Everybody talks about the need of people skills in tech. But what happens if you just haven’t got it? Here’s an introvert’s guide to surviving an environment where it becomes more and more difficult to get by without strong people skills.
A little bit of context
I’m the technical geek type. I started programming at 9 years old. Programming is the only hobby that makes sense to me. I feel like a fish in the water when I find myself in front of a computer screen, solving technical challenges. On the other hand, social activities make me feel awkward. I don’t do small talk. I don’t tell jokes in front of unfamiliar audiences. And I don’t dance.
I love my job. I’m happy to be a full time software developer. But since programming is a hobby for me, that’s pretty much all I do in my spare time, too. And all that time invested pays off, I got to be very good at what I do and I gained a lot of experience in over 16 years working for the same company, RomSoft.
To be clear, I’m not the type to aim for a management or leadership position. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it wouldn’t fit my personality. My problem comes when my knowledge and insights on the company’s projects need to be shared. Therefore, I have to interact with many colleagues, to train, to mentor, offer feedback, and help them with various technical challenges.
This is funny, too, because I’m always happy to help, and I feel proud when somebody turns to me for support. But being the introvert geek that I am, I have to admit that social interaction is not exactly my comfort zone.
A story of communication gone wrong
But let me tell you a short story that will help you better understand where I’m coming at.
At some point, an opportunity came to organise some knowledge sharing activities in the company, covering various technical topics. There were, as I remember, two directions to these activities. The first one targeted solutions to complex technical problems that we were facing in our existing projects. Another direction was more focused on technical innovations.
I was more inclined towards the first category, as these type of challenges had the most impact in our day to day work, our productivity and our general performance as a team.
As this program was in need of coordination, I don’t remember if there were other people interested in that role, but as I already mentioned, I was really happy to be of help and share from my experience. So I pulled the trigger and took the challenge of managing the program. I really wanted to make it work.
In short, here’s what I had to do: scoop for topics to discuss, propose them to colleagues that I saw fit to speak about the respective subjects, plan the activities, get everyone on-board with the schedule, collect feedback, write reports for management, basically everything to keep the activities going and my colleagues interested.
I was happy to get things rolling and that all those complex issues were finally laid out in the open. But I realised that all the coordination work and backstage negotiations were grinding against my enthusiasm.
At some point I had a meltdown and I chose to suspend the activities. That experience took a toll on me for a long period.
The problem with failure is that it is easy to talk about it when you are not directly involved. But when it happens to you, it’s a whole different story. It’s messy. It lowers your self-esteem, makes you doubt yourself, and downgrades your concentration and productivity. Learning a lesson about failure is a painful process.
So, as much as I love my job, and as much as I know my expertise is appreciated, for a while, I struggled to find my way back to teaching and mentoring activities without having to feel like a weirdo with a communication problem.
How was I going to fix this?
At first, I took things in a very personal manner and I tried everything I could think of to get better at those skills I was lacking. I knew that I wasn’t a people’s person and people skills didn’t come naturally to me. At the same time, I wanted really badly to improve in that area. So, here is a short list of actions that I pursued, in search of people skills nirvana:
- Reading self-help articles and books
- Group trainings
- Individual trainings
After all these efforts, things started to clear up in an unexpected direction. I was actually trying to change my personality. But as much as I got to learn about social skills and communication in the workplace, I also realised that this wouldn’t turn me into the outgoing, socially confident person that I was hoping to become.
So that’s where the second part of the journey started: an honest reconciliation with my own limits.
Recognising my own limits
A first step was to admit that I’m an introvert with limited capabilities to interact with people who are not my close friends and family, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Simply admitting this, felt liberating.
A second step was to identify more precisely the factors and situations that generated the biggest amount of stress for me. Here are a few of them:
Managing a discussion group was just too much for me
While I really believe that a software development company does need a think tank, a group where complex issues are discussed and solutions are sourced, for me, personally, the way I tried to do it at that moment wasn’t working. Managing the technical communications activity for the entire company was just a too big hat for me.
