One field for social workers involves interacting with the elderly population.

Seven Traits of an Exceptional Social Worker

Social workers possess a range of competencies, skills, and certifications, but they are also largely defined by their personas, traits, and characteristics. While social work can be challenging on many levels, it is also very rewarding. It does take a certain type of individual to truly excel in this role.

Individuals who are considering a graduate degree program in social work should have a general understanding of which traits define an exceptional professional in this field.

Here are seven characteristics and competencies shared by exceptional social workers:

  1. A commitment to the social work code of ethics
    The National Association of Social Workers offers the following core objectives of the profession:

    “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty‚Ķ. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.”

    All exceptional social workers will understand and abide by this philosophy, as it is the central, guiding concept that dictates the various subsets of responsibilities within the job. It is worth noting here that while the objective might seem relatively straightforward and easy to comprehend, it is much harder to uphold the philosophy in practice. When faced with extreme instances of social problems like racism, oppression, and discrimination – sometimes going toe-to-toe with the worst parts of people – the commitment to this code will be tested. Suffice it to say that dedication can never falter, especially in the context of a case that is particularly difficult to digest.

  2. Outstanding listening skills
    Communication plays a major role in the success of social workers, and this success begins with listening. The Balance argued that active listeners, or those who are attentive, mindful, and can analyze the speech and gestures of clientele, are among the most in-demand social workers among hiring organizations today. One of the reasons why this is such a coveted quality in the social work arena is that active listeners tend to be far better positioned to build trust with their clients, as they ensure the parties they speak to know they are being heard, understood, and supported.

    This skill, like several of the traits in this article, is not the easiest skill to learn. However, social work students should not subscribe to the idea that listening and other soft skills are only innate and cannot be taught or learned. Rather, they can be learned and taught, but in a far more experiential fashion than what reading a book could teach. Social work professionals need to constantly monitor their own behaviors when speaking to a client, improving as listeners throughout their careers.

  3. Conscious of contextual empathy
    One might think that empathy is a purely and naturally necessary quality in a social worker, but that word does not necessarily mean the same thing in this profession. NASW’s Office of Social Work Specialty Practice devoted an article to the debate between sympathy and empathy, as well as how each can be misconstrued in the eyes of clientele when social workers are not careful with their words and actions. According to the authors, sympathy is rarely going to be a welcomed show of emotion among clients, as they can quickly feel as though the social worker is being insincere or patronizing.

    Empathy, which is a bit closer to the type of emotion that should be apparent in social work, can also break down communication between a professional in the field and a client. In this scenario, NASW stated that the client might feel as though the social worker is claiming a complete understanding of the situation, which is rarely going to be the case, and that could lead to alienation. The association does argue that empathy and compassion are critical in the realm of social work, but that the ways in which social workers show those emotions and traits to clients must be handled with care and attentiveness to ensure they are well-received by clients.

  4. Knowledgeable and humble
    This combination sets the best professionals in any field apart from their peers, as the mixture of a strong level of knowledge with a persistent thirst to learn more leads employees to greatness. In social work, it is a critical combination, as these professionals must go into their jobs with the right skills, training, and competency, but will also need to be modest and humble regarding what they do not know, and will only learn when faced with a particular challenge in practice.

    Intelligence is widely considered one of the top characteristics of social workers, and that individuals holding a master’s degree in the field are going to be in a more preferable position when they start serving an organization and its clients.

    In the social work space, intelligence is often referred to as emotional intelligence. This is defined as self-awareness, empathy, relationship management, and other related traits. Part of emotional intelligence is the self-awareness to recognize areas that need improvement. Social work will not always be pertinent today, and the professionals need to keep up with those transformations every step of the way. Social workers who have up-to-date competency of all the moving parts that affect their clients, as well as an understanding that there is plenty more to learn even decades into their career, may be exceptional in their field.

  5. Natural advocates
    Since social workers need to be outspoken regarding their clients’ experiences, problems, and challenges when connecting them with the necessary services, a natural drive toward advocacy is a critical trait. Allie Shukraft, MAT, MSW, writing in the blog Pallimed , argued that having a voice is vital to social work success, particularly when those professionals are in the palliative care arena, as they must be the greatest allies and advocates to their clients, patients, and relevant family members. The publication also attaches this advocacy component of social work to leadership, stating that the profession as a whole needs individuals who will stand up for the rights and best interests of the people who need support the most.

    Various other traits tie into the advocacy component, as social workers will only be successful in speaking out for clientele when they are knowledgeable, well-spoken, empathetic, and strong listeners. In terms of advocacy in action, social workers might have to be championing their clients in health care settings, courts, public hearings, and other environments. Confidence and conviction will help to push social workers into a stronger position as advocates for the communities and families they serve.

  6. Top-tier communicators
    In addition to strong listening skills, social workers need to be exceptional communicators in both the written and spoken word. The Balance argued that a very large portion of a social worker’s daily tasks and responsibilities will involve discussions with clients, attorneys, doctors, and others, as well as record-keeping, note taking, and written communications to various parties. The skill and care with which these responsibilities are managed can make all the difference in encouraging preferable and successful outcomes among clients served.

    Social workers who have earned their master’s degree will likely be expert communicators before they ever start their first professional job in the field. Those who are currently getting their degree in the field will want to focus on honing these soft skills as much as possible in an academic setting, as these competencies will not come easy in the field. What’s more, social workers who are lacking in these communication skills when deployed to the first case of their career will likely be on their heels right from the start. Written and verbal communication skills should start strong and get progressively better throughout a social worker’s career.

  7. Patient and reserved
    It will be easy to form relatively powerful and staunch opinions when on the job, but these knee-jerk reactions to cases and situations must be controlled at all costs. When social workers operate with their hearts on their sleeves and do not take the time to patiently analyze their own opinions, as well as the stimuli they were faced with, they will be more likely to make costly errors in efforts to support their clients and the families around them. Patient and reserved control of those first reactions is vital to a successful career in social work, as SocialWorkPRN, a blog run by Robert Plotkin, LSW, MBA, notes that these professionals will be more comfortable and capable of enduring the hardships of the job with those qualities.

    In fact, the source argued that social workers will not be likely to be happy in their profession unless they have learned to own and control their emotions, as well as subsequent notions and motivations, regardless of the situations they encounter. According to SocialWorkPRN, social workers who are able to not only harness this control for themselves, but also encourage it in their clientele, will be especially successful in supporting and empowering families and community members who need help the most.

Candidates with qualities may be a strong fit
Individuals who naturally possess these seven qualities will be inherently better positioned to excel in a social work career, but will need to hone those skills and traits in an academic setting before being able to really harness them in the real world. This is one of the reasons why so many authorities in the field suggest that social workers complete their master’s work from a qualified university, gaining and strengthening the skills and characteristics most critical to supporting communities.

With the right tools and education, social work professionals can have the positive and vital impact on their clients that is expected.


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