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How to Be More Effective at Work: Develop Your Soft Skills

How effective are your "soft skills" at work?

There is a straightforward strategy to increase your success at work (and in social life), and it involves developing your "soft skills." This past weekend we hosted the 21st Kravis-de Roulet leadership conference at Claremont McKenna College and the topic centered on the "soft skills" of leaders. By soft skills, we mean the interpersonal, emotional, persuasion, and political skills that leaders use to communicate to help teams and organizations achieve goals. We invited top scholars to share their research and strategies for developing these soft skills at work.

Here are some of the lessons from the conference:

Develop Emotional Competencies. First and foremost, many experts emphasized the importance of emotional skills and competencies (often referred to as "emotional intelligence") in the workplace. However, a great deal of emphasis was placed on using emotions appropriately. For example, it is important to be positive and upbeat as a manager or leader in order to motivate, but it needs to be realistic (not be an over-the-top cheerleader).

More important is the appropriate display of negative emotions. It is ok to show displeasure, disappointment, and even carefully controlled anger in the workplace, but the key is to turn these negative emotions into positive outcomes. For example, leaders are more effective if they convey their disappointment over a team or member's poor performance, but couple it with the message that "I know you can do better."

Develop Political Skill. Although the word "politics" suggests the sort of dirty politics that we all hate, it is important to be strategic and tactful in your behavior at work. Political skill involves using reciprocity effectively, for example, helping a coworker out, but being clear that help is expected in return.

Regardless of where you work, it is important to figure out the "rules" by which the game is played and how to navigate around political barriers (and the negative political "animals" that reside in your workplace).

Manage Your Impression. Consider your image at work and what you want that image to convey to others. Psychologist Dana Carney presented her work on "power poses" that suggested that simply looking like you are powerful and "in charge" can not only convey a sense of power and confidence to others, but it can make you feel more powerful (and better about yourself). I will do an entire future post on this fascinating research.

Reflect on the image that you convey to others verbally and (especially) nonverbally. Do you look confident and competent, or unsure and hesitant? Do you look and act like someone others want to work and partner with, or like the last person that someone would pick for their team?

Avoid Death by Powerpoint. Finally, leadership expert, Jay Conger, clearly demonstrated the role that memory plays in effective communication, suggesting that too many meetings and presentations at work are poorly done, or so packed with detailed information, that people come away remembering next to nothing.

Conger emphasized the importance of coupling your message with clear imagery and examples, repetition, and focusing on a smaller number of key points (less than 6 or 7) in any presentation or meeting.

The one common message from all of the experts was that working on the development of your "soft skills" will make you a more effective leader and team member.

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