemic and remote-work arrangements caused people to lose their soft skills or miss out on opportunities to develop soft skills?

Chuen Chuen: Communicating online has reduced the opportunities we have to pay attention to non-verbal clues. For young graduates or new employees, remote work also reduced their opportunity to organically meet new people, expand their circle of associates and increase diversity in their professional network. These have all affected the quality of conversations we’re able to have, conversations that can help elevate our perspective and increase our understanding of others. And without the chance to interact with diverse groups of people, we miss out on opportunities to sharpen our non-technical skills.

Q: How can we tell if we lack soft skills?

Chuen Chuen: The quality of your relationships and the extent of your influence are the best ways to tell.

You can evaluate yourself with these questions:

  • Do people want to listen to you and hear your opinions?
  • Are you able to get your point across to others?
  • How wide and diverse is your network?
  • How easily can you build and maintain relationships with people different from you?

Q: Do you have any suggestions to acquire or develop soft skills?

Chuen Chuen: Here are a few tips:

  • Be curious: A curious mind is hungry to learn more about other people. Being curious can help you.
  • Expand your network: You’ll get to know people you typically don’t mingle with.
  • Ask great questions: This will give you insight into how other people see the world. The more you understand others, the better your soft skills.
  • Feel more comfortable meeting new people: This is important to help you develop soft skills, especially as you become more senior.
  • Observe and reflect: Everything starts from perception. We know from experience that faulty perception leads to faulty decision-making. The best way to address that problem is to “think about your thinking”, something called metacognition.
  • Pick up storytelling skills: Focus on leadership storytelling, not just on public speaking. Develop the necessary listening skills in order to become a great storyteller. Storytelling can help you become a more persuasive person, someone of influence who exudes confidence.

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