This is a guest post by Eric Bloom, Executive Director of IT Management and Leadership Institute
I’m often asked by technologists why they should spend their precious training time and dollars studying soft skills. After all, they know how to ask questions, listen to others and so on, they have been doing it their whole lives. My answer is “Rather than using gut feel when negotiating, influencing, resolving conflict and/or just talking with others, if you learn and use structured interpersonal communication processes and techniques, you can improve your effectiveness through continual process improvement.” That is to say, just like any other defined process, experience using defined soft skill techniques, allows you to improve them over time.
These soft skills techniques can enhance your job performance, position you for promotion and/or simply help get you the best projects and technologies to work on.
This blog post is an overview of how IT Managers and IT Executives can improve their craft and accelerate their careers using this non-technical side of their skill set. Future posts will dig into each of these topics more deeply.
In the IT Management ranks, being a successful IT manager requires four primary types abilities, unrelated to the technology being overseen. These abilities are:
- Interpersonal communication skills
- Leadership skills
- Management skills
- Business-of-IT skills
Today, I’d like to discuss the seven skills that fall within the “Interpersonal communication” category. When reviewing this list, it may surprise you to see that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is not among them. The reason is that every successful human interaction requires a certain degree of EQ. Therefore, EQ is a base competency needed to perform the seven skills listed below, as well as the leadership and management skills that will be discussed in future blogs.
In effect, I have raised EQ from a skill in itself, to a base requirement needed to effectively interact with others in general. If you have never studied EQ as a topic and want to increase your ability at interpersonal interactions, gaining a deeper understanding of EQ would be a great start.
The seven interpersonal communication skills listed below could each be a topic of its own, and will be at a future point. The goal here is to provide you with the big picture first and dig into its detail at a later point.
The seven Interpersonal Communication Skills that Drive IT Manager Success are:
1. Empathetic Listening
As an IT manager, one of your most important skills is your ability to listen. By listening, I don’t simply mean your ability to hear the words. I mean your ability at understanding the meaning behind the words that are said. Gaining this understanding requires you to listen with your ears, your eyes and your heart.
- Listening with your ears is more than just hearing the spoken words. It also includes tone of voice, volume, shakiness, speed and pitch.
- Listening with your eyes refers to observing the body language and social cues of the person speaking. The classic example of this is if a person is sitting back in their chair with crossed arms, then they are closed to your ideas. It may, however, simply mean that the person is cold or just finds it comfortable to sit in that position. Nevertheless, watching someone’s body language can give you clues as to their thought about you and the topic being discussed.
- Listening with your heart is trying to understand things from the other person’s point of view, putting yourself in their shoes so to speak. This technique, related to EQ, allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the person’s interests and viewpoints about the topic being discussed.
2. Purposeful Questions
Purposeful questions are questions worded in a way that provides a specific benefit, beyond the answer that is provided. For example, when a salesperson asks you the question “Any other questions before we sign the contract?”, they are doing two things at once. First, they want to know if you would like any additional information. Second, however, is that they are gently telling you to sign the contract.
As an IT Manager, Project Manager, Business Analyst, Scrum Product Owner or other roles that collect information from others via dialog, your ability to ask the right questions in the right way when collecting business and/or technical requirements can:
- Increase the other person’s respect toward you
- Allow the other person to see things more deeply and from other perspectives
- Provide you, through the answers, a deeper understanding of the topic being discussed
- Enhance the quality of the requirements you are trying to collect
Additionally, as a manager, asking purposeful questions can assist you in conflict resolution, negotiation, influence, when providing feedback to your staff, delegation, and other managerial-type activities.
3. Effective Articulation
This is a fancy way of saying “efficiently and effectively getting your point across when talking/speaking to others”. This clearness in speech helps illustrate your intelligence, knowledge of the topic being discussed, and allows others to properly understand your point of view.
4. Difficult Conversations
All too often, as an IT Manager, there is a:
- Person on your team not correctly performing
- Project stakeholder blocking your way
- Dotted line resource not prioritizing your needed tasks
- Person quietly causing you some other professional difficultly
Your ability to conduct a nonconfrontational, meaningful and effective conversation with this person has the dual benefit of helping you meet your business goals and potentially gaining future support from this person because you now better understand each other’s point of view.
5. Conflict Resolution
Conflict resolution, which can be assisted by difficult conversations, is much broader in scope, divisive in effect and obvious to bystanders. If these conflicts are not resolved correctly, they can:
- Cause lawsuits between IT and its vendors
- Increase shadow IT within the business areas
- Increase employee stress
- Reduce team productivity and creativity
- Cause key IT or business people to leave the company
- Derail programs
- Get you fired
Your ability, as an IT Manager, to recognize that conflicts exist and effectively move to alleviate the issue can be the difference between a future promotion and a loss of your existing professional responsibility.
In the mid-1980s I read the saying on a Salada Tea label that I remember to this day, “The art of politics is letting other people have things your way.” This is the power of influencing others. Like EQ, all forms of interpersonal communication can be enhanced in your favor if you study and practice the ability to influence others toward your point of view.
As an IT Manager, Influence can be used to:
- Get your project approved
- Attain needed budget
- Effectively delegate to dotted-line resources
- As the saying goes, let other people have things your way
IT Managers continually negotiate on everything from Service Level Agreements with vendors to which of their staff members is on-call during Christmas Day. They also negotiate with stakeholders, business partners, their staff and an array of other individuals. IT Managers can make or break their professional reputations based on their ability to negotiate.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, future blogs will, in time, dig more deeply into the seven interpersonal communication skills listed above as well as provide equal detail in IT leadership skills, IT management skills, and the business of IT.
Until next time, lead well, innovate, and continue to grow.
Eric Bloom is the Executive Director of the IT Management and Leadership Institute, Founder of OfficeInfluence.com, author of the book “Office Influence: Get What You Want from The Mailroom to the Boardroom”, an Amazon bestselling author, speaker, trainer and executive coach.
Eric is also a former nationally syndicated columnist, TEDx speaker, and recognized thought leader on the use of influence in the workplace.
He is also a Past President of National Speakers Association New England, a Certified Professional Speaker (CSP), and the author of various other books, including “Productivity Driven Success” and “The CIO’s Guide to Staff Needs, Growth, and Productivity”. Prior to his current role, Eric was a senior IT executive at various firms including Fidelity Investments, Monster.com and Independence Investments.