Want the secret to career success? Hint: It’s not just the mastery of a specific software program, excellent writing or organizational skills, or anything else that might show up on the list of must-haves on a typical job description. Rather, how well you succeed in your job, and in your career, often comes down to the marriage of those hard skills and so-called soft skills.
Regardless of your industry, position or whether you’re content at your current job or looking for another, honing the soft skills will positively influence the way you interact with others, get along with your manager, approach conflict — and, ultimately, influence whether your career thrives or withers.
Despite their importance, companies often struggle to articulate these skills, frequently don't screen job candidates for them and regularly neglect to coach employees on them until their absence has already caused serious problems. What are they? Here are seven soft skills that are essential for career success.
You might be the best in the world at what you do, but if you alienate coworkers and rub your managers the wrong way, no one is going to want to work with you. That’s where your emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ, comes in.
Understanding what makes your colleagues tick, how to build rapport and connect emotionally with them and how to manage your own and other people’s emotional makeup will pay off enormously at work: You’ll find yourself easily able to get along with people at all levels of your organization, equipped to choose the right battles (and the times to fight them!) and be prepared to finesse sticky situations.
Imagine a manager who delivers tough criticism on the day an employee receives scary health news or who presents a sensitive performance message as a “joke” in front of others. By contrast, a high-EQ manager is likely to be thoughtful about the right time to deliver difficult feedback — and to frame it deftly and sensitively when she does. And it’s not just managers who benefit from EQ; no matter how senior or junior you are, EQ can help you spot the right way to raise difficult issues, approach a prickly colleague and manage tough clients.
Taking ownership of your work is a simple thing, but some people go through their whole careers without ever quite doing it. So what does it really mean, anyway?
I once asked an incredible assistant who ran a complicated office flawlessly what her secret was. Her answer? She thought of herself as the “CEO of logistics,” which led her to anticipate people’s needs and handle details without anyone needing to point them out to her. That’s what ownership is; you might not be the CEO of the company, but you’re the CEO of something — communications, invoicing or whatever you’re responsible for.
Taking ownership of your work means assuming responsibility for helping the organization as a whole succeed: being invested in the outcomes of your work, spotting and implementing ways to do things better and holding yourself accountable when things in your realm go wrong. In other words, you’re not just executing a series of activities assigned by someone else; you’re obsessing over the details and truly bearing the emotional weight of ensuring that your work is successful.
Calmness is one of those traits that doesn’t always get appreciated until it’s absent. But if you make a point of staying calm, rational and objective, even when you're frustrated or angry, you’ll stand out for it. Plus, it only takes one instance of snapping at someone or slamming a door to get a reputation as The Angry One, and that’s a label that’s hard to shake.
Calmness also tends to go hand-in-hand with low drama; people who are calm tend not to indulge in unconstructive interpersonal conflict and generally operate with cooperation and good will toward their colleagues. As a manager, I’ve always been grateful for the people on my team who I knew would navigate potentially contentious situations maturely.
Openness to Feedback
If you’ve ever worked with someone who got defensive at the slightest suggestion that she do something differently, you know how crucial being open to feedback is. And unless you don’t want to develop professionally and are comfortable stagnating exactly where you are today for the rest of your career, you’re going to need to grow and improve. Feedback plays a crucial role in helping you spot opportunities for that. But if you bristle and get defensive at suggestions of what you can do better, over time most people will stop giving you feedback at all.
Openness to feedback becomes even more important when you’re a manager. To manage well, you need to be almost obsessive about learning from experience, incorporating lessons into practice and adapting your approach to make it as effective as possible — which means being eager to identify ways you could perform better and genuinely wanting to hear dissent.
While too much assertiveness can become domineering, polite assertiveness is simply about addressing problems calmly and forthrightly and not shying away from difficult or awkward conversations. It means speaking up when something isn’t going right, not being afraid to bring new ideas to the table and not stewing in silence when you’re bothered by something.
Bad things happen when employees lack this quality. For example, I once worked with someone who was furious that his manager changed his schedule without talking to him first. When I asked if he had approached her about it, he said he hadn’t — and yet he was letting his resentment build to the point that it was affecting his work. Once he talked to her, it turned out the schedule change had been a simple mistake, which she easily corrected when he explained the problems it would cause him. But if he hadn’t finally spoken up, she wouldn’t have known and his anger would have festered. That would have been bad for him, and bad for his manager, too.
It’s no surprise that decency is on the list, since we all want to work with colleagues who handle disagreements civilly, give others the benefit of the doubt, respect opinions that differ from their own and act with genuine care for other people. Organizations with great cultures put a premium on hiring for these characteristics and ensuring that employees model them.
And the higher up you go, the more decency stands out as a differentiator of great leaders in additional ways — from understanding that people have lives and families outside of work and that those will sometimes take priority to treating people with compassion and dignity during tough feedback conversations.
Integrity at work means speaking up if you make a mistake that reflects poorly on you (rather than trying to soften or hide it), doing what you say you’re going to do, acknowledging when new information shows you were wrong and not being afraid to say “I don’t know.”
Building a reputation for integrity pays off in spades. When people know that your priority is to be honest and objective, not to protect yourself or try to make yourself look good, you’ll find that your opinion will be taken more seriously, you'll get the benefit of the doubt in he-said/she-said situations and, often, potentially contentious situations will go more smoothly. And if you’re a manager, when your team knows you’re a fair judge, they’re more likely to buy into your decisions, even when it doesn’t go their way.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.