Time and time again, CIOs and IT leaders tell us that communication is key to driving great business results. Whether IT leaders are grappling with digital transformation, trying to improve DevOps results, or leading IT culture change, communication often becomes a make-or-break factor in their ability to succeed.
But, like other "soft skills" and emotional intelligence competencies, communication skills aren't easy to master. And over time, many people fall into bad communication habits that never get repaired.
[ Does your EQ need work? See also: 10 emotional intelligence must-reads for leaders. ]
We asked business and IT leaders to share some of the worst communication practices that hold individuals and teams back. If you are working on increasing transparency between IT and other teams, consider this your checklist for what NOT to do. Also, if you're a rising IT leader who wants to shine in the eyes of the CIO, listen up:
Kong Yang, head geek, SolarWinds: “Clear, concise communication is key to collaboration and empowering organizational success. It breaks down silos, eliminates assumptions, and gets everyone on the same page. However, communication skills can vary greatly and a lot can get lost in translation.
Leaders set the tone for their organizations to follow, and the biggest mistake they make is being inconsistent. As an IT leader, you can do three simple things to ensure communication success. First, be consistent in how you communicate in terms of frequency, volume, and collaboration channels. Next, be consistent in how you engage and embrace your team members and their ideas. Lastly, be consistent in establishing and maintaining civil discourse. Respect is key, especially from a top-down perspective.”
2. Not investing time in communications strategy
Michael Mundrane, vice provost for information technology and CIO, University of Connecticut: "We implemented a consistent, strategic communication program that has been incredibly effective, but it got off to a rocky start. There was initial pushback. The internal view was, 'What a pain. Why is Michael such a hawk about messaging? Why is he insisting that we communicate this, or communicate that? Do we need to go through four or five iterations of a short message to get it tight, clean and polished before it goes out? Does all this really make a difference?' In total, it took about six months of persistence to establish a well-known heartbeat to the communications strategy.
Now that the lines of communication have been opened up, and the community at large is engaging and interacting with IT in new ways, we are executing in a much more transparent way and curbing some of that confusion and opposition much earlier in the process. There are certainly always people who will say, 'I wish you would have done 'X' instead.' In a diverse community with widely disparate needs and preferences, I think that is unavoidable. But today, nobody feels like they had no say, or that an IT initiative came out of the blue."
3. Hiding behind technology for tough conversations
Rob Zelinka, CIO, Jack Henry & Associates: "The bad communication habit I would recommend breaking is to stop hiding behind technology. When you have to have a challenging conversation – and let's face it, when you are driving change it impacts people – talk to them face to face whenever possible. Sending an email, posting something on a portal or Teams/Slack site isn't the way to go. Never underestimate the impact of change on people."
4. Leading conversation with the tech, not the need
Kathy Schneider, CMO, Sungard Availability Services: “In enterprise tech, I often see IT team members approach communication in a reversed manner. The topline focus is the technology and specifications, with audience needs - whether customer, internal team, etc. - bringing up the end. As IT moves closer to the center of the business and interacts with more departments, being able to address the need from the onset, and follow up with the technology that will help achieve the goal, is critical.”
5. Failing to open the black box – and the door
Jay Ferro, chief customer officer, Rackspace: "If your IT culture is seen as one where things go in but never come out, develop a very deliberate and planful communication strategy. Over-communicate on exactly what IT is doing, where you are with things, and where your pain points are. When I was CIO at American Cancer Society, I did a survey right out of the gate to both internal IT and external stakeholders to find out, 'Hey, what’s not working?' (Be prepared to hear what people really think on this question. It can look ugly.) And open your door, quite literally. That way people know they can pop in with ideas. Transparency can be an IT team's best friend!"
6. Making too many assumptions
Paul McGough, CTO and founder, Qwyit: “As a CTO, in actual practice and in absentia for others at various companies, there is one over-riding, ever-present communication habit nearly every IT team I’ve known struggles to break – assumptions. What happens is that the IT group talks at or around their ‘constituents.’ As the discussions get more involved and detailed in any particular area – implementation, dev projects, policy – it can get farther and farther away from the purpose. IT ‘knows’ through experience but if it isn’t clearly relayed, the business suffers as a result.
The solution to this constant issue isn’t just more communication. It’s a focus on promoting understanding by finding common ground. IT needs to more clearly articulate the ‘why’ and not just the ‘how.’ The onus is on IT to reach a consensus by proposing, presenting and executing solutions articulating why these match, meet and exceed business goals without trampling on questions, misunderstandings, lack of technical expertise or any other ways in which they routinely assume the other group knows what IT does.”
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12 bad communication habits to break in IT, this was really useful and refreshing my thoughts to act as applicable going forward.
I would like to add by stating:
1. One shouldn't over communicate
2. Keep messages clear and brief.
3. Be polite and check one's tone
4. Prepare and Proofread prior to communicating
5. Knowing the culture of the person with whom one interacts is important as well.