Next-level social skills for workplace leadership
July 6, 2020 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm some flavor of non-neurotypical and struggle with social awareness, as I've covered in several of my past questions here. I have mastered the social skills needed to get to a middle management job but I get the sense there are some next-level skills I need if I want to keep advancing to leadership. What are they, and how does someone develop them?

For background, I do not have a shy or retiring personality. I'm direct and at times authoritative. Also, I am in a well-run and healthy workplace environment, and have received multiple highly positive reviews and promotions at a pace that is appropriate for my tenure. This is not a question about how to deal with discrimination as a neuroatypical woman and I'd like to request that everyone refrain from giving advice along those lines.

After many years of struggling, I've mastered what I think of as a "basic" or "101-level" social skillset and can meet neurotypical people's expectations for a functional adult in the workplace. Those are things like:
-Observing social niceties like saying please, thank you, and excuse me
-Making small talk about topics like the weather, asking after people's weekend, etc. without monologuing
-Delivering difficult feedback at work directly and with empathy
-Gratefully accepting criticism of my work and seeing it as an opportunity to grow
-Approaching disagreements collaboratively, asking clarifying questions, and accepting I may be wrong. I would never in a million years insult someone or call them names.
-Keeping an upbeat attitude even when my work is something I don't feel like doing
-Staying emotionally cool at work and avoiding any kind of outbursts
-Realizing when I've interrupted someone and giving them a chance to talk
-Keeping my pedantic instincts to myself and shutting my mouth instead of leaping to correct someone
-Giving polished, professional presentations to clients and other external audiences

However, when I think about my colleagues who have advanced to leadership, both men and women, they all have a skillset of what I would call "advanced" social skills, and these are the ones I still struggle with. That's things like:
-Proactively reaching out to people at work with the intent of relationship-building
-Building rapport with clients as the foundation of longer-term relationships (my role doesn't involve business development, but these types of relationships can still be very productive)
-Anticipating when it is my turn to talk so that I rarely interrupt anyone in the first place
-Something I'll call "making my staff feel appreciated". I thank them for their work and give them detailed positive feedback. I also give them tons of flexibility around workload, schedule, and time off, and I advocate for their needs with higher-ups. But I think I'm missing something deeper here about recognizing and rewarding people for their time and work.
-Understanding when a topic at work is political and when people have hidden or unstated motivations behind asking a question or criticising my work. I'm going to leave an example of this below in a comment.

I guess my question is more or less in three parts:
1. Is it possible to be a good leader without advanced social skills?
2. What other advanced social skills should be on my list?
3. How do I build advanced social skills?
posted by robot cat to Work & Money (11 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Here's an example of a political situation I misunderstood at work. I was recently in a meeting with two coworkers I'll call Tabitha and Mary. Tabitha is in a leadership role, and Mary is slightly senior to me. Mary expressed she was very concerned about a workplan I proposed because it would create extra work for her staff. I explained that I was setting it up so that my staff would do all of the work, and it might even take work off of her staff's plates. Mary kept pushing back almost as if she hadn't heard or understood me. At that point, Tabitha said she would meet with Mary separately, and also made sure to mention that the decision to start this project was made by an executive at our company. After the conversation, Tabitha explained that based on cues she was picking up in the conversation, Mary was actually pushing back because she felt like she had been left out of early decision-making on this project, and her pushback was about trying to feel like she was in control--not actually about her staff's workloads.
posted by robot cat at 12:47 PM on July 6, 2020

I can't answer #1, but a good keyword to look for is Emotional Intelligence. If you have a subscription to something like LinkedIn Learning, they have a lot of courses about it. (And if you don't, you could look for books / other videos).

Here are some examples of courses on LinkedIn Learning that would be helpful:
Courses about Emotional Intelligence
Leadership Skills in general
posted by beyond_pink at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

This may vary depending on your industry and workplace culture, but one of the things that stands out to me is in your lists, you only mention your staff once, and it's just about making them feel appreciated. Which is indeed important! But a big part of being a leader is leading the people who report to you, which means not just making sure they know they're appreciated, giving them the flexibility to do their work, and generally treating them like adults, but also supporting, coaching, and guiding them.

I don't know your industry or workplace culture, so I worry that any specific concrete advice I could give on how to do that effectively might be wildly out of place for your situation, because how to support your reports well will vary based on situation. At my company, it's about "empowerment" and coaching and servant leadership. At other companies, it's more about providing structure and firm guidance to help your reports complete difficult or demanding work. At others still, it really is more about just keeping them happy and engaged enough to make sure the tedious-but-necessary work gets done. There are some underlying skills that apply to all of those--another commenter has already called out emotional intelligence, which I second, and also the concept of situational leadership--but specific strategies can vary significantly depending on your company.

