The Ten Essential Traits of Successful Social Workers

Social workers help people in need. This can mean providing services directly to people facing a number of challenges, from abuse to health disorders, or it can mean working for change to improve social conditions.

Social workers work in government agencies, private businesses, schools, police departments, courts, hospitals, private practices, and many other types of workplaces. If you’re interested in dedicating your life to the well being and advancement of others, test yourself against these ten essential traits of successful social workers.

Click on the trait below to learn more about each attribute and why it’s important to the field.

1) Empathetic 6) Objective
2) Patient 7) Persistent
3) Dependable 8) Flexible
4) Organized 9) Resilient
5) Perceptive 10) Driven

Trait #1: Empathetic

The most important characteristic of a social worker is their empathy. The vast majority of people you work with are in a state of crisis and emotional distress. Therefore you must be able to offer a caring, understanding, and empowering environment for them. In other words, you must be able to place yourself in their shoes. Additionally, just as important as it is for you to understand the plights of others, you must also make yourself relatable. Clients may be less apt to open up and discuss issues if they feel you’re someone who is perpetually out of touch with those they work with.

Trait #2: Patient

Social work requires patience. The cases are often complex, they may involve many different parties with disparate goals, and serious change does not happen overnight. And the people you deal with are not necessarily talkative, eager, or even capable of asking directly for what they need. Your patience will help you avoid getting frustrated both with the serious issues you and your clients face, and also with the people you encounter.

Trait #3: Dependable

Trust is key. Successful social workers earn their clients’ trust by being honest, open, and dependable. In crisis, your clients will look to you for advice and guidance in personal, legal, and other matters, and your opinion weighs more if they trust you. Your clients need nothing less than your unconditional support, and you cannot withdraw your support if they do something wrong or that you disagree with.

Trait #4: Organized

Being organized will help anyone succeed, but for social workers it is particularly important. You may be dealing with a heavy caseload, and so time management, clear note-taking, and a logical filing system are downright necessary. An uncluttered mind and a desk that’s in order go hand-in-hand; the last thing you want to do is add stress to your day because you can’t find the right client binder. Being organized on the back end also frees up your time so you can focus on helping your clients, and they will take comfort in the fact that you are on top of things. A little planning and thoughtful set-up will take you a long way.

Trait #5: Perceptive

Successful social workers are great communicators, particularly when it comes to listening. Your clients will rely on you to listen to their problems — both what they’re saying and in between the lines — to advise them and decide on the best options for action. You need to be able to observe with skill and listen closely.

Trait #6: Objective

Just as important as one’s empathy is one’s ability to remain objective. Your clients need you to keep a level head in order to help them deal with their difficult situations. Your personal feelings therefore cannot override your ability to make impartial, informed decisions on behalf of your clients. For example, if you face a case in which a spouse is beating his or her partner, you must refrain from casting judgment and follow ethical guidelines to decide what legal steps must be taken. It’s a thin line to walk between empathetic and objective, but this is where social workers thrive.

Trait #7: Persistent

Successful social workers know that not everything always goes according to plan. You may be your clients’ last resort, and as an empathetic ally, you will feel the urge to do everything in your power to help them. You cannot give up on yourself or on your clients. Accept setbacks for what they are — setbacks, not defeats — and keep trying. Try harder, try smarter, try something different. You must be able to identify what needs to be done and achieve it at any cost. You will not only serve your clients well, but you’ll also set an example for them to follow when they are charged with handling new challenges in the future.

Trait #8: Flexible

Social workers typically do not observe a 9-to-5 workday. You work at the whim of the cases you’re on, so if a client is rushed to the hospital, you may be required to assist them immediately. If you work with children, you’ll likely have to wait until after school hours to meet with them. Successful social workers are flexible and comfortable with working in an on-call capacity, so that they can respond to emergency situations. At the same time, you must be careful not to overload yourself. Social workers may find it difficult to say “no” to others, but to avoid burnout you must be able to set limits.

Trait #9: Resilient

Social workers see difficult cases every day, and this inevitably tests your emotional strength. Your clients may be dealing with physical or mental abuse, drugs, alcoholism, poverty, financial hardships, bereavement, or a number of other challenging life events. You can’t let it get to you. You must be able to bear others’ burdens with grace, to bounce back from heartache and go home at the end of the day to the challenges and rewards of your own life.

Trait #10: Driven

Social work is a rewarding profession. You not only offer immediate assistance, but you are also in a position to teach your clients life skills and watch them put those into action. That in itself is incredibly satisfying. But the career is also draining. Successful social workers are highly motivated to enter their field, and you must find a way to recharge your batteries throughout your career. Self-care is extremely important — getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, and finding outlets and hobbies outside of your work. Set limits, stay organized, remember why you wanted to become a social worker in the first place, and take joy in the small accomplishments as well as the major wins.

Search Degrees: