In many organisations, there is a love/hate relationship with IT. Everyone agrees that IT is crucial to modern businesses, and has helped to make work more efficient. However, many complain about IT staff not being customer focused or friendly, and they consider IT as being too “techie” and unable to relate to the users when they have problems or challenges.
I’ll admit that I was once like that too, but I’ve worked hard to eliminate it. Though, very rarely, when I’m really stressed out, you can see that side of me come out.. but that hasn’t happened in a really long time :-).
I’m proof that even those “techie” IT staff can change and become more personable to the users within the business. All they need to do is develop their softer skills.
What are these soft skills that IT staff should develop? And how can you help them?
This is at the top of the list. The common complaint is that IT staff are unable to communicate effectively. I disagree though. IT staff are able to communicate very well; they are unable to communicate with people who are not their peers.
IT staff need to learn to communicate effectively to the layman, by understanding their audience and thinking about how they may understand the topic that they are trying to communicate.
There are many ways that you can help staff members become better communicators, whether written or verbally.
- Suggest joining Toastmasters, or send them to a Dale Carnegie course.
- Have internal sessions where you give each person a chance to speak about something non-technical that is important to them.
- Give constructive feedback on written works they’ve done.
For a member of IT learning to communicate with users is not always easy, but another skill can help…
Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. I’m not at all saying that members of the IT department have no empathy; if they didn’t have empathy they’d all be sociopaths (although some may argue that they are).
What I am saying is that sometimes the IT staff has problems understanding the experiences from the users’ point of view. By helping them to become more empathetic, IT staff can relate to user challenges, and will hopefully treat them better (I make no promises).
You may sometimes hear about this as “Emotional Intelligence” as coined by Daniel Goldman. There are courses on emotional intelligence, although I believe this is something that requires longer term coaching.
Someone needs to point out to the IT person what they did, and simply ask, “How would you feel if so and so happened to you or to a loved one?” or “How do you expect that the other person feels about so and so?”.
You have to get them into the other person’s shoes so they can begin to relate to it.
Of course the person doing the coaching should be empathetic too, otherwise it’d just be a case of the blind leading the blind.
It may take some time, but after a while, the person will show improvement. Granted, they may not be the most compassionate person in the world, but they would certainly be more empathetic than they were before.
IT staff tend to be very logical thinkers. We follow a well defined thinking style to resolve issues. It is indeed one of our strengths, and is also found in areas such as engineering and other physical sciences.
However, such thinking style often results in rigid beliefs and thoughts. What we need to grow is our “Critical Thinking” skills.
Critical thinking is the process of critically assessing our thinking, and finding ways to improve it.
A definition I like from the Critical Thinking Community:
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.
Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.
We must therefore revisit our thoughts and beliefs and discover if they are right. Especially in this fast changing field, what we once knew, may not be true anymore or even relevant.
Developing critical thinking is a process, and there are many books and tools out there to help you develop it. One of my favourite books is “Why Didn’t I Think of That? Think the Unthinkable and Achieve Creative Greatness” by Charles McCoy Jr., but there are tons of other books out there, such as “Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius” by Michael Michalko (which I also recommend), that are worth investigating.
The development of critical thinking may work best in a group setting, so set time aside for group activities where you can help your entire team become better thinkers.
There are other skills that may help, such as presentation skills, but the three I’ve listed would help your team go a long way.
IT staff often see their technical skills as the be all and end all of what they need in order to succeed. But I’ve seen time and time again, where not having the right mix of softer skills truly hampers the growth of very talented people.
These skills just don’t make you a better member of the IT Staff… it makes you a better person.
And it’s never too late to learn to be a better person.