Soft Skills for Work: Dealing with Unspoken Rules

By Nan Nan Liu-Maffetone | Strong Female Leaders | Reading Time: Five Minutes
Need help developing soft skills for work? Knowing how to deal with the unspoken rules at work helps. Each workplace has hidden norms, dynamics and sentiments. If you know how to identify them quickly and handle them gracefully, you will gain the competitive edge that sets you apart.


Soft Skills for Employment: Dealing with Unspoken Rules
New on the job? This must be an emotional time for you. To get up to speed, knowing the hidden rules helps. Every workplace has unspoken rules, but if you can identify them quickly and handle them gracefully, you will gain a whole lot more confidence. And with that confidence comes a calmer and clearer head that enables you to focus on more important priorities.
Before diving into the soft skills for work, please understand that it is okay to make mistakes, feel vulnerable, and not be able to take charge right away. Being new is a phase that everyone goes through. So relax and give yourself enough room to get up to speed.
1. Accept the downsides.
The excitement of starting a new job fades quickly. Soon you will realize that there are rules, power struggles, and mistrust at the workplace. Any workplace. Bullying, nepetism and injustice happen. When there is a lot at stake, most people make decisions that ultimately benefit themselves only. The sooner you realize these downsides, the quicker you can adapt to the environment. You don't have to abide by the unfair rules, but do accept that they exist, and people get away with abusive behaviors.
2. Identify the real influencers.
Real power, or influence, comes from relationships, not org charts. There are three main types of power in the workplace. Finding the real influencers to learn from can be extremely beneficial. The three types of influence are:
1) Title Power
Title power comes from where people sit in the org chart. People with title power influence mostly their direct reports because they write performance reviews, conduct screening interviews, and perform managerial tasks.
While it is favorable to befriend and respect those with title power, be careful about entering that career path. Knowledge professionals rely on technical skills to maintain a competitive edge. Having the kind of title power that makes organizational impact (usually the C-levels) requires years of service at one workplace, being political, and sacraficing valuable hands-on experience. If you choose someone with title power as a mentor, he or she might not have authentic influence. Before you commit, look beyond the title, and make sure that the person has industry-specific aptitude to back up the title.
2) Knowledge Power
Knowledge power comes from having exertise in a certain area. When you are new, you might identify the more aggressive people as the power sources. Many times, and especially for knowledge professionals, that is not true. The louder someone is, the less confidence the person has. In layman's terms, the person is called a "know it all." People with true knowldge has no need to be agressive. They ask questions before offering a solution, shoot straight when they need an answer, and solve big problems with little effort. If you are seeking mentorship from someone with knowledge power, and try not to confuse agression with confidence.
When in doubt, ask yourself,"is the person regurgitating tribal knowledge, or actually finding a solution?"
3) Relationship Power
Relationship power is possibly the healthiest of the three. People with strong relationship power are both respected and trusted. By the way, they are not always the social butterflies. To find them, notice how they treat people. Do they go out of their way to help team members? Do they listen more than they talk? Do they stand up for, inspire, and motivate others?
People with relationship power are natural leaders, and genuinely care about people. They solve problems quickly because their network is well-built, and they are loved by everyone. They are hidden gems in the workplace. If you are new, try to find them, and work hard to be like them.
3. Decisions are made outside of meetings.
Specifically, they are made during 1:1 conversations and private chats. Prior to getting together, team members have already made up their minds about which way to sway, who to support, and how to benefit their own agenda.
When you are new, observe the team dynamic and find out who sides with who, who has the biggest influence, and who is the best negotiator. To increase your own influence, start making friends with everyone, but do it on an one-on-one basis. You can offer to take them to coffee, help them on projects, or simply initiate small talk. Building relationships takes time and effort. Your advantage right now is that you are new and starting fresh, so enjoy the journey.
4. Disagreements are healthy.
Disagreements happen all the time, and they happen more often on high performing teams. When team members get into heated arguments, it is actually a great sign because they trust each other enough to express themselves freely. As long as the disagreements are about specific work issues and not about personality conflicts, your team is probably both innovative and productive.
5. Other miscellaneous norms.
Work styles
Your team will be made of various personalities with different work styles. You will meet extroverts who thrive during collab, introverts who analyze deeply before making decisions, debators who love to argue, cynical people who dream up every dissastrous situation, and other colorful personalities in between. Realizing everyone's work style allows you to navigate your group, and find the best way to add your own flair. The goal is to make everyone fit, so make sure you add value in the right places.
Emotional and Psychological Safety
How does your team welcome new members? Do you feel excluded or welcomed? Is there a proper onboarding process in place, or are you left out in the cold? How trustworthy is leadership? Do they shoot straight or beat around the bush?
The answers to these questions influence whether or not your will be happy at work. If you spend most of the week in one environment, do your research. Make sure that you can at least tolerate the place.
Digital communication norms
Digital communication norms include when to turn cameras on and off, whether or not to mute yourself during conversations, and how to use chats and emojis to emphasize talking points. List all the questions you can think of and explicitly ask leadership, team members and meeting organizers about them. The more you ask, the better prepared you are.
Parting Thoughts
Devloping soft skills for work is just as important as developing technical skills. When you are new, understanding the unspoken rules at the workplace is a part of self-guided training. The faster you learn, the quicker you figure out ways to deal with them, and the more confidence you gain.

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