Characteristics of a Successful Social Worker — The Traits, Skills & Education You Need To Succeed

What makes a successful social worker?





Social work professionals are some of the best and the brightest. They intuit the needs of the people they serve and work to secure a better life for every individual who walks through their door.

Maybe you are considering a career in social work and are entertaining the thought of returning to school to earn your Master of Social Work degree. Or maybe you are drawn to a career in social work but are unsure if you have the personal qualities of a good social worker. Whatever your situation — check out these eight social worker character traits that will help you be a good social worker.

Explore Baylor University's digital resource page: Master of Social Work

The MBA of the Helping Professions!


What Does it Take to Be a Good Social Worker?

If you’re feeling called to a career that’s dedicated to helping those in need, then you’re in the right place. At its core, being a social worker is all about empowering others, influencing change, and making a difference in the lives and communities you support.

 The primary role of social workers is to advocate on behalf of underrepresented communities and help them navigate through challenging situations, including:

  • Abuse
  • Addiction
  • Anxiety
  • Crime
  • Education
  • Depression
  • Hunger
  • Homelessness
  • Health Disparities
  • Literacy
  • Poverty
  • Political lobbying
  • Trauma
  • Illness 

But what does it take to be a successful in social work? What skills and characteristics do you need to thrive in this profession? Let’s take a closer look.

8 Characteristics of a Good Social Worker

Characteristics are the distinguishing features or qualities of something or someone — the qualities that make a person or thing different from others. While there’s no specific kind of person who makes a better social worker than others, you might find more success in your career if your friends or family would use some or all of the characteristics below.


1. Ethical

Frequently, social workers handle cases involving an ethical or legal component. A strong ethical compass is one of the most important strengths to have as a social worker, and it speaks to the core values of social work. It is important that these professionals take the time to follow the proper protocols and ensure that they do their due diligence in order to best serve their clients.

Every social worker is held to a professional code of ethics, as described by the National Association of Social Workers. By operating from a strong ethical base, social work professionals operate with integrity, enact social justice, and serve their fellow man by honoring and preserving the dignity of the human person.

Want to learn more about the ethos of social work?

Explore our guide - what do social workers actually do?

Is a Master's Degree in Social Work Worth It? Exploring the value of an MSW

2. Organized

Social workers fill out paperwork for each client they see and maintain a file of their interactions, observations, notes, and each plan of action they develop. Social workers must be organized in order to stay on top of all their work and the numerous cases they are juggling at any given time. These essential characteristics of social work professionals help them to be fully present with each client they serve and to provide them with the best and most attentive care possible.

3. Empathetic

What makes a good social worker is their ability to understand and share the feelings of others — also known as empathy. For an individual approaching a social worker, it can often be a humbling experience to reach out and ask for what they need. When social workers respond with empathy, it helps their clients to feel validated and not judged.

Social workers who have a strong ability to empathize will be able to form strong connections because their clients feel they understand them and can relate to the things that are difficult for them. Similar to compassion, empathy is at the very heart of social work and is essential for any effective professional.

4. Respectful

Social workers deal with complicated and sensitive cases every day. An attitude of respect is one of the most essential personal qualities of social workers. Respect is required in order to maintain proper professional boundaries, and adhere to a code of ethics. In short, respect for the client, their personal information, and their personal challenges is essential to being a professional and successful social worker.

Social workers often work with diverse, and in many cases underprivileged, populations so it is imperative to keep an open mind. Respect for their client’s culture, ethnicity, religion, and beliefs are key components of a successful relationship. If a client does not feel that they are respected, they will likely seek the help they need elsewhere.

5. Patient

Sometimes social work is a slow-moving process. Often, the results you and your clients want to see take time. Especially when working together with other agencies and organizations to provide for the needs of your client, patience in social work is essential.

Social work professionals also need to have heroic patience when dealing with clients. Particularly when clients are working through difficult situations, they might not always be forthcoming with the information you need to do your job. Patience will help you to maintain your calm and sense of control, allowing you to serve your clients with a collected, mindful, and level-headed approach. Even when the situations are difficult, patience reassures your clients that you are in their corner fighting for them.

6. Trustworthy and Dependable

Social work is entirely based on relationships. If those you work for and those you work with do not perceive you to be trustworthy or dependable, it can be difficult to do your job effectively.

Social workers can demonstrate to their clients that they possess these qualities by listening to their needs, assuring them that they will work to find an effective solution, taking initiative in getting things done, and walking with them each step of the way. Social work professionals who have these characteristics will find it easier to build and maintain strong reciprocal relationships with those they serve.

7. Passionate

Passion is necessary to do any job well, but it is particularly important in the field of social work. Because of the fast-paced and intense nature of the job, it's not unusual to experience social work burnout. Passion for the work that they do and the difference they make in the lives of the individuals they help drives social workers to give their best to each client and case.

Clients and colleagues can tell if you are passionate about your work. Passion for your profession inspires hope in those you help and motivates those you work with to do their job to the best of their ability  as well. It is important to build up your fellow social work professionals, and passion for your craft can help them desire to work to their fullest potential.

How to Avoid Burnout

To make a career out of helping people when they’re hurting is one of the most challenging, rewarding, inspiring, and emotional paths that one can take.

As a social worker you’ll be helping people deal with some seriously heavy topics. It can take a toll on your mental health, too. It’s common among social workers, who are often caring and empathetic by nature, to sometimes try to do too much. The result is mental, physical and exhaustion — also known as burnout or compassion fatigue.

Read more about how you can avoid burnout and compassion fatigue in a career that requires you to give a lot of yourself. 

