Before proceeding any further, here is a feasible definition of social skills. Also known as soft skills, relational skills or interpersonal skills, the term 'social skills' refers to the collective repertoire of intangible skills that individuals use to communicate, form connections, and facilitate interaction with other persons. Social skills are among the most important set of competencies an individual must develop because they influence success or failure in all aspects of life, including the formation and maintenance of good friendships, development of fulfilling romantic partnerships, and construction of a successful career. Frankly put, an unintelligent person can thrive professionally and personally if he has proficient social skills, but a highly intelligent individual may fail to find professional success and fulfilling personal relationships if he has poor social skills.
Over the years, a significant number of posts we've encountered seem to pertain in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, to the detrimental effects of poor social skills in the workplace:
"My preceptor hates my guts!"
"The CNAs don't respect me."
"My coworker is the unit snitch."
"The day supervisor practices favoritism."
"Kelly thinks she's better than everyone."
"How can he get away with being so lazy?"
"None of my coworkers like me."
"Kerry is the snottiest nurse ever."
"I am a new grad who cannot find work."
"Why do patients love my ditzy coworker?"
"Employee turnover is sky high on my unit."
"Jeff talks constantly about his fishing trips."
"The family member kept me in that room for two hours!"
It is no secret that some individuals possess more competence at utilizing social skills than others. Why does this happen? Well, some people have naturally picked up the necessary social skills during the mundane process of living their lives whereas others must explicitly be taught what to do, what to say and how to interact. Development of social skills is similar to construction of a skyscraper: the foundation is built through interactions with the individual's family of origin during infancy and childhood, and the subsequent floors are constructed with school experiences, socialization with classmates, and extracurricular encounters (sports teams, clubs, dance lessons, etc). The more an individual socializes, the more social skills they develop, and as a result their personal skyscraper becomes taller while they progress through life's situations.
How does this all relate to nursing? The nursing profession, and other occupations that entail a profound number of encounters with many different people, must have members with reasonably good social skills. The chemical engineer who spends most of the workday in an office by himself can get away with poor social skills, but the bedside nurse with poor social skills will have a 30-year career peppered with 30+ different jobs, most of which involved involuntary termination (read: "you are fired!") or forced resignation. Without further delay, I will start listing ways in which nurses with poor social skills may wreak havoc without even realizing it.
People need validation. Validate them, please!
Human nature can be bizarre because it operates mostly on emotion rather than logic. Many people are looking to be told what they want to hear, and nothing more. Personally, if someone dislikes me, I'd rather not participate in phony exchanges that involve the two of us pretending to be fond of each other. However, I am an odd turtle who grasped basic social skills later than most. It wasn't until I approached 30 years old that I developed an awareness of humankind's profound needs for validation and personal acknowledgement. In essence, calling someone a 'loser' within earshot is pretty darned bad, but walking past the same person on the street without speaking or making eye contact is viewed by many people as an offense that is a trillion times worse. Why? When we call someone a 'loser' or some other derogatory name, we've acknowledged his existence and shown that we've thought of him, even if our opinion and thoughts are negative. But when we walk past someone with whom we're acquainted without uttering as much as a "Good morning," we've failed to validate their existence, and to many people this is an offense that slowly kills off a piece of their souls.
The individual with poor social skills will see many workplace problems disappear if (s)he starts validating everyone, even people whom he/she dislikes. Do you work with a mouthy CNA who disappears or hides frequently? Acknowledge her. Pretend to show an interest in her life. Ask about her children, if any. Remember the children's names. Compliment her on her hair clip, necklace, shoes, or scrubs, even though she might look hideous. Every once in a while say, "Thank you for all that you do!" Coworkers will want to work with you once you show an interest in them as a person. The point is to validate one's existence as a person. Some of our colleagues, superiors and subordinates are pathetically lonely people who crave validation at the workplace because they do not get it in their personal lives. "Good morning" has a deeper meaning to many people because it communicates to the receiver that "I matter to you."
Do you know a nurse who is beloved by patients, families and management even though she is somewhat dimwitted? Here's another question: do you know an intelligent, highly proficient nurse who has excellent procedural and assessment skills but cannot keep a job for long because she cannot seem to connect on an interpersonal level with patients, families and coworkers? It's all about the skill of acknowledgment. The nurse with the warm personality who knows what to say, when to smile, when to stroke the patient's hand, and how to allay the family member's fears will win their approval even though she's failed to rescue multiple times over the years. Patients and families judge healthcare workers based on how good they were made to feel, not by how good the nursing care might have been. This might not be fair, but few things in this life are fair. This same nurse knows how to validate the existence of her supervisors and unit manager by greeting them, showing interest in them as people, and being a pleasant person overall.
Meanwhile, the socially awkward nurse with outstanding assessment and procedural skills cannot understand why she generates complaints from patients and families. After all, she feels she's an excellent nurse with the education, experience and hard skill set to handle virtually any situation. She walks into rooms, says hi to the sick person laying in the bed, and starts her assessments without drumming up small talk that validates the patient's existence. She doesn't speak much to the family members at the bedside or take any actions to stroke their fragile egos. She never shows an interest in her unit manager as a person and sometimes walks past him without a greeting. The nurse seldom speaks to her shift supervisors or charge nurse, but is there to run codes with precision. Other nurses, CNAs and ancillary staff have referred to her as standoffish, quiet, unsociable, and snotty. The socially awkward nurse feels that her supervisors and managers practice favoritism.
The moral of the story is that social skills will make or break your career. Remember to validate people and acknowledge their existence as fellow humans. Show an interest in their lives, or at least pretend as if you care. If you are a new grad on orientation, be pleasant and agreeable to your new coworkers and spend some breaks with them on occasion. Always remember that small talk is never really about the weather, the latest fashion or the petty topic being discussed. Rather, small talk is the glue that helps formulate and maintain connections with your fellow human. Stay tuned for Part II, which discusses several other ways that socially awkward nurses may incite hard feelings without realizing it. Here are more pieces that discuss social skills:
Confessions of a Nurse with Poor Interpersonal Skills
Hard and Soft Skills
Skills You Need. (2011). What Are Social Skills? Retrieved December 21, 2014 from http://ww.skillsyouneed.com/ips/social-skills.html