you won’t find these 7 skills on a job description — but you need them

While job descriptions often focus on predictable lists of skills – this software program, that degree, and so forth – the reality is that success in a role often comes down to qualities that rarely show up on job descriptions.

Take a look at these seven crucial traits that can make or break you in a job, but which you won’t spot on many job postings.

Emotional intelligence

You might be the best in the world at what you do, but if you alienate coworkers and rub your managers the wrong way, no one is going to want to work with you. That’s where your emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ, comes in.

Understanding what makes your colleagues tick, how to build rapport and connect emotionally with them, and how to manage your own and other people’s emotional makeup will pay off enormously at work: You’ll find yourself better able to get along with people at all levels of your organization, better equipped to choose the right battles (and the times to fight them!), and better able to finesse sticky situations.

For example, imagine a manager who delivers tough criticism on the day an employee receives scary health news, or who presents a sensitive performance message as a “joke” in front of others. By contrast, a high-EQ manager is likely to be thoughtful about the right time to deliver the difficult feedback – and to frame it deftly and sensitively when she does. And it’s not just managers who benefit from EQ; no matter how senior or junior you are, EQ can help you spot the right way to raise difficult issues, how to approach a prickly colleague, and the right strategy for managing tough clients.


Taking ownership of your work is a simple thing, but some people go through their whole careers without ever quite doing it. So what does it really mean, anyway?

I once asked an incredible assistant who ran a complicated office flawlessly what her secret was. Her answer? She thought of herself as the “CEO of logistics,” which led her to anticipate people’s needs and handle details without anyone needing to point them out her. That what ownership is; you might not be the CEO of the company, but you’re the CEO of something– communications, invoicing, or whatever you’re responsible for.

Taking ownership of your work means assuming responsibility for helping the organization as a whole succeed: being invested in the outcomes of your work, spotting and implementing ways to do things better, and holding yourself accountable when things in your realm go wrong. In other words, you’re not just executing a series of activities assigned by someone else; you’re obsessing over the details and truly bearing the emotional weight of ensuring that your work is successful.


Calmness is one of those traits that doesn’t always get appreciated until it’s not present. But if you make a point of staying calm, rational, and objective, even when you’re frustrated or angry, you’ll stand out for it. Plus, it only takes one instance of snapping at someone or slamming a door to get a reputation as The Angry One, and that’s a label that’s hard to shake.

Calmness also tends to go hand-in-hand with low drama; people who are calm tend not to indulge in unconstructive interpersonal conflict and generally operate with cooperation and good will toward their colleagues. As a manager, I’ve always been grateful for the people on my team who I knew would navigate potentially contentious situations maturely.

Openness to feedback

If you’re ever worked with someone who got defensive at the slightest suggestion that she do something differently, you know how crucial being open to feedback is. And unless you don’t want to develop professionally and are comfortable stagnating exactly where you are today for the rest of your career, you’re going to need to grow and improve – and feedback plays a crucial role in helping you spot opportunities for that. But if you bristle and get defensive at suggestions of what you can do better, over time most people will stop giving you feedback at all.

Openness to feedback becomes even more important when you’re a manager. To manage well, you need to be almost obsessive about learning from experience, incorporating lessons into practice, and adapting your approach to make it as effective as possible … which means being eager to identify ways you could perform better and genuinely wanting to hear dissent.

Polite assertiveness

While too much assertiveness can become domineering, politeassertiveness is simply about addressing problems calmly and forthrightly and not shying away from difficult or awkward conversations. It means speaking up when something isn’t going right, not being afraid to bringnew ideas to the table, and not stewing in silence when you’re bothered by something.

Bad things happen when employees lack this quality. For example, I once worked with someone who was furious that his manager changed his schedule without talking to him first. When I asked if he had approached her about it, he said he hadn’t – and yet he was letting his resentment build to the point that it was affecting his work. Once he talked to her, it turned out the schedule change had been a simple mistake, which she easily corrected when he explained the problems it would cause him. But if he hadn’t finally spoken up, she wouldn’t have known and his anger would have festered. That would have been bad for him, and bad for his manager too.


