Cultivating the right skills in your career will make the difference between getting a promotion and getting passed over for one, landing your dream job and settling for a role you don’t love, and being given that big new account or watching your not-so-favorite co-worker get the opportunity.
The question is, which soft skills are the right ones?
Whether you’re a career veteran or just entering the workforce, here are three highly-underrated soft skills that’ll help you no matter where you go in your career:
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport outlines the benefits of the intense focus you have when you’re fully engulfed in a task (a.k.a., not checking Twitter or Facebook).
Newport lays out three reasons why it’s such a valuable skill. First, those periods of concentrated effort allow you to produce more than usual. Second, most people gravitate toward easier work (checking email) versus hard, satisfying tasks (that big project you’ve been delaying), so it’ll help you stand out. Third, it maximizes the use of your skills and talents in a way that gives your work more meaning and you more satisfaction.
Develop It: Block Out Time (and Space)
It’s impossible to practice your focus if you’re constantly interrupted to go to meetings. Fix this by identifying one segment of your day and block it off from any meetings. Look for a two-hour time slot when you can just think and work—and then mark it as “busy” on your calendar.
Next, set up your environment so you can focus on difficult tasks without temptation. Consider browser apps like Self-Control—it’s free!—or Freedom. Put your phone on airplane mode. Turn off notifications on your computer. If your team is on Slack, set yourself to “Do not disturb.”
The more time you make to practice and engage with focused work, the more prepared you’ll be to tackle these kinds of projects when they arise.
2. Openness to Feedback
It doesn’t matter how well you deliver feedback: If you won’t listen to critiques about your own work, you’ll never grow (not to mention, you’ll make yourself pretty unapproachable). People will not only be less inclined to work with you, but they also may discount your advice in return.
In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen walk through the challenges of receiving feedback. For example, when you hear constructive criticism, your initial gut response is often to say, “You’re wrong.” But being defensive won’t help you grow.
Develop It: Listen Attentively
Instead of insisting the other person is wrong, Stone and Heen suggest a different tact: “That’s interesting. I would like to understand more about why we see this differently.” By asking for specifics, you can get to the root behaviors and observations leading to their judgment.
Now, often in feedback conversations, two or more topics pop up. Don’t try to tackle everything at once.
For example, let’s say you walk into your manager’s office and receive this onslaught:
I just wanted to chat with you about that project you’re working on. You’re behind schedule, and I’m concerned that it’s not headed in the right direction.
There are actually two issues here. First, there’s the pace of the project. Second, there’s the overall direction. Trying to tackle these at the same time means each could get short shrift. Instead, when you notice this happening in conversation, use this line from Stone and Heen’s book:
I see two related but separate topics for us to discuss. They are both important. Let’s discuss each topic fully but separately, giving each topic its own track.
When you say this—and then actually listen—you’ll impress your co-workers with your ability to both hear and incorporate their feedback.
It’s one thing to enthusiastically volunteer for a new project. But it’s another to see it though to completion.
Sometimes you may bite off more than you can chew, but you don’t want to make it a habit.
According to a study on over-commitment, it’s hard to know what future tasks will take up our time, so we underestimate and expect to have more available time in the future than we actually do. Additionally, people underestimate how long projects will actually take.
Develop It: Overestimate and Plan for the Worst
Use the Scotty Principle: Determine how long you think a task will take. Then, add 25% to 50% and promise it’ll be done by the end of the lengthier estimate.
Best-case scenario, you’ll finish with time to spare.
But best-case scenarios, while awesome, are not what you should be planning for. If you’re chronically struggling with deadlines, stop scheduling your day based on everything going right.
Assume at least one thing won’t swing your way. Better yet, plan for this by setting aside blocks of time strictly for unexpected items. For example, three or four days a week, I build in a 45-minute block just for catch up on random tasks that I didn’t anticipate. This way, you’re building in contingencies so you can start meeting deadlines and be seen as someone who’s 100% dependable.
Like any other skill on your resume, you can’t master these within a week or even a month. It will take consistent work; however learning these skills is a surefire way to keep growing and stand out at work.
Photo of people meeting courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.