When you’re searching for a job, professional skills and experiences are only part of what an interviewer wants to see. Harder to show, but often crucial for landing the job, are the personality traits, or “soft skills,” that demonstrate you’d be a good fit for the company.
While job interviews are often formal encounters, you don’t want to be so stiff that your personality doesn’t come through. The traits you show can indicate to prospective employers that you have the soft skills they’re looking for in a new hire.
“Employers want to know that you are qualified for a position, but they also want to see that you will fit in with the company culture. The only way to assess this is to get a sense of your personality,” said Susan Peppercorn, a career strategist and executive coach.
Since your experience and “hard skills” might match closely with another applicant’s, your soft skills could win you the job. Businesses today prioritize soft skills more than ever. They look for candidates who are dependable, curious, positive, flexible, and effective communicators who work well under pressure, to name a few top characteristics.
“It’s important to highlight soft skills that can give employers an idea of how quickly you can adapt and solve problems, whether you can be relied on to follow through and how effectively you can lead and motivate others,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief people officer at SPINS and the former chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. [Read related article: Ways to Become a Better Leader]
The personality traits, or “soft skills,” you choose to highlight in an interview can be just as important to an interviewer as your “hard skills,” or direct work experience.
Hiring experts and business leaders weighed in on the personality traits that can make the difference between a strong applicant and the standout candidate who gets the job.
Employees are rarely hired to perform a single function. Especially in a small business setting, companies need people who are willing to expand beyond their roles and do whatever is necessary.
“A small business needs people who can not only tolerate chaos but thrive in it,” said Ron Selewach, founder and CEO of talent acquisition software company HRMC, Inc.
Psychologist and career coach Eileen Sharaga said that every business needs a strategic thinker. Hiring managers want someone who can not only identify long-term goals but craft a plan to achieve them. You also need to know how to convey your strategies in a way that will get people on board with them. Persuasiveness can come in handy when communicating with a multigenerational workforce.
People who can use their own judgment and take decisive action are valuable to any company, Selewach said. Business leaders can’t be involved in every minor decision, so they look for candidates who are not afraid to act on their own. The ability to take action and responsibility for the outcome is essential for anyone hoping to move into a management or leadership position.
Small businesses need to constantly adapt and evolve, and they’re looking for workers who can and want to do the same and who have a thirst for knowledge. Job candidates who demonstrate a willingness and desire to continually learn new skills and systems have the edge over those who think of themselves as filling a single slot. If you can show an ability to work in areas that stretch your comfort zone, you have a valuable asset.
Some employees go along with everything the boss says without question. These people may be good for an ego boost, but ultimately, leaders need team members who will challenge the status quo if it’s better for the business.
“I want people who will … not be afraid to stand up for what they think is the right thing for the company,” said Meg Sheetz, former president and COO of Medifast. “I also look for people who understand that they will not necessarily agree with every decision that the company may make, but … they have to find a way to support their teams in a unified approach.”
Most jobs require teams to work together; others need employees to interact with clients and occasional outside contractors. The ability to collaborate and work pleasantly and effectively with others is a key part of nearly any job.
“Employers value candidates who are flexible enough to get along well with a variety of personalities and work styles,” said Peppercorn. “Examples of accomplishments working on a team should be part of every job hunter’s interview repertoire.”
Individual employers may value different traits, but they all look for the elusive cultural fit. Every company’s culture is slightly different, and each is founded on specific core values. What matters most to employers is that the person they hire embodies those values in their everyday lives.
“Our culture is founded upon a work-hard, play-hard, humble, self-reflective and collaborative environment,” said Max Yoder, CEO of online training software company Lessonly. “Different roles obviously call for different specifics, but all of us share those core motivations.”
Ahead of an interview, think about the personality traits that that particular employer might find valuable. That way, you’ll be ready to answer soft-skill questions and demonstrate that you embody the type of person they’re seeking to hire.
Personality traits are tricky to show on a résumé, so it’s essential to highlight them during an interview. Sheetz noted that strategic storytelling can show off your personality to a hiring manager. [See our top résumé writing tips.]
“Sharing stories that demonstrate how you performed during an experience is extremely important to help get across your personality traits,” she said. “[Discuss] how you handled yourself in [tough times] or how you showed up as a leader during a positive or negative time.”
Haefner agreed, adding that simply stating you’re a team player, for instance, isn’t enough for most hiring managers. Instead, provide a concrete example of when you worked as part of a team to achieve a goal, she said.
Yoder said the best way to express your personality is to simply be yourself. “If you’re a great fit, it will be apparent. If you’re not, it will also be apparent,” he said. “The most important thing to remember when walking into an interview is that it is completely two-sided – you’re interviewing us as much as we are interviewing you.”
The examples you cite when asked about your soft skills will make it apparent to you and an interviewer whether you’re a good fit for the company’s culture.
You don’t need to limit yourself to the personality traits outlined above. Spend some time considering moments in your career that trigger a sense of pride, then map out what trait or soft skill got you to that point. Having a few of these in your mental back pocket can prepare you to answer “surprise” interview questions that aren’t about your direct job experience or hard skills.
Keep in mind that this process is not about making stuff up. It’s about acquainting yourself with your personal strengths and coming up with a narrative to frame them in a way that appeals to the company at which you’re trying to get a job. Learn more about the interview skills that will get you hired.Ross Mudrick, Chad Brooks, Nicole Fallon and Kim Ann Zimmermann contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.