the most important skills

What are the skills of the ideal team member? Organizations need to think about this for recruiting and interviewing. And any individual (perhaps that is you) who wants to grow themselves and their career needs to ask this question too. The answer often falls into two areas – the job skills (experience, subject knowledge, etc. Often called hard skills.) and the human skills (influencing, communicating, building trust, etc. Often called soft skills.). That is a fine way to categorize skills, but doesn’t answer the question: What are the most important skills for success at work?

In part, the answer is that it depends. It depends on the specific job. In some jobs, if I can’t drive the forklift, do the calculation, or run the software, I can’t succeed. But stopping there or shrugging our shoulders with an it depends, keeps us from thinking about an important reality that we need to understand if we want successful teams, great results, and individually successful careers.

Let’s look at this a bit more deeply.

Checking the Language

You may have noticed that I changed the question a bit by changing the language.  As I said above, the phrases most often used in this conversation are hard skills and soft skills (rather than job skills and human skills).

Since we are looking at language, let’s go to the Thesaurus for some synonyms…

Things that are hard are solid, strong, and tough – and they are also definite, absolute, and verified. Who wouldn’t want or need those things, and those skills in an employee?

Things that are soft are the opposite of hard. They are comfortable, flexible, easy, weak, and mild. These traits don’t seem as clearly valuable at work do they?

And while not synonyms, things that are hard are typically tangible and easier to measure than things that are soft – especially in the realm of skills, right?

If we instead think in terms of:

Job skills – the specific tasks and experiences needed to do the specific work; and human skills – the skills of relating, communicating, and collaborating with others it feels very different doesn’t it?

Two things change as we change the language, since job and human aren’t opposites, it is easier think about both rather than feeling the need to choose (hard  or soft?). And when you reframe skills without the metaphoric nature of hard and soft it is easier to see the nuance.

And yet, the question remains: which are the most important skills?

Considering our Assumptions

Answering the “which are the most important skills?” question depends ultimately, on how you define work.

If the work is rigidly defined by the subject matter, context and individual contributions of the person doing the work, job skills, move to the top of the list. If people see the work as including the interaction with others, then human skills are rightly considered more important.

Looking at Reality

Even a cursory look on the internet for searches about the most important skills needed to advance your career will include lists of both job skills and human skills.   The reality is that there are skills you need to do your job like operating the equipment, writing the code, or the technical parts of the job, those are just the starting point.

The employees that advance in any job pursuit aren’t the job skill wizards, but those who have human skills too – the ability to relate, collaborate, communicate, lead and more.

Which are the most important skills? Isn’t a perfect question, because job skills might be the table stakes to get considered for the job. But human skills will be the differentiator between higher and lower performers, those who advance and those who languish, and those who make a difference and those who come to work.

As an organization, frame your “which are the most important skills” question as job vs human skills, and you will take a more balanced and effective view.  And as an individual, thinking in that way will focus your personal growth and development efforts more appropriately.


Does your organization need more effective frontline leaders? If so, they need more than hard skills to be sure. Join me February 6 for our latest Remarkable Development session. We will apply a peer learning approach to help you find more effective ways to develop the skills and confidence of your frontline leaders. Get your seat (and invite your colleagues to join you) now.

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