Hard vs. Soft skills - Finding the perfect balance

All managers would agree finding the right person for a role can be difficult.

Assessment methods can range from a rigorous three round process to the more informal "plays at the same golf club as me" approach.

Regardless of the assessment process if you don't know what you are looking for and what "good" looks like, finding it is going to be a difficult task.

The recession brought an influx of candidates from troubled blue chips resulting in many companies grabbing as many from the Lehman Brothers and RBS as possible.

After all, how often are "good" people let go through no fault of their own?

It is a mistake to take on a person because they come from a reputable company unless you know whether their skill set matches the role requirements. The key is to leave as little to chance and intuition as possible.

So what does "good" look like?

Every job requires candidates to have some level of tangible hard skill such as professional qualifications, knowledge of computer packages or analytical ability.

But as impressive as they can be, hard skills only take you so far. If two stand-up comedians deliver the same joke, word for word, what makes one funnier than the other?

Similarly, if two waiters take your order correctly and bring your food at the same time, how does one create a better ambiance? The answer is soft skills.

Soft skills include communicating, influencing and motivating, and relate to the way in which a task is delivered.

The funnier stand-up comedian will deliver the joke with the right emotion, tone, facial expressions and pace. The waiter that creates a better ambiance will have the correct tone, go through the menu with the right level of enthusiasm and pre-empt your needs.

Hard skills are an essential part of any job. For example a GP requires medical knowledge and diagnostic skills. However, if they lack certain soft skills they may fail to show empathy or lack the patience to answer questions. As a result patients may prefer to go elsewhere.

On the other hand, an HR Consultant with a wealth of soft-skills may be amiable, patient and have good listening skills making them approachable to employees. However, if they lack hard skills such as knowledge of employment law, they may give questionable advice and leave themselves open to legal challenges.

It is rare that a job requires only hard or soft skills – most jobs require a mixture of both, but one may be more important than the other. Once it has been decided what skills are required for a job, a method of measuring these skills should be decided.

Hard skills are relatively straightforward to assess and can be measured using knowledge tests (e.g. knowledge of software), case studies, simulation exercises (e.g. flight/driving simulation) or ability tests (e.g. numeracy, literacy).

Soft skills can be more difficult to evaluate. They are less tangible and because they are seen as desirable candidates can try to ‘fake it'. Psychometric assessments such as behavioural preference or emotional intelligence assessments can be a good way to assess if candidates genuinely posses the qualities you are looking for. Soft skills can also be measured by work sample assessments such as role plays and situational judgment tests, or by observing behaviour. Behavioural observation is carried out by asking a person to assess their own soft skills (e.g. leadership), and then asking their colleagues, manager and direct reports to assess those same skills. This gives you a 360 degree view of the person's skills.

The process of assessing soft skills should begin with a list of skills that are required for the role, followed by prioritising the list, and finally deciding on the method of assessment to use. Together hard and soft skills form the building blocks of what makes a "good" candidate. If you are serious about getting the right people in the right roles at any level you need to consider and measure both.

It's one of those strange facts that sometimes your most gifted and valuable people are exactly the ones who break the rules and cause problems. So, while this is a difficult area it'll hone your management skills more than any other.