Five Attributes of a Successful Social Worker

Five Attributes of a Successful Social Worker

  • Empathy
  • People Skills
  • Objectivity
  • Flexibility
  • Decompression

While social work is an attractive profession to many people, those who are successful at it must possess certain qualities or attributes. It is not a good fit for everyone who wants a career in the helping fields. While there are many kinds of social workers, people employed in social services from supervisors to caseworkers and even administrative assistants must observe common standards such as confidentiality and objectivity. Because they are in positions of trust, this is especially true of social workers. Here are five important attributes that social workers must possess if they are to be successful at their jobs.


This goes beyond feeling “sorry” for people to being moved to help them and even to being passionate about giving that help. The National Association of Social Work Education puts this at the top of their list of qualities workers should possess. Empathy is the thing that allows people to be patient and understanding when working with others. A social worker without this primary quality can be seen as abrasive and harsh when he must follow rules and procedures that seem arbitrary to clients. Empathy also involves prodding people and educating them so that they can move beyond client services to responsibly helping themselves. That is one way empathy differs from sympathy; empathetic people want to help others succeed.

People Skills

While this sounds obvious, it entails possessing knowledge that includes psychology and sociology. Social workers must be active listeners. That means watching and interpreting body language, nuances, social cues and phrasing to understand not only what is being said but what is not. Social workers must also be good communicators both in spoken and in written language. They must be persuasive. Clients often want what they cannot have, and a good social worker has to be able to get them to move beyond disappointment. Persuasiveness is also vital in advocating for clients’ rights with law enforcement, judges, politicians and even the public at large.


Clients may not always be agreeable people. They might have beliefs, moral standards and conduct that conflicts with that of the social worker. When serving clients, social workers must be able to set those things aside and view the client objectively. That means the worker values the client’s rights and keeps communication with and about the client confidential except with appropriate people. Social workers must also be willing to advocate for a client whether he “likes” the person or not. Advocacy may mean supporting client rights in court or in other public places, and successful social workers have to be able to look at clients objectively.


Successful social workers must be multi-taskers because most workers have huge caseloads. Workers have to prioritize and shift focus from one client to another, giving each the attention he deserves. Multi-tasking is vital because there are times when workers are involved in a task and receive a call concerning another issue. Seldom does a day proceed in an ordered manner because workers deal with people, and people are unpredictable.


Working with people can be stressful. Social workers often experience things that seem unbearably sad or unfair. They work with clients who may act out in anger or resentment inappropriately. Additionally, social workers are not exempt from inner-office conflicts. Certainly, workers will not give their private information to clients, opening themselves to late-night calls or visits. They may, however, allow themselves to become overwhelmed and to spend an evening depressed or angry over a situation that arises. Successful social workers must be able to disconnect from the job when they get home. That ability is necessary to their own mental and physical health and affects the energy and focus they have for their clients the next day.

Related Resource: Top 10 Affordable Master of Social Work Online (MSW) Degrees

These are only a few of the things that comprise effective workers. They are, however, probably the most important. While anyone can be a “helper,” and most people have some degree of empathy toward others, social workers must put all that together in one “package.” This profession takes education and training. The first takes place in a classroom; the second occurs with experience. Without the attributes necessary for success, though, these two things will avail a social worker little in helping his clients.