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Soft skills vs. hard skills: how to cultivate emotional intelligence in the workplace

Soft skills vs. hard skills: how to cultivate emotional intelligence in the workplace

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are arguably the most transformational – and most scary – technologies of our age. Although they have undoubtedly aided our lives in many ways, there is a uncertain buzz around their potential future impact – especially when it comes to the future of work.

In reality, it’s more likely that AI will be used to support and complement people in their jobs by helping with menial, time-consuming tasks. However, despite the great strides being made with AI-driven technology, something robots cannot learn or replicate easily is the thing that makes us fundamentally “human”: emotional intelligence (EI) – aka emotional quotient (EQ).

What is emotional intelligence?

EI can be defined as the ability to understand and manage feelings and emotions. It is how well a person can interact with others using self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and people skills. The concept of EI was first popularised in the 1990’s, and in his book Emotional Intelligence (1995), science journalist Daniel Goleman claimed it is “as powerful, and at times more powerful, than IQ”.

The dichotomy between AI and EI can be likened to that of hard skills vs soft skills. Hard skills are technical abilities that complement the occupation in question (aka job-specific skills). They are often learned through schooling, education and practical experience. They can also be learned by AI. Examples of hard skills include computer programming and proficiency in a foreign language.

Hard skills versus soft skills

Soft skills (aka interpersonal skills), on the other hand, are transferable between occupations and industries. They relate to personality, characteristics and emotions. They are hard to learn and are virtually impossible for robots to adopt. Examples of soft skills include communication, flexibility, leadership, teamwork, time management, motivation, patience, problem solving abilities and work ethic.

Importance of Workplace Emotional Intelligence

Research[1] suggests that people with higher levels of EI are better leaders because they are adaptable, engaging and better equipped to make decisions. According to EI assessors and trainers TalentSmart, emotional intelligence is responsible for 58% of job performance, and 90% of top performers have high EQ. Furthermore, the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report[2], which surveyed over 10,000 HR professionals, found that companies are taking “a new approach to leadership”, and are prioritising skills like “negotiation, resilience and systems thinking”.

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Many business leaders and managers make the mistake of prioritising hard skills above anything else. In fact, hard skills are not an employee’s greatest asset; employers should be aware that, when it comes to business success, emotional intelligence and soft skills are essential.

The Wall Street Journal[3] found that 92% of executives consider soft skills and technical skills to have equal importance. Forbes has listed emotional intelligence as one of the most important skills for workers in 2020[4], and according to Deloitte[5], “soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030”.

Interviewing for soft skills

When interviewing candidates for a new role, it’s important that soft skills are examined just as seriously as hard skills. Not doing so is an ineffective way of measuring candidates and judging whether they can add to the team. However, assessing soft skills is tricky. Whereas hard skills can be listed on a resume like a simple tick list of competencies and are typically quantifiable and assessable via pre-employment screening tests, soft skills are more subjective and are best gauged in person. Therefore, employers should ensure that the interview process involves a lot of face-to-face meetings or Skype calls.

According to a study by LinkedIn[6], over 60% of hiring managers find it hard to screen for soft skills. Yet, after interviewing 1,300 hiring managers, the study uncovered the most effective behavioural questions to determine what candidates are like to work with. These questions measure adaptability, cultural fit, collaboration, leadership, growth potential and prioritisation.

Best behavioural interview questions

  • Tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you had never done before. How did you react? What did you learn?
  • What are the three things that are the most important to you in a job?
  • Give an example of when you had to work with someone who was difficult to get along with. How did you handle interactions with that person?
  • Tell me about the last time something significant didn’t go according to plan at work. What was your role? What was the outcome?
  • Recall a time when your manager was unavailable when a problem arose. How did you handle the situation? With whom did you consult?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to juggle several projects at the same time. How did you organise your time? What was the result?

How a candidate answers the above questions will indicate their level of EI, how well they will fit into a team, and the value that they can bring.

Offering opportunities for learning

Business leaders should encourage employees to progress in their roles and continually upskill. Offering the opportunity to develop both technical skills and cross-functional “soft” skills through training courses increases business productivity and employee engagement.

According to the ELMO HR Industry Benchmark Survey 2019, which surveyed over 1,500 business professionals in Australia and New Zealand about their HR experiences and challenges, “leadership and management” is the most popular course area undertaken by employees. Courses of this kind are likely to be non-technical and focus on soft “people” skills (teamwork, creativity, problem solving, adaptability, etc.). What’s more, 2 in 5 respondents cited “leadership development” as a number one challenge, and so an investment into creating a learning culture is becoming more prevalent.

Fostering emotional intelligence in the workplace is all about being open-minded, adaptable and perceptive. Harnessing these interpersonal skills in the workplace cultivates a healthier, happier and more productive environment. A business that has a team who possess both soft and hard skills is more productive, innovative and prosperous.

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ELMO’s Course Library offers hundreds of courses covering a range of topics including compliance, soft skills and productivity training. To learn more about keeping employee skills relevant and compliant – and to find out more about the benefits of sophisticated learning management systems (LMS)contact us.

[1] Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Successful Leadership, The Gottman Institute, 2018

[2] Rewriting the rules for the digital age, 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends

[3] “Employers Find “Soft Skills” Like Critical Thinking in Short Supply”, The Wall Street Journal, 30 August 2016

[4] “The 10+ Most Important Job Skills Every Company Will Be Looking For In 2020”, Forbes, 28 October 2019

[5] Soft skills for business success: Building Australia’s future workforce. Deloitte.

[6] The most popular interview questions to reveal key soft skills