5 ‘Soft’ Skills Workers Should Sharpen

Experts explain how mastering multiple emotional intelligence skills can bolster careers.

Emotional intelligence capabilities are often derisively called “soft skills” in the workplace. Developing a good relationship with your boss doesn’t help you code software faster, nor does knowing which HR manager everyone listens to help improve your ability to close a sale.

But there’s nothing “soft” about the positive career impacts these skills have. Studies show that 85% of workplace success is a product of highly-developed emotional intelligence skills. Experts say developing not-so-soft skills is just as—if not more— important than mastering daily mechanics of a job. “Having emotional intelligence contributes to successful relationships with others,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. In turn, success in your personal and work life is highly dependent on the nature and quality of your relationships.

Experts say all emotional intelligence skills come back to empathy. Personal emotions infiltrate professional spheres, whether we like it or not. Practicing empathy helps workers to better comprehend where someone is coming from and how they think, prompting them to adapt.  From there, experts say there are a few key soft skills workers should master to stand out at work.


Most people think they are self-aware, but studies show only about 10% to 15% actually are. Knowing personal strengths, weaknesses, and goals is an essential foundation for emotional intelligence and makes one stand out. It’s important to also be conscious of how emotions can impact work. Experts say young workers should take time to assess where they feel ease or discomfort to get a picture of who they are and where they fit.

Having a high degree of self-awareness also helps young managers become very good leaders. A Korn Ferry study found that among leaders with high emotional self-awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. In contrast, leaders low in self-awareness created negative climates for their teams 78% of the time.


The phrase “group project” may spark unsettling flashbacks from undergrad days, but collaboration in the workplace is vital. Strong teamwork increases productivity and quality. Effectively communicating responsibilities and playing to each member’s strengths will bolster healthy working relationships. “The quality of your communication makes a difference every moment of every day,” says Olson.

Organizational Awareness

Organizational awareness, according to Korn Ferry contributor and best-selling author Daniel Goleman, is a little like ESP. “With a little effort, businesspeople can suss out an organization’s unwritten rules, the necessary steps to get things done, its hidden landmines, and the person, or people, who have considerably more power than their titles suggest,” he says

Experts say understanding internal networks and power dynamics within the workplace is crucial. Organizational awareness promotes efficiency by knowing who’s going to get things done fast, and who is going to stall the process. Experts say employees should be conscious of overt and unspoken norms and procedures within their environment. Most anyone can improve their organizational awareness by asking—and getting answers to—some workplace-related questions, including:

·       Who talks to whom?

·       Who holds informal power?

·       Who does key information pass through?

·       To whom do people listen?

Managing Up

Understanding the person you work for is just as important as understanding those who work around you. Establishing a strong rapport with higher-ups and consistently communicating with one another is a key soft skill experts say sets employees apart. “Communication involves intuition, judgment, creativity, and precision, and the ability to communicate can change the world of work,” says Olson.


The person who adjusts to situational needs will stand out, but this skill requires great awareness of oneself and others. Facing change head on keeps an organization running smoothly, whether it’s learning to use AI or covering for a coworker on holiday. Experts say staying attuned to organizational change and adapting accordingly is an invaluable skill. “The past few years have taught us that change truly is constant—flexibility is what will give you the edge,” says Korn Ferry Career Coach Frances Weir


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s career development capabilities from Korn Ferry Advance