Communication Mistakes Only Really Smart People Make

By Wagner, Pat | Records Management Quarterly, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Communication Mistakes Only Really Smart People Make


Wagner, Pat, Records Management Quarterly


When I first entered the workplace, I suffered the smugness shared by many young people who have had success in college. I could write well under the pressure of deadlines and felt comfortable speaking in public. I was quick to learn new skills and could solve technical problems that baffled more experienced colleagues. I had lots of energy, loved to work hard, and enjoyed succeeding at complex tasks. I was an up-and-coming star.

However, despite what I thought were my superior workplace skills, no one seemed to want to work with me. During meetings, my ideas were ignored. I was passed over for a promotion with the vague explanation that I needed to work on my interpersonal skills.

Although my technical skills were beyond reproach, I never seemed to progress in my career. My explanation: I wouldn't "suck-up" to the boss; I told the truth, particularly about the failings of my co-workers; and I intimidated other people with my intelligence and proficiency.

So I started the slow evolution into one of those bitter, sarcastic people I now see too often in the workplaces I visit. You probably know at least one.

I am one of the lucky ones. Because of the early intervention of several compassionate supervisors, I learned that the reason that I was not doing well had nothing to do with the jealousies or inadequacies of others.

To paraphrase one of my mentors, "The problem is not that you are so smart, Pat; the problem is that you are a jerk." ("Jerk" translates into "oblivious and/or unconcerned about how one's poor interpersonal skills impact others.")

Smart people are sometimes suspectible to "jerkitude," because, if they are task-oriented and have been rewarded only for measured success with computers, budgets and other inanimate objects, they might ignore or even disparage the "soft" skills, such as negotiation, conflict management, and delegation. But, even if you are currently successful at building productive relationships, a change in your personal or professional situation can also change your behavior for the worse.

Here are some warning signs and prevention tips regarding three kinds of communication mistakes I have seen and' heard in workplaces all over the United States, including universities, federal laboratories, high-tech companies, and research departments. Unfortunately, I am almost always there because the "jerk" factor is out-of-control, despite the fact that the majority of employees and administrators have post-graduate education and many years of experience. Being smart is not enough to protect you from these mistakes.

KEEPING IN THE BEST PERFORMANCE STATE

The first key to maintaining and improving excellent communication is to take your physical and emotional health seriously. How you feel, which is impacted by everything from the ugly situation with your daughter to the effects of the antibiotics you took for a gum infection, can impact your ability to assess accurately and respond effectively to situations in the workplace. You might not feel that your technical work has suffered, but did you slam that perfect budget report on the desk instead of handing it to the accountant with a smile? Did you bark at the hapless attorney who screwed up the LAN for the third time this week, or were you able to grin and offer him a lesson in network management?

Smart people tend to think that being able to maintain a civil manner is only a matter of practiced will: I will ignore the pain, and no one will know. For example, the head computer technician of a college library thought she was handling the stress from dealing with her mother's Alzheimer's just fine, until the director pointed out that the technician had started to yell at co-workers for the smallest infraction. Another "screamer" - a scientist who had started to disrupt department meetings with what looked and sounded like temper tantrums - finally confessed that he was trying to keep up a good front while his marriage was crumbling. …

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