The rise of technology may be stripping young people of their social skills, warns one leadership expert. It’s HR’s job to instill them.
Is today’s young workers relative weakness in people skills simply the result of becoming so accustomed to communicating with their devices that they are losing the ability to communicate well in person and on the phone?
That’s surely a big part of the story: Communication practices are habits and most Gen Zers are in the habit of remote informal staccato and relatively low-stakes interpersonal communication because of their constant use of hand-held devices and the mores social media and instant messaging.
The crux of people skills is “other orientation,” paying close attention to the signals of those with whom one is interacting, without getting distracted, and then responding to those signals effectively and appropriately. But Gen Zers are very self-focused. Plus they are often distracted. And they are so unaccustomed to engaging in person and on the telephone that their powers of perception are often not well developed. No wonder they are not very good at reading people, especially in person and on the phone.
Think of it this way: Have you ever had a big misunderstanding (or fight) with someone via text messaging? Often that happens partly because words alone, especially informal staccato messages, are very easy to misunderstand. That’s because tone, expressions and gestures are a very big part of how human beings communicate. So much meaning is lost or misconstrued in texts. Now throw in the social media dimension – in which communication is an interactive performance among peers (or not even peers, but the virtual personas of peers). This is the information environment in which Gen Zers honed their interpersonal communication practices. Even their in person interactions ---especially with their peers--- are almost always underwritten and mediated by their social media network relationships. No wonder they so often say the wrong things at the wrong times.
Building relationships in the relatively formal high-stakes real world of the workplace is a brand new challenge for Gen Zers. School is probably their closest analogue. But in school, Gen Zers have been largely spoon fed the structure and substance of their important formal communication. In the workplace, they are less likely to be spoon fed. Yes, there is structure in most workplaces. Nonetheless a shocking amount of the important communication in most workplaces is largely ad hoc, hit and miss: There is a lot of ‘touching base’ and ‘call me if you need me’ and mediocre meetings and long multi-recipient email chains, but there is usually way too little regular structured communication. This is one reason why Gen Zers don’t treat interpersonal communication in the workplace with greater formality. No wonder Gen Zers don’t realize that the burden is on them to ensure their interpersonal communication at work is more structured and substantive.
Like any other habits, communication habits can be changed, but it is not easy.
If you are the leader, then you should really take on more of the burden yourself of making sure that your communication with your Gen Zers (and all of your employees for that matter) is high structure and high substance. Engage every single Gen Zer in a regular structured one-on-one dialogue – scheduled one-on-ones at least once a week. The one-on-ones with you will give them the chance to practice interacting in a more professional manner – at least with you. As you fine-tune your ongoing dialogue with each Gen Zer, they will become accustomed to your one-on-ones. Over time, you will help them learn to prepare better and better agendas for your one-on-ones; increasingly organized, clear, and focused.
This is the message I recommend managers deliver when they are trying to convince their young employees to really care about developing good people skills:
“Here’s why you should care about improving your people skills: Even though it seems like your interactions with other people are a matter of personal style, in fact there are proven best practices for workplace communication. When people do not follow communication best practices, things are much more likely to go wrong. Poor communication is the number one cause of unnecessary problems – great and small – in the workplace.
Poor communication also leads to suboptimal workplace relationships, including conflicts between and among employees.
No matter where you work or what you do, good people skills will help you get ahead faster. Poor people skills will always hold you back. Some people are known as being really great to work with, while others are known for being difficult. In either case, that’s almost always a commentary on the person’s communication practices. You want to be known as someone who is great to work with.
That means you need to learn best practices and build new habits to…
-learn how to tune in to other people and read them more effectively;
-take on the burden of putting more structure and substance into your communication with key people;
-learn best practices for expressing yourself more effectively – one-on-one and in groups -- in person and remotely.
If you learn those best practices and develop better habits, you will avoid many more unnecessary problems, you will build much better workplace relationships, and you will become one of those people with a reputation for being really great to work with.”