The Critical Importance of Soft Skills

Hone in-demand soft skills in the Online MBA program at SMU's Cox School of Business.

Cheerful colleagues working on a project

This blog was originally published in May 2020, and was revised in April 2023.

Technical roles in data science and analytics continue to rise in demand as the need increases for data-driven business insights. Data mining, engineering, software proficiency, and business analysis are undoubtedly some of the most important hard skills in today’s professional climate. However, recruiters are also recognizing the critical and growing importance of soft skills across all disciplines and levels within an enterprise, and it’s a trend MBA candidates should recognize as they enter the workforce.

Here, we’ll examine soft skills vs hard skills. We’ll take a look at the growing demand for soft skills and the top 10 soft skills MBA candidates and graduates should consider strengthening.

Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills

Often recognized by other labels such as “people skills” and “emotional intelligence,” a soft skill is a collection of personal qualities that allow employees to interact and collaborate efficiently with each other. As opposed to hard skills–which are teachable abilities and job-specific skills and talents–soft skills are harder to define during the screening phase of the hiring process.

A hard skill is typically the first item under review on a résumé or portfolio to ensure you qualify for a job, while soft skills–such as work ethic, decision-making, and communication–are further evaluated during the interview process and become more apparent once you begin working with a group of people on a day-to-day basis.

While it’s important to possess strong business acumen and talent, soft skills are a critical component of a successful enterprise.

Demand for Soft Skills in an Ever-Changing Work Climate

Employers are demanding soft skills from job applicants. LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report revealed that 91 percent of talented professionals agree that soft skills are important to the future of recruiting.

Soft skills influence complex issues in an organization. Interpersonal skills, clear, effective communication, business presentation, and the ability to effectively tell a linear story are just as important as being able to offer effective accounting strategies.

Top 10 Soft Skills MBA Candidates Should Consider

Today’s MBA candidates are in an ideal situation because they are furthering their education during a time when academics and corporate partners are recognizing the need and importance of good soft skills. MBA candidates have the opportunity to hone these skills and gain the emotional intelligence necessary to both recognize a lack of soft skills in others and to understand the best way to address that.

Below are 10 of the most important soft skills in today’s workforce:

  1. Communicating verbally and through text with peers, managers, and subordinates.
  2. Having emotional control in a variety of environments.
  3. Practicing conflict resolution.
  4. Teamwork - being able to work well with a team and having a great work ethic.
  5. Being able to adapt to change and new circumstances.
  6. Having the ability to successfully negotiate.
  7. Learning from criticism.
  8. Understanding your purpose and the purpose of others.
  9. Being able to problem-solve the most complex issues.
  10. Positive attitude- maintaining a positive composure and having positive social interactions.

How to Develop Your Soft Skills and How to Help Others Develop Theirs

Identifying and improving soft skills can be challenging, but science shows that soft skills can be learned.

It’s difficult to address a deficiency in soft skills because many of them relate to a person’s character and can be subject to interpretation. This leads to complicated, and at times awkward, conversations. For example, it’s much easier to inform an employee that they are sending too many emails with grammatical errors, and much more delicate to counsel an employee on the fact that they often come across as condescending in client meetings.

However, as leaders, it’s imperative to have these conversations, because it’s the only way improvement is possible. Dealing with a lack of soft skills in other ways, such as moving employees to a different department, is a disservice to the employee’s professional development.

To ensure soft skills are continuously assessed, graded, and improved, managers can implement the following steps:

1. Remove the stigma: Just like hard skills, most people have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to soft skills. Someone may be an excellent negotiator, but struggles to maintain composure when under pressure. Therefore, the first step toward improving soft skills is having a workplace culture where executives and managers have open and honest conversations about the existence of soft skill inadequacies.

2. Conduct a needs assessment: The second step toward improving soft skills is assessing the needs of an employee by guiding them through the process of self-evaluation. Unless a person is able to identify, acknowledge, and accept shortfalls in their soft skills, it’s unlikely that progress will be made in those areas. All new hires should be assessed and employees should receive ongoing reviews.

3. Develop a training plan: Each employee should have a training and development plan in place that is tracked and monitored by their immediate supervisor to measure progress and benchmarks. Determining a proper curriculum is the next step in assisting employees to improve their soft skills. This can include job shadowing another manager that has strengths in that area.

4. Monitor growth and improvement: Once an employee has the foundation of knowing what they need to improve and how they are going to get there, managers can help maintain continued growth and improvement by monitoring completion of training courses and evaluating performance.

The Online MBA from SMU Cox Can Help You Improve Your Soft Skills

Academics are paying attention to the demand for more job candidates with superior soft skills, and universities with online MBA programs need to navigate this with intricacy. Given that the online space can be pretty technical, it is so key that the curriculum heavily identifies and instructs on soft skills. Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business is no exception. SMU Cox believes in the importance of sharpening soft skills in order to be the most successful and derive the best results. The inaugural Online MBA program at SMU focuses on developing soft skills from a leadership perspective in the following courses:

  • Managing and Leading People: Introduces students to the skills needed to become an effective manager and leader in any organization.
  • Master Negotiation: Helps each student develop into a better negotiator.
  • Executive Leadership: Allows students to explore and work on improving basic interpersonal skills related to leadership effectiveness.

Students also participate in experiential learning. This opportunity allows Cox MBA candidates to practice soft skills in real-life scenarios, while working on teams. This allows students an opportunity to hone their soft skills while in the program, and immediately apply those skills in the workplace.

Meet with an Online MBA admissions counselor and become a leader equipped with interpersonal skills along with technical ones.