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5 Power Competencies for Next-Level Personal Effectiveness

As you’re mastering the habits of personal effectiveness, supplement them with the competencies that will make you more nimble, more connected, and better able to focus on what really matters.

These five power competencies will equip you for navigating through turbulent times. They’ll also solidify your personal effectiveness by helping you manage your time well and engage others. 

The five power competencies for next-level personal effectiveness are:

  1. Asking quality questions
  2. Listening empathetically
  3. Sensemaking
  4. Learning agility
  5. Critical thinking  

Why These “Soft Skills” Are Increasingly Important for Personal Effectiveness  

Graphic Showing Listen Learn LoveAccess to information, education, and opportunities for development has never been easier. 

Competing on your technical expertise, knowledge, or talents will only get you so far… especially now that others have more access to learn and do what you know and do. 

What’s more, technology and global change can make technical expertise obsolete overnight. Entire industries and specialties are being replaced with emerging technologies and improvements. You’ll need more than your education and experience to make changes like these!

Finally, as you climb the career ladder, it’s important to note that what got you here won’t get you there. To succeed in next-level leadership roles, you’ll need competencies for communication, decision-making, innovation, collaboration, and creating clarity for others. 

In other words, soft skills are absolutely essential. 

Your personal effectiveness in any role will be enhanced by improving your soft skills. The five competencies described in this article are emerging as strong differentiators that will give you numerous advantages in your personal and professional life. 

To learn more about soft skills, take a look at this ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers or check out this on-demand webinar called Soft Skills Are Hard! Becoming a Well-Rounded Leader

Boost Your Personal Effectiveness with Next-Level Communication Skills  

Everyone is bombarded every day with more information than they could possibly process and remember. We’re all fatigued by these inputs and constantly running on cognitive overload.

To be effective, though, you’ve got to communicate well. That means receiving information so you can act on it wisely AND conveying information to enable others to understand and provide what you need.  

Ask Better Questions: 

Communication is a two-way street. Both the sender and the receiver bear responsibility for making sure that the message intended is the same as the message interpreted and acted on. 

When you’re receiving information, ask questions to get clarification and to make sure you fully understand. This will save you time, help you to avoid misdirected efforts, and reduce frustration. Clarifying questions sound like:

  • What are the desired outcomes?
  • Who else will be involved or affected?
  • What deadlines or interim check-ins will there be?
  • What are your expectations related to how this work is done?
  • Let me make sure I understand what you’ve described (followed by paraphrasing)

When you’re sending information, ask questions to check for understanding and to make sure you were effective in conveying exactly what you intended. This will also save you (and others!) time, minimize the chance of misdirected efforts and rework, and reduce frustration. Check-in questions sound like:

  • To be sure I conveyed what I intended, play back for me what you heard and understood, please
  • What questions do you have about getting started? About the steps needed? 
  • How do you see yourself proceeding from here?
  • What more do you need from me at this point?
  • When would you like to check in about this again? 

These are transactional questions that will make you more effective in either communication role. 

Additionally, you can use questions to better understand and connect with people in virtually any setting. To be more effective with questions that engage others, construct questions with open-ended or command statement phrasing more often than closed-ended. Here’s the difference:

Closed-ended questions are the weakest. These are questions that could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” 

They start with helper verbs -- words that need a little help, because when you phrase a question with words like can, could, have, has, do, did, does, will, would, are, is, am, etc. you’re conveying that you want a short answer with confirmation or denial. And when you phrase questions this way, people will give you a shorter answer, and they'll give it to you more quickly.  

Of course, sometimes that's exactly what you want. You want confirmation, you want clarification, you just want to get a “yes” or a “no.” That’s the right time to use closed ended questions. 

But when you're looking to be effective… when you're trying to gather information… when you want to be inclusive in your decision-making processes, your questions do need to work a little harder. They need to invite people into the conversation more. Closed ended questions would work against you if you're trying to yield the floor to others.

Open-ended questions begin with one of these seven words: who, what, where, when, why, which and how. ? These are the only words in the English language that start a sentence ending in a question mark that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” And this is actually measurable in brain scans. 

We know that people think a little longer and give more information when questions are phrased this way.

Command statements are the most powerful of all. Technically, these are not questions. These sentences end with a period, not a question mark. Command statements begin with words like: explain, describe, tell me, help me understand, etc. When you use command statements, you’re signaling that you want a robust, well-thought-out response. You’re inviting the other party to give you more than a quick answer. 

Don’t make this common mistake! If you tag on the helper verb words at the start of a command statement, you weaken its impact. Instead of saying “Can you tell me more about…”, axe the first two words and simply say “Tell me more about…” 

To learn more about amping up your personal effectiveness by asking better questions, access this free, on-demand webinar

Listen with Empathy: 

Active listening is when listeners suspend their own frame of reference and fully focus on the speaker’s without:

  • Drawing conclusions
  • Making assumptions
  • Thinking ahead to their own reply

Most of us are guilty of partial listening. Ineffective listening impedes our effectiveness, causes misunderstandings, results in rework or errors, and diminishes others trust in us. Do a little self-assessment with these 10 warning signs that you’re not listening as well as you could be.

