Clever Conversation: The Positive Effects of Social Skills on Office Culture

After months of exploring the nooks and crannies of Emotional Intelligence, it’s time to tie up this concept into a neat little package. To do so, I’ll attempt to emulate an admired college professor’s talent of pulling themes through. This professor always amazed and amused me by spending 75 minutes lecturing about the complexities of restaurant HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) and in the final 15 minutes merging these seemingly unrelated concepts into a cohesive overview. And then, voila! I understood how refrigeration worked almost as well as a technician did.

Well, since EQ is all about personal conduct and making others feel safe and heard, the thread that pulls self-regulation, self-awareness and empathy together to be displayed for the world to see is none other than social skills. Since our relationships culminate in culture, it makes sense that social skills are vital for a healthy workplace. And to authentically see the forest for the trees, it helps to acknowledge that culture dictates our sense of safety and acceptance, which directly impacts workplace productivity and engagement. Let’s explore.

Assessing What’s Normal

Social skills involve applying culturally-acceptable and appropriate communication and behavior to your interactions. But there’s a challenge here that can’t be ignored: The rules and expectations are often unspoken, intermittent and inconsistent. Furthermore, different practices are acceptable in different situations. I had my first taste of this paradigm when visiting classmates’ homes back in 7th grade. I was treated differently by each, not because I was different, but because each household had their norms, practices and customs for welcoming guests. For some, the approach was “a guest should be served”, while others communicated “my home is your home; help yourself to what you’d like”.

When we convert this paradigm to the workplace, a fluidity in observation is fundamental to assessing social norms, to which behaviors can then be appropriately adapted, either to suit the culture, or to stand out. This merges self-awareness with self-regulation in an “outward-facing” manner. Then we can adapt in real time to different temperaments. For instance, some of us face the challenge of a workplace where yelling is acceptable, and overreaction is tolerated. We have the choice to run for the hills, to stick to our higher standards, or to use conversation to share our expectations and help the culture evolve. That third option involves measured social skills and is what makes or breaks a culture.

To The Extreme

Years ago, I joined a restaurant waitstaff because I was impressed by their food philosophy. Before long, I observed that their culture wasn’t nearly as impressive. The chef ruled the staff by ‘command and control’. It was the norm to hear him yelling, early on Saturday evenings before the dining room filled, drowning out others’ voices with his bullying approach to leadership. On one evening, from a completely different floor of the restaurant, I could hear him shaming Adam, who was working the most difficult station in the kitchen that evening, suggesting he surrender his apron and start working for Dairy Queen. Chef’s theory was that such intimidation was psyching up the kitchen crew, when often it psyched them out.

During one service, I was called down to the kitchen, where the chef laid into ME regarding pacing at one of my tables. As he yelled and screamed, I was both mortified and frustrated. But I endured the chef’s wrath and graciously tended to the guest’s preferences. Then I marched back down to the kitchen for a private discussion with the chef. I calmly (and perhaps nervously) explained to him that I was there to serve the guests to the best of my ability, that he and I were on the same team, and that I would not accept him screaming at me for any unintended mistake, reminding him that the restaurant business is a human business.

I wish I could report that the chef changed his tyrannical ways, but that wasn’t the case. However, he never raised his voice to me again, and began treating me with respect. As extreme as it is, this is an example of morphing into a culture and getting some desired results. In my follow-up article, I’ll get away from extremes and explore the norms of workplace social skills.