Fact Check: Are Your People Skills as Good as You Think?

You may think of yourself as a “people person,” because you get pretty good vibes from those with whom you interact. Or at least you think you do. What do people actually say about you, though, when you’re not around? Are there obvious signs that you’re ignoring when you’re with others that suggest your popularity is less than optimal? Even if you’re not a people person, perhaps you feel that you’re valued within your own social circle of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. They understand that you’re not exactly an extrovert, but they still like you, right?

Psychology translates the loose expression of people skills into somewhat of a more quantifiable construct—namely, emotional intelligence or EQ. Having been discovered as more important to success in life than academic intelligence, or “book smarts,” EQ is now becoming incorporated into research on management style. Marist College’s David J. Gavin and colleagues (2017) investigated how EQ helps workers overcome the detrimental impact of a hostile work environment, and in the process lay the groundwork for asking yourself how well you stack up in the people-pleasing department. 

Gavin and his collaborators set out to evaluate the role of EQ in overcoming the impact of “subversive leadership” on the mental and physical health of workers within an organization. The subversive leader, they note, plants seeds of doubt regarding the competence of the top executive among subordinates, perhaps going further to spread rumors about supposed cuts or layoffs that the CEO is planning to make. Needless to say, this social undermining, as it is referred to more generally, can lead workers to experience high levels of stress as they worry about their own future. CEOs, at the same time, can also experience high stress levels as they watch their authority erode along with the confidence of their employees in their abilities.

In the Gavin et al. study, undergraduate business majors, some of whom were already employed, read scenarios depicting subversive behavior by a second-in-command and then they completed questionnaire measures of trust, and the satisfaction and loyalty they would have to their jobs in this situation. Additionally, they completed a general EQ questionnaire. As the authors predicted, people reading those subversive scenarios indeed felt they would have lower job satisfaction and a higher intent to leave if exposed to these situations in real life. The impact of subversive leadership appeared primarily to be due to loss of trust in the hypothetical boss. However, for people higher in emotional intelligence, that dip in trust caused by subversive leaders had far less of an impact on how connected they would feel toward the job. As the authors concluded, “employees with higher emotional intelligence levels are better at positive moods, creativity, information-processing, and problem solving” (p. 9). In other words, if you’re better at understanding and managing your emotions, you’ll be better able to cope in a hostile interpersonal situation.

CEO’s, as the Marist College authors observed, are also harmed when their immediate subordinates plot against them. As an antidote, Gavin and his collaborators recommend that leaders engage in “compassionate coaching,” in which they assist their employees with “dream achievement, personal change, and aspirations” (p. 9). This approach builds trust directly with lower levels of subordinates, and then serves as a buffer against any encroachment that a VP might attempt to make on the leader’s standing in the organization.

Returning now to the question of people skills, the Gavin et al. study suggests that being sensitive to the needs of others, helping to support them, knowing how to cope in an uncomfortable environment, and avoiding the trap of undercutting people in charge are all part of maintaining a healthy day-to-day existence. With this as a background, let’s see how your own people skills stack up:

  1. Are you able to tap into your own emotions when things bother you? EQ involves being able to read yourself as well as other people. If you’re in touch with your inner feelings, even if those aren’t particularly pleasant, you’ll be in a better mood and therefore be a more pleasant companion.
  2. Do you knowingly, or unknowingly, try to outdo the people trying to lead you through a situation? The act of subversive leadership makes everyone around you feel stressed, especially when you’re in a position of authority yourself.
  3. Are you supportive of other people’s needs to be successful? Others will be far less likely to trust you, as proposed by Gavin et al., when you don’t reach out to encourage them to dream. You may think you’re being funny when you tease people for trying to accomplish something. However, those jokes come at a cost of allowing people to create doubts about your sincerity (more about jokes later).
  4. Do people tend to leave soon after you enter a situation? Good people skills mean that you’re desirable to be with, as you make other people feel positively about themselves. No one wants to be around someone who’s always got a negative take on things (a.k.a. a “Debbie Downer“). If it appears that people you talk to are eager to move on, this means that you’re not being that positively reinforcing conversation partner.
  5. Are you always thinking about what jokes to make instead of really listening to others? Being high in EQ means being high in empathy, a skill that requires paying attention to subtle cues that other people emit. If you’re constantly dreaming up your next comeback, witty observation, or snappy retort, not only do you run the risk of being undercutting, but also of failing to attend to signals that your humor is not actually appreciated.
  6. On the topic of jokes, are you the only one who laughs at yours? People who are genuinely funny actually tend not to laugh at themselves. The most successful comedians are humorous because they either engage in a fair degree of self-deprecation (and thus don’t laugh at what they say) or because they take seriously whatever predicament they might create by their antics. If you want to be seen as socially skilled, try laughing at the jokes of others instead of your own.
  7. Do you get invited to social gatherings? This might seem to be the most obvious clue to your people skills, but it’s last because it follows from the above 6. If you’re seen as supportive, socially sensitive, empathic, and fun to be with, you’ll be the first on everyone’s list both for casual chats and, ultimately, long-term relationships. Be honest with yourself and take stock of how often you’re included and if you find your dance card emptier than you’d like it to be, this would be a good time to review questions 1-6.

As the Marist College study shows, good relationships are an essential aspect to people’s levels of stress, whether they’re leaders or followers. By taking stock of where you do or do not succeed in your own people skills, fulfillment in those relationships will be that much more attainable.



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