Skip to content
All posts

The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers

Over the next 16 weeks, the CONNECT2Lead articles will focus on developing soft skills for managers. In this series introduction, we want to explain why soft skills matter so much and why they’re so challenging to master. We’ll also give you tools, tips, resources, and more to become more effective as a manager by focusing on your soft skills.

Soft Skills for Managers? Hard Skills? What’s the Difference?

You’ve got the technical knowledge, the specialized education, the front-line experience, and the functional skills. You have expertise in your field. You have mastered the tasks required to deliver the key outcomes associated with your occupation.

But there’s something else you need to succeed as a manager. No matter how advanced your vocational abilities are, you’ll need soft skills, too.

But what’s the difference? Take a look at this chart to understand some of the differences that are the easiest to spot in others. Notice, too, that these contrasts also cause some misperceptions about what it takes to succeed. We’ll be talking about all of this as our series “The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers” continues.


 Hard Skills

 Soft Skills

Measured by: IQ EQ
Situationally, the rules and norms   Stay the same Change 
You learn it:  In the classroom  On the playground 
Those who excel are called:   Smart Popular 
Personality stereotypes include:   Introvert Extrovert 
Expectations include:   Logical Creative 
Also called:   Left-brained Right-brained 
Serve you well when:   Working alone Working with others 


Hard skills are specialized.

They include everything required by a specific job or function. Accountants need skills and knowledge related to auditing, reporting and regulations. Engineers need to know how to design and draft blueprints. HR professionals must understand employment law and how to prepare and update records related to hiring, transferring, promoting, and terminating employees. And so on. Every functional area requires its own hard skills.

Hard skills are acquired through education and on-the-job experience. Resumes showcase hard skills. People receive certifications, degrees, and promotions because of the hard skills and knowledge they demonstrate. Hard skills are measurable and observable in the output and outcomes associated with a particular job role.

Soft skills are universal.

They are the same for people in any job function. These skills are applicable in any job role. People in most job roles (and in management roles especially) need to effectively engage with other people in the workplace. Getting along with others and contributing to the team in ways that draw out the best from others increases the value of any employee.

Soft skills are acquired through life experience. They are demonstrated through relationships with team members, positive attitude, conflict resolution, creative problem solving, quality decision making, and ability to handle stress and change. Soft skills are not as tangible, observable or measurable as hard skills. They are linked to personality and personal preferences, and this can make interviewing for them, assessing them, and performance management around them uncomfortable.

Most job descriptions profile the ideal candidate as having a hybrid of soft and hard skills. Despite this, companies spend only 27.6% of their training investments on soft skills development (source: Green & McGill).

Definition of Soft Skills

Soft skills are “the personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”

These attributes include a broad and combined range of people skills, communication skills, personality traits, habits, attitudes, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, team orientation, cognitive processing of information, and ability/willingness to tolerate ambiguity and rapid change.

The term “soft skills” is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like leadership, character traits, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, common sense, being a “people person,” life skills, influential, likeable, politically savvy, and team player. Each of these terms depicts a facet of soft skills but doesn’t fully encompass all that the term is intended to convey.

For our purposes in this series, we’ll define soft skills as anything and everything that is not a job-specific hard skill. The soft skills that matter most for you are the ones required to effectively do your job and manage or influence others. No one has mastered all soft skills, just as no one has or will master all hard skills for all functional areas. The right blend, along with the desire to keep learning and growing, is what will help you be more successful.

Why Soft Skills Are Important

Having “soft skills” doesn’t make you soft. But relying on “hard skills” alone will make you seem hard, cold, distant, and uncaring. If you’ve proven yourself through hard work and functional prowess, you may have neglected the simultaneous development of relationships and connections. After all, those skills weren’t a part of your degree program and annual performance reviews. So they didn’t seem all that important.

Until now.

As a manager, what got you here won’t get you there. In other words, the job-related expertise that made you successful on the front lines won’t make you successful as a manager. It’s no longer enough. In this role, soft skills are very important.

A Harvard University study found that 85% of professional achievements are determined by soft skills and only 15% by demonstration of hard skills. Studies by Stanford and Carnegie Mellon produced similar findings, as early as 1918. A study conducted in the UK with McDonald’s predicted that half a million people there will be held back from career progression due to a lack of soft skills.

Researchers conclude that soft skills are every bit as important as hard skills in job success, no matter what the role is. In management, though, there is a heightened need for soft skills because it’s up to managers to engage employees. Employee engagement levels have an impact on employee retention, productivity, customer satisfaction, topline revenue, and profit margins. Managers who lack soft skills are unable to produce strong and sustained business results.

This creates a devastating gap for some teams and organizations. When someone is a brilliant technical expert but lacks soft skills, it can lead to internal competition and conflict, low morale, stagnating development of employees, high turnover, and significant stress for all who are affected. When the best and brightest are promoted into management roles without consideration of soft skills gaps and the impact on others, it can take years to repair the damage.

