Getting Back on Track When Thrown out of Whack

When something goes out of whack socially, it can throw you off track. When you’re thrown off track, it’s typically because something someone said or did triggered an unhelpful emotion such as self-doubt, fear, anger, or jealousy. Unhelpful emotions are the emotions that get in the way of contribution. There is something you can do to get back on track and regain your resiliency to what others say or do. You can step through the hierarchy of social skills.

The hierarchy of social skills is born from the experience of researchers and practitioners who have worked with others to make contributions. This experience has been recorded through audio interviews on the “Science-Based Business Success” podcast (formerly the “Science of Success: Social Secrets” podcast). The “Science-Based Business Success” podcast is a free resource for busy professionals to stay up-to-date on social strategies and research to improve workplace performance while decreasing workplace stress. Social strategies and research focus on the “how” rather than the “what” of workplace results.

A skill hierarchy born from the experience of others is like having your own teacher. For example, my piano teacher broke down the task of learning a new piece of piano music into the following hierarchy of skills:

  • play the notes on the top line with the right hand,
  • get the proper fingering for the right hand,
  • get the rhythm on the right hand,
  • repeat the above three steps for the bottom line with the left hand,
  • add the pedal for the left hand,
  • play with both hands together and the pedal,
  • work with a metronome at a slow enough speed to get all the notes, fingering and rhythm correct,
  • work with a metronome in small increments to get the piece up to tempo,
  • work on the proper balance between the two hands for different parts of the piece as needed,
  • add dynamics,
  • add interpretation, and, finally,
  • add expression (the story told by the piece which adds emotion to the piece).

With this skill hierarchy, once a student has learned the fundamentals of playing the piano, the student can then guide their own improvement on a piece of music without the teacher present. The skill hierarchy can also be used to troubleshoot problems playing a piece of music by stepping through the hierarchy until the problems are identified and addressed.

Similarly, once a professional has learned the fundamentals of interpersonal interaction, then the professional can use the social skills hierarchy to guide their own improvement in social skills or troubleshoot social challenges. The hierarchy of social skills is represented by a pyramid with five layers.

Social Skills Hierarchy 22Jul2016

At the base of the social skills pyramid is oral communication which is prone to misinterpretation. Why? Two reasons. First, psychologists know that we have a bias towards thinking we understand more than we do from others. Second, psychologists also know that we have a bias towards believing that we are communicating better to others than we actually are communicating. Thus, the oral communication step is about checking for understanding in both directions. Check for the person’s understanding of what you are communicating by asking them to repeat back to you in their own words. Also check for your understanding of what the other person is communicating by repeating back in your own words what you hear them saying.

Next on the social skills pyramid is interpersonal skills which introduce a whole new level of misinterpretation. Interpersonal skills are about the relationship which adds emotions to the mix of what you are trying to communicate. It is one thing to communicate, it is quite another to communicate in a way that keeps emotions in check in order to promote a healthy relationship. Thus, one aspect of interpersonal skills is checking in on emotions: yours and those of the person with whom you are communicating. There is evidence that emotions are contagious. Therefore, for a healthy relationship, you need to address negative emotions. Check in with the other person’s emotions by exploring how they are feeling: you seem a bit angry – is it something I have done or said? You can check in with your own emotions by watching how the other person is responding to you: if they are moving away or acting defensive then you need to explore why you have negative emotions lurking inside.

The third level of the social skills pyramid is high-performance teamwork. Once you are able to understand someone and are in a healthy relationship, you are ready to work with that person to create something of value. High-performance teamwork is primarily about how you are interacting – the process you are using. A process that encourages time for individual reflection before working together can go a long way towards promoting creativity and high-quality work. It is also important that you are on the same page in terms of process. For example, distinguish between when divergent thinking is needed to brainstorm possibilities and when convergent thinking is needed to weigh different alternatives in order to narrow down your options. Remember to build in time for personal reflection in both cases to have the best quality work.

The fourth level of the social skills pyramid is strategic thinking. Strategic thinking can raise teamwork to a whole new level of impact and contribution. The way strategic thinking can increase impact and contribution is by taking a systems perspective. For example, explore what system you are talking about and if it is the right system. Look at the boundaries of the system. Consider all elements in the system. Consider the interactions between the elements and which ones may need to be changed. Consider the current purpose of the system and whether or not that purpose needs to be changed.

The fifth and final level of the social skills pyramid is innovation. Sometimes innovation is the goal from the outset, however, the other elements of the social skills hierarchy need to be in place for innovation to emerge. There are two additional considerations in order for innovation to thrive. One consideration is creating the right kind of environment among the people who are innovating together. There are three key principles to create the optimal innovation environment: each participant values learning from one another, each participant takes the time and has the patience to understand the different perspective others are coming from, and each participant commits to building trust, respect, and a liking of being in each other’s company. For innovation to flourish, you need to invite those you are innovating with to embrace these three principles. The second consideration is having the correct diverse perspectives present for the innovation challenge at hand. One suggestion is bringing together those that have different approaches to problem solving. For example, people who approach problems from primarily a procedural, analytic, innovative, and relational perspective. Another suggestion is thinking of analogies on a deep structural level to the challenge at hand and then bringing in people who have skills in those analogous areas. For example, if you are dealing with an inventory challenge, then think about bringing in people who design robots to play soccer. Both inventory and designing robots to play soccer are about anticipating the next move.

Just like for the piano, there are fundamental capabilities needed before the social skills hierarchy can be used for self-guided improvement or troubleshooting. For learning a new piece of piano music, the fundamental capabilities are reading notes, understanding fingering, and using proper pedal technique. For improving contribution through social skills, the fundamental capabilities are identifying opportunities for contribution, social intelligence, and influencing others.
For more perspective on each level of the social skills hierarchy and the fundamental capabilities, see the referenced podcast shows below. Happy contribution hunting!

Skill Podcast Episode Table 22Jul2016