Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Skills Recent Grads Need the Most: Interpersonal Skills, the Sine Qua Non of Business Success

This is the third in a series of blogs that I am writing in response to a request from Bob Clary, Webucator’s community manager. The series concerns professional and business competencies that recent grads need. The competencies that I am covering are ethics, job search, interpersonal skills, and writing. This blog concerns interpersonal skills and communication.

Interpersonal skills are among the competencies that are most critical to early career success.   The classic book on the topic is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Three other excellent books on interpersonal skills and communication are Whetten and Cameron’s textbook Developing Management Skills, especially Chapters Four, Five, and Seven, Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, especially Chapter Five, and Andrew DuBrin’s Winning Office Politics: A Guide for the Nineties. 

Whetten and Cameron point out (p. 285) that junior managers who are insensitive, abrasive, intimidating, cold, aloof, arrogant, or untrustworthy frequently find that their careers have been derailed. Learning how to deal with people is essential to getting ahead and moving up in any organization, whether it is in industry, government, academia, the military, or healthcare.

Empathic Listening

Dale Carnegie gives simple, sound advice: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Give honest appreciation. Be honestly interested in others. Remember others’ names. Smile. Be a good listener. In short, getting others to trust and like you depends on your communication skill as well as your dependability, hard work, and efficiency.  

Steven Covey also emphasizes the importance of what he calls “empathic listening.” In Chapter 5 of Seven Habits, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood,” Covey emphasizes the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of the person with whom one communicates.  Covey writes (p. 240): “When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand.”  In other words, we should care about those with whom we work. 

Certainly, building personal relationships or even friendships with our coworkers is a desirable strategy.  Covey writes of an emotional bank account to which we make deposits when we make others feel good, and from which we make withdrawals when we ask for favors or forgiveness.  Covey shows that empathic listening can be especially effective with respect to integrative or win-win negotiation whereby we attempt to expand the pie rather than to divide it.

There is no question that empathic listening and integrative negotiation are effective much of the time.  They are most valuable in the context of long-term relationships that are important to us.  The more that we can use emotional intelligence to build trust, respect, and understanding through listening, the better our long-term relationships will be.

Contingency Theory of Interpersonal Tactics

Not all relationships in business are long-term, though.  We frequently need to interact with customers, suppliers, consultants, or associates whom we will meet only once or a few times.  Also, we may have colleagues with whom it is difficult to be empathic.  Empathy is a crucial strategy, but it is high in cost.  It is important to be empathic with those who are most important to us, especially our boss, higher ups with whom we work, and employees and colleagues with whom we frequently interact. We need to decide when the empathic strategy works best and when the alternative, managed communication, works best. We manage our communication when we provide responses and information that are appropriate to the situation but may not reflect our natural feelings. 

Management experts call a strategy or tactic that depends on the circumstances a contingency theory. Contingency theories suggest that an appropriate response depends on circumstances, task requirements, personalities, and organizational characteristics.  Organizational culture, for example, may dictate that we always seem smart or that we never seem smart.  Whether we are smart or not is less important than conforming to the requirements of the organizational culture, one way or the other. Other organizational factors such as the organization's tasks and structure also modify how we communicate.

Such organizational demands may pose adjustment difficulties for recent graduates. Most educational institutions emphasize intellectual achievement and ignore interpersonal flexibility.  The idea of appearing in ways other than high achieving is alien to most students' education.  The high-achieving style fits some but not all organizations.  Much as a yogi can bend his or her body in unusual ways, so can an individual adept at interpersonal skills bend his behavior patterns to fit organizational demands.

If an individual works for a firm for a long time, he or she is likely to acclimate to and adopt the organizational culture as part of  their personality.  At first, though, it is necessary to manage responses so that they fit.  

