Why Do IT Pros Tend to Have Such Lousy People Skills?

Don Tennant
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As much as we all might find stereotyping distasteful, it would probably be difficult to refute the contention that people who gravitate toward the IT profession tend to be somewhat introverted, and more comfortable working with technology than with other people. There would probably be less consensus on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

 

I've long argued that it's a bad thing. It's been a year and a half since I wrote the post, "Why the Preponderance of Poor Social Skills in IT Is Unacceptable" in which I discussed a conversation I'd had with Peter Handal, chairman and CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates. In that conversation, Handal noted that improving the interpersonal skills of IT people is big business for Dale Carnegie:

Some of the largest clients that we have are the IT departments in very large companies. I think in large part it's because interpersonal skills are really essential to success. We all have gotten so used to sitting in front of our laptops or working with our iPhones that we're more comfortable doing that than we are dealing with other people. A lot of companies are realizing that and are encouraging their people to take the face-to-face interpersonal skills-type training that we give, because it makes them more comfortable [relating with other people]. People to a certain extent forget how to deal with other human beings. The essence of customer service and leadership is interpersonal-the skills that you learn from dealing with other people. So I think one of the reasons why IT has been such a large and growing part of our business is that there's a real need for redirecting people back to some of the basics.

And, having written in the post about the "dark side" of being devoid of interpersonal skills, I drew this conclusion:

Yes, there's a huge need to redirect people back to the basics-to things like civility and common courtesy that far too many IT people have lost in a profession that has tended not to provide enough opportunity for social interaction. Isolation is unhealthy, even when it's isolation in the company of a computer. Or, perhaps, especially when it's in the company of a computer. That seems to be when the darkness is most successful in enveloping us.

That's the sentiment that came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I read an excellent interview conducted by Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau with Billie Blair, a Los Angeles-based expert in organizational psychology who sees IT managers as aloof and insular.

 


Thibodeau asked Blair what makes IT managers different - whether it's the type of job or the characteristics of the people it attracts. Her response:

It is a little bit of both. It is the type of job, and clearly people choose their professions based on their proclivities, interests and natural inclinations. It's the same thing with CFOs, or people in the financial accounting arena. In IT's case, it is a love of things technical and they are typically very good at it. Mostly, in these days, people in those positions have been told since childhood that they were gifted in all things technical. They feel very comfortable in what they do. They have chosen their job because they like it a lot. I would tend to say that they love it. Technical jobs are an engagement with things rather than people, for the most part, and it's that engagement with things which is what got them to the management level. Now, as managers, they have to deal in a whole new arena. With IT managers, within their group, their cadre of other IT folks, it's pretty much an "us vs. them" approach. We are the gurus and the knowledgeable people and those other people are the ones that are always making demands and keeping us from doing our real jobs.

If IT managers have an Achilles' heel, Thibodeau went on to ask, what is it? Blair's response was unflattering:

They isolate and insulate themselves from any outside world, the outside world being the rest of the organization, and they form these cadres where they are true to one another. That's what brings them down every time; if they are brought down, it's the arrogance combined with insularity.

So with that as the backdrop, I'd love to get some feedback on the question this discussion begs: Why do IT pros tend to have such lousy people skills?



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Jan 11, 2012 3:41 AM jake_leone jake_leone  says:

This is definitely a stereotype and does not reflect how people really are.  If you really look at any work environment you will see good and bad interpersonal operation.  Most of this stereotype (which borders on bigotry) is likely based on suggestive communication with others or (much more rarely) an embarrassing or difficult technical situation you may have experienced that had an IT worker associated with it. 

I work with IT people all the time, and they are actually some of the nicest co-workers/customers I have ever had, the good fortune to be able to work with.  I have worked in retail, machining, contracting, and corporate and believe you don't know what rudeness is until you see a CEO demanding answers from a subordinant.  Or sales people arguing over a commission.  Most IT people are relaxed, approachable, and happy people who love their work and actually like working with their co-workers. 

I am in IT because of my fellow IT co-workers and the love and joy they bring.  I am not in retail, sales, corporate because of the pain that the workers in those environments often instill in those around them.

The Jimmy Fallon stereotype (or anything like it is completely wrong) and has no basis in reality, but it does have basis when studying how stereotype and myth are used to falsely segregate and label classes of workers.  I guess it is far easier to amplify a myth than to work hard at finding the truth.

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Jan 11, 2012 3:56 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to jake_leone

Terrific feedback -- thanks.

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Jan 11, 2012 11:49 AM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

I'm not sure I agree with this entirely.  In the consulting field, people are way less introverted.  We've got to be because we need to communicate effectively with clients who are often not in IT.

Most of the people who were able to lock themselves in a dark room - and many years back I had a job like that - are not able to do that anymore.

That said, I think there needs to be a balance.  I don't think we want "smooth talking" IT people because we aren't in direct sales and we need to provide unequivocal guidance to the client.  We need some directness - similar to accounting.  It's a combination of engineering, art, and business so balance is the key.

Our job is to solve business problems.  In order to solve those problems we must communicate with business people, understand their needs, and translate that into a technical solution. 

But, knowing the right thing to say in social settings doesn't translate into knowing how to solve a problem using technology.  People in our field often spend hours solving problems and interfacing with a server or in code.  Often what we do is extremely introverted - and we can't be expected to rapidly shift from heads-down programmer to Mr. Congeniality.

I think that we need to make efforts to improve people skills, but the business must except that very few IT workers will be very good at both.  In short, they should look over minor short-comings in the people skills department but not major short-comings. 

We probably won't be the life of the party or know exactly what to say on the golf course.  We may even come across as quirky or wonkish.  And I think that's OK as long as we are good at what we do.  At the end of the day, we are going to make business people allot of money and I'm sure they of all people can appreciate that.

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Jan 14, 2012 12:08 PM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Don Tennant

Nobody in customer-facing IT service roles will get by with bad people skills for long. As someone who has been successfully re-employed after a devastating layoff, I happen to know this. When I was a hiring manager, I went for people skills as well as technical skills, and was still inundated with great American candidates. BTW my most successful hires were well over 40 (another IT stereotype).

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Jan 15, 2012 9:13 AM Mark Mark  says:

IT people tend not to be treated like professionals by upper management, with all sorts of scams played against them such as H-1B, outsourcing, and blatent lies made by some of the most visible people in the industry such as Bill Gates concerning a 'shortage' of workers.  No wonder IT people are cranky!  To top this all off, firms have spent the past decade deliberately avoiding the hiring of the best and brightest domestic talent, which means that many IT practictioners are really out of their depth when it comes to the new technologies and practices down the road.

If businesses want better results from IT, they need to start re-investing in IT, and putting IT people first.  In organizations, really, it starts with how people are hired.  Let the engineers go out and hire people; don't make the applicants run the stupid HR gauntlet.  Empower engineers.  The IT people are often the smartest people in the organization.  The 1990s was an excellent example of a time when IT leadership brought about a massive and positive change in how business was done in America. 

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