It’s no surprise that decency is on the list, since we all want to work with colleagues who handle disagreements civilly, give others the benefit of the doubt, respect opinions that differ from their own, and act with genuine care for other people. Organizations with great cultures put a premium on hiring for these characteristics and ensuring that employees model them.

And the higher up you go, the more decency stands out as a differentiator of great leaders in additional ways – from understanding that people have lives and families outside of work and that those will sometimes take priority to treating people with compassion and dignity during tough feedback conversations.


Integrity at work means things like speaking up if you make a mistake that reflects poorly on you (rather than trying to soften or hide it), doing what you say you’re going to do, acknowledging when new information shows you were wrong, and not being afraid to say “I don’t know.”

Building a reputation for integrity pays off in all sorts of ways. When people know that your priority is to be honest and objective, not to protect yourself or try to make yourself look good, you’ll find that your opinion will be taken more seriously, you’ll get the benefit of the doubt in he-said/she-said situations, and, often, potentially contentious situations will go more smoothly. And if you’re a manager, when your team knows that you’re a fair judge, they’re more likely to buy in to your decisions, even when it doesn’t go their way.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. Becca*

    I really like the 7 skills you picked, Alison, and the way you broke them down. This was timely for me as I’m going through goal setting and development planning right now.

    I was inspired to forward this article to my boss along with a brief explanation of why each theme resonated with me. I’m on a leadership path and it is important that I become a leader within my personal belief system, not outside of it. These soft-skills helped me pinpoint exactly where my reservations and fears are, and helped me frame why I feel this way. I have no interest in taking a role that is counter to my self.

    Your article gave me a way to broach this subject with my leader and define what being a leader looks like to me. With any luck, we can work together on setting tangible goals so I can recognize when I get there. Thanks!

  2. Mena*

    Great article, as well as the letter from the person with the good performer that was difficult to get along with. It is all of these ‘soft’ skills that can truly make or break a career.

  3. NotherNonners*

    The staying calm one resonates for me, especially since I am dealing with a coworker who cannot operate without spazzing out about everything. This coworker seems to create problems where there aren’t any simply so they can swoop in and “solve” them. It is toxic.

    1. tcookson*

      We have one person at the director level who spazzes out over the smallest things. Her mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario for any situation and then she behaves as if that scenario has absolutely come to pass. Everyone pretty much avoids telling her anything unless it’s so exclusively in her domain that telling her is the only option. Nobody wants to put up with the exhausting, unwarranted drama.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Those people are a nightmare to deal with. Had a friend whose anxiety caused her to catastrophize. It absolutely was draining to deal with her. I’m no longer her friend, I couldn’t take it. Can’t imagine handling this at work. You have my sympathy.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yeah, I have had to do that even with family members. I find myself falling into the pit with them. Ugh.

          The problem starts with their belief that everyone else is finding life to be a piece of cake.

          There is only so much we can do for people and then we are done. The answer is “move on”. Tough decision to make, but a necessary one.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Indeed. Moving on from my friend was hard, we’d had five years of a close friendship, but it was so freeing too. I realized in the first month that she wasn’t in my life anymore just how much of my emotional energy she had taken. Once she was out of my life, I began accomplishing a lot more. That’s not to say she was stopping me from doing things, just that I was using so much energy to deal with her that it drained me and therefore taking care of my own stuff was harder. I’m so much better off. This is why I advocate, at the very least, breaks from people who are draining you so you can get your equilibrium back and decide if the relationship is worth continuing. Amazing how much better you feel without the weight of emotional vampires.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Some people identify themselves as a victim. If you try to sure-up their situation, you get slapped down. Why. Because their identity is centered on being a victim. You take away their victim tag and they have NO identity. This is a disaster for them because if they are not a victim then who are they?
        (There are some folks that have real and scary problems. I do not mean those folks. I mean folks that go into meltdown because they cannot find a paperclip.)

        In other cases, some people can only get energy by crisis mongering. If there is no fire, then these people have no energy. This is a person that has difficulty motivating themselves OR believes she can only motivate those around her by making mountains out of mole hills.

        1. tcookson*

          Our person at work has the victim mentality. She says she had an extended illness as a child, and I think that’s a factor in her living so much into the “poor little me” role.

