Birthday Cards and Coffee Breaks: 6 Easy Tips to Boost Your Soft Skills

Career Advice

When America’s enemies are plotting the next terror attack or threatening nuclear winter, taking the time to chit chat with co-workers may seem like a frivolous non-priority. Of course you need to exercise your judgment, but so-called “soft skills” ain’t just for tea parties. They are essential to building productivity and trust among your teammates.

According to NSA director Harry Coker, soft skills are essential to moving up the ladder—but their importance is often overlooked. At a recent INSA event panel discussion, director Coker explains how interpersonal skills can help you build trust with colleagues, demonstrate your professional competence and build a reputation of integrity.

What is a soft skill?

If you’re applying to work for the CIA as a Farsi language specialist, you should be able to read, write and speak Farsi. Those are hard skills.

But you should also be able to respond politely and helpfully when one of your co-workers hands you a last-minute request to translate a 50-page document into Farsi. That’s a soft skill.

Simply put, soft skills are what make people good teammates. Things like a good attitude, strong communication skills and flexibility all contribute to an organization’s productivity—and to your reputation as a valuable worker.

Like anything, soft skills take time to cultivate, but here are six easy tips to boost your soft skills and make your workplace more productive.

1. Give credit where credit is due.

Celebrate when others succeed. Actively look for ways to encourage your teammates in good work and good behavior. This will not only encourage your colleagues and reinforce good work, but demonstrate that you realize you’re not the only person in the room. National security is a team sport; you won’t get far by ignoring the other players on your team.

2. Don’t play favorites.

It’s unavoidable that there will be a hierarchy in the workplace. There are managers and there are worker bees. However, people see when you’re only nice to them to get something in return. Superiors know who can offer them tough, but needed feedback, and who’s just a “Yes Man.”

National security is a surprisingly small world. The intern you could be taking for granted one day may be your superior five years down the line. Better to stay on the safe side and just treat everyone respectfully. It’s the simplest way to earn the highest esteem—or burning scorn—of everyone around you.

3. Be interruptible.

Everyone is busy. The world is always on the verge of collapse. But if your co-worker asks you to grab coffee with them or wants to show you a few photos from their vacation to Scranton, take 15 minutes and do the right thing. This builds your co-workers’ trust and lets them know you care about them as people. Or you may come up with creative solutions to problems while sipping your pumpkin spice lattes.

Being “too busy” all the time will put a sour taste in people’s mouths—and may make them less likely to collaborate with you on work in the future. Remember: no one stays late or bends over backwards to help out the office jerk. They don’t promote them, either.

4. Assume the best.

We all say and do bonehead things. Yes, some of us are serial jerks who don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. But most of us are just flawed people who say dumb things and then obsess about them on the commute home. If a colleague does something that makes you feel slighted or seems inappropriate, cut them some slack. You will save them and yourselves a great deal of frustration by assuming that it was a mistake, or they’re just having a bad day. Extend a little grace.

5. Take a chill pill.

That said, sometimes behavior absolutely does need to be addressed. However, no one gives or accepts feedback well when steam is still coming out of their ears.

Whenever possible, take a few hours or days to calmly consider the most constructive way to address the issue. Also, be open to the fact that you may have been in the wrong, too, or misunderstood that person’s intentions. Remember, the goal isn’t to shame your colleague and make yourself feel better. It’s to help you both understand the situation better so it doesn’t happen again.

Note: Feedback constructively given and received can be one of the strongest trust builders between colleagues. Everyone appreciates a teammate who can behave both humbly and honestly in order to help everyone improve.

6. Be like an owl and give a hoot.

It turns out that the most helpful advice is also the hardest to fake: care about the people around you. Of course you must maintain appropriate professional boundaries. But just realize that on a daily basis, you probably spend more time with your colleagues than with your family. Would you rather that they be lone wolves willing to step on you in order to get ahead? Or hardworking, competent people who respect you and wish you the best?

So, remember people’s birthdays. Ask people how they’re doing and expect more than just a one word answer. When people know that you care about them as a person, they are more likely to trust you, forgive mistakes and go the extra mile for you. Never underestimate the long-term importance of just asking people about their day and meaning it.

Caroline D'Agati is an Editor for ClearanceJobs based in Washington, D.C.

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