On your ascend towards the upper echelon of management, there is an X-factor that is rarely discussed, but vitally important—your people skills. I’m not referring to the people skills necessary to lead others; this goes into the competence column. I am talking about the ways you interact with other members of the C-suite. Carol Leifer calls this the “easy hang.”
Carol Leifer is a four-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, writer, producer and actress. She appeared on Late Night with David Letterman over twenty-five times and has written for such acclaimed shows as The Larry Sanders Show, Saturday Night Live, and Seinfeld. Leifer also recently published a business book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.
In a recent interview on Reddit, Leifer discussed a lesson she learned from working in so many writers’ rooms:
I think the best quality for a writer to have (and I talk about this in great detail with my new book) is ‘the easy hang.’ And it’s something that Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] used to describe writers they wanted to hire. You can be as funny as anybody, but if people don’t like hanging out with you, if your personality is a drag, you’re not going to last very long in a writer’s room. So I always advise people to work on their personality skills along with their comedic skills…. As an agent once told me: ‘Don’t be an a–e, because if you are, they will fire you and hire someone else who isn’t.’ And that’s applicable to anybody in any field.
There comes a point in one’s career where your capability to do the job is simply expected. When you’ve reached this stage, your reputation and list of accomplishments clearly demonstrates that you are experienced, intelligent, and hard working. Once this is established, going to the next plateau involves transcending your standing as a “worker bee.” This is when others assess your easy hang-ness.
On one end of the spectrum are those born as easy hangs. They make friends effortlessly, maintain a solid network, and are universally liked. The other end of the spectrum are the introverts who actively avoid social interactions. And in the middle are the individuals who are able to hang but have forgone informal get-togethers so as to concentrate on the work. If you are someone who needs to make a more conscious attempt to forge relationships with co-workers, consider these tips:
Smile. If this sounds corny, there are mounds of research supporting the idea that smiling has a positive collateral effect on others and the overall environment. One study found that when shown pictures of people smiling, test subjects tried to imitate the expressions in the pictures. It took a conscious effort to avoid smiling. If smiling does not come naturally to you, first, I’m sorry. Second, you can trick yourself into smiling. Research found that holding a pen in your teeth in a way that simulates the muscle movements of smiling can result in the same effect as a legitimate smile.
Mimic others. One of the best ways to gain social skills is through modeling. Seek out the people who exude socially savviness and study their mannerisms. It may feel unnatural at first, but you’ll make it your own with more practice.
Prepare your small talk. What can be worse than being stuck in an elevator with a co-worker who has nothing to say? An easy hang-er can engage in meaningful small talk that is more substantial than the weather, yet lighter than a work-related issue. If this sounds like a lot of pressure, keep a few topics in the arsenal for the moments you need them. A conversation starter may include: “Any big weekend plans?”, “Did you see ______ in the news?”, or anything sports related.
Set a goal. You got ahead because you are goal-oriented, so create socially-focused, easy hang goals. Start with a few specific interpersonal skills. Determine the ultimate objective and then break it up into attainable, bite-sized targets. As you accomplish each goal, your confidence in other social settings will increase.
Your work-based skills will only get you so far. Start mastering the easy hang so you’re prepared before the next interaction with the CEO. Practice at home, the gym, or with strangers. Experiment with different openers and push yourself to see how long you can keep the conversation going. In the end, you’ll be more professionally successful, and you may even make a few new friends.