The world of work is rapidly evolving, with increasing emphasis placed not only on technical prowess but also on an individual’s soft skills. These non-technical skills, often seen as an individual’s interpersonal and communication skills, emotional intelligence, and attitudes, are crucial for career success. In this comprehensive exploration, we’ll delve into ‘how to measure soft skills,’ drawing on our experience and the wealth of academic research available on the subject.
The Rising Importance of Soft Skills
Before we delve into measuring and assessing soft skills, it’s important to understand why they matter. A landmark study by Heckman and Kautz (2012) demonstrated that soft skills are equally as important as cognitive abilities in predicting life outcomes, including education, employment, health, and criminality. Businesses too have recognized their value, with LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report identifying soft skills as the most important trend in the hiring landscape.
What Are Soft Skills?
The term ‘soft skills’ encompasses a broad range of skills and traits that help people succeed in the workplace beyond their technical expertise. Some common examples include communication, teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving, leadership, and emotional intelligence.
Due to our practical knowledge, we know that these skills are often seen as harder to measure than ‘hard skills’, as they involve subjective judgments about people’s character traits and behaviors rather than concrete qualifications or experience.
The Challenge of Measuring Soft Skills
Measuring soft skills can be a challenging task. Unlike hard skills, which can be measured through tests or certifications, soft skills are abstract and subjective. However, various tools and methods have been developed to help in this process. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most commonly used methods for measuring and assessing soft skills.
One of the most common methods for measuring soft skills is through self-report questionnaires. These can be in the form of rating scales, where individuals rate themselves on various traits or behaviors, or open-ended questions, where individuals describe their experiences or behaviors in certain situations.
However, these questionnaires have been criticized for their susceptibility to social desirability bias – the tendency for individuals to present themselves in a favorable light. To combat this, psychologists have developed methods to minimize this bias, such as including validity scales in the questionnaire (Paulhus, 1991).
Another popular method for measuring soft skills is through 360-degree feedback. This involves gathering feedback from multiple sources, such as supervisors, peers, and subordinates. This feedback often covers various aspects of an individual’s performance, including their soft skills.
While this method provides a more holistic view of an individual’s skills, it too has limitations. It can be time-consuming, and the quality of feedback can vary significantly depending on the rater’s ability to observe and evaluate the individual’s behavior. However, when handled correctly, it can provide a comprehensive and well-rounded assessment of an individual’s soft skills (Atwater & Brett, 2006).
Behavioral observations are also used to measure soft skills. This involves observing individuals in real or simulated situations and rating their behavior on various dimensions. This method has the advantage of directly observing behavior, making it less susceptible to self-presentation bias.
Behavioral observations can be carried out through role-play exercises, work simulations, or in-situ observations in the workplace. Research has shown that these assessments can be reliable and valid measures of soft skills, especially when combined with other methods (McDaniel et al., 2001).
Psychometric tests, such as personality tests, are another tool often used in measuring soft skills. The Big Five Personality Test, for instance, assesses individuals on five dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (Costa & McCrae, 1992). These dimensions have been linked to various soft skills, such as teamwork, adaptability, and leadership.
However, psychometric tests also have their limitations. They rely on individuals’ self-reports and can be influenced by social desirability bias. Nevertheless, they can provide a valuable source of data when used in conjunction with other methods.
Structured interviews are another method often used to assess soft skills. Unlike traditional interviews, these involve asking a set of predetermined questions designed to elicit behaviors related to soft skills.
Research has shown that structured interviews can be a valid and reliable method for assessing soft skills (Huffcutt et al., 1996). However, they require skilled interviewers and can be time-consuming to conduct.
Enhancing the Assessment of Soft Skills
Now that we have covered the commonly used methods, let’s look at some best practices for enhancing the accuracy and effectiveness of measuring and assessing soft skills.
Use Multiple Methods
As each assessment method has its strengths and weaknesses, using multiple methods can provide a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of an individual’s soft skills. This approach, known as multi-method assessment, is commonly used in psychology and has been shown to enhance the validity of assessments (Campbell & Fiske, 1959).
Provide Clear Criteria
Whether you’re using a self-report questionnaire or conducting a behavioral observation, it’s crucial to provide clear criteria for rating behaviors or traits. This helps to ensure consistency in assessments and reduces the likelihood of biases or misinterpretations.
If you’re using methods that involve others in the assessment process, such as 360-degree feedback or behavioral observations, it’s essential to provide training for the assessors. This can help them understand the assessment criteria and enhance the reliability of their assessments.
Be Mindful of Bias
Biases can significantly influence the accuracy of soft skill assessments. These can be unconscious biases that the assessor may have or biases in the self-reports due to social desirability. Being mindful of these biases and taking steps to minimize them can enhance the accuracy of your assessments.
Conclusion on measuring soft skills
Measuring and assessing soft skills can be challenging due to their subjective and abstract nature. However, with the right tools and methods, it is possible to gauge these essential abilities.
Drawing on our experience, employing a multi-method approach, providing clear criteria, training assessors, and being mindful of biases can greatly enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of your assessments.
The task of measuring soft skills is not just a technical one, it’s also an art. It requires not just the right tools but also a deep understanding of human behavior and psychology. However, the reward of gaining accurate insights into individuals’ soft skills can significantly enhance recruitment, development, and performance management processes, making it a worthwhile endeavor for any organization.
By understanding and appreciating the value of soft skills, and by learning how to measure and assess them accurately, we can all become better equipped to succeed in the evolving world of work.
- Atwater, L. E., & Brett, J. F. (2006). 360-degree feedback to leaders: Does it relate to changes in employee attitudes? Group & Organization Management, 31(5), 578–600.
- Campbell, D. T., & Fiske, D. W. (1959). Convergent and discriminant validation by the multitrait-multimethod matrix. Psychological Bulletin, 56(2), 81.
- Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). NEO PI-R professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
- Heckman, J. J., & Kautz, T. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. Labour economics, 19(4), 451-464.
- Huffcutt, A. I., Conway, J. M., Roth, P. L., & Stone, N. J. (2001). Identification and meta-analytic assessment of psychological constructs measured in employment interviews. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(5), 897.
- LinkedIn. (2019). Global Talent Trends 2019. Retrieved from https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/trends-and-research/2019/global-recruiting-trends-2019
- McDaniel, M. A., Morgeson, F. P., Finnegan, E. B., Campion, M. A., & Braverman, E. P. (2001). Use of situational judgment tests to predict job performance: a clarification of the literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(4), 730.
- Paulhus, D. L. (1991). Measurement and control of response bias. Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes, 1, 17-59.