The damage is often a career derailment for the manager who was promoted for hard skills alone. A job termination or demotion is demoralizing. It suggests to future employers that the hard skills aren’t up to par and/or that hiring this person would be a risky move. Worse still, the lack of feedback and coaching provided causes this former superstar to remain in the dark about what happened. People who find themselves in this situation generally externalize the blame. They don’t make any changes because they don’t see how they now seem less brilliant, less expert, and less employable.

Soft skills matter. A lot.    

A Tale of Two Managers (Spoiler: It’s About Their Soft Skills!)

Graphic Showing Being Separated by a WallThis is a true story from a well-known, highly renowned public institution on the West Coast of the United States. This organization, due to the nature of its work, employs highly educated people who are accustomed to individual achievements and distinctions based on their groundbreaking research and scientific contributions.

In one division, over half of the organization’s employees were in their late 20s and early 30s. Following lengthy (and impressive!) academic careers, most were in their first full-time job. Several of the managers had no previous experience, with their first jobs being at the management level due to their academic credentials.

One of these managers was well-liked and highly effective. We’ll call her Theresa.  Once she earned her doctoral degree, she took two years off to travel, get married, and settle into her new home. At the time of this story, she’d been in this management role for 18 months.

Another manager, “Chloe,” started two weeks after Theresa but was struggling mightily to motivate her team and reach the department’s goals. Chloe took this job immediately after completing her PhD work at a school affiliated with her employer’s institution.   

On paper, Chloe and Theresa seemed very similar. Both were scientists with published research and many papers to their names. Both had glowing reviews from professors and peers about their technical expertise.  Both had completed residencies that included working alongside eminent professors and professionals, and they had both written dissertations that were closely related to the work they’d now been hired to oversee.

When they were hired, senior managers viewed Chloe as “the sure thing” and Theresa as the risky hire. Chloe’s work was known in the local academic community. Her glowing references included people known by the hiring team. References described her as “hard working,” “dedicated,” and “focused.” Theresa, they thought, might not take her work seriously enough.

So, What Happened?

The differences in their styles were apparent immediately.

Chloe demanded hard work, dedication, and focus from her team members. She was intolerant of time-wasting chit chat, absenteeism and tardiness, errors, and imperfection. She routinely worked 16-hour days, usually worked over the weekend, and emailed people at all hours of the night. She expected others to do the same. Her reputation gradually shifted from “dedicated” to “intense” to “obsessive.”

At first, Chloe’s team did produce more than they had in the past. There were some breakthroughs and new discoveries that initially unified and ignited them. But, for most, the pace was unsustainable. The initial excitement quickly faded into serious burnout. It didn’t help that Chloe was impatient and seldom took time to listen to their concerns. Her pat answer to complaints was “There’s nothing we can do about that, so get over it and move on. We have important work to do.”

Theresa’s team did not deliver breakthrough results and new discoveries as quickly as Chloe’s team did. She worked 9-hour days and occasional Saturdays. She took 4-day weekends three times in her first six months, and those early concerns about her dedication resurfaced each time. She encouraged members of her team to occasionally leave early so they could attend events with family members or otherwise “stay fresh” (a term Theresa frequently used to describe being mentally alert and fully present).

Despite working fewer hours and under less intense pressures, Theresa’s team caught up and surpassed Chloe’s team performance within six months. Theresa’s team seemed to enjoy their work more and had that unity and excitement that Chloe’s team had lost. The feeling in one team setting vs. the other was palpable even to a newcomer who had no idea any of this was happening.

Due to a research grant award, Theresa was asked to expand her team less than one year into the job. Almost immediately, three people applied to transfer from Chloe’s team. Two others went to HR to ask if they could apply without telling their manager, a deviation from existing policies. This got the attention of one HR Manager because there had also been two recent departures from Theresa’s team who said, in their exit interviews, that they could no longer stand to work for her.

In this organization, there are standard procedures for situations like this. An investigation was launched, people were interviewed, surveys were administered, and workplace observations began. Chloe, certain that her work ethic and dedication would prevail and prove her right, made no changes at all in behaviors or attitude. She focused intently on her work and continued pushing team members to work longer and harder. She barely spoke to anyone during the workday and was clearly bothered any time someone interrupted her even if she was away from her work station and research.

The observer’s feedback matched what employees said. Chloe lacked soft skills and exhibited no understanding of their importance. She made no effort to connect with people and understand what they needed. Her singular focus was on the work itself.

Unfortunately, when this was brought to Chloe’s attention, she still couldn’t see it. She blamed her “lazy” team and said it was obvious that the organization was playing favorites by giving Theresa the additional responsibilities associated with the grant award. She quit, on the spot, unwilling to accept coaching and support that might have helped her develop self-awareness and soft skills.

Don’t let this happen to you. Soft skills matter. No amount of expertise, intelligence, hard work, or long hours will replace the value of soft skills.   

Your Next Move

Not sure if you’re at risk? You may wish to complete our Career Roadblocks Quiz to identify which of the most common roadblocks you might be susceptible to. Stay tuned to this series for ways to develop soft skills and apply them like Theresa did!

Make sure you don't have a blindspot when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions.