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Can soft skills really be taught?

While you won't always find soft skills on a college curriculum, these learned behaviors can improve both your academic and career success.

Soft skills are one of the top things employers look for when hiring, yet these skills aren't part of many educational programs.

While soft skills are sometimes referred to as people skills, that's simplifying things.

Learn what employers really mean when they say soft skills, how soft skills can be taught, and the benefits of learning before you move into the workplace.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills refer to anything that isn't a hard skill–a skill that's needed to succeed in the role (such as culinary know-how for a cook). While those hard skills typically get you hired, it's the soft skills that dictate your career rise. Soft skills include interpersonal skills, behaviors and attitudes, and social skills.

Soft skills are prized because anyone can learn hard skills.

Consider cooking: Culinary techniques can be taught, even to novices. While interpersonal skills can be taught–and are often left to parents during child-rearing years–most people have relatively fixed interpersonal skills by the time they enter the workplace. Increasing someone's communication skills so they can function on a team is much more difficult than teaching the new cook how to make salad dressing, for example.

So what are soft skills? Most employers agree they consist of:

Leadership 

Leadership skills include delegation, management, and motivation. Of all the soft skills, this is the one that employers are most likely to nurture in hires.

Decision-making or problem-solving

Employees need to be able to make correct decisions in the moment without running everything by the manager.

Communication

Communication is one of the most important soft skills. Good communicators can listen well, communicate appropriately, and build relationships.

Teamwork

Teamwork or collaborative skills help employees get along with coworkers while working together toward a common goal.

Fit

Employees should be able to discern workplace culture, display appropriate behaviors, and be culturally sensitive and appropriate in the workplace. This is something that's difficult to teach.

Time management

Time management skills help workers complete their daily to-dos within an appropriate amount of time, Employees who are easily distracted or cannot work in a timely manner clog workplace productivity and affect morale.

Positive attitude

A positive attitude is one of the most desirable soft skills for workplaces, and suggests individuals are resilient, creative, and adaptable. Employees who have a positive attitude elevate those around them, do their part to contribute to workplace success, and don't drain on others.

Respect

Workplaces tend to be hierarchical organizations, so it's no surprise that employees look for individuals who are respectful.

Dependable

Particularly in the hospitality industry, employers look for individuals who are reliable and dependable. They need people who will show up to scheduled shifts, rather than call out or arrive late.

Can soft skills be taught?

While most people have fairly fixed soft skills, these behaviors can be taught. If you know you're weak in one or more areas, working on yourself before you seek a new job can help you stand out among the pool of candidates. The question then is how to teach yourself soft skills?

For individuals already in the workplace, coaching is the most common method used to build soft skills. Coaches can deliver feedback, guide individuals toward strategies to build soft skills, motivate and support employees, and suggest resources. Bosses and managers can help as well, so if you are lucky enough to have a manager who mentors you, you can improve your soft skills together.

Personal development resources, such as books, videos, or podcasts, can help you shore up a soft skill you're weak in. Online courses are another option for learning about soft skills that don't come naturally to you. If you know time management is a weakness, you might learn more about proven techniques, such as the Pomodoro method, through books and videos. Then you can try out the technique, assess its effectiveness, and continue to tweak your performance. When you're taking responsibility for your own learning, diligence and honesty is important. All your work won't pay off if you don't show a commitment to assessing your weaknesses, changing your behavior, and being consistent.

While investing in your soft skills isn't as easy as learning something technical, the rewards stay with you for life. A job might come and go, but when you have leadership skills, creativity, or good time management skills, you know you'll do well wherever life takes you.