We all know that interpersonal skills, multicultural sensitivity and emotional intelligence are crucial for professional success, but what does that really mean? It sounds almost mythical, yet the basics are actually extremely simple.
For most people, colleagues at work are precisely that: colleagues. The receptionist is a receptionist, the secretary a secretary, the manager a boss; everybody represents a function, a place in the organisation, a cog inside an often quite complex machinery, with some running smoother than others. However, that is a very mechanical view, far from the essentials of a successful career mentioned above.
My key message here is: make sure you look at your colleagues as human beings. The manager is not just the manager but a person with a personality, feelings, and most probably a family life. Once you cease viewing them as function and instead see them as a human being with past experience and aspirations you will begin to understand. You can then interact more effectively, predict behaviour more accurately, and hopefully build stronger working relationships.
However, this is not just about employees understanding managers, but also about managers understanding employees. Remembering that employees are individuals may reveal that they are actually quite interesting people; the insight gained will assist managers in working with them and supporting them. In return, employees will appreciate that an interest in them as a person rather than an employee. Recognising people as individuals is a crucial stepping stone in developing interpersonal skills.
Curiosity is the next and closely related step: what really drives people? What experience colours their views? What lies behind their decisions? Being curious for no reason other than being genuinely interested is essential because it can lead to influencing others' actions.
The ability to influence an individual effectively starts with being able to understand that individual. Being able to influence people is more than just mastering a set of tricks, because each individual is different; realising that will make you more effective and hopefully you will come to appreciate why these differences are crucial assets when working together.
And that brings us to the final point: you must be aware that understanding someone is very different to judging them. Of course, it's only natural that you will like some people and dislike others. You may view certain people as role models while you might be critical or sceptical of others. This is your personal opinion rather than your professional opinion.
Working effectively with people is very different from wanting to foster a friendship with them. Like and dislike are not professional opinions and should never be part of your professional toolkit. Respect very well can be - admiration even - but the question of liking is an issue for your personal life and this should not blur your effectiveness as a professional.
Equally, political points of view, religious commitments, lifestyle and other aspects we take into consideration when deciding whether we want to make friends with someone lie in the domain of your personal life.
Recognising people as individuals and having a healthy curiosity about them are essential for career success, as said, but equally essential is being able to make a distinction between professional and personal life. In that sense, the term 'interpersonal skills' can easily be misunderstood: applying interpersonal skills in a professional context is not identical to the personal context because the objectives are very different.
These three messages - recognising people as individuals (rather than positions or functions), trying to understand them (instead of judging them) and separating the personal from the professional - are very much worth bearing in mind if you are seeking success in your career.
Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).