The soft skills that can make or break your professional growth

Soft skills are essential to develop because they are part of every job. This article provides a foundation for understanding what soft skills are and how to learn them.

In short

What are soft skills, and why are they important?

Often described as “life skills” or “21st-century skills,” soft skills are non-technical skills that allow people to work effectively with others. Soft skills is an umbrella term for the personal attributes and personality traits associated with emotional quotient (EQ).  Soft skills help people to adapt and deal positively and effectively with the challenges of their professional and everyday life. Examples of soft skills include communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, and the ability to manage uncertainty.

Soft skills stand in contrast to hard skills, which relate more to intelligence quotient (IQ). Hard skills tend to be more quantifiable and “teachable” because they can be learned through training or experience. In other words, hard skills are easily proven by ability, an educational degree, or certification.

Additionally, unlike hard skills, which might be industry-specific, soft skills are transferable between any job. Therefore, they can come in handy for those looking to change careers. “It’s going to be making that case that you have those transferable skills,” says US-based Career Coach Colleen Paulson. “It’s showing that with the skills that you have, that you can succeed in another industry or another role. Making that case is probably the biggest thing.” (02:42)

In fact, soft skills are closely tied to general employability, especially for fresh graduates joining the workforce. Universities have recognized soft skills are important for students. These skills are crucial for effective collaboration, thus enabling students to adapt and thrive in organizations post-graduation. 

Both students and employers report the increased importance of soft skills over the past decade. The trend is partially driven by the rise of globalization and the need to work in cross-cultural environments. However, a study from ESCP Business School professors found a disconnect between the soft skills graduates and employers find important. Let’s take a look at the top examples of soft skills the research found were most important to enhance graduate employability.

1. Communication

Communication is often cited as the most important soft skill for students and professionals. Employers point to globalization and the shift to the “knowledge economy” as key drivers behind the need for effective communication skills across different channels.

Communication comes in different forms: verbal, nonverbal, and written – all of which are crucial for success in the workplace and beyond. Verbal communication skills include speaking and active listening. Nonverbal communication skills relate to body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Strong communication skills typically require the clear and concise expression of ideas and messages. Good communication helps build relationships, establish credibility, and achieve goals. 

To become an effective communicator, you must develop listening, empathy, and conflict-resolution skills. During a master’s program, you learn these valuable communication skills by working in groups, making presentations, and giving and receiving feedback. Those who invest time developing communication skills will be better prepared to succeed in complex, collaborative work environments post-graduation. They’re also likely to find work faster thanks to their ability to make a well-crafted cover letter and resume.

2. Being committed to work

Being committed to work involves showing dedication, reliability, and a strong work ethic. It is understandably a desirable skill for employers. Highly committed employees typically feel a strong sense of responsibility toward their organizations, their mission, and their vision. Committed employees take the initiative to identify and solve problems. They continually seek to improve their performance and are willing to learn new skills and take on new challenges. 

Work commitment is also linked to higher productivity and satisfaction. A committed employee is a valuable asset to any organization, as they not only achieve their goals but also inspire others to do the same.

To build work commitment, doing something you’re passionate about is important. Fortunately, master’s students have the unique opportunity to discover their passions during their studies. Whether it’s finance, marketing, sustainability, or consulting, identifying the tasks and topics that energize you can help you thrive in – and commit to – your future career.

3. Teamwork

Teamwork is one of the most important soft skills. You will inevitably have to work on teams throughout your career. Collaborating effectively can increase productivity, improve communication skills, develop new skills, and expose everyone to more diverse perspectives. Individuals working together in teams can leverage their collective knowledge and expertise. The most effective teams are those where each member contributes according to their unique strengths. 

Of course, working on a team is not always smooth sailing. Some challenges you might face working in a group include conflicting work styles or personalities, unequal participation, lack of clarity, and slow decision-making. Building communication and commitment soft skills are crucial to tackling these challenges and driving effective collaboration.

Naturally, master’s students get to sharpen their teamwork skills during their studies through activities like group projects and internships. “I learned a lot about myself and about the team as a whole,” says Iryna Krepchuk, a Belarusian master’s student at EADA Business School. “I see great progress in terms of my soft skills in terms of public speaking, communication, and leadership.” (02:18)

Learning & applying soft skills

One reason why soft skills are in high demand is that they are more challenging to develop. It is relatively straightforward to learn hard skills like graphic design, writing, or budgeting; learning soft skills is more complex. We learn soft skills primarily through social interactions and getting experience.

For Neville Fernandes, a master’s graduate from Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, improving his networking and people skills were key to his success. For practice, he spent years volunteering and attending social or public events because the learning experience is difficult to find elsewhere. “That was another big aspect of how I improved my people skills, problem-solving, skills that are not related to science and engineering.” (11:13)

At university, master’s students improve soft skills by working with others and practicing. Companies also play an important role by offering skills sessions on campus, hiring students and graduates for internship placements, and co-developing business case studies with universities. They do this because soft skills are essential in the workplace.

Effective communication, commitment, teamwork, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and time management are some soft skills applicable in any field. Developing soft skills requires self-awareness, practice, and feedback. You’ll be better positioned for the future by building a solid foundation now.

Want to further explore how a master’s can help you develop soft skills and become job-ready? Reach out directly to master’s ambassadors worldwide to hear their experiences!

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