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Professional skills – The small ones (+ putting it into practice!)

Welcome to the second blog post of our ‘opt-in’ series! During semester 2 of 2020, FPSA has been running a series of professional development sessions for students in the PSYC1102 class. We intend these blog posts to complement these sessions by providing an ‘in writing’ version of the content and expanding on some topics we cover.

As always, please get in contact if you have questions!

So, your boss has come up to you and asked you to present your research to the team. You’ve accepted, knowing that you will deliver a stellar presentation. After all, public speaking is one of your strengths! The hour comes. You saunter into the meeting room and start presenting, everything goes well until…a question. Someone asks about an issue you hadn’t seen before. You pause, unsure how to answer, and your mind goes a little blank. You brush it off, perhaps a little clumsily, and continue. A minute later, the powerpoint goes down. You scramble to get it back up. Somehow, you keep your cool, but it’s a close thing. Later, your boss gives you some feedback, it’s okay but not great. How do you respond?

Last time we spoke about how employees can poorly define professional skills but consider them ‘career competencies’ – skills that you need to execute your job well. These can be technical skills or big skills. However, there are also a multitude of ‘smaller’ skills that employees require for you to do a good job at, well, your job. These are the kinds of skills that are vital when dealing with situations like the above. Things like problem solving, being adaptive, and accepting feedback are all vital in succeeding at your career. Here, we define these as small skills.

Psst! Stay to the end where we’ll also talk about how to improve both your big and small skills

Photo by Alina Vilchenko from Pexels

What are small skills?

Small skills are the often-overlooked younger sibling of the big skills. They can slip under the radar; however, employees recognize more and more these skills as vital in an outstanding employee. In the same way that big skills are ‘bigger picture’, small skills are ‘smaller picture’ and more personal. They impact on how well you can execute your big skills and thus underpin your overall work performance.

Boring basics

The reality of work-life is that you must have some skills down pat to succeed. This is not to say that if you are not great at these already, you are doomed. Rather, we say this to emphasize that these skills are really, really important.

Some boring basics of work-life are:

Being reliable – Reliability comes down to being trustworthy and performing consistently. (Of course, you could be reliably late and perform reliably poorly, but that’s not what we’re going for here.) Reliability in the workplace often looks like going and contributing to scheduled meetings, answering emails in a timely way, finishing tasks when you say you will and being present and useful.

Being committed – No one expects you to bend over backward to accommodate every little request that comes across your desk (at least we hope not). However, being committed to your job and what the vision is of the company you work for is important. Even if you don’t see yourself doing it in a year, it is still professional to show dedication to what they have hired you to do.

Be prepared (especially for meetings!) – Attending a meeting is not just about being a seat filler, most often you are there because you have input on the topic at hand. Make sure you double check what is expected from you, make sure you know what the meeting is about and prepare materials.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


Being flexible in the workplace is all about demonstrating your ability to change to be successful. Flexibility includes your ability to problem solve, be adaptive and how creative you can think.

Problem solving

Problem Solving is, at first glance, self-explanatory; you face a problem and you solve it. However, problems aren’t called problems because they are simple or easy to solve. Nor do we mean problems in the same way as conflicts (see our previous tips on conflict resolution).

Consider; your boss asks you to write out a plan for a project you have never done before. In this scenario, you would need to listen actively (and ask questions!) to what they expect of you. Next you might go away and analyse the project, breaking it down into small pieces. Then you might research these pieces to find out the best approach. Finally, you might use your creative thinking to form a plan that is efficient and effective. In this way, problem solving is a synthesis of multiple other small skills.

Being adaptive

Being adaptive means being able to change the way you approach or do things to be successful. Adaptability is based on your ability to learn. Adaptable employees view mistakes and new situations as opportunities for learning. They are not afraid to take risks because it means a chance to learn something new. Adaptability is also about being persistent. Even when things are hard, or they are not going the way you wanted, adaptable employees will keep trying and keep pushing.

Resourcefulness is another key aspect of adaptability. Resourcefulness is all about finding fresh ways of going about things when the path forward might seem murky. Maybe you’ve lost a contract, or a grant didn’t come through. How can you adapt and find the resources to make the project happen, anyway? Be curious about things that stand out to you. Maybe part of the project makes little sense, investigate it! If you are curious about the things around you, you will naturally investigate them and potentially, you might find a better way of doing something!

