The power of soft skills

There is a saying in the business environment: “Employees are hired for their hard skills and fired for their soft ones.” And there is a lot of truth in this phrase.

Professional hard skills (hard skills) are focused on a specific activity — for example, a financier must be able to predict cash flows, and a marketer must competently plan an advertising campaign. Soft skills are related to personal effectiveness and interaction with other people. They only depend a little on work specifics but help build a career in different areas.

In short, soft skills distinguish an excellent professional from an ideal one. A specialist with deep technical knowledge is of little use if he misses deadlines, conflicts with the team, and needs to learn how to present the results of his work.

The importance of soft skills to a successful career has been discussed for over a hundred years. Back in 1918, the Carnegie Foundation conducted a study (A Study of Engineering Education by Charles Riborg Mann, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1918) and showed that the success of the engineering workforce by 85% depends on well-developed “general human” skills and only 15% from technical ones. More recent research confirms these data. For example, a 2017 University of Michigan study found that learning soft skills leads to a 12% increase in employee productivity. And a 2018 report from the Korn Ferry Institute found that emotionally intelligent leaders increase team performance by 30%.

Idea in brief


During the pandemic, the list of the most in-demand soft skills has changed markedly. In particular, existential skills were added — the ability to set and achieve goals, self-knowledge, self-development, and navigate the digital world.


To train managers, more is needed to transfer new knowledge and train skills to them. Leadership and personal development tracks become an integral part of almost any curriculum. Here, students work with ideas about themselves and their capabilities, analyze goals, and try to understand their style of learning and management.

Every year, reputable research organizations publish top lists of the most in-demand soft skills that help people succeed in a changing world. The most popular versions are offered by LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum. As a rule, all these lists mostly stay the same over time and largely overlap. They often mention teamwork, leadership, personal effectiveness, creativity, and critical thinking.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has made adjustments to these lists. The world has changed dramatically. The usual work patterns are no longer applicable, and the future has become highly unpredictable. Managers and employees of companies began to look for a foothold within themselves. During the lockdown, people have had time to think about themselves, work, and life. As a result, the researchers revised the top lists of soft skills and reprioritized them. Once upon a time, cognitive and social skills were in the foreground. Later digital skills were added to them, but now some were not in the top 10 before — self-knowledge and self-development.

During the pandemic, researchers have also attempted to clarify the very concept of soft skills. Over the years of discussions, the professional community has yet to be able to create a single classification. As a result, they began to attribute everything to soft skills. In fact, soft skills have become a set of unrelated abilities, skills, and qualities that go beyond the boundaries of vocational operations. We analyzed the available sources and counted over 100 items, ranging from public speaking skills to emotional intelligence. Only in 2021 individual research groups tried to systematically present the vision of soft skills and give their forecast regarding their development in the future, including after the pandemic. This will be the subject of our further analysis.

Skills for life

The fact that general human skills complement professional ones was discovered by experts more than a hundred years ago. Still, the term soft skills appeared in the American army in the late 1960s. So they began to call for any skill not needed to use equipment but to help manage teams, motivate soldiers, and win battles. It was about social skills, and in 1968 the US Army officially introduced a training doctrine known as “Systems Engineering of Training.” From 1972, “soft skills” became widely used in training instructions.

Over time, soft skills began to be considered in the preparation of managers, and their development was included in the curricula of leading business schools and corporate universities worldwide. The basic disciplines of the MBA program (marketing, strategy, finance, etc.) were supplemented by courses on leadership, negotiations, communications, and teamwork.

Every year, the importance of soft management skills is increasing, as they allow a manager to be effective in different businesses and cultures and quickly adapt when moving to a new company or industry or another country.

The boom of new technologies at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century raised the importance of soft skills to a new level. Automation and robotization have changed the labor market; machines and computer programs have begun to perform routine operations and, in fact, compete with different groups of professionals. Technological paradigms have changed before, but the pace of change has increased dramatically, leading to a dramatic transformation in the business models of companies and the challenges facing management.

The spread of digital technologies has raised the question of the “soft skills of the future” — how can a person surpass algorithms and robots, and what will be his competitive advantage in the long term?

McKinsey senior partners Martin Dewhurst and Paul Willmott answered this question in 2014 in their article “The Manager and the Machine: The New Leadership Formula.” They identified six soft skills that will always provide an undeniable human advantage over artificial intelligence:

  • Asking questions
  • Working with exceptions
  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Leadership and motivation of others
  • Will
  • Energy

In the last decade, research groups have carried out large-scale statistical studies of soft skills worldwide. Annual forecasts of which skills will become the most in-demand are published by the World Economic Forum, LinkedIn, consulting companies BCG, McKinsey Global Institute, and others.

Research on soft skills of the future is based on different methodological approaches. Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute analyze production chains and look at what operations could be replaced by robots and computer programs today. At the same time, the World Economic Forum bases its findings on a survey of 300 CEOs of the world’s largest corporations.

On the one hand, the authors of these studies are trying to describe the future and determine what skills will allow a manager to remain successful in the new conditions. On the other hand, the concept of soft skills and the boundaries between them turned out to be too blurry. Expanded lists included many different qualities and skills that are difficult to classify.

In 2021, an important step was taken toward systematizing soft skills. The McKinsey Global Institute surveyed 18,000 respondents in 15 countries and divided all soft skills into four broad categories.

Cognitive skills: critical thinking, communication, mental flexibility, and work planning.

  1. Interpersonal skills: effective teamwork, organizational mobility, and building relationships.
  2. Digital skills: digital literacy (“digital citizenship”), the use and development of digital solutions, and a general understanding of how digital systems work.
  3. Leadership and personal development: awareness and ability to manage oneself, entrepreneurship, and achieving goals.
  4. Each category includes specific skills that define the profile and abilities of a person. There are 56 of them in total.

In the work of the McKinsey Global Institute, as in many other studies, two categories are consistently repeated: “cognitive skills” and “interpersonal skills.” However, two new types have emerged that have received much less attention in the past: “digital skills” and “personal development.” Their separation into a separate group resulted from the pandemic, which is worth dwelling on separately.

Pandemic as a teacher

The pandemic has led to an increase in complexity and uncertainty in all areas. We are faced with a global crisis, the source and, at the same time, the main target of which has become a person. Unlike previous large-scale cataclysms (man-made disasters and global financial crises), COVID-19 changed our professional activities and life in general in days. This affected the change of priorities in soft skills.

The Neural Network Menteora will tell you which soft skills you have developed and which you lack.