There’s no doubt that our technical skills are critical when it comes to doing our jobs well. But chances are good that there’s more than one person who went to the same school, earned the same certification, or mastered the same skill set. When you’re hiring for an open role on your team, what sets job seekers apart? Is it what they know, or how they conduct themselves?
Job-specific skills have always had a place on the resume, but employers are increasingly emphasizing the importance of interpersonal skills in the workplace. And for good reason. Even the most isolated of individual contributors need to be able to interact with others. And while these skills are critical to success in our individual roles, the effects aren’t limited to our job descriptions. Strong interpersonal skills can help you excel at work, collaborate with others, and even create a healthier work environment.
As you develop your workforce (both the ones who are on your team and the ones that will join in the future) it’s worth thinking about the importance of interpersonal skills. They can make such a difference that you may even want to write them into your next job posting (or even list them on your own resume).
What are interpersonal skills in the workplace?
Generally speaking, when we interact with others at work, two things stand out: how skilled the individual is at their role, and how we feel after talking to them. The first measure is technical skills, and the second measure is interpersonal skills.
What are interpersonal skills?
Interpersonal skills are the ways in which we interact with our coworkers, leaders, clients, and conduct ourselves at work. Those with strong interpersonal skills tend to be more creative, more effective collaborators, enjoy work more, and contribute to a positive work environment.
The business case for interpersonal skills
You likely spent years training to be good at what you do — but chances are good that no one in your academic career spent as much time training you to have good interpersonal skills. So why do they matter so much? Are interpersonal skills necessary in the workplace and in your career?
In some ways, interpersonal skills are what employers are really hiring for. Now, that’s not to say that job-specific skills aren’t important. Many roles require a specialized skill set or years of experience (what we think of as “hard skills”). But even when interviewers are focused on skills-based hiring, there’s only so much expertise that can be communicated during a hiring process.
On the other hand, success in job interviews relies heavily on interpersonal skills — often called “soft skills.” These can’t be quantified, but their impact can be felt in every interaction. Whether or not these traits are a key part of the role, the traditional interview process rewards those who can listen, communicate, answer questions, and even laugh at the right jokes.
Good communication and interpersonal skills also go a long way post-interview. Once you’re in your role, your interpersonal communication skills will determine whether you build relationships during onboarding and how fast you pick up on expectations. It’s a factor in whether you make friends at work and how fast you get promoted. Aside from that, it also has a direct impact on the quality of work you do — especially if your role depends on effective communication with others.
There are a variety of interpersonal skills that people need to have — or develop — in order to be successful in the workplace. Here are some that employers value across a variety of roles:
Types of interpersonal skills at work
There’s no doubt that every role requires some balance of interpersonal skills in order to be successful. However, the exact type of skills may vary across jobs, teams, and workplaces. Here are some common interpersonal skills that make a positive difference at work:
1. Communication skills
At the top of the list is communication skills — both written and verbal. In order to understand expectations, express priorities, and collaborate effectively, employees need to be able to communicate well with others. No matter your role or industry, organizations have long seen the value of improving communication skills. Some examples of these competencies include:
By some estimates, only about 10% of people listen effectively or remember any significant amount of what we hear. Think of your last meeting. If it included ten people, that means only one person took away anything of significance.
Improving your ability to listen actively can help raise productivity, reduce misunderstandings, and improve your relationships with others. You’ll become the person who’s able to recall the great ideas from a brainstorming session or get the team back on track after an interruption.
As it turns out, our school teachers were right — writing is an essential skill for almost every professional. Particularly in hybrid and remote work environments, you may find that you spend a significant part of your day drafting memos, emails, presentations, and even Slack messages. Strong writing skills can also help you make your resume and cover letter stand out in a crowd.
Often referred to as nonverbal communication, many jobs don’t think to place skill in reading body language high on the list. However, unspoken communication is an essential part of communicating effectively with others. Being able to pick up on non-verbal cues can have a direct impact on the bottom line — particularly in roles like sales.
2. Coaching skills
While there are many ways to be a leader, not all of them involve managing others — but almost all of them involve coaching. Whether you’re a people manager or individual contributor, you’ll likely find yourself helping other people within your department or team. Those with a coaching leadership style tend to be more collaborative, interested in others, empathetic, and excellent communicators.
