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The difference between Soft Skills and Personality Traits

When people learn about soft skills for the first time, many are confused by what this means and often assume “Soft Skills” to be another way of saying “Personality Traits”. So, we thought we’d help make the distinction.

“Personality Traits” refers to your Character

According to the Collins English dictionary:

A Personality Trait is a particular characteristic, quality or tendency that defines your character and nature and a Personality Type is a cluster of personality traits that commonly occur together.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, defines sixteen different personality types. It’s unlikely that a person would fit into a single mould, but it is interesting to see which “mould’ we tend towards. You may even find an affinity towards one or two of these Star Wars characters.

Star Wars Personality Types
Click/tap image to enlarge it. Source here.

Take any of these Star Wars characters for example. Let’s say... Yoda.

According to Myers Briggs he’s an INTP “Architect’. Logical, original, reserved and curious, he is an independent and creative problem solver. Apparently, according to Myers Briggs, Yoda’s real-life job – the one he would be best suited for – is a “Computer Programmer or Software Designer” and that’s great! 👍

But, how good a “Computer Programmer or Software Designer” is Yoda? In other words, what level or complexity of problem can Yoda solve? This will be dependent on his mastery of his Problem Solving “Soft Skills”.

Let’s come back to this later, in the meanwhile let’s talk briefly about the actual “personality traits” that make up a “personality type”.

According to psychologists there are five major personality traits. The “Big Five” were developed in the 1970s by two research teams. These teams were led by Paul Costa and Robert R. McCrae of the National Institutes of Health and Warren Norman and Lewis Goldberg of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Oregon, according to Scientific American.

They are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extra/Intraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Conveniently, you can remember these traits with the handy OCEAN mnemonic (or, if you prefer, CANOE works, too).

The Big Five are the ingredients that make up each individual’s personality. A person might have a dash of openness, a lot of conscientiousness, an average amount of extraversion, plenty of agreeableness and almost no neuroticism at all. Or someone could be disagreeable, neurotic, introverted, conscientious and hardly open at all.

But we all know the “Big Five” doesn’t have the monopoly on personality trait definition. There are other personality traits that people use to describe themselves. For example; they say, I am Gritty, Curious, Self-controlled, Zesty, Optimistic, Grateful, Generous, Loyal, Devoted, Loving, Kind and Sincere.

Another common way of grouping personality traits is by whether they are “Positive” or “Negative”.

Positive Personality Traits Negative Personality Traits
AdventurousHelpfulArrogantQuarrelsome
AffableHumbleBoorishRude
CapableImaginativeBossySarcastic
CharmingImpartialConceitedSelf-centred
ConfidentIndependentCowardlySlovenly
ConscientiousKeenDishonestSneaky
CulturedMeticulousFinickyStingy
DependableObservantImpulsiveSullen
DiscreetOptimisticLazySurly
DutifulPersistentMaliciousThoughtless
EncouragingPreciseObnoxiousUnfriendly
ExuberantReliablePickyUnruly
FairSociablePompousVulgar

But wait, there’s more, ...many many more.

Here’s a List from MIT with 638 Personality Traits (234 Positive, 112 Neutral, 292 Negative)

Now, it doesn’t really matter which of these personalities you most resemble, each has a role to play in the organisation. What’s important in this distinction is that you find the role that best suits your personality. This is the same for finding the right organisation to work for or industry to work in.

If you find a role, an organisation a profession or an industry that matches your personality the more likely that you will be happy and fulfilled in that role.

However, there’s a catch!

Finding a role that matches your personality is only part of the equation. You also need to find a role that matches your Capability.

If the role complexity exceeds your capability you won’t be happy and fulfilled, you’ll be anxious and stressed.

Similarly, if your capability exceeds the role complexity you won’t be happy and fulfilled, you’ll soon be bored and disengaged.

Only when there’s a match between Role Complexity and your Capability will you be happy and fulfilled. We call this being “In the Zone”.

This is where “Soft Skills” come in.

Your personality may indicate what job you like to do but your “Soft Skills” define how good you are at it. 

The term “Soft Skills” simply came about as an antonym to “Hard Skills” to describe the less tangible nature of technical knowledge or subject matter expertise. However, as a result many people are confused by what this means and often assume “Soft Skills” to be another way of saying “Personality Traits”.

So, let’s clear this up.

“Soft Skills” refers to your Capability

Other names for “Soft Skills”...

Professional Skills:
Because they mainly apply to the professional domain, although they are also most useful for personal development as well.
Transferable Skills:
Because they are equally relevant and applicable for all roles and professions.
Problem Solving Skills:
We prefer this one because it actually describes what you do with them!

In fact, for clarity let’s just call them “Problem Solving Skills”

Your Problem-Solving Skills are used at various stages in the Problem Solving Process.

1. Receiving

Listening is ‘Hearing’ with interest and attention. People have different ways of listening.
Applying a logical, scientific approach to problem solving and decision-making.
Embracing innovative thinking to add value.
Your ability to put yourself in another person's situation, and know what they're going through.

2. Processing

How to take what you have heard or already know and apply it in a different context or for a different audience.
How you apply your thought process to new situations and problems.
Considering how all the facets interconnect to deliver a sustainable outcome.
Understanding how your role and behaviours fit within the working community, and impact on it.

3. Producing

Putting thoughts and information into a medium others can interpret.
Personal delivery of information or ideas to a group or an individual.
Objectively measuring and considering information to aid decision-making.
Determining which option or action is best.
Replicating or reflecting a subject or situation to get clarity and insight.
Determining what you need to do, how you're going to do it and the resources required.
Getting everyone on the same page to find common ground, and agree on shared outcomes.
Getting people to consider ‘thinking and doing’ differently to the usual way of ‘thinking and doing’.

4. Delivering

What ideas and information you communicate and how you communicate them.
Your ability to define, choose and commit to a course of action.
Producing specific results and achieving measurable outcomes.
Working with and through people to achieve outcomes.

The 20 soft skills of the Problem Solving Process – Click/tap each one for their definition

These are the transferrable professional skills that you need for problem solving in any role or profession.

The better you get at these, the more complex problems you can solve.

The more complex problems you can solve, the more value you add.

The more value you add, the more you can progress your career.

So, what’s the difference between “soft skills” and “personality traits”?

Personality traits are “Traits” which means that they are qualities inherent to you and are subjectively perceived as having more or less of any particular trait.

Soft Skills, are “Skills” which means they are learned by you and you can be objectively measured as being at a higher or lower level of any particular skill.

Have you measured your problem solving skills?

Map your “soft skills” and find out!

When you complete your Headway DNA, with your results you’ll receive your own 12-month professional development plan with development actions tailored to you.


Topics in this article

Personality Traits
Problem Solving Skills
Transferrable skills