It’s hard to underestimate the impact of good social skills on your career. In fact, across the board, in a wide variety of businesses, people would rather work with someone who is likeable and incompetent than with someone who is skilled and obnoxious, said Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School, whom I spoke to on the phone. "How we value competence changes depending on whether we like someone or not." And people who lack social competence end up looking like they lack other competencies too.
When it comes to holding down a job, social skills matter today more than ever. For people who want to break into a popular field like entertainment, for example, the only way to differentiate yourself from others at the bottom is to be likeable.
Many fields that used to be havens for loners, like programming, increasingly require exceptional people skills. "The jobs that are staying in the United States are those that require regular touch, face-to-face contact with clients or a manager," says Erran Carmel, chair of the Information Technology department at American University. The people landing those jobs have great social skills because of the difficulty of "managing teams that are distributed across cultures."
And as the need for social skills at work grows, the bar for good social skills gets higher. Until the 1970s, a smart child uninterested in playground politics was considered eccentric but okay. Since the 1980s, educators see the playground as essential training for the future, and kids who can’t navigate are often sent to experts for extra help with social skills.
"Today, a variety of therapeutic approaches can teach a child social skills while their brain is still forming," says Amy Berkman, a therapist working with New York schools. "Therapies we’re using now, like cranial sacral and sensory integration did not enter the mainstream until twenty years ago." The result is that each year, those entering the workforce come in with a better likeability factor than the year before.
Most of us have to work at being likeable. Fortunately, Casciaro’s research shows that the biggest impediment to likeability is not caring. So if you "just decide you want to do better," you probably will.
"Take responsibility for yourself," says executive coach Susan Hodgkinson. "Everyone needs to know that they are responsible for creating healthy, productive relationships at work." No one is going to make you likeable. "The people who are likeable actually care about other people and care about the connections they make."
Being good at talking to people requires that you figure out what interests them. Casciaro recommends a tactical approach: "Find the hook that makes your similarities more visible. For example, I might meet a man in his 60s and I’m a woman in my 30s, but we both like basketball."
Also, figure out how to help someone else get what they need. "Recognize what you’re trying to get done and who you are trying to get it done with. Then think beyond your own stuff to what the other people want," advises Hodgkinson. Think of this as project management synergy, or resume empathy; you need to help others reach their goals. This will make you more likeable and, as a result, more likely to reach your own objectives.
And don’t discount flattery. "Usually the reason we like someone is because we think they like us," says Casciaro. It’s the rule of prom dates: He was ugly until he asked you to the prom, and now he doesn’t look so bad. Since there is no prom at the office, to make someone feel liked, Casciaro suggests, "smiling and listening to make someone feel liked." "But it’s not a personality popularity contest," Hodgkinson adds. "You need to stay true to yourself while still expending empathy in order to connect."
It’s hard to do, but Casciaro says that people are much more likely to notice an increase in your likeability factor than an increase in your skills. So next time you consider areas for self-improvement, choose interpersonal coaching over office skills and you’ll likely get more bang for your buck.