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Standing Out Requires Soft Skills, Not Just Technical Ones

“You have to play the long game."

ink drop/Adobe Stock
Source: ink drop/Adobe Stock

There is a crucial lesson that Lisa, an experienced ER nursing leader, emphasizes to all her students: “Before you do anything else, check: Does the patient have an airway? Is there adequate circulation? If those things aren’t there, none of the other issues are going to matter.”

That is not just good emergency medical practice, it’s also a great metaphor for one of the most important rules of earning influence in the workplace: Play the long game with people, but remember that the long game is played moment by moment, by doing the right thing in one short-term interaction after another.

When it comes to becoming a highly valuable colleague, Lisa says, “You have to play the long game. Over time, you get a reputation for making good decisions and not just getting things done, but getting the right things done and getting them done right. When you say no,” she adds, “people know it’s not because you don’t feel like doing it, or because you are overwhelmed, but because there are good reasons. Likewise, when you say yes, people know they can count on you to follow through.”

Here’s the long-game formula:

(Doing the right thing moment by moment) × Time = Real influence

Many people presume that the best-qualified, highest-performing, or most technically-skilled individuals are the ones who stand out at work. But that couldn’t be further from the truth: I’ve seen many cases in which an employee is, by far, the most technically skilled at doing their job, but no one's first choice of somebody to go to. Perhaps they have a bad attitude and are not very good at interpersonal relations. Perhaps they just don’t get enough done. Sometimes, the technical expert is an annoying know-it-all. They can be so convinced they’re more qualified than everyone else, they spend too much of their time complaining and finger-pointing about everything they see wrong in the company, its management, its processes, and its personnel. Then, when they themselves fail to deliver, they can always tell you why it’s somebody else’s fault. Nobody wants to work with that person. Most people would much rather go to a colleague who might be less of an expert but willing to take personal responsibility for working through obstacles and getting things done.

The long game of real influence requires a focus on, and development of, soft skills. It’s about adopting a generous, other-centered focus that adds value to every interaction. And, in turn, the value you add makes the other person more valuable, including to you, instantly and over time; contributes to more successful and fruitful interactions as well as better short- and long-term outcomes; and builds up your reputation as a true servant to others

What does that look like in real life? There are four concrete tactics.

  1. Build and draw on interpersonal influence. Always conduct yourself in a businesslike professional manner. Be the person other people do not want to disappoint.
  2. Use the influence of specific commitments. Establish clear ownership and timelines for concrete deliverables with checkpoints along the way.
  3. Seek to influence through rational persuasion. Much has been said about the value of empathy in the workplace, but logic-forward arguments are a powerful interpersonal tool we would be wise to remember. Particularly when seeking to gain the trust and confidence of your colleagues, convince them with good reasons and clear arguments, not assertions or emotions.
  4. Influence by facilitating success. If you’re looking for a more empathic approach, this is it. Do everything possible to support and assist other people in the fulfillment of their part. What are all the things you can do to make it easier for other people to deliver?
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