In times of economic uncertainty, marked by slow growth and a fitful, capricious job market, it’s all too easy for recent college graduates—and seasoned career-changers—to prioritize learning hard skills over soft skills. But if you’re a job hunter seeking to get the drop on the competition, it’s critical to understand how soft and hard skills can complement each other—and give you the edge in the job search.

Note that the basis of our economy—indeed, of our society today—is collaboration. As a result, pure intelligence or technical ability, unless it is paired with strong people skills, won’t necessarily carry one far in today’s hyper-networked, teamwork-heavy world.

Let’s examine why.

What Are Soft and Hard Skills?

First, it’s helpful to define the two.

Soft skills encompass interpersonal traits, such as work ethic, team spirit, communication, and collaboration, to name a few. Note that soft skills aren’t necessarily technical abilities that are directly related to the job. Instead, they fall under the category of character traits. One good way to think of soft skills is as emotional intelligence (EQ): how well you can empathize and understand the motivations of others, and how well you can work with your colleagues—whether they are upbeat, cheerful types or more complicated, difficult personalities.

Hard skills, on the other hand, are specific, teachable, and easily measurable abilities that are crucial to accomplishing the tasks at hand. For instance, a hard skill for an architect would be drafting or computer-assisted design, whereas a hard skill for a programmer would be a coding language, such as Python or Ruby on Rails. The key characteristic of hard skills is that they can be clearly assessed and defined.

Why Are Soft Skills So Important?

Though we live in an age of digital disruption, the human factor hasn’t become less important. Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s become even more so. Consider that humans are much more effective when they collaborate in groups, as teams can channel their collective strengths and expertise to achieve ambitious goals; alone, individuals can barely recall one gigabyte’s worth of data.

And the key to this collaboration takes the form of soft skills, which help people navigate office politics, balance group aims with individual personalities, and ultimately, get more things done. For these reasons, then, soft skills must complement hard, technical abilities. After all, even one committed, highly intelligent scientist can’t change the world on their own. At least, not without a capable team of researchers and assistants.

Perhaps as an acknowledgment of this newfound knowledge, even tech giants like Google and Amazon, long famous for their notoriously difficult brain teasers, have shifted their focus to include more emphasis on soft skills. Now, hiring managers focus on how well candidates express themselves, their thought process, and their interactions with others. Their preferred question? Speak about how you overcame a challenge—a question surprising only for how commonplace it is.

Still, this humble question yields specific, revealing details, especially where it concerns soft skills: what does a candidate consider to be the most challenging aspect of their problem? How well did they explain their plans and logical process? How did they react to failure? Did they blame themselves, pass the buck on to others, or acknowledge the shortcoming, learn from it, and move on?

Even Silicon Valley, famed as a bastion of individualistic, entrepreneurial achievement, is moving towards increased cooperation and teamwork. Apparently, even the most brilliant, lone-wolf coder will have to learn to play nice if they wish to get into Google.

How Do Soft Skills Affect Your Results?

Further, there’s evidence that soft skills may actually boost the effectiveness of hard skills. In one survey, 34% of hiring managers stated that they began to prioritize emotional intelligence during the hiring process. Their reasoning came down to the impact of strong soft skills on performance: researchers have found that nearly 90% of top performers can skillfully manage their emotions, staying cool and unflappable in times of intense pressure.

This should come as no surprise. After all, excessive workplace stress is associated not only with negative effects on one’s health, but also with decreases in productivity, creativity, and efficiency. In a 2003 study, 83% of organizations reported seeing negative effects from excessive stress, which resulted in missed deadlines, accidents and mistakes, and increased, interpersonal strife. These findings are corroborated by a wide body of research on productivity and negative emotions. In essence, when an employee is anxious and stressed, they’re completely different than when they’re rested and relaxed.

Why? In a nutshell, employees with strong soft skills—and deep emotional intelligence—excel in a number of vital competencies: self awareness—and from this, self-regulation—collaboration; empathy; and most of all, the ability to adapt to challenging times and tasks. Simply put, emotional intelligence enables people not just to survive, but to thrive—especially when the going gets tough.

Furthermore, a survey of existing research on emotional intelligence and soft skills found that success and emotional intelligence go hand-in-hand. For instance:

  • The US Air Force found that its most successful recruiters scored significantly higher than average in several competencies, such as assertiveness, empathy, happiness, and emotional self-awareness. By screening for emotional intelligence, the USAF was able to save nearly $3-million annually.
  • At a multinational consultancy, those partners who scored above the median on 9 of 20 EQ competencies brought in $1.20-million more in profit—a difference of 139%.
  • Insurance agents who lacked key EQ skills only sold average policies of $54,000. Those who scored well in at least 5 of 8 EQ areas sold policies with an average worth of $114,000.

Soft skills can also pay off—literally. By looking at wage returns, this survey found that soft skills, in essence, served as a force multiplier for any existing hard skills, allowing individuals to be more effective—and better compensated—than on pure technical merit alone. More importantly, researchers found that all gains—particularly in salary—were gender neutral. Needless to say, this is welcome news, especially given the existing pay gap between the sexes.

A Caveat

That’s not to say that all professions don’t require hard skills. For instance, you can’t simply walk into a doctor’s job interview without the requisite licenses and education and expect to be hired on the basis of your soft skills alone. Instead, this is to emphasize that between two otherwise qualified candidates, soft skills will make the difference—and clinch the job.

In the end, whether you’re a job-seeker or a career-changer, don’t make the fatal mistake of only cultivating hard skills. Even in a world of increasing disruption and automation, soft skills are important—if not more so, simply because companies have to step up their game in order to thrive and not merely survive.

Clearly, collaboration is the key to success, and soft skills are the key to collaboration.Opinions expressed here by Contributors are their own.

Charles Knippen
I am Charles Knippen, president of The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS). The NSLS is the largest leadership honor society in the country, with over half-a-million members on more than 500 campuses. Not only do we provide forums for like-minded members, we also offer training on essential leadership knowledge, from goal-setting to professional accountability.