The Most Critical Soft-Skill for IT Success

 In TCM Post

Communication is the most critical “soft skill” and one of the essential skills you only learn through experience versus reading a book or taking a course. Let’s understand the techniques and nuances of communication and how to apply them to your IT career.

Understand Yourself
You are not the center of the universe. I can’t explain it any better… listen to THIS very impactful commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005 written by David Foster Wallace.

Understand Your Team
One significant part of communication that most of us miss is understanding what the other person thinks you are saying or what the other person hears you say. When we speak, we strive to be clear, and we believe what we say is obvious, but many times the other person understands our words differently. And I mean VERY differently. Miscommunication is a huge part of why IT rookies have a hard time making quick progress in their careers. It is still a constant challenge for me as a manager to understand how each of my employees knows what I say or what I write. To this day I can BCC an email to three different people and have three different responses to what I wrote based on three different understandings.

Understand Your Manager
It is as critical for you to understand this when dealing with everyone around you, especially your supervisors and executives. As your manager, I might tell you, “I need that document ASAP,” but what I meant was “I need it today.” At the same time, you are rather sure you heard, “my boss needs the document by the end of the week.” None of the statements are false. The issue is that we are not communicating well. It’s the responsibility of BOTH the employee AND the manager to optimize their communication.

The best way that I found to correct any miscommunication was a three-step process:

  • Speak
  • Write
  • Confirm

Have a discussion and take outstanding notes then go back to your desk and write out an email that summarizes what you heard. Then, follow up that email with another verbal confirmation that what you heard and what you wrote is correct. In your email, be clear about instructions or tasks. “Dear Boss, I will complete the inventory spreadsheet to include only laptops and desktops (no peripherals) tomorrow, Thursday by 5 PM.” At the same time, it’s my job as a manager to provide that explicit requirement to you. If I don’t, it’s your responsibility to ask!

No Technology
As technology has changed younger and younger generations talk less and less. “Social” doesn’t mean social anymore. It means “virtual.” First, it was just that new folks in my organization didn’t want to talk in person. Now I’ve found folks fresh out of school don’t even talk on the phone. They are used to texting and using abbreviated slang conversations. Let me be abundantly clear…. THE SOCIAL “SKILLS” YOU’VE BUILT ONLINE AND WITH YOUR PHONE DO NOT WORK IN BUSINESS. Sorry, let me break it to you again: you’re going to have to interact with real human beings. You can’t hide behind your screen. PLEASE get out of your seat and TALK to EVERYONE. Phones, texts, Social Networks, Messaging apps, etc. are all excellent TOOLS to ASSIST you in communicating more, and for clarity, but they ARE NOT the primary means of excellent communication.

But I’m an Introvert
Most of us computer folks are naturally introverted. It’s kind of what led us to this profession, right!? We don’t even like to talk to people. I am one of those types of people. If you are honest with yourself, do you hide behind your introverted nature? Do you communicate enough? If you are realistic and know that you’re too quiet and shy, then you have to CHANGE IT to be successful. I was able to change it to help me be successful and get promoted. I’m no great political orator and will never be a quota-crushing salesman, but I speak and communicate and interact with colleagues well.

But I Have Anxiety
How the heck can I change when talking to people or meeting other people freaks me out, or I have legitimate anxiety issues? Do something. Now! Start small if it suits you better. Look back to the last article about MeetUps to practice communication as a soft skill and break you out of your shell! Find a certified professional (doctor/psychologist) to improve. Remember, don’t make excuses, find solutions!

Personality Tests
I’m not a huge fan of the purpose of Strengths Finders or personality tests like Myers Briggs; let me elaborate. I understand the concept. I know that the idea is a proven business method and a tool used in colleges to help you figure out who you are and what you should do with your life. What I don’t like about these methods is that rather than preparing you for the real world, they try to explain how you and your personality fit into the real world. Or it can give you a false sense of hope by ignoring large holes in your skill set that you think are ok to ignore.

Communication is one of those skillsets you CANNOT ignore. You can’t say, “well, I’m just a quiet person. It’s not my strength. So I’ll do nothing.” You have to recognize that it’s just not a strength, but it is, in fact, a HUGE weakness. Spend enough time on your significant deficiencies so that they are no longer holding you back from career advancement. You don’t need to change that weakness into a strength and become Mrs. Personality. I don’t know of any introverted engineers that became great sales folks, but don’t let your career suffer because you suck at communicating and you stick your head in the sand and never take a peek out your door.

Get Up and Walk
I see this behavior far too often anymore, and man I feel old saying this (I’m not that old.) One of the personality traits that I work on with new hires on Help Desk is sitting at their desk and only using the ticketing system to help people. One of my environments was not a big Help Desk/phone bank environment, but an active office with over 200 people where the help desk team gets to do some sysadmin work. New-hires typically want to sit and not move. I make them, as a goal in their first month, to personally meet EVERYONE in the office, face-to-face. I tell them to spend extra time with the Executives and VIPs. The phone is the second option. Email is third. Those that are more active always do better than those that are unwilling to communicate in-person with other people.

Teams Perform Better
When I sponsored Sr. IT Capstone teams at George Mason University in Virginia, the individuals of each group were always new to each other. The struggle throughout the semester was getting them to communicate. The most significant issue was that they would rely solely on technology to interact rather than meeting in person. The worst performing teams never met in person. On Day-One, I always instructed my teams and put great emphasis on communication. I always said, yes, go ahead and write the email to the Executive Vice President introducing yourself, and BE VERY CLEAR. Tell her you’ll be at her office at 10 AM, Thursday the 22nd and would like to meet for ten minutes. Then pick up the phone and introduce yourself again, confirming the appointment. The teams that didn’t want to reach out were the ones that performed poorly. You have to break that weakness. I promise Vice Presidents don’t bite!

Bad Boss Syndrome
I’ve heard this one too. “I never see my boss.” “My boss doesn’t listen to me.” Well, unfortunately, you are going to have to put more effort into good communication than maybe some other folks that have good or great supervisors. There are some of us managers out there who care about employees. Unfortunately, there are managers out there who don’t care all that much or “don’t have the time.” I won’t get into how much of a dis-service those types are doing to themselves and their entire organization, but the fact of the matter is these managers exist. So find a way to deal with them. If your boss is “never in the office,” be super diligent about his schedule. Map it out so that you know when he is in the office. Send meeting invites for lunch meetings. Ask to meet after 5 PM at a coffee shop. Make phone calls during the day. But don’t sit back in your comfy office chair and fire an email or two here or there, or a random text in half-slang, get no response, then resign yourself to the Bad-Boss-Syndrome.

I know I’m repeating myself, but I want to drive the point home… Effective Business Communication is an in-person activity. Email, texts, phone, and ticket systems are all great tools. These tools are not soft skills, and you should not rely upon them as the only means of communicating with your colleagues.

So get out of your seat. Put yourself in some challenging social situations, and develop your communication to improve your IT career!

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