Hard Skills or Soft Skills: What Matters Most for High-Performing Teams?

The question on the minds of many a business owner is what to look for when assembling high-performing teams. But is it soft skills or hard skills?
July 09, 2018

When selecting members for high-performing teams, candidates have to be more than experts in the hard skills of their job function. To function most effectively, team members must also be proficient at generalized soft skills including communication and collaboration.

“Your basic technical skill set is not enough to be successful in today's environment," says Cheryl Pinter-Veal, head of the NextGen leadership development program at Deloitte. "Just because you can build a widget doesn't mean somebody's going to buy it."

Hard skills are related to a team member's job title, such as the ability to engineer products, give legal advice or design marketing programs. Soft skills include being able to grasp how one's work affects others, to explain technical matters clearly to non-experts and to work effectively with team members who have different perspectives and backgrounds.

Both skills are important.

“If you have a team where everybody on the team has hard skills but no one has leadership ability, your team is not going to move forward," explains Dr. Karen Jacobson, a high-performance strategist in Scottsdale, Arizona. “In order to have a high-performing team, you need a combination."

If an available candidate has good basic hard skills, it may be easier for them to develop the necessary added technical expertise than to find someone who has both advanced hard and soft skills.

Selecting Team Members for Skills

Business owners tend to select team members first by hard skills and only afterward for soft skills. And that's probably as it should be, Jacobson believes. 

“I believe that you have to look at the hard skills because that's what's going to get them through the door," she says.

One rationale for a hard skills-first approach is that while not every engineer, accountant or marketer may have the desirable soft skills, a high-performing team is not the place to take somebody who happens to be a good communicator and teach them how to be, for example, a lawyer.

At the same time, business owners don't only want people with hard skills. 

“They want to know they can connect and collaborate with other team members," Jacobson says.

Resumes, job histories and performance evaluations paint a picture of candidates' hard skill proficiency. Tests and assessments can help classify prospective team members by soft skills, according to David Lewis, CEO and owner of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Connecticut, human resources consulting practice. 

“There is a tremendous amount of testing you can do and should be doing that's designed to identify people's styles," Lewis says.

Human resources professionals can help business owners identify assessments of a prospective team member's skill at interpersonal communications, willingness to be a team player and other important soft skills. 

“Companies should take advantage of that," Lewis says. “Get the individuals on teams tested."

Enabling and Encouraging High-Performing Teams to Perform

Despite careful screening, a team could still have a soft-skill shortage. After teams are assembled, business owners may need to work with the group to address shortcomings in soft skills.

Communication is almost always included as a key soft skill in high-performing teams. One way business owners can encourage communication is to provide members with time to get to know one another and understand their various perspectives before expecting them to get down to productive work.

Business owners can also provide tools to communicate, including tele- and videoconferences, message boards and in-house social media platforms. 

That said, “you can't just throw different means of communication out there and expect people to pick them up and use them properly," Lewis cautions. “Organizations that are thriving tend to be organizations that invest to make sure teams work as a unit."

Business owners may need to add their own face time to team building, Pinter-Veal adds. 

“You need to spend quality in-person time with your remote team members to build trust at the highest level," she says. “You must set regular times to see people in person."

The Boundaries of Selecting High-Performing Teams

“In a perfect world, you want individuals who possess both sets of skills," Lewis says. “It gives you a more complete package, in terms of their ability to exercise their expertise in as constructive a way as possible and allow them to work effectively as part of a team."

However, it is possible to focus too much on hard skills or soft skills when assembling a team. Depending on circumstances, a team may perform best if weighted more toward one or the other. External forces, such as availability of the right kind of workers, also should be considered.

In tight labor markets, screening applicant resumes for detailed hard-skills requirements may result in fewer applicants passing the filters, Lewis notes. So he suggests that organizations consider being less strict about advanced hard-skills requirements. If an available candidate has good basic hard skills, it may be easier for them to develop the necessary added technical expertise than to find someone who has both advanced hard and soft skills. 

One thing for business owners to keep in mind may be that team members can be selected for whichever trait. But both hard and soft skills are essential for high-performing teams.

Read more articles on hiring & HR.

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