Soft skills vs. hard skills: Which are more important when selecting leaders?

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Success on the job depends on countless factors. Some of them can only be influenced to a limited extent and tend to be more subject to chance. Soft Skills und Hard Skills hingegen gelten bei der Personalauswahl national wie international als der Bewertungsmaßstab schlechthin. The individual components of both [...]

Success on the job depends on countless factors. Some of them can only be influenced to a limited extent and tend to be more subject to chance. Soft Skills und Hard Skills hingegen gelten bei der Personalauswahl national wie international als der Bewertungsmaßstab schlechthin. The individual components of both competencies can be tested measured and compared, making each applicant easier for a company to assess. And even during the employment relationship itself, the characteristics of both soft and hard skills are used to evaluate employees. They form the basis for employee appraisals and serve as a reference for any potential training needs. But what are the differences between hard skills and soft skills? Which are more relevant in the recruitment process or in the employment relationship? And where is it possible to compensate for shortcomings and incorporate them retroactively? The fact is: anyone applying for a leadership position should know their strengths and be frank regarding their own further personal development. For the company but above all for themselves.

What are hard and soft skills?

The definition of hard and soft skills is conceivably quite simple. Hard skills are professional competencies learned during studies, from books, seminars or training courses. Beginning with computer skills, they range from project management to financial planning. Theoretical knowledge is learned and later applied in practice.

The basics of soft skills, on the other hand, are not learned consciously, but can certainly be trained by choice. They are character imprints. They are what makes the person in question tick and makes them unique. Their communication skills, their ability to work in a team, their reliability or their mindset. These soft skills are weaker or stronger depending on their personality.

In general, hard skills are regarded as measurable and therefore comparable. For HR specialists, it is therefore relatively easy in the recruitment process to assess the technical knowledge of applicants and to rank them on the basis of this. In contrast, it is more difficult to assess the level of personal characteristics. But here too, there is a range of suitable instruments for provoking and testing certain behaviors in a given situation. Structured interview, assessment centers or the presentation of possible solutions to a given question provide initial impressions, keeping in mind the fact that situational factors such as the stress of the examination setting must be taken into account.

And what are the benefits for companies?

Whether an applicant fits a company´s values and will integrate well into the existing team and promote the company´s strategy in a goal-oriented manner can only be predicted somewhat loosely during the selection process. Which strengths are actually present and where any weaknesses lie only becomes apparent in the course of the individual´s employment.

Shortcomings in hard skills

Hard skills are necessary for each position, i.e. the professional competencies required to fill a position profitably. If there are any shortcomings in this regard, e.g. because knowledge of a computer program is lacking, or in-house project management operates according to a different system, these shortcomings can easily be remedied by means of follow-up training. Therefore, if a candidate has minor gaps in his or her hard skills, it is worth considering bringing him or her up to speed with additional training in this area. This is of course particularly worthwhile if the candidate is otherwise a perfect fit for the position and the company.

Even in the subsequent course of day-to-day business, readjustments are not uncommon. If new programs are introduced or new management tasks are taken on, it is customary to train individuals promptly in order to avoid unnecessary knowledge gaps. Upgrading employees` hard skills and keeping them up to date with the latest technical developments is an essential part of successful personnel development. This enables employees to work efficiently and effectively. During the annual appraisal interviews, at the latest, it is considered an expression of appreciation and trust to also ask about professional shortcomings or to address these openly and offer relevant training or an appropriate seminar.

Shortcomings in soft skill

In order to verify whether and to what extent an applicant possesses specific soft skills during the recruitment process, an HR specialist may need quite a bit of experience. In actual fact, the presence and extent of soft skills only become apparent in day-to-day professional life when confronting concrete situations. Therefore, the only thing left to do is to simulate, observe and evaluate situational behavior. This is always focused on whether the person fits in with the company´s values and can hold his or her own in the team setting. Tried and tested approaches such as assessment centers or structured interviews at least give the HR manager an impression of what the company can expect from the applicant. Which soft skills are currently called for depends on the one hand, on the industry and the position, but is also generally influenced by certain trends in the market and in society as a whole. One of the constant factors over decades has always been strong communication skills.

But in recent years in particular, a change has taken place in this respect analogous to the market. The soft skills in demand today include a creative mindset, flexibility, an agile approach to work, leadership skills and the ability to think strategically.

Fast. Flexible. Solution-oriented.

Smart applicants with these skills and a forward-thinking, situational mindset seem to have an easier time. But not everyone has these qualities already by virtue of their personal makeup. So what will happen to all the people who are reluctant to leave the beaten paths of their comfort zone?

This is where good leaders and future-oriented personnel development pay off. In-house training courses and seminars offer employees new input to rethink their own thought patterns and to expand or override behavioural paradigms. They feel more valued and are more inclined to identify with the company and its values. Depending on their own personal skills, employees are able to continue training their own soft skills in everyday business and apply the newly acquired knowledge.

What moves companies forward?

It´s no secret: It is obviously easier to acquire new hard skills that to expand your soft skills. Hard skills are based on facts. They are learned, stored, recalled and applied. That´s all there is to it. No major changes are necessary for new hard skills.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are an extension of one´s personality. The motivation must be much greater, because the change is more complex. Soft skills are trained and stored, but the newly acquired knowledge must override outmoded patterns of action and behaviour. It is a long road however, before trained knowledge is tailored to a particular situation, translated into action, and finally becomes part of one´s personality. Yet, in the end, these are indeed the skills with the greatest potential for development and realization for employees, because they represent personal growth.

If you juxtapose hard and soft skills, both categories initially appear to be equally important for companies. A perfect combination of both (those already existing and those acquired), makes an applicant or employee an attractive proposition for the company, since this ensures that the position in question is staffed to the best possible advantage.

Nevertheless, in the long run, distinctive soft skills are more relevant for employees and companies. That is because they are what distinguishes one person from another. Only if he or she feels valued in the long term and there is an investment in his or her personal growth, will he or she identify with the company, act loyally, and contribute his or her strengths. And when all is said and done, this is what really matters.