Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills – What’s the difference and is one more important than the other to your career success?  In my recent articles – What are Soft Skills and List of 28 Soft Skills, I offered detailed definitions of soft skills.  Here I want to highlight three key differences between hard skills and soft skills and how their importance depends highly on the career you are in.

Three Key Differences between Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

  • To be good at hard skills usually takes smarts or IQ (also known as your left brain-the logical center).  To be good at soft skills usually takes Emotonal Intelligence or EQ (also known as your right brain- the emotional center).  Examples of hard skills include math, physics, accounting, programming, finance, biology, chemistry, statistics, etc… Examples of soft skills include self management skills like self confidence, stress management and people skills like communication or networking skills.  To find out a full list of 28 soft skills, click here.
  • Hard skills are skills where the rules stay the same regardless of which company, circumstance or people you work with. In contrast, soft skills are skills where the rules changes depending on the company culture and people you work with.  For example,  programming is a hard skill.  The rules for how you can be good at creating the best code to do a function is the same regardless of where you work.  Communication skills are a set of soft skills.   The rules for how to be effective at communications change and depend on your audience or the content you are communicating.  You may communicate well to fellow programmers about technical details while struggle significantly to communicate clearly to senior managers about your project progress and the support needed.
  • Hard skills can be learned in school and from books.  There are usually designated level of competency and a direct path as to how to excel with each hard skill.  For example, accounting is a hard skill.  You can take basic accounting and then advanced accounting courses.  You can then work to get experience and take an exam and be certified as a CPA, etc..  In contrast, there is no simple path to learn soft skills.  Most soft skills are not taught well in school and have to be learned on the job by trial and error.  There are many books and guides on soft skills.   I also recently wrote an article on How to Improve Your Soft Skills as a starting point.  They help to an extent.  Unless you can apply the tips you learn and be adaptable, there aren’t any easy step-by-step instructions on how to master a soft skill.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills – Which is more important?
It depends highly on the career you choose.  Here is why.

  • Careers can be put into 3 kind of categories.  It is up to you to figure out which category your career is in.
    1) Careers that need hard skills and little soft skills (example: Physicists);   This is where you see brilliant people who may not easily work well with others.  They can still be very successful in their career – look at Albert Einstein
    2) Careers that need both hard and soft skills – many careers are in this category (example: Accountants, Lawyers – they need to know the rules of accounting or law well but they also depend on selling to clients to build a successful career.  Dealing well with clients require excellent soft skills like communication skills, relationship skills etc…)
    3) Careers that need mostly soft skills and little hard skills (example: sales. A car salesman don’t really need to know that much about cars, just a little more than the consumer.  His job is more dependent on his ability to read his customers, communicate his sales pitch, persuasion skills, and skills to close to deal.  These are all soft skills)
  • Another way to assess how important are soft skills in your career is to ask yourself three questions
    1) Does how well I work and communicate with others critical in my performance review and the decision for my promotion?
    2) Are people in the same position as me who are well liked in the company seem to be promoted faster?
    3) Does my ability to control my temperament at work affect my performance review?
    If all three is yes, soft skills are very important to develop if you want to advance in your career
  • I would say in general, soft skills are more important in most business careers than hard skills. We all know or have worked for senior people that doesn’t seem that smart (limited hard skills).   The fact remains that they are in senior positions because they have exceptional soft skills (e.g., know how to leverage politics to further their careers, leadership skills, management skills, self promotion skills etc…).

Food for thought – most of us have spent at least 16 years in school focused mainly on building our hard skills full time and a little on our soft skills through team projects, sports, and social activities.  To succeed in our career, shouldn’t we spend at least another 16 years or more to proactively master the soft skills necessary to advance our careers?

Want more on this topic?   Then subscribe to my newsletter – How to Succeed Like an Executive – in-depth tips (not published on the blog) on how to develop your soft skills.