The same is true in dealing with a boss. We need to understand our boss’s aims. Our goals need to coincide with broader departmental and organizational ones.  Moreover, it is useful to mirror.  Mirroring means that we adopt characteristics of our boss or an important client so that we seem to have much in common with them. The characteristics can include interests, appearance, communication style, preference for entertainment, and place of residence. I once worked for a bank in which all of the higher ups lived in Summit, New Jersey.  When an employee was on the fast track, one of the first things that he did was buy a house in Summit.

I once had a student who worked at a major investment bank. He told me that when he had first been hired, he had had trouble fitting in because he had never been interested in sports before, but most of his fellow traders spoke chiefly about sports.  He realized that in order to fit in he would need to follow sports, so he bought subscriptions to Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. After reading these publications religiously, he developed an interest in sports. He found himself fitting in.

A key to the contingency approach to interpersonal skills, then, is deciding when to be empathic and when to adopt a calculated response.  It is important to understand that not everyone in an organization is trustworthy.  For instance, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work outlines the characteristics of workplace psychopaths. As I point out in  Cornell HR Review (and here), between three and six percent of corporate employees may be responsible for the majority of ethical breaches in corporations.  Workplace psychopaths tend to be “manipulative, glib and grandiose."  

Although white collar psychopaths are a small proportion of the population, corporate employees are forced to take on a defensive behavior pattern, creating a Gresham’s Law of psychopathy. In monetary history, Gresham’s Law is the principle that when gold coins were undervalued relative to silver coins, people saved the gold coins and only used the silver coins.  Gresham’s Law is that “bad money drives out good.” Lack of trust drives out trust in many corporations. Under such circumstances, which are common, it is foolish to be overly empathic. One must assess those with whom one deals. If you have seen the HBO series Game of Thrones, you know what I am talking about.

The need for a contingency theory comes up in many interpersonal contexts. In negotiating it may not be possible to share information with a bargaining partner who prefers to be distributive (emphasizing splitting up the pie to their advantage) rather than integrative (expanding the pie).  In motivating others it may not be possible to use Theory Y or trusting leadership because employees may have values that cause them to take advantage of trust; in such circumstances Theory X or controlling leadership is necessary.

Managed Approaches

In developing a managed approach to communication, Whetten and Cameron emphasize the importance of understanding the sensitive lines of others.  The sensitive line is the point at which one’s self-concept is threatened.  If you cross someone’s sensitive line, they are likely to become defensive or disconfirmed.  Defensiveness means one is inclined to protect oneself by attacking the other party. Disconfirmation occurs when one of the parties feels ignored or insignificant. Whetten and Cameron advocate the use of supportive communication tactics. Supportive communication tactics reduce the likelihood of causing defensiveness or disconfirmation in others. 

The supportive communication tactics include being honest, avoiding value judgments, focusing on factual discussion, and validating others by treating them as equals and by being flexible in response to their opinions. When a conflict occurs, the discussion should focus on facts and the behavior rather than the person.  People should take responsibility (or own) their communication, and they should relate what they say to what the other person says.

Whetten and Cameron also emphasize supportive listening. They describe four listening responses: advising, deflecting, probing, and reflecting. These can also be managed to influence the other person's feelings. The point of listening responses is that we can modulate them to encourage or discourage the other party from expressing themselves. Supportive communication means encouraging the other party.   

In advising the listener responds by giving advice. In deflecting the listener responds by changing the subject and  focusing on their own experiences: “If you think what your boss did is bad, take a look at what my boss did.” In probing the listener asks questions. In reflecting the listener responds by acknowledging that he or she is listening. Reflective responses include summarizing and restating what the other person is saying. It involves giving back the message in different words.

The reflecting and probing responses are the most supportive and least likely to cause defensiveness or disconfirmation.  The advising and deflecting responses are the most intrusive and most likely to do so. 


The ultimate key to developing interpersonal skills is practice.  Certainly, empathy is important to developing sound, long-term relationships, but the appropriate response is contingent on factors like personality, ethics, organizational culture, organizational structure, and task.  Good business people need to develop alternative tactics that are appropriate to different settings, personalities, tasks, and organizations and to choose the most appropriate ones. 

No comments: