The Softer Side of IT

By Dave Willmer

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When you’re evaluating the talent on your team, no doubt top of mind are their technical abilities: Can they code well? Are they keeping your network secure? Can they help your firm get the most out of its databases? But, do you also consider their soft skills?

Sometimes these can get pushed aside, especially if interpersonal abilities are not essential for all members of your staff to be successful in their positions. In fact, soft skills may not have been critical for you, either, earlier in your career. However, as you move up the corporate ladder, and especially when you manage others, soft skills gain in importance. While you certainly need a solid technical foundation to succeed in your role, the way you interact with others can also play a tremendous part in your effectiveness.

Consider the following, somewhat subtle, components of your soft skills repertoire to ensure you truly possess the full range of interpersonal abilities needed to be successful at a senior level:

Your level of connection - If you have an open-door policy, yet employees rarely stop by or contact you unless it’s absolutely essential, that may be a sign you are not as approachable as you think you are. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, but you want your IT staff to feel comfortable asking you questions or letting you know of problems.

Often, it’s merely a matter of making yourself more available. If your door is constantly closed, or you fail to respond promptly to e-mails or voice mails, others may believe (rightly or wrongly) that you don’t want to hear from them or are too busy to be disturbed.

Top executives eliminate barriers by having a visible presence in the department, interacting with employees as frequently as possible and encouraging people to contact them directly rather than being screened by an assistant first. They also openly solicit employee input on new projects and business challenges, and then follow through and implement the best ideas.

Your work style - Also, consider your mind-set at the office: What is your typical reaction when an initiative doesn’t go as well as anticipated? For instance, if staff implement a new feature on the company website that proves problematic, do you criticize or look for what can be learned from the experience?

A positive approach that looks at a failed project or suggestion from all angles can give employees motivation at a time when they might otherwise feel discouraged.

Your staff look to you as an example for how to behave at work. If you are supportive and enthusiastic, they are likely to display those behaviors in their own interactions with coworkers, managers and vendors.

Your ability to relate to others - Accelerated deadlines and heightened expectations can make it challenging to remain patient and understanding. However, this is precisely the time when you need to listen intently and be willing to consider new ways of explaining things if others don’t comprehend your message.

For instance, if you are discussing a budget issue with a financial manager, but he or she can’t seem to see your perspective on a complex point, consider if you can approach the impasse from a different angle. Is there another way you could be clearer? Visual aids such as charts and diagrams, for example, might resolve any communication problems.

Remember too that when you’re dealing with junior employees, they likely lack your level of expertise on a topic ― what’s obvious to you might not be obvious to them. A little empathy can go a long way toward fostering better working relationships and maintaining morale.

Your motivational capability - Successful leaders also bring out the best in those around them. When they introduce a new project or business goal, they explain the big picture and individual roles in the effort. They are passionate about what’s ahead, even in the face of challenge. Do these qualities describe you?

One of the keys to motivating employees is to give them the autonomy and resources to do their jobs. If your past staff have not met your expectations, it can be particularly difficult to hand over responsibility. Yet, as a leader, you should be focusing on larger issues, not on the processes involved in accomplishing the team’s IT work. Keep in mind, as well, that micromanaging impedes the progress of projects and can deflate spirits. By allowing employees to think independently and be creative, you demonstrate trust, which can inspire people to do their best work.

You may find that it’s worth investing time in formal soft skills training. Many professional and business associations offer seminars and courses specifically designed for managers and executives wanting to hone these abilities. The steps you take can have big payoffs in terms of better working relationships and your overall effectiveness on the job.

Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network security and technical support. The company has more than 100 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at recommit. For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalftech.