People skills: What are they and why are they important

In a world obsessed with complex, technical skills like coding, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence - it’s all too easy to overlook the importance of people skills.

Yet these softer skills also play a crucial role in our career performance and progression.

According to the Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum, the top five skills for employees to possess in 2025 will be:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Complex problem-solving
  4. Critical thinking and analysis
  5. Creativity, originality, and initiative

Arguably all but the second of those skills involves collaboration. So if you have excellent people skills, you’re likely to be better at them than other candidates, which means you’re better placed to achieve your short and long-term career goals.

With that in mind, this article will explain what people skills are and how to build people skills to support your ongoing career development.

What are people skills?

People skills — sometimes called interpersonal skills, soft skills, social skills, emotional intelligence, communication skills and interpersonal intelligence — give us the tools to communicate and engage with our colleagues effectively.

Why are people skills important?

People skills are important because if the people within an organisation struggle to explain themselves or understand how their coworkers feel about a given project, task, or challenge, it becomes much harder for them to work together to achieve common goals. 

In turn, that hurts the organisation’s productivity and profitability while hampering creativity and innovation.

Specifically, people skills can help us to:

  • Avoid misunderstandings. Communicating ideas and instructions more clearly makes people less likely to misunderstand what you’re saying.
  • Win support. If you can speak persuasively and understand what your audience wants to hear, it becomes much easier to influence their opinions and get them “on-side”.
  • Improve customer support. If you can get into your customers’ heads through active listening and understand their pain points, you’ll be better placed to solve their problems.
  • Solve conflicts. Conflict isn’t necessarily destructive but can hurt morale and productivity if left unresolved. Strong people skills help you to see things from a different perspective and find commonalities, which makes serious disagreements less likely.

Related: How to resolve workplace conflicts: A guide for managers

What our experts say: 

“People skills are essential in driving high performance within teams. Individuals that are able to articulate themselves well are more likely to build stronger relationships with their peers, resulting in higher levels of team success. Social psychology shows that people buy into people, so skills where you can demonstrate empathy, rapport building and collaboration are all positive traits to help build meaningful relationships, both in the workplace and in your personal life.” - Talent Development, PageGroup

How to develop people skills

Even though people skills are critical, employers often underappreciate them regarding career development.

Internal training sessions often focus on teaching hard skills — like performing a specific task or using a particular piece of software. That makes it harder for employees to improve their people skills.

But just because it’s more complex doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Here are four tips for how to build good people skills and become a more attractive candidate:

Learn to listen properly

Listening isn’t just about hearing someone’s words; it’s also about paying attention to their meaning and forming an appropriate response. To do this well, you need to concentrate on what they’re saying rather than trying to come up with your reply before they finish speaking.

Applaud other people’s work

It can be easy (especially if you’re not in a people management role) to put yourself in a silo and focus solely on your work without paying attention to the efforts of those around you. But that insular attitude makes it hard - if not impossible - to develop good people skills. 

Get into the habit of finding out what other people in your team or department are working on and congratulate them for a job well done. Not only will it make them feel good, but it’ll encourage you to be less insular.

Expand your network

In both our professional and personal lives, it can be easy to “stay in our box” and only speak to the same types of people. We might be fantastic at communicating with those people. But to truly develop your people skills, you need to be able to engage with and understand people even if you don’t have a natural, immediate rapport with them. That means expanding your personal network and speaking to people who aren’t your friends or close colleagues. 

Study (and respect) cultural differences

There’s no ‘one way’ to communicate information effectively. Just as your approach might vary for people of different seniority or skill levels, it might also differ depending on the cultural background of your audience. For instance, in some cultures, workers typically expect greater empathy in professional relationships, whereas, in others, communications are often far more direct. 

If you know you will be working with people from a range of cultures or have an international client base, it’s wise to study these cultural differences to understand how best to communicate with each.

Developing soft skills cultivates your adaptability, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence, empowering you to navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and thrive in your chosen career paths.

Read more:
A guide to writing a winning resume
How to ask your boss for more responsibility
How to improve your work-life balance in 2023

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