8. Educated and Professionally Trained

To be an effective social worker requires professional training and a solid education in the principles and techniques used to manage cases. To begin your career as a social worker, you will need to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s of social work degree. With this degree, you can hold entry-level positions within the field.

If you want to have more responsibility and advance further in your career, you will need a Master of Social Work degree. While bachelor’s degrees provide a fundamental understanding of the field and how to interact with clients, a master’s degree allows you to dive deeper into the profession and work with clients on a more personal level to address their needs.

2 Skills Good Social Workers Need

Skills are those things that you can generally learn or be trained to do. For social workers, there are two skills in particular you should hone to make your job more enjoyable and reduce day-to-day to stress.


1. Interpersonal Skills

Simply put, to be a good social worker you must work well with others, regardless of their background or experience. Strong interpersonal skills will help you form stronger connections with your clients and better understand their needs.

Here are some questions you should consider to determine your interpersonal strengths, and where you might need improvement.

  • Are you an insightful person?
  • Are you good at reading body language?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Are you the type of person others come to when they need help?

2. Project Planning and Management

In your role, you’ll be managing schedules and appointments, planning goals for your clients, and tracking progress and success. If you plan to open your own practice, then you’ll also need to be solid on business fundamentals such as budgeting, marketing, and financial planning.

Successfully managing your many competing priorities as a social worker will not only help reduce your personal stress, you’ll be more available and organized to serve your clients when they need you.

How to Become a Good Social Worker

Get an Education in Social Work

The two most common routes through which you can pursue an education in social work are by earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and/or a Master of Social Work (MSW).

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

If you plan to start your social work journey as an undergraduate, a BSW program will help you build the foundational knowledge and skill set you’ll need to start your career. Your curriculum will teach you fundamental skills like social work methodology; theories of individual, family, and community development and functioning; advocacy; social justice; and research.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW is an opportunity for social work undergrads to build on their foundational knowledge and expand their skill sets to tackle more advanced topics. It’s also a great entry-point into the profession for career changers and compassionate people of all backgrounds!

In most programs, you can choose between different social work areas of specialty, such as clinical practice and community practice. You’ll also get the chance to determine which level of social work you’re feeling called to: 

  • Micro (family, individuals)
  • Mezzo (communities, churches, schools)
  • Macro (government, legislation/policy)

Is an MSW Worth It?

One of the most common questions asked by prospective graduate students is whether or not their degree will be worth their investment of time and money. While only you can decide if your degree is “worth it”, it may help to consider both the tangible aspects, like career advancement or increased earning potential, along with whether or not an MSW will lead to increased satisfaction with your career.

Average Salary for a Master of Social Work

Depending on your area of specialization, career track, and job location, you can expect a salary in the range of $45,000 - $65,000. However, a lot more that goes into choosing a career path than your earning potential, especially for service-based careers.

Career Satisfaction 

Did you know that career satisfaction can have an impact on your finances? Studies show that unhappy workers experience higher levels of stress, which can lead to a myriad of costly mental and phsyical health issues.

In turn, some people choose to leave high-paying jobs for more meaningful work, like that of a social worker. If making a difference in the world is something that matters to you, that alone could make an MSW worth it.


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Is a Master's Degree in Social Work Worth It? Exploring the value of an MSW

5 Things to Look for in an MSW Program

If you want to become a good social worker, it helps to earn your degree from a school with a good reputation and a high-quality program. Here are some things the experts at the Garland School of Social Work say make a program stand out.


1. A program that emphasizes research

Programs that place a premium on research are often the most forward-thinking and well-structured. Social work is an ever-evolving field and you want to be sure that you’re learning the latest and most advanced techniques.

2. Ethical and inclusive integration of faith

It’s important for social workers to recognize the role spirituality and faith play in the wholistic social, psychological, biological, cultural & spiritual framework that shapes a person, their family, & community. An MSW program that recognizes and honors diverse expressions of faith while teaching the ethical integration of faith and practice will prepare you to be a more successful and inclusive social worker.

3. Flexibility without sacrifice

If you’re coming to social work as a career changer, it may not be realistic to drop everything for a residential program. Whether you want to attend full-time, part-time, in-person or online, it’s important that your program doesn’t sacrifice quality for flexibility. The curriculum, professors, and experiential learning opportunities should be fairly similar, regardless of the modality you choose.

4. Field placement

There’s no substitute for the real thing, which is why much of an MSW education is hands-on fieldwork — a result of placement with one of the school’s partnerships.

5. Faculty who are experts in the field

This is an accreditation standard — to be the best, you should try to learn from the best. Do your research on the faculty to see which program features prominent experts in their field.



Student Toolkit

For more insights on picking the right MSW program for you, download the Future MSW Student Toolkit


Begin Your Journey in Social Work

Whether you want to help people one-on-one or influence change on a grander scale, earning a degree in social work will help you get the skills and knowledge to succeed.

At the Baylor University Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, our MSW program offers two specializations, Clinical Practice and Community Practice, and prepares students to serve as licensed professionals in their communities. The degree program is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

If you don’t possess all of these skills, don’t worry! Many of the characteristics listed can be learned through time and practice. These traits are just the beginning of what it means to be a successful social worker. Your best qualities and greatest strengths will bring uniqueness to your work and allow you to relate authentically to your clients.

Do you have some or all of the qualities of an effective social worker? Are you looking to take the next steps in your social work career? Check out our guide, Master of Social Work — The MBA of the Helping Professions


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Master of Social Work —
The MBA of the Helping Professions