8 bad communication habits to break in IT

Industry leaders discuss typical communication missteps that can hinder IT productivity – and how to address them
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There’s no denying the value of strong communication skills in IT. These soft skills forge strong relationships among stakeholders and teams, aid in problem-solving, build robust workplace cultures, and drive projects forward. Strong communication skills are more important than ever in today’s hybrid and remote work era.

We asked business and IT leaders to share the poor communication habits they’ve encountered among their teams and peers and ways to turn these bad habits into strengths. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Relying too much on email

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, Wake County: “Too many people rely on email for every communication. The more nuanced communication is, the more important it is to pick up the phone, jump on a video call, or meet face-to-face. Today, the latter is a lot more complicated, but thankfully it’s still possible to read body language over video and hear tone on the telephone.

[ Also read 5 strategies to boost IT team productivity. ]

“Sometimes people think they’re saving time with email because it has an element of instant gratification. But for nuanced conversations, hitting send and waiting for a response will waste time. For quick questions, for example, you don’t want to wait for an emailed back-and-forth communication when you could have resolved it more quickly with a 30-second conversation.”

2. Siloed communication arrangements

Scott Bogdan, SVP of global operations, Veritone: “Most bad communication habits between IT teams emanate from siloed communications. For example, data operations teams can lose themselves meeting corporate metrics and analytics that are not appropriately socialized to the broader teams. Service and support groups may not be synched with the product, engineering, and sales organizations on customer requests. Or vendor, supplier, or asset managers may not execute cross-functionally. It often leads to missed opportunities, added costs, and ballooning margins.

“Fixing this habit should start with metrics and analytics. Develop intelligent departmental metrics where changes in underlying processes can be visible. Identify overly siloed communication patterns, then employ an ‘if/then’ thesis: ‘if we changed this, I think we could improve this metric by x%.’ Next, monitor and measure against that thesis. As companies mature and change, this mentality reduces pockets of tribal knowledge, which can plague companies and reduce overall productivity. As workforces ebb and flow and the reporting structures and departments shift, the investment into cross-functional collaboration always pays dividends–especially when groups can pick up the torch and run rather than starting from a dead stop.”

3. Using tech-jargon

Isaac Sacolick, President of StarCIO and author of Digital Trailblazer: "Drop the techno-jargon, especially when discussing solutions with business stakeholders, but even when discussing implementations with other tech and data leaders. The microservice you automated with CI/CD, deployed to the Kubernetes cluster, and monitored with Nagios is all Greek to stakeholders. Before getting into the how, they want to understand what problem you're solving, for whom, and why."

4. Misunderstanding the question at hand

Greg Layok, head of West Monroe’s technology practice: “IT leaders are incredibly talented and well-versed in what they do. They know the problem and solution well, and they’re often eager to point out the features and functionality when fielding questions from the end user.

“However, when addressing questions from the business, IT leaders need to take a step back to ensure they’re answering the correct question for the right audience. Failing to do so can lead to confusion and credibility gaps. When you mix technology and business professionals, the way you answer questions may need to shift. Make sure you understand in detail what’s being asked and determine how to answer the question in a way that will make the most sense to them. The more IT leaders listen carefully and ask clarifying questions when needed, the better they’ll become at communicating.”

When you mix technology and business professionals, the way you answer questions may need to shift.

5. Reacting, not listening

Dan Roberts, founder and CEO, Ouellette & Associates Consulting: “As a profession, technologists don’t have a strong reputation as great listeners. We have a bad habit of hearing and immediately responding, which makes it seem like we’re not listening.

“We teach IT professionals the H.E.A.R. model: hear, empathize, analyze, respond. This is especially important when we need to have a difficult conversation, like addressing an idea that isn’t practical. Rather than jumping immediately to the ‘respond’ phase, we need to hear what others are aspiring to achieve, demonstrate empathy by asking questions that ensure we have a good understanding, analyze by asking for time to research options to achieve their goals, and only then do we return with a response. This is how you establish yourself as a valuable partner and trusted advisor.”

6. Isolating DevOps

David Torgerson, VP of IT, Lucid Software: “DevOps is often integrated into an organization by placing Ops team members in engineering with the hope of increasing efficiency, creating companionship among teams, and getting rid of an ‘us vs. them’ way of thinking.

“This approach, however, doesn’t scale well and can lead to miscommunication. DevOps teams consist of very smart and capable people who can solve the hardest problems, but this structure creates siloes in responsibilities. It makes it possible for one team to succeed and another to fail, rather than both teams aligning on a shared vision of success. As a result, the OKRs, goals, or initiatives are inconsistent between teams.

“The real value of DevOps comes into play when organizations can tear down animosity, communication gaps, and other emotional limitations to build synergy between the developers and engineering teams and enable them to solve a difficult technical problem. By aligning the department on goals, miscommunication is minimized, and a sense of camaraderie is instilled.

7. Failure to communicate change  

E.G. Nadhan, Chief Architect, Red Hat: “Communication in IT teams starts with inclusion. Communications in an integral and vital part of introducing change – in systems used, processes, the introduction of automation and self-service, etc. As an internal consumer of IT services over the years, I have noticed that such communications are more often done after the fact. This is not good practice, and if it is not fixed, a sense of distrust and helplessness is likely to set in across the workforce, which can be detrimental to employee engagement and culture.
Fix this by providing an enterprise-wide mechanism that employees can opt into to have their say. The ensuing discussions will provide great insight into the overall mindset, while stimulating healthy debate. Keep the interested members of the workforce engaged on how the change is instrumented – or not – to gain acceptance of the change overall. The workforce will start to sense that IT is 'by the employees for the employees.'"

8. Failing to speak business

Jim Chilton, CTO, Cengage Group, and general manager of Infosec: “A bad habit that is particularly frustrating for a technology team is when leaders do not connect communications about technology back to the broader problem or business need that the technology will solve. Technology leaders need to talk in a language that the business understands and can relate to. When technology and the business are not speaking the same language, it creates challenges within the technology group and hurts their ability to work productively with other functions across the enterprise.

“One way to solve this problem is to introduce templates and tools for technology leaders to use to help them focus on the problem and provide the entire story. This includes showing their assessments and recommendations in the supportive information. Taking a more holistic view of the problem at hand, the recommended solution, and the long-term financial costs of that solution create better alignment with technology and the business and provide clearer expectations for all about the outcome.”

[ Ready to level up your communication skills? Get advice from IT leaders. Download our Ebook: 10 resources to make you a better communicator ]

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.