Passive listening is when we hear what’s being said but fail to process it fully. It’s when we selectively listen for key words and allow ourselves to be distracted by other things going on around us or in our own heads.

Active listening is when we fully engage and focus on what’s being said. When listening actively, our brains (not just our ears) are involved. We process what’s being said.

Empathetic listening takes it up a notch. This is when you engage your brain and your heart as you listen with your ears. You notice subtle cues that reveal emotional context. You pick up on body language that suggests more than the content of the message itself. You feel as well as hear what’s being shared.

When you actively listen (at a minimum), you form stronger connections with people. They feel heard and respected. They trust you more because they see that you’re interested in them.

The most common mistakes people make when listening to others are:

  1. Thinking of something else, daydreaming, or mentally multitasking. This happens because our brains think faster than other people talk. That extra processing ability tricks us into thinking we can be effective listeners at the same time that we’re doing other things.
  2. Planning our response to what’s being said. Here again, our speedy brains get in the way of slowing down to devote our full attention to what’s being said. While planning your response, you may be missing some additional information that would change your response.
  3. Looking for something familiar in what’s being said. We do this because we want to bond with others. We seek what we have in common. Then, when we hear it, we pounce on it and steer the conversation. We inadvertently signal that we value our experience more than what the speaker was sharing.
  4. Having an agenda that drives what we listen and respond to. This includes having a preconceived notion about what the speaker is sharing. It takes away from our objectivity in listening with an open mind. As a result, we hear what we want to hear and interpret it in a way that fits our agenda.

When you focus more intentionally on listening actively and with empathy, you will connect with people in profound ways. Your communication and collaboration will dramatically improve, making you more effective in everything you do. And, since active listening is a compensator for other competencies, you’ll also benefit from getting grace when you’re lacking.

To build stronger listening skills, start by getting an assessment that identifies your listening habits. The ECHO Listening Profile will be a game-changer for you.

Enhance Your Personal Effectiveness to Thrive In a VUCA World

We live in a VUCA world. The Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity can be overwhelming. Despite these inescapable realities, you’re still in control of your own effectiveness. Rather than dwelling on the VUCA realities and their emotional impacts, you can develop competencies that will help you navigate yourself and lead others through these turbulent times. 

VUCA personal effectiveness model 

Three competencies to get you started on thriving in a VUCA world: 

Be a Sensemaker:

The problem is information overload AKA infobesity, infoxication, information anxiety, info glut, and data smog. It’s caused by the sheer quantity of and easy access to information. Information overload is not a new problem. The term was coined in 1964 by Bertram Gross in his book, The Managing of Organizations. He referred to historical examples reaching as far back as back the Renaissance. Alvin Toffler popularized the term in his 1970 book, Future Shock. Any time someone is overwhelmed by the amount of data and inputs they must process, they’re experiencing information overload.

In the workplace, people in most roles are inundated with new, different, and conflicting information every day. This has become so prevalent, that we accept it as a normal. But it’s not, and it has serious, negative consequences.   

The solution is sensemaking, a critical competency for managers and others who want to alleviate workplace stress and provide clarity so employees and colleagues can operate at peak efficiency.

Sensemaking means making sense of information and inputs so that it can all be synthesized and acted upon. Karl Weick introduced the term in 1995 and described it as the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity in the world into something that can be comprehended quickly and explicitly.

Sensemakers guide others to explore a wider breadth of information and inputs so they can create a map to navigate through it all. They think critically to challenge assumptions and barriers in seeing links between information. They ask questions to promote self-discovery and to identify gaps in assimilating information. And they guide others through the process of deconstructing complexity.  

Sensemaking provides context and combats ambiguity. It minimizes the risks associated with unchecked  information overload. During times of rapid change, sensemaking helps people make faster transitions because they’re able to understand them better.

Far too often, businesses rely on sensemaking’s counter-competency, “dealing with ambiguity.” Rather than addressing the ambiguity, this competency suggests managers and others should somehow figure out their own ways to operate despite the ambiguity. 

Expecting people to deal with ambiguity is a cop-out. Instead of helping them make sense of things, this suggests that they should navigate through information overload and make sound decisions even as things remain ambiguous. 

Sensemaking sorts out what’s ambiguous. It connects dots and provides clarity.  It’s not a synonym for “analyzing” or “sensing.” Both are involved, but sensemaking is more. It’s taking in what’s known, considering what’s unknown, pulling it all together, and then breaking it back down into manageable chunks that are relevant, important, and meaningful to the task at hand. 

Sensemakers can reduce all the adverse impacts of infobesity. Supporting others by providing context and by refusing to be an information dumper will pay off in employee morale and capabilities. Instead of spinning, employees will have clarity and reasonable expectations when they encounter information and have to consider what’s useful and how much is needed.  

