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6 Important Skills Everyone Needs to Succeed in the Modern Workplace

Want to make a real impact at work? Here are skills you need to emphasize.

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Group of professionals talking in a conference room

Certain work skills will always be evergreen. Teamwork. Problem-solving. Adaptability. They’re necessary, and always will be. But, in terms of underlined talents, they’re pretty bland and don’t actually express what’s truly needed in a modern office. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t develop those skills. But modern workplaces, whether joined from your kitchen table or in person, require a bit more to help you truly succeed. Fundamentally, a company’s success comes down to its strategy and its culture. If you orient to both, you’ll be seen as valuable.

And, says Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, “If you do it in a way that fulfills you, you’ll be happier.”

That sounds like a much better deal, doesn’t it? Focusing on the following skills will get you to that place.

1. Bravery

Good relationships don’t just happen. They require tending so small problems don’t turn into big ones. Doing this doesn’t take more than occasionally asking some basic questions. How’s it going? Anything you need? Anything I could do better?

But since it’s mutual, you also want to say, “Here’s how you can help me.” And if you want to go full-on direct, end conversations with, “What needs to be said between us that isn’t being said?”

This might seem counterintuitive. But you’re creating an ongoing dialogue in which the underlying message is: We don’t duck stuff. It requires braving the awkwardness. But do it and relationships become stronger and you stand out.

“Nobody does it,” says Bungay Stanier, adding it’s like having the guts to be first on the dance floor. “People respond to the strongest signal in the room.”

2. Curiosity

The key to being a problem-solver, a real problem-solver, is knowing more stuff than you currently do. Otherwise, all your recommendations sound the same.

“It’s being willing to spend time learning about things without knowing why you need to know them,” says Art Markman, vice provost and professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Bring Your Brain to Work.

Essentially, you have to find ways to wander the aisles. An actual bookstore is ideal where your eye catches something and you delve. But it’s also reading newspaper articles and listening to podcasts on whatever. It’s reading presidential biographies for a possible nugget on leadership.

And occasionally, you want to take a statement that’s accepted as a given. We eat with our eyes first. Icing the kicker never works. You have to toss all the strawberries if one is moldy. Then research it to see if it’s actually true. It’s a potential rabbit hole, but, in the process, you’ll inevitably learn about other stuff.

“We want to be ruthlessly efficient but we don’t know what information was needed to solve a problem until after we solved the problem,” says Markman.

3. Patience

Patience works in tandem with the above. You have all this data, but you have to know how and when to apply it because it’s not a race to have the first answer since that’s not the most creative.

You want to initially ask what the situation really needs. Try to use different words or analogies to describe the problem. It’ll shift your thinking and tick off new ideas and make you realize, “Oh that reminds me of …” And as an exercise, force yourself to come up with five possibilities. “Never be satisfied with the first thing you come up with,” Markman says. Keep digging to get to the fourth or fifth. That’s where your solution is.

4. Knowing Your Audience

Not everyone is the same. More importantly, not everyone is you. They have different approaches and temperaments. When you know those, you can tailor your approach and play to your colleagues’ strengths. Markman notes that people have five basic traits:

  • Openness. They think anything new is cool.
  • Conscientious. They finish what they start but they’re also sticklers for rules.
  • Extroversion. They don’t mind being in front of large groups and getting attention.
  • Agreeableness. They’re empathetic, want to be liked, and not always with the thickest skin.
  • Neuroticism. They worry about pitfalls and take on whatever the current mood is.

Each has its positives, as well as its drawbacks, and people can have various combinations. But when you can decipher the “type”, it can influence how you interact. You know who to ask to go to the conference. You know who to praise in private, instead of in front of others. And you know who needs to hear, “All we need right now is B-minus level” or they’ll never get started, let alone finish a project.

5. Prioritizing

Every task can seem important, but they’re not. You want to interrogate the to-do list, talking to bosses and coworkers about what’s the real target, both short- and long-term, and what risks you’re willing to take. It’s ultimately about figuring out what work matters the most, helping not only the company but also you.

“Good work is your job description,” Bungay Stanier says. “Great work has more impact and meaning.”

6. Understanding When to Give Advice

From an early age, we get praise for shooting up our hands. But often people don’t want an answer, but just to figure something out, which means not being interrupted. That skill has taken a beating over the last two years thanks to the ability to turn off the screen and multitask. “We’ve become sloppy listeners,” Markman says.

This needs to be corrected. First thing, notice how quickly you are to offer advice and stop yourself. Ask the other person, “What would help you right now?” Then as they talk, use the classic technique of repeating back their words to ensure you’re getting their full message.

Towards the end of the conversation, ask, “And what else?” People don’t always come up with their best answer first. You’re telling them that you’re not done listening, so they don’t have to be done talking.

“It’s saying, ‘I’m giving you authority. I want to hear more,’” Bungay Stanier says. “It’s opening the space.”

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