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Your Comments – What are the best ways you are using to improve your soft skills? Do you think senior people in your company have more soft skills or hard skills or both?

I look forward to your comments.  I am always in your corner.


28 Thoughts on “Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills – Difference and Importance

  1. Pingback: 4 Soft Skills Every Manager Needs

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  3. you do realise that you have spelt emotional wrong on your site. i.e. emotonal. derrrrrr :)
    p.s. i don’t want you to be my career coach

    • Lei Han on May 10, 2015 at 6:49 am said:

      Dawn, This site is a labor of love and updated in my free time. Any help is appreciated. I know it’s not perfect. As long as my advice help others, I still rather publish it than wait for it to be perfect. It would be helpful to point out for me where I have spelled words wrong so I can correct them.

  4. Oscar Gaule on October 17, 2014 at 4:40 am said:

    Is there a way to come up with a single metric combining hard skills, soft skills and experience of an employee in a single formula?
    I believe these are the 3 dimensions that you can benchmark an employee vs another. Question is how to combine them.
    I understand that weighting of each depends on the industry and the position. But still it would be handy to have one.

    • Lei Han on October 19, 2014 at 9:53 pm said:

      Oscar, I wish there was one metric for this. Given the nature of soft skills, it’s really hard to come up with one that is objective and measurable. I agree that the 3 dimensions you mention4r are what every employer is looking for. The best way to assess a candidate are to make sure you probe on all 3 of these dimensions during the interviews and frankly how they do in the job in the first three months if you hire them. At the end of the day interviews and even references can only tell you so much. This is why sometimes contract to hire or internship to hire jobs can be quite successfully at assessing who is really a good fit vs who is not. If you ever come up with a metric, please share it here. thanks

  5. I really needed to understand what are the most differentiate and valuable skills more clearly and your explanation has certainly assisted me in doing that. The examples helped and also the comments from other readers.

  6. James Roberts on June 22, 2014 at 6:20 pm said:

    I agree that some of the bosses I’ve had over the years are not necessarily the most mechanically inclined person in the world, but they are in a position of authority just based off their ability to politic themselves. So I would guess they have great soft skills and not so great hard skills. I guess you could paint me in the having good hard skills and not so great soft skills class.
    I would love to improve my soft skills, but find it difficult not to say what’s on my mind, and not use the filter on my mouth.

  7. Pingback: Hard Skills: Find Out What They Are and Why You Need Them

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    unpredicted emotions.

  9. Yves Barbasina on June 3, 2013 at 8:13 pm said:

    hardskills will get you the job
    softskills will make you stay and excel on the job

  10. MANJUL THAPLIYAL on January 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm said:

    Soft Skills is an enhancement to your Hard Skills and formulate your self actualization Success Story, which further leads you towards your ultimate goals. Hard Skills are those skills which one acquires through education and work experience and reveals that whether you have the required knowledge and skills to get the prospective work done. They are reflective set of benchmarks for a particular field.

    Soft Skills, also known as People’s skills help you differentiate from regular employees to excellent employees. It’s an art of interacting, presenting and building the right professional relationships by attaining the ability to adapt and think creatively to solve problems in a given scenario. These skills encompass interpersonal communications, collaborations, Personality & Behavioral Development, cross-culture management, Presentations, professionalism and adhering to meet critical deadlines.

    From my article Soft Skills & Image Building Techniques on articlebase.

  11. I have worked for two major world wide organizations, in both places at a senior level. Hard skill classes are abound, encouraged and even enforced. But when it comes to soft skills what I saw in both places is measuring the soft skills using tools like Emergentics to suggest not necessarily the areas of softskills one can improve but more as a guide for placement opportunities. Even surprising is that after spending so much money, just hanging the emergentics report on ones door or cube seems to have been the end product. Would you agree there should be more to it?

  12. Errun Scroggins on October 18, 2012 at 5:43 pm said:

    I believe soft skills are developed better when you try to create ideas and/or concepts to see if it fits in your career.

    I believe a senior citizen has more soft skills and hard skills. Their soft skills have developed over time due to the fact they have been within the company for a long time. Therefore they have tried different opprotunities for themselves and fixed their mistakes. Their hard skills are also developed since they know how the company runs over the years so they know what works and what doesnt

  13. Jasper,
    This is a great question. I believe soft skills are just as important for junior staff as they are for manager and leaders. Different soft skills are required at each level but they are always important.

    Soft skills are often more overlooked at the junior level for exactly the reasoning you gave, but those who do invest time to develop them early are more set up for accelerated success.

    Examples of soft skills at the junior level are team working skills, ability to manage upwards, ability to deal with difficult situation, being able to stay clam under pressure.

    • James Roberts on June 22, 2014 at 6:28 pm said:

      I believe that soft skills only get you so far and if you do not possess the necessary hard skills it will only be a matter of time before you will be replaced. But having the proper hard skills will allow you to lack on soft skills.

      • Lei Han on July 19, 2014 at 5:20 pm said:

        James, thanks for commenting. Can you share an example of a business leader you know that only has hard skills and minimal soft skills? I have a hard time thinking of one. Every executive I know have great soft skills like relationship skills, presentation skills, and leadership skills. At that level, you must have both and the ones with better soft skills are the ones who can inspire a team, a division, and a whole company to greatness.

  14. Could it be that the requirement of soft skills and hard skills is proportionate to the position on the leadership chain? With those at the bottom requiring more hard skills than the managers and leaders at the top who would use more soft skills.

  15. I really needed to understand the difference between hard and soft skills more clearly and your explanation has certainly assisted me in doing that. The examples helped and also the comments from other readers.

  16. PRIYANKA TAYADE on August 20, 2012 at 1:51 am said:

    thanx for da above information it really hlpd mi alot

  17. thank’s for this information,reallys help

  18. Rachel Messiah on October 11, 2011 at 9:23 pm said:

    In consulting I’ve had to do interviews of candidates who were excellent with hard skills but needed more development on the soft skills. It was always a hard debate between team members and would go back and forth. The reason being as you’ve indicated above is that analyzing soft skills is so subjective.

  19. Lei Han on July 7, 2011 at 9:39 am said:

    Etwell, thanks for your comment and question. I don’t think there is a way to appraise soft skills without being subjective. The very nature of soft skills is they are related to your own or other people’s perception of you. Perceptions are all subjective. This is why soft skills are sometimes harder to develop for professionals with exceptional hard skills.

    With that said, there can be rigor in evaluated soft skills even if it’s subjective. In consulting, more than 50% of our performance reviews were on some type of soft skills. The rigor is build in as the reviewer has to provide concrete examples and then the reviews are vetted with a panel of people to make sure it’s fair.

  20. Etwell on July 6, 2011 at 3:52 am said:

    I agree that soft skills are dependent on the career and the level. I believe Managers need to use more of these for sustainable success. In a company I used to work for there wasn’t anything on soft skills on the appraisal form. The reason being that they were considered not scientifically measurable. The question is how can one appraise soft skills without being subjective?

  21. Lei Han on July 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm said:

    Martin, thanks for your comments. This is a great example of why the importance of soft skills depends on the career you are in. thanks for sharing.


  22. Martin Pollard on July 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm said:

    I was an engineer in an organization that had an Engineering Division built on employees with hard skills. This was because the customers were scientists in Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science. When I started supporting a Biology group I encountered customers who were more like the general public. I spent several years developing a group with the soft skills required to interact with our customers. It was very difficult to get the Engineering Division management to understand that hard skills alone would not lead to success in my group. In fact I said soft skills were more important since we weren’t doing cutting edge engineering anyway. I also had to advocate for my staff during performance appraisal time to make sure they were treated fairly, within the context of my work environment, when compared to other engineers in the Division.

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