Social Work

10 Skills That Every Social Worker Needs to Be Successful

10 Skills That Every Social Worker Needs to Be Successful
Social work requires a broad battery of skills—ranging from super soft to rock hard—because a social worker must play the role of both care provider and administrator, sometimes from one hour to the next Image from Pexels
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone March 25, 2022

Social workers utilize empathy, problem-solving skills, and communication skills to tackle some of society's most pressing issues on a daily basis.

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Scan the alumni news section of any Master of Social Work program website and you’ll gain a quick glimpse into the lives of some of the talented and multifaceted professionals these programs produce. For example, in just one month, Tulane University’s School of Social Work announced that alumni had published a book on addiction treatment, won a prestigious mental health award, and written an article on the effects of environmental policy.

Social workers accomplish great things every day, meeting their clients’ needs even when resources and support are insufficient. These resourceful, empathetic, talented professionals apply a broad skill set to the considerable challenges their work throws at them.

In a 2020 article from the medical journal BMJ Open, social work professors Amina Hussain and Rachelle Ashcroft note the importance of leadership skills in “increasing staff retention, effectiveness, team cohesion and reducing burnout among interdisciplinary team members, including social workers.” Social worker skills—particularly leadership qualities—are crucial not only for professionals themselves but also for the organizations and communities they support.

In this article, we’ll explore the top social work skills necessary today, from emotional intelligence to critical thinking skills. We’ll touch on:

  • 10 skills that every social worker needs to be successful
  • What is a social work masters?
  • What are the top schools that offer social work master’s?

Ten skills that every social worker needs to be successful

Virginia Commonwealth University points out that social work requires a broad battery of skills, ranging from the softest to the hardest, because a social worker must play the role of both care provider and administrator, sometimes from one hour to the next. Listed below are ten skills many effective social workers share.

1. Active listening

Social workers interact one-on-one with clients every day. Studying the best body language, eye contact, and response methods show the client that they are in a safe and supportive environment.

Example from the field

If a clinical social worker meets with a group of children, they will use active listening skills to repeat back what they heard while providing undivided attention to each speaker.

Training opportunities

This level of presence comes with in-person training, typically during a social worker’s fieldwork hours in school and by observing experienced counselors.

2. Advocacy

Mezzo and macro social workers speak up for populations fighting to be heard. Social workers learn to work with policymakers, donors, and organization directors to shine a light on the needs of their community.

Example from the field

Tulane University points out two ways social workers utilize their advocacy skills in one particular area. It notes that social workers can both help their clients apply for SNAP food-assistance benefits and advocate for these services with their state government.

Training opportunities

Many universities offer elective or fully dedicated tracks to political advocacy. Students learn how to view and manage the challenges of their clients within the larger societal context.

3. Crisis coordination

Above all, social workers must bolster the health and well-being of their clients. If an emergency arises, it is their job to stay calm, clear-headed, and proactive to connect the client with the best solution.

Example from the field

Social workers often assist with emergency efforts after a natural disaster. They may need to coordinate medical care, housing, and financial options in high-stakes scenarios.

Training opportunities

Social workers receive specialized training for crisis intervention and coordination no matter their area of specialty. They must learn to recognize the signs of physical or psychological distress and suggest healthcare and social service options. the School of Social Work at Tulane University offers a Disaster and Collective Trauma Certificate Program.

4. Critical thinking

Social work practice also requires critical thinking skills throughout each of its daily tasks. A social worker must be able to see a problem from several angles and help their clients maneuver challenges based on their unique restrictions and services available to them. Social workers must think critically about an issue to find a new path forward.

Example from the field

A case manager works with a client facing what seems like an impossible challenge such as homelessness or substance abuse. Critical thinking skills allow the social worker to remove bias and emotion from the situation to lay out the practical next steps.

Training opportunities

Critical thinking skills come with a greater understanding of the field, available social services, and the research behind intervention tactics. Social workers can check each of these boxes in a BSW or MSW program as well as when learning to work with clients under a mentor.

5. Cultural competence

Cultural context has a massive impact on how effectively social workers can reach their clients. Language barriers, religious beliefs, and social traditions all shape a client’s experience with the world. Social workers have a responsibility to see how these many facets speak to the best solution for that person.

Example from the field

In some cases, English may not be a client’s first language. Social workers must be able to see the additional challenges faced in daily life when finding things like online social services, navigating helplines, and keeping up with complex paperwork.

Training opportunities

Take a look at the specialized pathways in many MSW programs. You’ll find topics like global social work practice, cultural awareness, services to immigrants and refugees, and contemporary social issues that all speak on these topics.

6. Empathy

Social workers must practice and develop their lifelong empathetic skills to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. In a demanding and high-stress field like social work, this requires a balance of self-care tactics and outlets for their own emotional support.