          For example, we have occasional potlucks at work and I used to coordinate the list of who said they would bring what. She would come to me and, in a whiny, simpering little voice, ask if I knew if anyone was going to bring romaine lettuce, because she could only eat romaine lettuce, not iceberg lettuce because it upset her stomach; could I check with everybody to make sure that there is romaine lettuce, etc., etc.

          I finally (after three or four potlucks of her haranguing me about romaine lettuce) suggested that she, herself, bring some romaine lettuce. I approached it gingerly: “You know, ‘Whiny’, I like to have guacamole at potlucks. So every time there’s a potluck, I bring guacamole. That way I know there will be guacamole there. Maybe you would like to be the person who always brings romaine lettuce.”

          I couldn’t believe I was having to hand-hold another adult like that, but that is how she is. Her motivation was that she wanted someone to fuss over her and worry over whether she was getting some romaine lettuce. Geez.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Oh geeze. That kind of thing is just so ridiculous. But you know, I have heard that people who had cause to have extended attention and concern as children (as in long, serious illnesses, etc.) sometimes never break out of the mold of being the center of the world for everyone around them. Not saying this happens to everyone who has illnesses or whatever when they are kids, just that it can happen to some because having everyone’s care, concern and attention becomes the norm for them.

            In any case, it’s totally ridiculous (obviously) that adults would act like this. If I want something at a potluck, I make sure to bring it if it’s not already on the list. Easy, done. I wouldn’t make it into someone else’s problem.

            1. tcookson*

              I know! She was asking me to spend more concern on her than I would typically expend on my own (dear) children. I typically tell them to “figure it out”. I never expected to have to tell a grown-a$$ woman to “figure it out” — nor to have to line out for her what “figuring it out” would look like.

  4. Milos*

    It is interesting how all of these “skills” (or better yet, personality/character traits) are learned way before we enter our professional careers. They start at home, with family and are further developed as we go through various experience in our lives.

    Nonetheless, it is a great list and often a list which can’t be faked, either you have them or you don’t.

      1. James M*

        The challenge of learning soft skills like these can vary widely between different people, but they are possible to learn (neuroses excluded). You probably know someone who would have a very difficult time learning a particular soft skill (unless you live among paragons of sociability).

      2. Not So NewReader*

        The hope for those that don’t have these soft skills or an awareness of the skills lies in their decision that something is missing from their lives. Once a person realizes that something is missing the next step is for them to start the quest to find out what that missing stuff is.

        Some people bridge the gap and some people don’t. Conversely we see people who were taught a lot of this stuff and they simply chose to ignore it. This latter group is harder to deal with because they already know what they should be doing and are repeated refusing to do it. Can’t fix that.

        I can say that I see a lot of times where a person is trying-trying but having numerous problems and for some reason several people will jump in to help the person get on track. Most of the time people can relate to someone who is trying in spite of having difficulties.

        1. tcookson*

          The hope for those that don’t have these soft skills or an awareness of the skills lies in their decision that something is missing from their lives. Once a person realizes that something is missing the next step is for them to start the quest to find out what that missing stuff is.

          The important part here, too, is — upon realizing that something is missing and starting the quest to fix it — whether they look inwardly for the fix or blame others for what is missing (“how can I connect better with others’ vs. ‘nobody likes me; people suck’).

  5. Noelle*

    This is great advice. I actually got my newest job because of some of these skills! The woman who had held the job before me was apparently extremely dramatic and emotional, and made snap judgements. I met her at my first interview and she basically berated and lectured me the entire time. Apparently, the rest of the staff were so impressed that I was calm under pressure and didn’t flare up that they hired me! They even said that I was their first choice because I was very calm.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    What a great article. This needs to be printed out and hung up in work places everywhere.
    I hope that poster with the employee that is nasty, cannot take direction or constructive criticism sees this and uses it as a spring board to start a conversation.

    One more thing that I would add- no matter how well a person has mastered any of these skills, you can always learn more. I know I can.
    I particularly enjoyed this article because the tone is teaching NOT preaching.

  7. Anonymous*

    Integrity: Due to health issues I have just lost my job. However because I showed integrity and worked with the company to find the best solution for all I have a door back in and a good reference for the future. I didn’t play the “poor little me” card. I accepted if the company needed to move on to ensure its future? That was acceptable.

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