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Teaching People Skills

Are today’s young workers relatively 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.

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