Professional development

A hard look at soft skills

Sharpening these competencies can propel your safety career

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

Unlike hard skills – quantifiable technical knowledge gained through education, training and certification – soft skills can be difficult to define. Some experts refer to soft skills as personality traits. Others define them as professional habits, behavioral interactions or people skills, such as communication, teamwork, time management and conflict resolution, to name a few.

No matter how they’re defined, soft skills are vital to safety professionals’ career growth and development.

“They’re absolutely critical if you’re going to be as effective as you can be,” said Amy Harper, senior director of workplace training and consulting at the National Safety Council. “Technical knowledge will only get you so far.” According to a 2019 LinkedIn survey of more than 5,000 “talent professionals” from 35 countries, 91% said the need for soft skills is the most likely trend to transform employee recruitment in the future.

Finding what matters

Eighty percent of respondents to the LinkedIn survey said soft skills are becoming increasingly important to a company’s success, but 57% reported they don’t know how to accurately assess them. This leads to confusion over what soft skills matter most.

Associate Editor Barry Bottino discusses this article in the August 2020 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.

The Society for Human Resource Management surveyed more than 1,000 of its U.S. members in 2018 and found that 37% said problem-solving/critical thinking/innovation/creativity is the soft skill most lacking among employees, while the ability to deal with complexity/ambiguity (32%) and communication (31%) rounded out the top three.

Ashley Inman, an HR generalist at Ferrovial Services North America, an infrastructure operator and municipal services company, encourages safety and health pros to be curious about honing their soft skills and seek out evaluations from supervisors and colleagues alike.

“No. 1 is to ask for feedback,” Inman said. “You want to ask your manager. You want to ask your peer. You want to ask someone outside your work group, then maybe somebody in an industry association.”

A 360-degree view from all angles of your career can provide immense benefits to career development. “It can be really helpful in seeing ‘How does my finance department view me? ... How do employees view me?’” Harper said.

The rise of soft skills

Highlights of the 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends survey, which sampled more than 5,000 “talent professionals” from 35 countries, include:

  • 89% of respondents said bad hires typically lacked soft skills.
  • 41% of respondents said they don’t have a formal process to gauge soft skills.
  • Respondents said the top five in-demand soft skills are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management.

What employers want

Hank Malin spent 20 years as an HR leader at General Mills. He now works with students at Denison University in Ohio, poring over job descriptions, sprucing up cover letters and identifying what employers are looking for in job candidates.

As the assistant vice president and executive director of the university’s Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, Malin is aware of how organizations view soft skills.

“We tend to spend more time looking at job descriptions and saying, ‘This is what they’re looking for,’” Malin said. “When you get beyond the hard skills of whatever [the job] may be, they’re looking for team players, great communicators, people who are adaptable to new environments and problem-solvers.

“We help [the students] construct a narrative about all the skills they’re going to bring to the workplace and how they’ve learned those through their classes, through extracurriculars, through work experiences.”

Safety and health pros can do the same by examining what skills others in their organization lean on them for the most.

“If someone is going to truly rely on you in your organization, you don’t want someone saying, ‘Go to Bob because he knows the answer to this question,’” Harper said. “You want people to say, ‘Go to Bob because he knows how to get things done in this organization. He knows how to move things forward.’ Without these soft skills, influencing skills, managing change, knowing how to break a project and a strategy into its component parts, it’s just going to be, ‘Hey, let’s go rely on this person for technical knowledge.’”

Soft skills equal hard lessons

According to a 2015 informal poll of Safety+Health readers, communication – chosen by more than 80% of the 248 respondents – is the soft skill safety pros value most.


Experts interviewed for this article identified these seven soft skills as the most important:

Communication. “More people struggle with communication than anything,” Malin said. Strong verbal and written communication can help safety and health pros shine in a small meeting of peers or a conference room full of potential clients or customers. Harper added that business communication is an important soft skill to help safety pros speak with other departments in an organization. “They might not understand different acronyms that we use,” Harper said. “We have to make it business speak, not safety speak.”

Adaptability. Change happens frequently in business, so being able to accept it and adapt is a valuable ability. “You have to be able to face change and not be afraid of it,” Malin said. “We’re in a global economy compared to 30 years ago, when change happened but it was at a different speed.”

Listening. Safety pros, especially those in consultant roles, need to be good listeners “to know how to ask questions that get to what the problems are that the client or your employer is experiencing,” Harper said.

Integrity. To Malin, this is one of the most difficult traits to teach or learn. “You learn it by observing people who have it,” he said.

Teamwork and collaboration. Working alone is rare in any organization. Researcher Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said bigger groups of specialists are needed in any company for better outcomes.

Leadership. A classic example of how leaders can impact an organization, Malin said, is a person leading a team of five employees in completing a big project. “They delivered amazing results, but four of the five people want to quit,” Malin said. “We all have had that boss.”

Negotiation. When presenting a safety program proposal and seeking the funding needed to carry it out, “there’s always negotiation,” Harper said, noting that providing various angles on a business case and alternatives to a proposal are beneficial. “Being able to do that negotiation is important because we rarely get what we want in safety,” she said.

Reading can only take you so far. You have to get out of that comfort zone and get out from behind the book and get out in front of people in a safe environment.

Amy Harper
Senior director, workplace training and consulting
National Safety Council

‘Practice is key’

Articles and books can provide plenty of knowledge on soft skills, but testing these skills provides a bigger challenge with greater dividends.

Harper suggested working with a peer group to run through various scenarios to sharpen skills such as communication, negotiation and collaboration.

“Doing the practice is key,” Harper said. “Reading can only take you so far. You have to get out of that comfort zone and get out from behind the book and get out in front of people in a safe environment.”

Harper said gaps in soft skills also can be identified via personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the StrengthsFinder assessment.

Chart your own path

When it comes to professional development, Inman said workers should always be in the driver’s seat.

She suggested a “70-20-10” strategy, with 70% of development coming from “on-the-job, day-to-day interactions with people and what you’re already doing.” An additional 20% will come from building connections with industry or association contacts, as well as industry co-workers. This can hone a worker’s ability to adapt and be resilient and curious. The final 10% will come from a formal activity or course, or perhaps a book.

“A lot of people will say, ‘If my company doesn’t develop me, then what am I supposed to do?’” Inman said. “You’re in charge. You’re responsible for your own career, your own soft skills and your own professional development.”

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