By Kimberly Dolejsi:
Soft skills (or interpersonal skills) are how you connect and build relationships with others, which is why they have become so important in the modern workplace. These skills go hand-in-hand with servant leadership and many other successful leadership theories because they describe how we interact with each other, how to lead by example, and how we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to better grasp their motivations and challenges.
Many people worry that interpersonal skills are binary; you either have them or you don’t. But that’s simply not the case. As with anything, you can learn these skills. And if you take the time to understand them and practice them, you’ll get better at showing them.
Before we move forward, calling them “soft skills” is misleading. It implies that they are not as important as “hard skills,” such as engineering, finance, or even data management. But even if that was once the case, it isn’t anymore, which is why we have decided to refer to soft skills as interpersonal skills throughout this article.
Continue reading to learn the essential interpersonal skills for the modern workplace.
10 Essential Interpersonal Skills
There are a multitude of interpersonal skills a great leader needs to have in today’s work environment. To successfully demonstrate these skills on a regular basis, you need to extend beyond simply knowing WHAT the skills are. You must also understand WHY you need these skills and HOW to show them.
Interpersonal skills are how you connect to others. They reveal your attitude, ability to manage your time effectively, and how you make decisions. They also reveal your outlook on the world, how you communicate to your team, and how you show your emotions.
Below are the 10 essential interpersonal skills to succeed in the modern workplace. Read through each to gain an understanding of why it’s important to show the skill as a leader and think about how you can start applying it.
Communication is more than being able to talk to people, it also includes active listening. People want to be heard, they want to know you care about what they’re saying and that you understand them. Active listening is nonjudgmental and listening without the intent to reply. To do that you have to truly listen without simply waiting for your turn to speak.
After all, effective communication is a two-way street. As a leader, you need to be able to share a long-term vision and the steps to get there. But you also need to listen to your team members to understand their perspective, ideas, and challenges.
Following the simple rule of truly listening to others can have an enormous impact on your team and how they view you.
Attitude is everything in the modern workplace; a leader needs to be open-minded, approachable, ready to hear and embrace new ideas, and be genuine. And when I say genuine, I mean authentic.
Your team will see right through you if you’re trying to sell something you don’t believe in. Be honest with them and tell them your thoughts, but also share the importance of getting the job done and the “why” behind it.
Attitude is also being willing to do the work. As a great leader, you should never ask your team to do something that you won’t do yourself. For example, years ago when I was at a different job, we had a defect on some printed booklets that needed to ship out the next day to meet a deadline. That meant we needed to pull the defective ones that night. Our manager asked a few of us to stay and go through the pallets of booklets. Instead of leaving us, she stayed, working right beside us until 5 a.m. the next morning.
When the VP came to her and said she had other things she could be doing, she said, “No sir, I don’t. This is my team and I’m going to be with them to help accomplish this task. We rise together or we sink together.” When I heard her say that, I thought, “I’d follow her anywhere.” She embodied what a true leader is and her attitude was unquestionably authentic.
#3: Time Management
It may not seem like it, but time management will indirectly help everyone else on your team. If you cannot manage your time efficiently, it’s difficult for you to be an effective leader. That’s because time management extends beyond how you manage your own time, but also how you manage the time of your team and how you communicate expectations to others.
For instance, to give an accurate estimate on how long it will take to complete a project, you need to understand everyone’s current workload, balance future needs for those high-priority, quick-turnaround projects that always pop up, and leave enough time for revisions and changes before final approval.
If these elements aren’t considered when creating deadlines for a new project, everything you assign becomes a race to an ever-changing finish line.
If time management isn’t your strong suit, there are classes, blogs (such as this article by Forbes), and YouTube videos (such as this TEDx talk) all about how to better manage your time. Get a planner (electronic or hard copy), and practice time management until you understand it so you can effectively manage your time and ultimately that of a team.
In order to build that next level of leadership, you must learn how to delegate to others on your team. Every project and task cannot go through you because then it will be impossible to scale.
Often, this is one of the hardest skills for new managers, leaders, and entrepreneurs to learn because they feel that they do a better and faster job than others. But if you don’t properly train others to perform at those same levels, you will always be responsible for those types of projects, stealing you and your time from other, more high-impact projects.
To practice delegation, start with a small task or project. Provide all the tools and resources your team member will need to do the job well and provide a timeline. This small task will take a few hours off your workload, but now you’re also building skills in another team member to eventually take on that next level of leadership.
When it comes to delegation, make sure you create a feedback loop. This provides an opportunity for you to give feedback on how they did and what they can do to improve next time. Take the time to explain what went well and whether they met your expectations.
This discussion also helps you grow as a leader because you can ask your team member for feedback on your performance by asking questions such as:
Could I have given clearer instructions?
Could I have included other team members?
Was the deadline unrealistic to begin with?