Developing mentor-mentee relationships on your team is one of the single greatest investments you can make in career development. Mentors accelerate the career growth of their mentees — improving belonging, job satisfaction, and retention. But the mentor-mentee relationship is a highly interpersonal one by nature. As such, both parties need excellent interpersonal skills to get the most out of it.
Perhaps one of the most important (and frightening) people skills to develop is the ability to give feedback. But while we all know that we benefit from receiving feedback, we often worry about how it will be received by others. Employees that are confident in both giving and receiving feedback are often catalysts for positive growth in their teams.
Many people choose to work with a coach for increased accountability and support in hitting goals. But it’s also one of the most satisfying parts of working on a team. A true team player has the ability to share credit, recognizing others for their contributions and efforts. This kind of recognition can transform work relationships and employee satisfaction.
3. Emotional intelligence
Our emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient — is our ability to understand and regulate our own emotions, as well as understand the emotions of others. EQ is one of the most important interpersonal skills, as it has a direct impact on workplace relationships. When our emotional intelligence is high, we tend to get along better with others, have a better work-life balance, and approach work with a better attitude. Some core emotional intelligence skills include:
Empathy means that we understand and identify with the feelings of other people. Empathetic individuals tend to be naturally skilled at reading facial expressions and picking up on the “vibe” in a room. They remember details about others and are good at building relationships.
You might be surprised to learn that it’s more challenging to accurately gauge your own feelings than it is to read others. Those with high emotional intelligence, however, can pick up on changes in their own feelings, and even identify what triggered them. Developing self-awareness not only makes you a better leader, but it helps you understand yourself better. You gain a deeper understanding of the entire wheel of emotions, not just a select and powerful few.
A sense of humor — especially at work — has many distinct benefits. Humor in the workplace increases cohesion, reduces stress, helps team members bond faster, and makes conflict management easier. Finding the fun in work improves both your experience and the experience of others in the workplace. It’s easier to come to work with a positive attitude when you have a good time doing what you do.
6 ways to develop interpersonal skills at work
Whether you’re a leader, manager, job seeker (or all of the above), you’ll want to make continual developments in your interpersonal skills. It’s just as important — and worth just as much dedication — as formal training and upskilling in your career. Here are some ideas to keep in mind to build interpersonal skills for yourself (and for your employees):
1. Lead with respect
Perhaps the most important way you can build a foundation for good relationships with others is to lead with respect. Assume that every person is doing their best. Especially at work, everyone wins when each person succeeds, so it’s worth giving others the benefit of the doubt. This attitude empowers teamwork and speeds conflict resolution.
2. Approach work with humor
You don’t have to crack jokes non-stop, but it’s a good idea to bring a little levity to your work. Having fun increases social connection and boosts creativity — and it goes a long way towards building psychological safety.
3. Meet with a coach
It’s pretty challenging to embody strong interpersonal traits in a vacuum. Working with a coach provides a kind of sandbox where you can work through (and receive feedback on) your skills as you build them. A coach can help you develop strong listening skills, feel more confident about public speaking, and roleplay difficult conversations.
Tips for managers to develop employees’ interpersonal skills
As managers, you can set a strong example for your employees and help them develop good interpersonal skills. Here are some ways you can support your team:
1. Devote time to one-on-ones
Your one-on-one meetings are the best opportunity for you to get to know your direct reports. Take a coaching approach to leadership and encourage them to speak to you honestly about what they need. Review the previous week or two and look for scenarios that would benefit from a new approach or a coaching conversation.
2. Give regular feedback
People are often afraid of giving feedback, and that’s doubly true when it comes to interpersonal skills. After all, it can feel like we’re critiquing who they are as people — which is never the goal. When discussing communication skills, take an objective approach and avoid judgment. Listen to how they feel and frame communication as a tool to create collaboration and possibility.
3. Be compassionate
Developing interpersonal skills isn’t easy — and in fact, certain conversations can be downright triggering for some people. Be gentle and remember: everyone is trying their best. It takes time and a lot of self-awareness to improve social skills. Be gentle, consistent, and model strong interpersonal skills yourself by showing compassion. Your team will appreciate your approach and the investment in them, as well.
Interpersonal skills and leadership skills go hand in hand. If you want to know how to boost your team’s productivity, collaboration, and build a strong rapport, it won’t come by doing more hard skills training. Invest time and resources into improving your team’s (and your own!) interpersonal skills. More than any other skill, it has the potential to transform your entire workplace culture.