Maximize your chances for success with good communication skills

Good communication skills don't just make you look good. They can also increase the chances of your projects getting approval.

Successful IT managers learn early in their careers that perception is just as important as reality in the work environment. It's not good enough to be the best at what you do—people need to believe that you are the best. For this reason, good communication skills are essential for coworkers to develop an accurate picture of your abilities and worth to the organization.

This isn’t to say that someone can be successful by just being a smooth talker. People who lack good technical skills and work ethic will be discovered eventually. What this does mean is that people who are outstanding performers can maximize their chances for success by learning to communicate well with others.

Everyone has the capability to be effective communicators in the workplace if they remember some important points.
  • Communication involves more than the content of the statements you make. People who focus primarily on information when they converse will often be viewed as arrogant and uncaring. Conversely, others who tend to focus on social niceties at the expense of useful information may be viewed as boring and irrelevant. Successful IT managers are perceived by others to be competent and good colleagues when they are able to converse in a way that establishes a social connection while passing on useful and accurate information.
  • Communication is one of the most important ways a manager can build trust and respect among colleagues. Showing interest and concern in things that are important to coworkers helps to create positive connections that can be very helpful when dealing with work-related issues. For example, team members will generally appreciate a manager who shows interest in them as real people—beyond their ability to complete tasks or solve work-related problems.
  • Body language, eye contact, and voice inflection can send signals to people that are often unintended. For example, asking someone how he or she is doing in a monotone voice with poor eye contact will probably not encourage a very positive response or leave a positive impression. Also, looking at the clock or tapping your pencil on the desk during a performance evaluation may give employees the impression that you are not interested in their work or in them. Good eye contact and voice inflection that fits the situation can greatly improve the impression people have of you in the workplace.
  • Misunderstandings are one of the most common ways to damage relationships. Assumptions about the words and actions of others are fairly common in most workplaces. Effective IT managers will learn to validate any perceptions they have about what others are thinking or saying before they react. They'll also learn positive and even subtle ways to remind team members and colleagues of important tasks, meetings, and deadlines to avoid confusion or problems.

The following scenario helps to illustrate some of these points. Brenda is a new manager of a LAN and help desk unit for a small organization in the Midwest. She had previously worked for a very large corporation on the East Coast as a LAN technician and help desk coordinator. Brenda quickly jumped into her new position and began to implement a plan for improving the efficiency of her team. She informed her supervisor of her plan, and he gave her approval to proceed. She announced her plans at a team meeting one day and spent some time explaining how each member’s responsibilities would change to accommodate the new plan. As she spoke, she noticed that eye contact from team members was very poor, and she was having difficulty determining that people understood what she was saying. Brenda attempted to generate some discussion about the plan but received no response.

Brenda was a bit puzzled by the reaction of her team, since she believed that the changes would make everyone’s life better within the team. However, she decided to proceed with the plan as scheduled. About one week later, her supervisor called her to his office. He reported that her team members were complaining about her planned changes to the LAN and help desk function to others within the organization. He also said that managers from other units were expressing concern to him that the operation of the LAN may be compromised by the changes. He recommended that she put her plan on hold for a while until things settled down.

Brenda was a bit distraught about the turn of events and sought counsel with a friend who was a psychologist. Her friend listened to her concerns and then asked numerous questions about the characteristics of the organization, her team, and how she had approached people with her plan. After Brenda finished responding, her friend remarked that she had committed a sin common to many new managers—one-way communication. Brenda’s friend went on to say that she had not taken sufficient time to develop strong communication channels and relationships with team members and others within the organization and was paying the price by having her plan compromised.

Brenda reflected on her friend’s comments and realized that she had actually never gotten any buy-in from her team or others that there was a problem with the LAN or help desk. She had also underestimated how quickly information can travel in a small organization and how connected the people were to each other. Brenda decided to change her approach toward her staff and to her job and focus more on relationship building than changing the LAN.

She announced to her team members at the next meeting that the new plan was on hold for the time being, and then she began gathering information from them about the LAN and the help desk—how it had evolved and what concerns they had about its operation. She also began to visit colleagues from other parts of the organization in order to introduce herself and build relationships. She discovered that people were more receptive to her when she approached them and listened to them about their issues and concerns. She also learned that there was an effort to overhaul the LAN system several years before, and it had failed badly, with considerable downtime and loss of productivity. Brenda then realized why people were so nervous about her efforts to change things.

The moral of this story is that effective managers will learn to be good communicators by building positive relationships with those who can impact their ability to succeed and by showing people that their issues and concerns are important. They will also be sensitive to signals from others that things are not clearly understood and that issues and opinions need to be clarified.

Final thoughts
You don't have to be a super communicator to be a successful IT manager. However, good communication skills are an important key to being effective in the workplace. Sensitivity to the issues and priorities of others, as well as finding a balance between the focus on work content and establishing and maintaining a social connection with people, are critical to successful communication in the workplace. It's also important to minimize misunderstandings that can damage relationships and compromise the work by clarifying issues and confirming information in a nonthreatening manner.

To learn more about effective communication in the workplace, take a look at Be Understood or Be Overlooked: Mastering Communication in the Workplace by Graham Andrewartha (2002) and Effective Communication Skills for Scientific and Technical Professionals by Harry Chambers (2001).

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