#5: Decision Making
Often, this is viewed as one of the more difficult skills to learn and improve because it usually requires practice making decisions. The more experience you have, the easier it is to understand the different factors that can affect the outcome, the resources needed, and the impact on different stakeholders.
There can be a learning curve as you progress through the org chart to manager and eventually to leadership in improving your decision making. There can also be a learning curve when you start working for a new company, as it takes time to understand all the different elements and outcomes.
Additionally, as the leader, sometimes you need to make quick decisions that can have a big impact on a project. You will be expected to make these decisions, which rarely make everyone happy. However, be sure you make the decision, communicate it, and stick to it. Few things are worse than a leader making the decision and then backing off and changing direction, which sets the whole project back. This also creates a lack of confidence in your ability to lead.
#6: Conflict Resolution
You cannot allow bad feelings or issues with your team or between team members to fester because they will tear your team apart. Not everyone will like each other or get along or agree, but everyone needs to be respectful, be able to work with each other, and feel as though they have a voice.
This is where some of the other skills previously discussed become important. Clear communication (which includes active listening) is essential so that everyone feels heard and comes to the table with an open mind. Often, your attitude and decision making will play an important role in conflict resolution as well.
In order to stay ahead of conflicts, or to solve them as they arise, consider ways to build camaraderie between team members. You can incorporate activities into team meetings, such as trivia or games. You can also schedule team retreats or outings (this can be virtual in our current environment), such as a happy hour or cooking lessons. All of these are an opportunity to help build a stronger team that understands each other.
#7: Teamwork (and Team Building)
Teamwork is the We vs. Me. It’s a simple skill to learn but it is not easy for everyone to embrace. All too often we spend time talking about me; this is what I can do, I can get that done, I’ll do that.
Once we’re a leader, it’s no long about me. Instead, it’s all about we. This is what our team does, this is how we can accomplish this, and we can take care of that. If you’re a leader of a team and talking about what YOU can do, drop the ‘me’ and use ‘we’ instead. It’s about your team now, not you.
One of the great lines to use as a leader is, “Share the credit and hold the blame.” In other words, great leaders go beyond using ‘we.’ They understand that the team is the reason for success and that as the leader, any failure falls to you.
Yes, everything moves at the speed of light in the workplace, especially as we’ve moved to a virtual environment, which has blurred the lines of work hours. This has only increased the importance of patience. Being patient creates a better work environment where people feel valued. It also helps build trust because often, patience includes clear and effective communication.
Impatience often leads to a lack of trust because it comes across as an attack. For instance, if you hover over someone’s shoulder waiting for that report or an update, that impatience doesn’t improve their performance. If you constantly follow up about progress, then you didn’t set a clear deadline that accounts for current workload and your expectations.
On the other hand, setting the deadline, being available for questions and support, and allowing your team member to complete the task shows that you understand time management and trust the team member.
Another thing to consider is, while you delegate in order to build new leaders on your team, you’ll be asking them to expand their skills or tackle new tasks. Be patient while they learn these new skills and provide feedback as they progress. Rarely do people get things 100% right the first time.
#9: Emotional Intelligence
This is one of the hardest interpersonal skills to acquire. Consequently, it’s also one that many managers in the workplace struggle with.
Emotional intelligence, or EI, is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express your emotions. It extends beyond yourself, though, to include the ability to identify the emotions of others by empathetically managing interpersonal relationships.
Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who popularized EI, says there are five key elements:
Combined, these elements help you understand your emotions, recognize what they mean, and how they can impact others. These elements also help you recognize the same things in others, which will help you effectively manage your team.
While it is included as one of the elements of emotional intelligence, empathy extends beyond that. Empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is feeling and experience their emotions.
As a leader, you need the emotional intelligence to control your emotions, but you also need to be able to understand what your team members are going through. This is always an important skill, but it is especially important during all of the challenges we’ve faced in 2020.
By listening to your team members and effectively communicating with them, you’ll develop the trust they need to share when they’re struggling, either professionally or personally. Tap into that to understand when to push them and when to back off.
Build Your Interpersonal Skills
Building your interpersonal skills takes training and practice, just like any technical skill. Ask for feedback from your manager and from your team on which soft skills you could use more practice in. And ask questions of your peers and team members, just like you would with your friends and family.
After all, you’re part of a team working to accomplish a goal. Get to know your teammates on a more personal level by using these interpersonal skills so you can become closer, develop that trust, and support each other.
Kimberly Dolejsi has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Development, she spent 10 years in the corporate world training in leadership development before coming to Mott Community College in Flint, MI as a Purchasing Specialist. She’s a co-Advisor for the NSLS Chapter at MCC (who just happen to be Chapter of the Year). She has a passion for learning and leadership and in her spare time she reads, gardens, spends time with her three rescue dogs, hikes around Michigan and is learning Italian.
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