In the 2019 IT Pro Survey by SolarWinds, a surprising 46% of IT professionals cited interpersonal skills as the next step for their career development. But maybe this result’s not as shocking as one might initially think. As any viewer of The IT Crowd can attest to, there’s only so much you can grow without interacting with others. And for IT pros to play a larger role in today’s businesses, they’ll need to master a language some may find tougher than C++ or UNIX: the language of interpersonal communication.
That can prove a big ask of even the most collaborative IT types, and some business leaders might worry about how much time IT teams will retain for their existing technical responsibilities. However, greater fluency in communication and collaboration is more than worth it—not least because it’ll render IT much more efficient and adaptable in the long run. The closer together these skills can bring the IT world and the rest of the world, the better off everyone—from customers to IT pros themselves—will be.
Why IT Needs to Communicate Beyond “Ones and Zeroes”
The first order of the day: learning to translate from “geek speak” into expressions everyone can understand and empathise with. Common to IT pros is the frustration of articulating increasingly technical challenges to non-technical audiences. The resulting friction also tends to create misalignment in goals or strategy; unrealistic expectations of what technology should achieve; and the pervasive sense of IT as a roadblock to digital change. When IT pros learn to express technical concepts with greater clarity and empathy, they knock down issues that would otherwise cause organisational dysfunction.
Interpersonal skills development is also vital to IT pros’ growing leadership within their organisations. IT managers increasingly find themselves the default “experts” when it comes to building and running self-service websites, data analytics, automation, chatbots…in other words, a constantly-growing list of technical competencies. Being able to empathetically communicate with end users—especially those facing frustrations with new technologies—doesn’t only soothe tensions, it speeds digital adoption and buy-in amongst the broader organisation.
Finally, strong interpersonal skills help IT leaders better understand what their constituents want. The more effectively IT leaders communicate with their stakeholders and teams, the more they’ll learn about what different individuals want, need, or expect of technology. And this, in turn, makes for far more nuanced digital strategies, giving the organisation what it truly needs—not to mention far fewer border disputes between IT and everyone else.
How IT Can Upgrade Their Communication Modules
So where to begin? IT pros should consider a focused approach when it comes to soft skills improvement. An emphasis on several key areas certainly helps IT pros upskill faster. But moreover, it makes it easier to balance upskilling alongside other commitments. Daily responsibilities assigned by managers should include technical learning and development. IT pros may wish to focus on one or more of these three areas.
- Public speaking. We’re reluctant to admit it, but speaking skills include “technical” proficiencies like voice projection and clarity in communication. IT pros can benefit significantly from learning how to present highly technical concepts in an engaging way—whether through storytelling, visual language, or other modes of effective presentation. Enrolment into public speaking classes, or more frequent exposure to presenting during meetings, can help IT pros quickly obtain this skill. Another great way to build confidence is presenting about what you know to other IT pros. Consider presenting at a meetup or regional conference where your expertise helps assure a confident, comfortable start.
- Effective communication. This involves the ability to deal with different behaviours and responses in the workplace, coupled with effective listening to replace conflict with empathy as the “basic instinct” of communication. Equipped with these skills, IT pros will be in a better position to deal with conflict, identify the real cause of problems, and suggest more holistic solutions. Such skills will make handling help desk frustrations much easier—and much less stressful.
- Negotiation skills. These are crucial for both current and aspiring IT leaders, especially when managing cross-team collaboration or dealing with customers and partners. Through proper negotiation, IT pros can obtain outcomes that make sense for their department, while suitably addressing the needs of other parties involved. Achieving win-win situations doesn’t always come easy, but investing in the process inevitably removes numerous obstacles further down the delivery and implementation track.
So how can IT pros begin to obtain these soft skills, even while juggling their hectic schedules and existing commitments? For starters, look for peers with similar goals to partner up and learn with. This approach helps IT pros remain accountable to their education, while also giving them valuable safe zones to practice their interpersonal skills. They could also tap onto online courses teaching the necessary communication skills, allowing them to learn at their own pace and ability.
Finally, IT pros should discuss their need to become better communicators with their leaders or managers. There’s a powerful business case to doing so: with better interpersonal skills, barriers between IT and other business teams can be removed, allowing collaboration and innovation to accelerate at a smoother pace. For many IT pros, those discussions will be the first exercise of their growing interpersonal skills—not always easy, but most IT pros find it refreshing and effective to expand their communication language. Nobody likes being limited to the generally effective but limited phrase, “try turning it off and on again.”