IT pro can't keep a job – Are poor communication skills at fault?

I recently received an e-mail from a TechRepublic member who was looking for some help and advice on how she could improve her personal performance in the workplace. It seems that she's having trouble holding onto a job, finding herself being dismissed from several positions for any number of reasons, including displaying a lack of professionalism, failing to adequately get along with her coworkers, falling short in serving those she's suppose to help, and so on. She believes that she has the technical skills to be successful, but it's the personal interactions that seem to present the greatest challenge.

The first thing that struck me was my impulse to stand up and applaud her admission. Self-analysis is extremely difficult for many people to do, and admitting some personal weakness is even harder. TechRepublic Senior Editor, Toni Bowers, in a recent blog titled, Why some co-workers will never admit to mistakes, explored how some people simply cannot admit to making mistakes. But we all make mistakes, we all have personal weaknesses, and we all have areas in which some improvement would be beneficial - not only to ourselves, but to others as well. Realizing that - and admitting it - is an absolutely huge step, perhaps the most important step, in making positive progress towards a solution. As such, this person deserves a standing ovation, and I'm confident that she can meet the personal challenges she faces. She's already proven to be strong enough to make such an admission, so finding the strength to implement change should be realistically within her grasp. In fact, I don't merely see solutions as being within her grasp, but I see her embracing them.

Here's my take on her plight, and the first morsel of thought I might offer.

There are so many technical jobs that might be better described as people jobs. As one who also supports a professional office full of computer users, I'm often reminded that it's more important to approach a problem from the user's perspective than it is to immediately focus on the technical solution. I'll even admit that I've fallen prey to the natural tendency to look past what a user might consider a crisis, and focus instead on the technical aspect of what might have been going on. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says to seek first to understand, then to be understood. If a technologist accepts the user's problem as her own, then she can approach it - and solve it - from the user's perspective. Solve the user's problem, not the technical problem. Often times that will take you down an entirely different path - at least it might provide a different approach. After all, technology, in and of itself, is rather useless. It's the person using the technology that's the driving force. As such, we often need to deal with the people, not necessarily the technology.

The same thought could apply when it comes to our relations with coworkers. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy are two people held in high esteem for, among other things, their communication skills. But when asked by those who engaged in a personal one-on-one dialogue with them, the one thing that was continually mentioned was their ability to listen. Not only to listen, but to truly understand. Listening skills are often the greatest trait of a great communicator. And listening skills can often be the greatest trait of a problem solver.

In the case of the young woman who sent me that e-mail, I might suggest that she starts to practice empathy instead of apathy. I might suggest that she seeks first to understand - that is, put herself in the shoes of another before going forth. The impulse to do otherwise might be strong, but the necessity to fight that impulse is vital. Thomas Jefferson is often cited for saying, when you're angry, count to ten before you reply. When you're very angry, count to one hundred. Anger may or may not be an issue here, but the point remains valid. Take pause to see the situation from the opposing perspective. Those few seconds might be all that's needed to first understand; then, it's much easier to be understood.

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By the way, I post these thoughts on this public forum entirely with her blessings. (I told you that she's strong person.) We have a common goal. I want to help her overcome those things that have been holding her back, and she wants to help herself overcome them. If you can, feel free to offer your insight.