A confused client emails you asking for troubleshooting help. They can’t figure out why an extension they installed isn’t working on a webpage you developed.
You write back that it’s a simple mistake, provide step-by-step instructions, and offer to jump on a quick call to walk through the problem together. Before you hit send, you check your spelling and make sure your directions are clear and concise. The client fixes the problem quickly. Everybody’s happy.
Responding to a quick query is a seemingly mundane task. But in just a few lines of text, you’ve exercised several hard skills, like reading comprehension, programming knowledge, and written communication rules. And you’ve also showcased various soft skills, like empathy and dedication.
The proficiencies developed throughout your career are like a toolbox. And understanding the difference between hard skills versus soft skills can show you how each tool complements one another, leading to better productivity, efficiency, and career success.
Hard skills versus soft skills: What’s the difference?
Hard and soft skills differ in the way you learn, use, and adapt them.
Hard skills are technical proficiencies you acquire through training and hands-on experience. A few examples include coding language familiarity, foreign language proficiency, and AI tool expertise. The learning process typically follows a monitorable step-by-step process most people can take on to acquire these skills.
Soft skills are more personal and nuanced than hard skills, and people’s personality types often influence the ones that come naturally to them. Some soft skill examples include emotional regulation, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
Acquiring a soft skill is more nuanced than a hard skill because it’s much more personal. Learning to manage your time better will look very different from person to person, whereas understanding how to use a new workplace collaboration tool will follow the same steps for nearly every employee.
Why you should develop both hard and soft skills
According to a LinkedIn hiring trends analysis, hard skills grab a potential employer’s interest, but soft skills seal the deal.
Most employers require you to have specific skill sets, education, or certifications. If you’re a marketing professional — like a market research analyst — you likely need to understand certain statistical software and quantitative and qualitative research methods.
But a hiring manager also wants to know the attitude and work ethic you’ll contribute to the team. While they might skim your qualifications section to ensure you have specific technical proficiencies, throughout the hiring process they’ll look for soft skills like critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork.
Your hard and soft skills work in tandem. Highly developed hard skills mean you can get the job done, and complementary soft skills mean your coworkers enjoy working with you.
Let’s explore some common industry-specific hard skills and complementary soft skills:
Healthcare providers know how to examine, diagnose, and treat patients, and they develop these hard skills through extensive education, on-site training, and continued learning. But one of the most important proficiencies in healthcare is empathy, a soft skill that helps healthcare professionals build trust, communicate difficult information, and treat patients effectively.
A successful project manager is proficient in hard skills like budgeting, risk assessment, and quality assurance, which they’ve acquired through formal education and industry experience. But projects don’t always go to plan — unexpected challenges, changes, and conflicts often create roadblocks — so project managers must use their conflict management, resourcefulness, and adaptability soft skills to keep everyone on track.
An independent worker’s soft skills are often especially important to recruiters. Whether you studied economics, journalism, or marketing, a hiring manager will want to know you have the skills to work independently. Dependability, self-motivation, and effective communication are all skills that will keep you on track without the oversight of a traditional work environment.
5 soft skill examples worth perfecting
While some soft skills will come more naturally to you depending on your personality type and upbringing, you can fine-tune anything from this soft skills list to help you develop professionally:
1. Problem-solving: When a setback arises at work, your ability to find an effective solution is key. This shows initiative and that you’re not simply stuck on how frustrated you are by the setback but are rather pivoting quickly to effectively problem solve. You’ll leverage other soft skills as well during this practice, like critical thinking, creativity, and resilience.
2. Time management: Hitting deadlines and maximizing productivity requires you to effectively prioritize tasks. You also show your team you’re reliable, possess a strong work ethic, and don’t require micromanagement when you manage your time well.
3. Communication skills: Your ability to express information coherently and effectively can help you build trusting professional relationships, establish clear work expectations, and encourage collaboration. You’ll also minimize miscommunications that can cause your employer time and money.
4. Active listening: It’s easy to let notifications or a noisy office distract you. But practicing active listening techniques — like paraphrasing what someone says and leaning in — can help you offer your full attention to your conversation partner. And attending to verbal and nonverbal cues demonstrates empathy and facilitates more meaningful conversations — and over time, deeper relationships.
5. Decision-making: A study of stock investors showed that the most effective decision-maker combined a mixture of critical thinking and self-awareness. Participants who could assess options, weigh the pros and cons, and use reason without sacrificing their emotions performed higher. You can use this knowledge to improve your decision-making style and make better choices.
5 hard skill examples worth learning
Since hard skills will likely capture a hiring manager’s attention, upskilling or re-skilling based on your industry’s standards is a great way to stay competitive. Here’s a list of hard skills to consider:
Office software: According to O*NET Online, Microsoft Excel proficiency is the most in-demand technical skill, with other Microsoft Office Suite software like Powerpoint, Outlook, and Word following closely after.
Programming languages: The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects computer and information technology occupations to grow by 15% through 2031, which is faster than average. Proficiency in programming languages like Python, Java, and HTML can help you enter fields such as web design and software development.
Search engine optimization (SEO): People increasingly depend on online spaces for shopping and information, which leaves digital marketing professionals in a strong position for job growth. But optimizing web content to improve search engine rankings and create organic leads is a marketable skill, regardless of your industry.
Data analysis: Collecting and interpreting data using statistical techniques and tools can provide meaningful insights that inform impactful leadership decisions. Learn to use the most common data acquisition and analysis programs in your industry. Human resource specialists may use Tableau, for example, and an accountant might prefer Excel.
Social media: More than 90% of US businesses invest in social media marketing. Know-how about social media trends, algorithms, and audience engagement can help you build a company’s brand awareness and engage target consumers, whether you’re a freelance graphic designer or social media manager.
How to include hard and soft skills on a resume
Identify job-specific skills: Carefully examine the job description and identify the hard skills required to excel. Include these competencies and other industry-relevant items in a bulleted qualifications section.
Showcase soft skills during the hiring process: Emphasize how you used soft skills to achieve results in your resume’s work experience section and during your interview. Imagine each sentence as a short story with a verb, skill, and result. A software developer might say, “I leveraged creative thinking, teamwork, and resourcefulness to consistently deliver projects ahead of schedule.”
Use metrics: Whenever possible, use numbers to clearly demonstrate your value to recruiters or hiring managers. A management consultant might say, “My project management and people skills contributed to a 45% increase in productivity and 10% more completed sales.”
Be consistent: All the documentation you provide to a potential employer should argue your case as the best candidate. Double-check for conflicting or outdated information and sync your highlights on your cover letter, LinkedIn profile, and other materials.
Go the extra mile: Research the company’s purpose, mission, and vision, and pay attention to core values that aren’t in the job posting. If a branding agency’s core pillars are collaboration, transparency, and attention to detail, you might consider mimicking those values or including similar soft skills, like teamwork and due diligence. And always have accurate examples to back these skills up in an interview.
Gotta catch ’em all
You can probably name several hard skills you use in your daily work, and the way you complete this work showcases your soft skills. Now that you understand the difference between hard skills versus soft skills, take the time to examine the ways they complement one another.
Figuring out where you naturally excel — whether it’s writing a really good professional email or seeing a project through without giving up — will also illuminate where you can improve. And all of this learning helps you develop professionally to enjoy more fulfilling and meaningful work.