As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”, surely?

Not according to some commentators, who feel that by calling interpersonal talents “soft skills”, employers and recruitment specialists relegate skills development to a low priority – when it ought to be right up there at the top of the list.

Soft skills range from a person’s ability to lead, to show effective communication skills, to innovate, to build relationships with colleagues and clients, to adapt to new challenges and to problem-solve, and the best organisations understand that these attributes identify tomorrow’s leaders in your organisation.

Indeed, these are the very skills that can be the difference between an average applicant to a job and an outstanding one, and those concerned with career development should recognise it.

The growing role of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to do the heavy-lifting in many job roles now, as well as the fact that many applicants with similarly good qualifications are competing for the best jobs, mean that a candidate’s suite of “soft” skills can make all the difference in who lands the best roles and who performs most effectively in the workplace.

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX , a US-based online learning resource founded by Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); indeed, Agarwal is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes magazine. He argues that the term “soft skills” is a misnomer. “Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds,” he says. “They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as ‘power skills’.”

Agarwal sees candidates’ so-called soft skills set as being the real estate necessary to bring about the skills transformation employers now deem critical to success. He cites an internal study by Google last year that found that the most “innovative and productive” groups in the company were not made up of top scientists and programmers. “Instead, their highest performing teams were interdisciplinary groups that benefited heavily from employees who brought strong soft skills to the collaborative process,” while “further research revealed that important predictors of success within Google were skills like good communication, insights about others, and empathetic leadership.”

Evanna McGrath, Recruitment Business Partner at Lidl Ireland, shares this view that soft skills are what give the best candidates a competitive edge. “At graduate level, we’re assessing for potential to develop and progress; so skills, such as effective communication, entrepreneurial actions, organisational and problem-solving skills are key,” she says.

McGrath adds that what she looks for in candidates is those “with a growth mindset” who are willing to adapt, to learn and to evolve within the role. Meanwhile, Eimar Power, graduate recruitment manager for law firm Arthur Cox, positively looks out for those who have added to their CV either through their interests or life experience. “We prefer good all-round candidates who have decent grades but also have experience working in a team, an interest in the world around them and good communication skills,” she says. She points to the fact that they have trainees who have studied music, literature and even astrophysics, as well as those who have studied law.

Can soft skills be learned? In a word, yes. Agarwal cites the example of a project carried out at five Bangalore factories, where a controlled 12-month trial showed that training in problem-solving, communication and decision-making yielded a 250% ROI in just eight months. “Success factors included an overall boost in worker productivity, faster turnaround on complex tasks, and even improved employee attendance”, Agarwal says. So it’s always worth investing in employees’ soft skills – you’ll rapidly reap the rewards.

It’s time for a re-brand. Stop thinking of these competitive attributes as soft skills; they are power skills, and smart managers see them as such.

Check out our soft skills courses here.

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