We all have a natural tendency to assess the abilities of others through tangible, easily identifiable skills. They define your precise capabilities, and are explicitly documented in a resume and a job posting.

Collectively, these skills are the criteria upon which job candidates are selected and screened out. And yet, time and time again, stories of someone brought in as a “perfect fit” but ultimately deemed unsuccessful are all too common.

There’s definitely a case to be made that the decades-old convention of hiring workers is substantially broken.

Why? It simplifies down to the reality that we make hiring decisions believed to be safe. We focus on the readily identifiable attributes like software coding and graphic design, but virtually ignore less tangible characteristics, such as personal initiative, emotional balance, and conflict resolution.

They’re what we generalize as soft skills as opposed to “hard” or “vocational” skills. And as Seth Godin emphatically declared in this very well-regarded missive, skills that are usually de-prioritized, trivialized, and even ignored:

… we give too little respect to the other skills when we call them “soft” and imply that they’re optional.

It turns out that what actually separates thriving organizations from struggling ones are the difficult-to-measure attitudes, processes and perceptions of the people who do the work.

In a similar vein, employers often miss out on potentially excellent opportunities to bring in someone as a result of their intrinsic characteristics, even if they don’t necessarily satisfy all of the objective requirements.

As astutely stated, “Hire for attitude and aptitude, train for skill.

The value of soft skills

Soft skills play vital roles in shaping one’s performance. They include self-motivation, leadership, empathy, interpersonal communication, and organization, as well as personality traits relevant to how well someone gets along with others, and the willingness to share information with colleagues and work together in teams.

For professionals working in technology, I have found from my own experience that two soft skills can really make the difference in someone’s immediate and long-term success: curiosity and critical thinking. My personal background is in marketing, but these soft skills are easily applicable to other disciplines such as finance, engineering, and design.

Curiosity

Curiosity, in the context of the workforce, characterizes a personal tendency to want to learn more and seek greater knowledge about the subject matter relevant to a given job responsibility. Someone who is curious aims for a greater level of insight and intuition, increasing the chances of successfully carrying out a project or assigned duty.

If you’re curious… it will allow you constantly to question things, to learn more about things, to connect dots…

– Orit Gadiesh, Bain & Co (CNBC)

Curiosity can inform other inherent traits of a technology professional. Those who readily describe themselves as curious are likely to be active, constant learners. They instinctively perform their own research, always striving to be better at what they do. They’re also more apt to feel that they have responsibility and a personal stake in the success of their organization.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking describes a personal inclination to analyze the subject matter of a project or assigned task, with the goal of devising the reasoning necessary to successfully fulfill a duty in a comprehensive, thorough manner. A critical thinker evaluates problems and situations from start to finish, with a focus on achieving an outcome that satisfies the needs of management, fellow colleagues, or customers.

Someone who approaches situations analytically usually thinks in terms of problem-solving. Designers are great examples of professionals who must think critically as part of their work. A problem-solving mindset is also closely associated with strategic thinking. One who is a critical thinker or problem-solver has the problem (or project) as well as the desired outcome in mind, and then judiciously works to pave the optimal path between the two.

Further thoughts

Curiosity and critical thinking are closely related. It’s not hard to realize why this is the case. Being able to successfully solve a problem requires some requisite knowledge and background, which in turn can be satisfied by learning through research or inquiry. Someone who is analytically inclined often has a propensity for discovering new things.

Perhaps the best way to promote the importance of soft skills is to openly recognize them, encourage them (encourage the curiosity to learn more), and whenever appropriate, recognize the positive results that come from them. Recognize individuals for their intangible but vital talents, and even make others known about them.