So instead, a recommendation for how to find out what skills you'll need to succeed as a leader in your workplace or industry: Talk to your own manager, or a trusted colleague who's also in a leadership position. Ideally that colleague is at your company, but if not, it should be someone familiar with your industry. This in itself comes with a bonus: If you are able to find someone at work you're comfortable talking to about this, you've also already started the process of reaching out to form or further develop relationships. Asking someone for help (occasionally) makes them feel closer to you!
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:07 PM on July 6, 2020

Some ideas and examples of "advanced skills":

- Building relationships and alliances across functions/departments, so that you can leverage those relationships to help your team when they need something from other departments.
- Being able to elicit information from your reports, especially "red flags" or small problems that could turn into bigger problems
- "Managing up", getting clear expectations from your manager, setting clear expectations for them, knowing their priorities and working/interaction style, etc.
posted by AceRock at 2:15 PM on July 6, 2020

I was never good at it but one tidbit that stuck (from listening to some that were quite good at it) was to "make your bosses boss look good". No idea how to implement that ;-)
posted by sammyo at 2:50 PM on July 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is a great checklist.

I find the difference between manager and senior leadership are some Insane politicking skills, power posing and a penis. Best two out of three.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:03 PM on July 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Are you me? Bookmarking this for the answers.
posted by matildaben at 4:09 PM on July 6, 2020

I think you'd appreciate The Charisma Myth (which talks a lot about different leadership styles), and I guess people also recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People a lot although I haven't read it. (Also maybe Quiet, which is a little tangential to your question but is in part also a book about different kinds of leadership styles).

In general conventional wisdom is that you should spend most of your time focusing on your strengths and limit the time you spend working on your weaknesses to making sure you're hitting the minimum requirement. So, like, are you sure you want to be a higher-ranked leader at this position in this org where (apparently) you need to spend a bunch of time relationship building and understanding what people secretly want? In most cases it's possible to switch tracks to keep advancing without necessarily managing more and more people, although it's true the minimum bar for social skills is going to keep raising as you advance.
posted by inkyz at 7:16 PM on July 6, 2020

As someone who teaches Leadership Development programs for a living, I want to reassure you that the questions you are asking and the skills you are focusing on are very much the right ones. Most folks across the board struggle in these areas, regardless of where they fall on the neurotypical spectrum.

I will second the recommendations for both Emotional Intelligence and Situational Leadership as excellent areas of focus and also recommend Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The habit of "Seek first to understand, then be understood" in particular is a very simple but incredibly powerful skill that will help you build those advanced social skills that lead to deeper relationships and connections with the people around you.
posted by platinum at 10:48 PM on July 6, 2020

I'll echo the comments above that you are asking the right questions, as well as the recommendations for emotional intelligence & situational leadership.

I design & teach leadership development/organizational development, so I see a lot of leaders struggle with these skills. You are definitely not the only leader who is working on these things.

I'll speak really concretely to your questions on reaching out for long-term relationship building, proactively connecting, etc. One way to think about this is that you want to have ongoing conversations to check in with people and find out what's on their mind. Over time, you learn what kinds of challenges people are working on, what concerns them, what interests them, and how they respond to ideas.

This investment pays off, from a purely business perspective, when you need to get their support. You know what kinds of things are important to them, so you can frame your messaging in a way that clicks with them. You know what they are worried about, so you can offer support proactively and find opportunities to help. You can start to anticipate how they will react so you can plan for those things. (As a story, I had one business partner that would inevitably say no to new ideas. After he had a day or so to think about it, he would be willing to consider the idea. So, by building my understanding of how he responded, I knew to float ideas past him earlier, give him time to process with no expectation of an immediate response, and then we'd follow up in a few days and he was prepared to have a reasonable discussion).
posted by philosophygeek at 9:27 AM on July 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

All great advice above, and I also agree that these are things that I have struggled with and am learning. It takes cultivation and practice and assessment.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned that took me a long time to pick up on by watching effective leaders is how they leverage their team. I definitely agree that it helps to think more and more about putting the work into cultivating, training, and advancing the people who work for you. The other part, that I am working on improving now, is how you can use that process to pursue the same goals you’ve talked about here. Obviously that also depends on the nature of the work that your team does and who your employees are. But I am pumping a lot of time and energy in my new role into cultivating the social skills you’re asking about in my direct reports (who are mostly frontline workers). As they get networking (which they are expressing enthusiasm about) I have a chance to help them become leaders and advance, but also they are taking some interdepartmental communication and basic quality monitoring, culture building, and problem solving tasks off my plate. That allows me to focus more on the deeper changes that will make their lives better. Otherwise there is just too much for me to put my eyes on all the time that keeps me from higher impact audits and improvements.

This is exactly the idea that senior leadership relies on; the directors, managers, supervisors, etc exist because the C Suite and VPs can’t be everywhere themselves. But there is no real reason why it can’t be practiced at lower levels in ways that benefit everybody. And it’ll really hone and improve your networking, facilitation, communication, and mentoring skills as you go.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 8:40 AM on July 18, 2020

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