Hiring for Soft Skills: 6 Key Traits To Look For

Hiring for leadership skills increasingly comes down to evaluating a candidate’s soft skills. Here are six important ones—especially for leaders.
hiring for soft skills

On the heels of a global pandemic and the so-called Great Resignation that followed, the hiring landscape has become an active one for any company seeking to acquire talent. This is especially true when it comes to hiring leadership. The candidate pool is large, but not all candidates are equal. Hiring for soft skills should be a major concern for your business because of several reasons.

To narrow the pool and make a confident hire, companies need to evaluate against a few important traits—namely, critical soft skills. Soft skills aren’t just the foundation of a person’s professional candor, they’re also very telling about how they’ll execute job duties. When interviewing for leadership positions, the soft skills a candidate possesses serve as a window into who they’ll be in the role you’re hiring for.

Here’s a closer look at six of the most important soft skills to hire for key traits that not only distinguish good candidates but set the tone for a successful hire.

1. Interpersonal Communication

Communication is a core professional skill, and it’s becoming even more invaluable as the landscape for how (and where) people work changes. It’s not just about being able to communicate within a remote or hybrid work model; it’s about understanding how to adapt communication to a variety of mediums, and for an array of purposes.

Good communicators have the ability to adapt their approach across all mediums—phone, video, chat, in-person, etc.—to ensure every message comes across clearly. Here are a few ways to test potential candidates on their communication abilities:

  • Conduct multiple rounds of interviews in different formats (phone, video, in-person)
  • Ask interviewees to address different questions verbally and in written format
  • Pose questions with a specific communication component, then gauge their answer

2. Creative Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is another core leadership trait and something every qualified hire needs to have to succeed. But problem-solving is subjective, and everyone approaches challenges differently. To that end, companies need to hire individuals who can creatively solve problems—explore solutions from qualitative and quantitative angles.

Interviewing for problem-solving capabilities isn’t always easy, which is why it’s important to test candidates with simple challenges in a variety of capacities. Here’s how to evaluate a candidate’s creative problem-solving abilities:

  • Structure hypothetical problems with a variety of solutions, then test candidates
  • Ask interviewees to ideate multiple solutions to a single, simple problem
  • Encourage candidates to talk about why they chose certain solutions to a problem

3. Empathetic Leadership

Empathy isn’t something that’s easily taught—it’s often the product of life experiences and a person’s moral code. Empathy is also invaluable in today’s work environment, largely because it bridges the gaps between individuals and creates cohesion among teams. Hiring leaders with empathy, who make the effort to relate to their team, goes a long way in fostering strong culture, productivity, and success.

Testing for empathy is difficult because it’s often best shown in times of strife. Nevertheless, there are markers of empathy that interviewers can pick up on as they navigate the process of vetting potential candidates. Here’s how:

  • Post hypothetical questions involving moral components that require compassion
  • Talk candidly about the interviewee’s approach to handling tenuous situations or challenges
  • Ask for examples of how they try to use empathy as part of their leadership approach

4. Time Valuation and Management

There’s a strong correlation between those who understand the value of time and those who use it wisely. Leadership within a company stems from the ability to prioritize tasks and meet deadlines and produce efficacious results even when the clock is against you. Thus, hiring for time valuation and management is crucial.

Unlike some of the other soft skills on this list, observing this trait in individuals is rather easy. Here’s a look at a couple of simple ways to evaluate whether a potential candidate is sensitive to the value of time and able to harness it accordingly:

  • Observe how promptly they reply to communication, and if they’re on time for interviews
  • Pose a hypothetical project and ask them to break it down into time-sensitive phases
  • Quiz interviewees on how they approach time-sensitive tasks or those with deadlines

5. Analytical Thought Processing

it’s impossible to truly get into the mind of a potential hire, which is why interviews are so probing and in-depth. In getting to know candidates, it’s important to understand how they assess the world around them from a qualitative and/or quantitative standpoint. Are they left-brained or right-brained? Data-driven or objective-focused?

Analytical thought processing is a core trait to observe and hire for because it represents the best of both worlds: someone who can set SMART goals and see the value of their goal in the greater scheme of things. Here’s how to determine this within the context of an interview:

  • Pose a hypothetical challenge and ask the interviewee to break it down into phases
  • Ask probing questions about SMART goal-setting, KPIs, and reference metrics
  • Encourage answers that are quantitatively delivered, with qualitative context

6. Subjective Reasoning

Leaders need confidence; however, they also need to realize when they’re wrong, uninformed, or ill-prepared. That means having the ability to subjectively reason through a situation or circumstances. Being able to step outside of your own mind and body to assess the situation omnisciently, and overcome confirmation bias, is a trait that’s rare and invaluable.

While most people can reason subjectively and play devil’s advocate in a given situation, it’s important to see how deep that subjectivity runs. Here are a few ideas for interviewers as they try to understand a candidate’s reasoning abilities:

  • Ask candidates to argue both sides of the same argument, one after another
  • Pose hypothetical “doomed to fail” scenarios and ask how the candidate would respond
  • Encourage interviewees to explain specific self-perceived shortcomings or failures

Soft Skills are Critical for the Future

As technology continues to advance the way we do work, there’s a growing demand for skills that technology simply can’t replicate. Soft skills are instrumental for leadership, and they’re increasingly invaluable to companies of all sizes, across all industries.

If you’re in the market to acquire talent, make sure you’re putting significant emphasis on hiring for the six soft skills outlined above. They’re certain to pay dividends for your organization.

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