How We Try to Improve Our Shitty Communication and Social Skills, Part I

(Primarily written for employee training but welcome feedback).

We do what we can do develop our communication and social skills so we can adequately serve customers.  It’s mostly a sometimes farcical blind leading the blind process so don’t hesitate to make suggestions and point out problems with our approach to developing our communication and social skills.

A lot of people mistakenly believe they have good communication and social skills.  They believe so because they’re able to seemingly communicate and get along with their friends effectively.  What they don’t realize is that they get along with their friends because they share the same values and standards.  It’s a lot tougher to communicate with someone who doesn’t share the same values and standards. Those who don’t understand this point often consider those they don’t get along with — typically those socio-economically above and below them — as poor communicators and lacking in social skills.  They never blame themselves, so they never work on their communication and social skills.  They gradually become entrenched in a way of thinking and living and are never able to explore and understand other perspectives.  (Which may be way they tend to be non-judgmental and superficially accepting of difference).

For instance, I once overheard an administrative assistant complain about her boss — a world renown scientist — claiming she lacks social skills.  “I can’t work with her anymore,” she told colleagues.  “She exploded today, telling me to get out of the way if I can’t help her! How am I supposed to help her if that’s her attitude?  She’s really smart, but like so many smart people, she has really really bad social skills. She needs to grow up and understand that hurting my feelings isn’t effective. She just has low emotional IQ”

Think about the absurdity of her claim.  Lab directors at a leading science research institution have to have extraordinary communication and social skills in order to convince people from several industries and government agencies to give them millions to do what they do, including enough to pay for an administrative assistant.  It never occured to the administrative assistant that maybe she, not her boss, is the poor communicator and lacks proper social skills to get her job done right. She, self-absorbed and self-centered, thinks the world should revolve around her feelings, which are more important than finding the cure for cancer.

Lab directors are highly competitive and passionate people completely focused on a vision or a standard and not on people’s feelings, including their own.  They work long hours and at a pace that would frighten most.  Effective administrative assistants are able to read the director’s mood and adjust speed, just as an orchestra does. If they can’t adjust, they won’t last because they’re momentum killers and throw everyone off.  That’s why lab directors go through so many administrative assistants and will do anything they can to keep the ones with adequate communication and social skills to help realize the vision.

The point is, those who are focused on “feelings” (mostly their own) will be relegated to low-stress, low-pay jobs.  Like receptionist, or janitor.  The boss never yells at the receptionist or janitor for screwing up or making lame excuses.  Most everyone is friendly toward them, except for maybe those just above them in social rank.  (We tend to treat those just beneath us with contempt, and those far below us with compassion).  Those who work for something greater than themselves and are focused on protecting their core values, principles, and standards — and not their own feelings — will be the leaders.

Steve Jobs illustrates this point in his “difference between a janitor and a vice-president” talk.

Jobs tells the VP that if the garbage in his office is not being emptied regularly for some reason, he would ask the janitor what the problem is. The janitor could reasonably respond by saying, “Well, the lock on the door was changed, and I couldn’t get a key.”

It’s an irritation for Jobs, but it’s an understandable excuse for why the janitor couldn’t do his job. As a janitor, he’s allowed to have excuses.

“When you’re the janitor, reasons matter,” Jobs tells newly minted VPs, according to Lashinsky.

“Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering,” says Jobs, adding, that Rubicon is “crossed when you become a VP.”

In other words, you have no excuse for failure. You are now responsible for any mistakes that happen, and it doesn’t matter what you say.

We know about Steve Jobs losing it and calling a team a bunch of “fucking dickless assholes” for telling him that they can’t meet a product deadline (they did, after three consecutive all-nighters).  I highly doubt he’s ever called a janitor or receptionist anything similar.  He’s likely very polite toward them, as someone of his position should be.

We ask employees about their career goals.  If they want to be a doctor, we treat them like a doctor.  If they want to be a receptionist, we treat them like a receptionist.  We do this to prepare them for their careers.  They’re allowed to change career expectations anytime.  Those who think they can make the adjustment when they get there don’t get it.  It takes years of practice to finally make it.

Again, this is all blind leading the blind talk.  But my hunch is that employees who know they have inadequate social and communication skills are the ones most likely to improve them.

Examples of good and bad communication in Part II.

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