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Tips on Soft Skills

Laura Haynes

Annex Collections Assistant

Binghamton University

The Core New Members Interest Group will be publishing a series of posts, “Tips for New Librarians” featuring advice and interviews geared towards early career librarians. Please enjoy the second in our four part series!

What are soft skills?

According to Miriam Matteson, Matthew McShane, and Emily Hankinson in their article “Soft Skills Revealed: An examination of Relational Skills in Librarianship, “soft skills are considered to be the non-technical abilities required to facilitate interpersonal interactions to achieve specified goals.”

Soft skills are a necessary aspect of success in the workplace. Employers view soft skills as crucial to work readiness. Younger workers may frequently lack essential soft skills. According to Lindsay Gypin for American Libraries Magazine, she experienced complaints from fellow LIS students that they are not taught essential soft skills in their LIS programs. According to Melissa Lockaby’s career development workshop at ALA Midwinter 2019, “The Soft Skills: What Library School Doesn’t Teach You”, soft skills can’t be taught and must be learned by experience. These skills are less tangible, and therefore it is not as easy to impart from seasoned professional to new librarians. However, soft skills are part of the competencies interviewers are looking for.

Using a combination of the list from American Libraries Magazine blog post, Marcel Robles article “Executive Perceptions of the Top 10 Soft Skills Needed in Today’s Workplace”, and the book “Soft Skills Revolution: A Guide for Connecting with Compassion for Trainers, Teams, and Leaders”, a comprehensive list of soft skills includes:

1. Interpersonal skills

This term refers to being personable, being friendly and nurturing, and being empathetic.

2. Critical thinking.

This term refers to creative problem solving skills which are some of the number one skills sought via job postings.

3. Customer service.

Librarianship is inherently user-focused, no matter what branch of librarianship you are in.

4. Communication.

This is often described as a combination of oral and written communication.

5. Flexibility. 

This term refers to adaptability, being a lifelong learner, and being teachable.

6. Teamwork. 

This term refers to being cooperative, supportive, helpful, and collaborative.

7. Work Ethic.

This term refers to taking initiative, being self-motivated, on time, and having good attendance.

8. Self-direction.

9. Time-management skills.

10. Creativity/Innovation

11. Leadership 

12. Diversity

13. Multitasking.

Robles also identifies five other “soft skills” that are more closely aligned to personality traits. These include:

  1. Courtesy—meaning having manners, being gracious, being respectful. 
  2. Integrity—refers to honesty, having high morals, having personal values and doing what’s right
  3. Positive Attitude—refers to being optimistic, enthusiastic, encouraging.
  4. Professionalism—meaning being businesslike and being poised
  5. Responsibility—meaning being accountable, reliable, self-disciplined, being conscientious, and using common sense.

Soft skills are an important aspect of business etiquette. One principle of Business etiquette includes having emotional intelligence. When navigating the workplace, being a good coworker means contributing to the morale and team spirit. While it may be tempting to stick to yourself and just get your job done, building relationships with your coworkers is also important. Some principles of relationship building are as follows:

1. Don’t make assumptions about those you work with. Don’t assume or ask political or religious affiliations, don’t adhere to stereotypes. 

2. Offer help, don’t wait for people to ask. Be generous in order to contribute to the camaraderie and morale, and being sensitive to the needs of others will help you to build a reputation for building effective work relationships. 

3. Don’t take it personally. Remember that everyone has an agenda, a personal life, and a unique style of interaction.

I interviewed my colleague Rachel Turner of Binghamton University about her experience with soft skills and how to cultivate them.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you incorporate soft skills into your day-to-day work?

I am the Interim Head of Cataloging/Metadata at Binghamton University in New York. Being a manager means I have to incorporate soft skills into my job everyday; they can manifest as communicating directly and effectively with my staff, being flexible when needed, and managing my time effectively. Soft skills are essential to ensuring that I not only get my work done, but that everyone in the department has work to do that they enjoy. It’s also my job to make sure everyone in the department is as happy as possible, and this takes soft skill work too, in the form of empathy, listening (part of communication), and being flexible with their schedules.

2. Can you give an example of a work situation in which soft skills played a crucial role?

Communication is vitally important to a healthy work environment, so effective communication is an essential soft skill. When our Libraries recently went through a reorganization, I had to communicate honestly and completely with my department so that everyone understood what was happening and their new roles within the department. While our particular department didn’t change too much, I believe in order for people to feel comfortable with this change as a whole, and to engender trust throughout the department and Libraries, transparency is a must. By keeping my department up to date with the changes happening, the Cataloging staff felt more comfortable.

3. What tips do you have for new and emerging librarians to cultivate soft skills?

Cultivating soft skills is a difficult process that takes time. I would tell new librarians to first of all look up the definition of soft skills and some examples. Find the soft skills that you think are really important. Perhaps you already do some of them well; in this case, I would focus on the ones you find important that don’t come so easily to you. There are a lot of good articles and books about soft skills, so I would encourage a new librarian to find some resources to read. Mentors are also a great resource for soft skills; they are invaluable in helping new librarians (or experienced ones) navigate a workplace. As you navigate, you will begin to pick up these soft skills as a matter of course, so that will help too. Lastly, I think feedback is very important. Ask some colleagues you trust about your progress; is your communication getting better? Does your time management system make sense, etc. Incorporating this feedback into your approach to work and interpersonal relationships will be beneficial.

4. Any other advice for new and emerging librarians?

My biggest advice is to not stress too much about this. Soft skills are learned in time. By talking to people who do various things well, you will cultivate these soft skills naturally. Interpersonal relationships are a big component to successful soft skills, so as long as you form good relationships with your coworkers the other skills can come in time.