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Fact Check: Are Your People Skills As Good As You Think?

7 simple questions to take stock of your people skills

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You may think of yourself as a “people person,” because you get pretty good vibes from those with whom you interact. Or, at least, you think you do. What do people actually say about you when you’re not around, though? Are there obvious signs that you’re ignoring? Even if you don't think of yourself as a "people person," perhaps you feel that you’re valued within your own social circle of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. They understand that you’re not exactly an extrovert, but they still like you, right?

Psychology translates the loose expression "people skills" into a somewhat more quantifiable construct — namely, emotional intelligence, or EQ. Having been deemed more important to success in life than academic intelligence or “book smarts,” EQ is now being incorporated into research on management style. Marist College’s David J. Gavin and colleagues (2017) investigated how EQ helps workers overcome the detrimental impact of a hostile work environment, and in the process, they laid the groundwork for asking yourself how well you stack up.

Gavin and his collaborators set out to evaluate the role of EQ in overcoming the impact of “subversive leadership” on the mental and physical health of workers within an organization. The subversive leader, they note, plants seeds of doubt among subordinates regarding the competence of the top executive, perhaps going further to spread rumors about supposed cuts or layoffs that the CEO is planning to make. Needless to say, this social undermining, as it is referred to more generally, can lead workers to experience high levels of stress as they worry about their own future. CEOs, at the same time, can also experience high stress levels as they watch their authority erode, along with the declining confidence in their abilities among their employees.

In the Gavin et al. study, undergraduate business majors, some of whom were already employed, read scenarios depicting subversive behavior by a second-in-command. They then completed questionnaire measures of trust and the satisfaction and loyalty they would have to their jobs in this situation. Additionally, they completed a general EQ questionnaire. As the authors predicted, people reading those subversive scenarios indeed felt they would have lower job satisfaction and a higher intent to leave if exposed to these situations in real life.

The impact of subversive leadership appeared primarily to be due to loss of trust in the hypothetical boss. However, for people higher in emotional intelligence, that dip in trust caused by subversive leaders had far less impact on how connected they would feel toward the job. As the authors concluded, “Employees with higher emotional intelligence levels are better at positive moods, creativity, information-processing, and problem solving." In other words, if you’re better at understanding and managing your emotions, you’ll be better able to cope in a hostile interpersonal situation.

CEOs, as the Marist authors observed, are also harmed when their immediate subordinates plot against them. As an antidote, Gavin and his collaborators recommend that leaders engage in “compassionate coaching,” in which they assist employees with “dream achievement, personal change, and aspirations." This approach builds trust directly with lower levels of subordinates and thus serves as a buffer against any encroachment that a VP might attempt to make on the leader’s standing in the organization.

Returning now to the question of people skills, the Gavin et al. study suggests that being sensitive to the needs of others, helping to support them, knowing how to cope in an uncomfortable environment, and avoiding the trap of undercutting people in charge are all part of maintaining a healthy day-to-day existence. With this as a background, let’s see how your own people skills stack up.

1. Are you able to tap into your own emotions when things bother you? EQ involves being able to read yourself as well as other people. If you’re in touch with your inner feelings, even if they aren’t particularly pleasant, you’ll be in a better mood and therefore be a more pleasant companion.

2. Do you knowingly, or unknowingly, try to outdo the people attempting to lead you through a situation? The act of subversive leadership makes everyone around you feel stressed, especially when you’re in a position of authority yourself.

3. Are you supportive of other people’s needs to be successful? Others will be far less likely to trust you, as proposed by Gavin et al., when you don’t reach out to encourage them to dream. You may think you’re being funny when you tease people for trying to accomplish something. However, those jokes come at a cost of allowing people to create doubts about your sincerity.

4. Do people tend to leave soon after you enter a situation? Having good people skills means that you’re desirable to be with, as you make other people feel positively about themselves. No one wants to be around someone who’s always got a negative take on things (a.k.a. a "Debbie Downer"). If it appears that the people you talk to are eager to move on, this means that you’re not being a positively reinforcing conversation partner.

5. Are you always thinking about what jokes to make instead of really listening to others? Being high in EQ means being high in empathy, a skill that requires paying attention to subtle cues that other people emit. If you’re constantly dreaming up your next comeback, witty observation, or snappy retort, not only do you run the risk of being undercutting, but also of failing to attend to signals that your humor is not appreciated.

6. Are you the only one who laughs at your jokes? People who are genuinely funny actually tend not to laugh at themselves. The most successful comedians are humorous because they either engage in a fair degree of self-deprecation (and thus don’t laugh at what they say) or because they take seriously whatever predicament they might create by their antics. If you want to be seen as socially skilled, try laughing at the jokes of others instead of your own.

7. Do you get invited to social gatherings? This might seem to be the most obvious clue to your people skills, but it follows from the above six. If you’re seen as supportive, socially sensitive, empathic, and fun to be with, you’ll be the first on everyone’s list for both casual chats and, ultimately, long-term relationships. Be honest with yourself and take stock of how often you’re included. If you find your dance card emptier than you’d like, this would be a good time to review the questions above.

As the Marist study shows, good relationships are an essential aspect of reducing people’s stress levels, whether they’re leaders or followers. If you take stock of where you do or do not succeed in your own people skills, fulfillment in relationships will be that much more attainable.


Gavin DJ, Gavin JH, Quick JC. Power struggles within the top management team: An empirical examination of follower reactions to subversive leadership. Journal of Applied Behavioral Research, 2017;22:e12100.