Develop Learning Agility:

Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations. (Definition from Korn Ferry competency research)

This not the same as learning ability. Being able to learn is one thing. Being astute and flexible to apply what you’ve already learned in a variety of ways is another thing altogether. It’s learning agility. Learning ability gets you to a certain point in your career. Learning agility gets you past that point.

Learning agility comes in handy when you are faced with a new problem and don’t know what to do ... if you manage to figure it out, using similar situations and ideas that worked on other problems, then you’re using learning agility.

In “The Lessons of Experience,” researchers reported that the “glaring difference between successful people and those whose careers falter ... is their ability to wrest meaning from experience (i.e. learning agility).”

To develop learning agility, there are four important steps. These are the things that people who are learning-agile consistently do well. You can think of these as the piece parts of learning agility.

  1. Learning agile people are critical thinkers who examine problems carefully and look at them in new ways.
  2. Learning agile people know themselves and are able to handle tough situations.
  3. Learning agile people like to experiment and can deal with the discomfort of change.
  4. Learning agile people deliver results in first-time situations through team building and personal drive.

According to one researcher, learning agility requires an ability to digest a large volume of information quickly and be able to spot what’s most important. Then you are nimble in accessing what you’ve known or learned in the past so you can apply it to what’s new and different.

The Center for Creative Leadership concluded that learning agility is more important than ever. It’s essential for “adapting to new business strategies, working across cultures, dealing with virtual teams, and taking on assignments that demand flexibility.”

CCL frames learning agility as a mindset with corresponding behaviors that allow a person to continually develop and access new strategies for the increasingly complex problems they will encounter. In their assessment tool, used to measure learning agility, they consider five facets -- four that enable learning agility and one that impedes learning agility. These facets are:

  • Innovating – questioning the status quo with the purpose of discovering new and innovative ways of doing things; generating new ideas by viewing issues from multiple perspectives.
  • Performing – learning while working through an unfamiliar challenge, handling stress and ambiguity to adapt in order to perform effectively.
  • Reflecting – because it’s not enough to have an experience, getting feedback and processing information to better understand your own assumptions and behavior to generate insights.
  • Risking – venturing into unknown territory and putting yourself “out there” to try new things; pioneering with risk that leads to opportunity (vs. thrill-seeking).
  • Defending – This is the derailer of learning agility! Remaining closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback prevents you from developing learning agility.

When you become more learning agile, you can expect to become more original, more resilient, and more focused. 

If you’d like to learn more about learning agility and take a self-assessment of your own learning agility, check out this paper from the CCL.

Improve Your Discernment: 

Haste makes waste. 

Thinking isn’t meant to be hurried, automated, or reflexive. To think means to have a conscious mind, to remember experiences, to reason and consider, and to employ one’s mind objectively in evaluation. The act of thinking is “to form in the mind as an idea, conception, etc.” This is an active process. 

Critical means “involving skillful judgment as to the truth or merit.” 

These things take time!  To slow down your thinking and allow for critical thinking, here are two things you can do:

  1. Reflect and Evaluate Information

Though underappreciated in most modern workplaces, reflection is a powerful tool. According to Dr. Alan Gambril, “When practiced intentionally, reflection allows you to synthesize experiences and feelings into organized and useful blocks of information. It allows you to extract more specific positives and negatives from a given experience. It allows you to solidify previously vague and abstract feelings.”

Reflection isn’t some self-indulgent luxury. It’s not day dreaming. To reflect is “to ponder, fully consider; to process, debrief, review.” 

Learning-after-doing or capturing lessons learned is a form of reflection. It’s one way we learn and continually improve. 

As we reflect, we can also evaluate information and options critically. What most often prevents us from reflecting is that we don’t value it. Instead, we value fast decisions and efficiency in plowing through more busy work. We multi-task instead of focusing deeply on any one topic. We jump from one conversation to another with no time in between to process what’s been said. 

Taking time to reflect on information makes you more agile as a learner and more capable of identifying and cross-applying what’s relevant, important, and impactful.  

  1. Challenge Your Own Impulses

You have a lot on your plate. You’re under a lot of pressure to perform. You need to get things done. Stat!

No wonder every fiber in your being pushes you to act now… to decide and move on… to do something (anything!) so you can check it off your list. 

There’s something else at play here, too. You’re experienced, intelligent, and capable. You’re successful. With that comes confidence and a track record to back it up. 

That’s why you sometimes jump to conclusions or rush to judgments. Your impulses are founded in the pressure to act and the confidence to do so. 

But are those impulses really reliable? What are you missing if you reflexively respond to them without doing a mental check in first? 

To challenge your own impulses, ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Reflect on your own answers to that question. Then be sure you’ve taken proactive steps to engage others and genuinely heard their ideas and input.

If you’d like to learn more about critical thinking, check out this YouTube playlist with 40 snack-size lessons.