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Personal skills

We hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to ask you a personal question: given the choice, would you want to work with you? When we say this, we don’t necessarily mean in terms of big skills, or even little skills, but also in terms of personality. The last few skills we’re going to talk about are all very intrapersonal and they all impact on what you are like to work with.

Accepting feedback

Feedback and constructive criticism provide a great opportunity for growth and personal betterment, but it’s one thing to smile and nod your head when receiving it, and another to take it on board and use it. Use active listening to understand what the other person is saying, stop your first reaction (usually bad!), say thank you to the person offering the feedback and ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand. Later, ask for a follow-up to see if you’ve taken on board what they’ve said. Ultimately, learn to own your feedback and come back better than before!

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is often said to comprise 5 components; self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills. It might seem weird to apply emotion in the workplace, but these all contribute to what you are like to work with. Use your emotional intelligence to recognize when others need a hand or are stressed. Make the new guy feel welcome and exercise your social skills with your boss!

Be self-aware

Being self-aware is linked with emotional intelligence. Know the limits of what you can reasonably take on and be honest if tasks overwhelm you. If you over-commit it can lead to burn out, which helps nobody, least of all yourself. Engage in a bit of self-care if you feel overwhelmed. Positive mental health is becoming more and more recognized as an important part of the workplace – often it’s okay to take a break, just be communicative about it!

Be assertive!

Being assertive is important if you want your colleagues to take you seriously in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to put your ideas forth. Sure, there may be times where they are rebuffed, but taking risks shows that you are willing to learn and try new things. If you think you have good insight, stand your ground and don’t be afraid to take the lead.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Putting it into practice

So, you’ve read through the last two blogs and now you have a good idea of what kind of professional skills there are. Now it’s time to think about where your skill set sits in relation to what we’ve talked about.

Self-awareness and reflection

Take a moment to think about all the skills we’ve talked about so far. Answer these questions:

  1. Which skills do you rate yourself highly on, the ones you know are your strengths?
  2. Which skills are you good enough at, the ones you are good enough at (for now)?
  3. Which skills are ones you know you could improve on, the ones you know (maybe only deep down) that are your weaknesses?

Now, before we go straight into working on weaknesses, we want you to look at your strengths. Maybe you’re a great communicator, or you have excellent writing skills? Same with your good-enoughs. Maybe you’ve led a group once or twice and it’s ended up working fine. Sure, you might have room to improve, but these skills are good enough. Use these things as a bedrock to work on the things you are not so great at.

Pro Tip! Remind yourself when you’re working on your weaknesses and perhaps feeling unconfident or overwhelmed that you are pretty dang good at some of these things!

Now for the moment we all hate, it’s time to look at your weaknesses. It’s hard to acknowledge what you’re not great at but be honest. Choose one or two of your weaknesses to improve right now.

S.M.A.R.T goals

Now that you’ve decided on some areas that you would like to improve on, it’s time to plan to make that happen. Take one skill that you would like to build on. It can be big or small. Now brainstorm some goals surrounding that skill.

For example, if you recognize that you need to get better at public speaking, you could set a goal to deliver a brief presentation. To make a goal like this happen, you may need to break it down. First, are you in a workplace or school environment where you can volunteer for this? If not, the first step is putting yourself in a position where public speaking is normal. For example, you might join Toastmasters, or a student group. Think creatively about how you could go about achieving your goal.

Whatever it is, the best way to ensure you meet your goal is to make it S.M.A.R.T:

Specific: your goal should be clear and well defined.
e.g: I will volunteer to deliver a short 5-10 presentation at FPSA’s next opt-in series.

Measurable: A good goal is one that you can ‘measure’ to see if you have achieved it or not.
e.g: I will have achieved this goal when I finish the presentation.

Attainable: The goal should not be impossible to achieve.
e.g: My goal is attainable because I am part of the FPSA committee already.

Realistic: It’s good to be ambitious, but be realistic about what is attainable for you.
e.g: Limiting myself to a short presentation will be a good way to ease myself into public speaking.

Timely: The goal should have a deadline.
e.g: The next opt-in session is already booked, so I have a solid deadline.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our blogs about professional skills and are energized to start working on your own! Next time we’re going to talk about career planning and how you can start forming ideas for your career regardless of where you are in your degree.

Author: Rosie Coleman, with contributions from Victoria Saris’ presentation

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