People skills are widely talked about these days as a non-negotiable in the workplace. HR teams will devote entire categories of assessment to score the interpersonal skills of a prospective candidate, with the final outcome carrying some weight in the decision to hire or not to hire.
As a result, the internet is littered with coaching articles advising people that, if they want to land that dream job or get ahead in their career, the most important thing they can do is brush up on their people skills. The implicit message this sends out is slightly worrying – never mind technical skills or specialist knowledge, as long as you come across as friendly and personable, you will get where you want.
Sadly, too often we find this is actually the case. We can probably all think of examples of people we have come across in our careers where we wonder how they got to the level they have achieved, where their skills and knowledge don’t appear to match the responsibilities they have taken on. The majority of the time, this is probably because the person in question is that kind of bubbly, extrovert character who, without wanting to be too cynical about it, have the knack of being able to talk their way to the top.
The flipside of this is that quieter, shyer, more introverted characters who nevertheless possess formidable skills and knowledge can often be overlooked. This is an age-old problem that business has never really got to grip with. What the old ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ saying tells us is that business builds its hierarchies of success on interpersonal relationships rather than technical ability. But at what cost to output and performance?
The group of people who miss out most seriously in the workplace because of the obsession with interpersonal skills are those who fall under the neurodiverse umbrella. As we have written in recent posts, people with autism are chronically underrepresented not just in the higher echelons of business, but in the workplace in general. And people skills have a lot to do with that.
Many autistic people have above average abilities in areas like problem solving, logic and information processing and retention. They can achieve the highest levels of education in chosen fields, often preferring those related to science, maths and technology. But the pay off for advanced technical skills is often that people on the autistic spectrum find communication and navigating the mores of normative social behaviour much more difficult. It’s a consequence of the simple fact that people’s brains work in different ways, show strengths where others show weaknesses and vice versa.
What employers have to ask themselves seriously is whether it makes sense to value people skills uncritically across the board if that comes at the expense of other skills. Yes, it makes sense that every organisation should value a strong team ethic as ultimately the whole is more important than its individual parts, and yes good teamwork and collaboration rely on people having good people skills.
But there has to be a balance that will also allow other types of skills to come to the fore. As well as good talkers, organisers and leaders, successful businesses need creative thinkers, problem solvers and technicians. We’re happy to make allowances if, say, the best salesperson in the team who could talk a deal out of thin air needs help writing reports and pitches because crunching data is not their strong suit. We’re happy to accept that natural leaders might only have a passing acquaintance with the detail of what goes on in different departments, because their job is to organise and motivate at a higher level.
What we have to be able to accept is that the quieter, shyer people in our workplaces, those who don’t get involved in office banter or don’t come out for drinks after work because they don’t like crowds, they still have plenty to contribute. Indeed, it is often these people who have the technical know-how, the eye for detail, the flair with numbers, the ability to work through a solution to a complex problem with amazing speed and accuracy, that prop up what the more people-orientated personnel in a team do.