Example from the field

It’s easy for a social worker to feel frustrated and confused with a client, particularly when it comes to recurring issues. Empathy practice steps in to help social workers see things from their client’s point of view, whether they agree with their client’s actions or not.

Training opportunities

The best training programs, mentors, and organizations always turn their focus back to personalized client care. Social workers must look to their guides for tactics to grow and maintain empathy, particularly in times of stress.

7. Leadership

Social workers are leaders in their communities. They have the key to understanding social resources, reaching local leaders, and guiding clients out of a crisis. Crucial leadership skills in social work include clarity, empathy, and proper work delegation.

Example from the field

If a social worker specializes in a niche area or region, they can publish papers or books on the topic after completing the peer-review process. These social workers can then guide their communities and mentees on their area of expertise.

Training opportunities

Many MSW programs touch on leadership topics in both foundational courses and electives. These may include managing volunteers, guiding a client through a crisis, or delegating a team’s caseload.

8. Organization

Human services agencies require thorough documentation of social work services. In addition to staying emotionally present with clients, social workers manage their related paperwork, permissions, and billing details.

Example from the field

In the journey to find work-life balance in a demanding field, social workers can use organizational skills to manage their schedules, keep up with documentation, and leave time for self-care and career growth.

Training opportunities

Hands-on training in an MSW program prepares students for the daily life of a social worker. In these cases, trainees get a glimpse into the many small tasks they face in addition to meeting with clients.

9. Setting boundaries

Speaking of work-life balance, boundary setting is at the heart of social work both practically and ethically. It’s easy to become personally invested in a client’s life, but workers must maintain a professional distance and go through proper channels to provide support.

Example from the field

Even when a social worker supports a highly vulnerable client, they cannot offer personal money or shelter but only help the client use social services for support.

Training opportunities

Setting boundaries comes with time, but training and a strong support system are also key. Education can help social workers determine the line between helping and overstepping their bounds.

10. Time management

Social workers have a full schedule, particularly with clients in vulnerable situations. Balancing a caseload, time for paperwork, and additional training are important skills to develop in the field.

Example from the field

When social workers receive a heavy caseload, they must build a schedule that works around their client’s needs without sacrificing work-life balance.

Training opportunities

Students learn time management during their practicum hours when they learn to balance the daily pressures of social work while absorbing tactics from more experienced professionals.



University and Program Name Learn More

What is a social work master’s?

The Master of Social Work degree (MSW) is an advanced degree that opens up licensure and leadership opportunities for social work professionals. While some students come into the program with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), others find their way to social work through related careers or passions.

Top programs cater to both types of candidates, building on a foundation of the important skills necessary to grow and flourish in a range of social work concentrations. Students go on to become clinical social workers, child welfare advocates, policymakers, and much more.

Earning an MSW is a way for students to find their unique calling within the social work profession, both in the classroom and in the required practicum hours.

How long does it take to earn an MSW degree?

Due to a social worker’s busy schedule and demanding career, MSW programs range in length and format. The majority of the programs take between 16 and 24 months to complete, or between four and five terms.

However, many MSW departments—such as the one at Tulane—offer Advanced Standing tracks for students with a BSW. Jump past the foundational coursework and shorten your experience to just 12 months.

On the flipside, students looking to complete a part-time, in-person or online master program, can often extend their studies to up to 32 months.

Admission requirements for an MSW

The soft skills listed above are excellent starting points for a strong MSW application. On a broad level, admissions programs look for students that will make successful social workers. Candidates must demonstrate essential skills like self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and organization.

On a technical level, most programs require students to hold an undergraduate degree from an accredited college with a minimum GPA in their final years of study. Experience in social justice, a nonprofit, or with local social services programs can bolster their application. Most programs also require letters of recommendation, a personal statement of purpose, and a resume. Some programs require standardized tests (typically the GRE), but a growing number have adopted test-optional admissions policies.


A day in the life of an MSW student looks different depending on their track, year, and specialty. All students other than those in the advanced standing program start with foundation courses. These cover the theories, practices, and cultural context of social work around the globe.

Second-term students add advanced-level courses in areas like community advocacy, communication, and human behavior. Electives and hands-on practicum begin to split their schedules as well.

By the end of the two or three years, students nearly fully transition to completing fieldwork hours and work on a final capstone project in their area of study.


Earning a master’s in social work is a key time to specialize your skills. Many schools of social work stand out for their unique specialization structures. For example, when you enroll in Columbia University’s program, you may choose:

  • An online or in-person platform
  • One of seven program schedules such as two-year, 16-month, advanced standing, or international options
  • One of four areas of specialization such as clinical social work practice or social enterprise administration
  • Specialized tracks within their area of study, including accelerated policy practice of a DBT program
  • One of seven fields of practices, such as contemporary social issues, school-based services, or aging and gerontology

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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