At a closer look, I found that the main source of stress was the official part. Scheduling the activities, convincing people to engage and make presentations, writing reports about the activities, gathering feedback, while another person would cruise through them easily, for me, they were a burden. All these things were taking away from the joy of just discussing technical challenges. I would rather have more informal meetings with my colleagues, just plunging into the subject and trying to find actual solutions, rather than having to deal with so many preparations.
I have limited energy for certain type of situations
I could spend hours looking for a technical solution, searching forums, looking into every corner of the Internet for a technical answer. That is my structure. I’m a self-taught person. In other areas, especially where social interaction is needed, my resources are more limited. And it is very important to me to admit these limitations.
Just to give an example, sometimes, in one on one interactions, I need to explain the same thing over and over. It is not a bad thing, and for sure it’s nobody’s “fault” that this occurs. There are certain technical aspects that are more difficult to grasp. And I know that certain aspects require me to be more creative in finding new ways to explain them.
But the problem is that I’m only “equipped” to do it for so much time. At some point, my empathy and patience shut down and my ego takes over. And I learned to pay more attention to that breaking point. I understood that I needed a safety net for this kind of situations and I kind of developed a strategy of my own.
Socializing at work is not my thing
I am aware that a big part of work communication is socializing. But for me, socialising at work is a source of stress, and not at all productive. While meeting with my friends and spending time with loved ones relaxes me and eliminates the stress that builds up during the day, at work I prefer to keep it professional, to talk about tasks, planning, and projects.
What has worked for me
I decided to make a major change and switch to full time remote work. In March 2020, when the entire world was plunged into telework almost overnight, I already had one year of remote work experience.
I really enjoy the comfort of working from home. It helps a lot that I’m the self-taught and self-organised kind of guy. Taking a break at home, for me is not equal to taking a break at work. Being able to take a short walk or eat some fruit really helps reset my brain.
Yet, I still need to communicate with people. And I still need to grow my people skills. But in my case, communication comes a lot easier online than offline.
As previously said, I’m not the kind of person with endless energy for explaining things over and over. At some point, a little selfish “me” feels the need to wave a white flag. And I learned to recognise that particular moment and try to step away from the “danger zone”.
Here are a few strategies I apply in situations like this:
- Take a step back. Recognise the moment I reach the maximum amount of energy that I’m willing to invest in a particular situation. It is not failure. It is simply admitting what is the maximum I can give there, and that spending more time with that particular problem will only cause me to spiral downward emotionally and in terms of productivity as well.
- Take a last shot at it, via email communication. Writing a tutorial or a guide sometimes also helps me gain clarity over how some particular technical problems should be communicated.
- If feedback about somebody’s performance at work is involved, ask someone I trust to proofread the message. Given I don’t exactly trust my personal communication skills, It sometimes helps to ask for help from another colleague, who is not emotionally invested in that situation. Even just a few tweaks to how a message is formulated can make a huge difference.
While this strategy has worked for me, I know that it may not work for everybody. But for sure, knowing your own personal limits and planning ahead is quite helpful to avoid conflicts and sensible situations.
A new philosophy on communication skills
After the work group “fiasco”, I took some time to understand what my sources of discomfort were and what generated them. I realised that I felt a lot better when we organised more ad-hoc meetings. Like, for instance, when a colleague finally solved a problem that we were bumping against on and on. Or when somebody asked for help on a specific topic.
Communication in the workplace is essential. And we can get better at it. In my case, keeping discussions as informal as possible helped a lot. No feedback forms to fill in, no activity reports. Just essential notes.
The next thing that helped was understanding my limitations and accepting them.
Just addressing these two aspects already removed a lot of pressure. Finally, the third thing that did the trick was to build some safety nets I could use in emergency situations.
I know that labelling is a shortcut our brain takes in order to deal with uncertainty. But sometimes, these labels do more harm than good. So I stopped stressing about being a “great communicator” or a “people person”, whatever that means. This experience has helped me know who I am, and who I’m not, in terms of people skills and work communication. And this should be the first rule in the book.