The single most important skill I’ve learned in the first 5 years of my career

During the most recent update of my LinkedIn profile, I have realized that it’s been 5 years since I started my first full-time job. Throughout those years I had a chance to work in Poland, Switzerland, and the United States, with people from all around the world. Both in corporations and a startup. What I’ve noticed across all those various environments, is how much time is being wasted by me or my colleagues only because a message has not been communicated properly. I was getting more and more intrigued by this topic and realized that communication is the most important skill in the workplace. Not only verbal or written but also body language and simple gestures. You can make someone’s day just by smiling at him in the subway or showing appreciation for their work.

On the other hand, misunderstandings might have tragic consequences. Dominique Estival, a Western Sydney University linguist and a pilot, has analyzed the miscommunication examples in aviation and discovered that it has contributed to more than 2000 deaths in plane crashes since the mid-’70s. The deadliest plane crash in history happened in 1977 on Tenerife due to a miscommunication between the captain of the KLM plane and the air traffic control tower. The pilot believed he had clearance for takeoff and crashed into the Pan Am plane which resulted in the death of 583 people.

This is a very extreme example but unfortunately one of many cases in human history when miscommunication led to a tragedy. For those of us who do not work in flight control, military, diplomacy or medical fields, the consequences of miscommunication are much less tragic.

However, improving in this area can help us make our life easier and have more successful careers. By applying some simple rules, we can make our work more effective and save time on the unnecessary back and forth discussions:

• Don’t make assumptions — If you don’t know something or didn’t understand the message, always ask to clarify or provide more details.

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

(Chinese proverb)

• Listen first — You already know everything you have to say, in order to learn more, it’s important to listen first.

• Be kind — how you communicate is sometimes even more important than what you communicate. You can be assertive or tough and stay kind at the same time. Remember to appreciate others and to use “magic words” (thank you, please, I am sorry).

• Be honest — smart people can see through bullshit very easily. I’ve talked to many experienced specialists who say that what they hate most about their managers is that they do not share why something needs to be done (even if the actual reason is only to make the upper management or investors happy)

• Use analogies/metaphors — Good analogy really helps people understand the topic better and catches their attention. I often try to use analogies or metaphors when explaining something complicated or to strengthen a point. Majority of the most memorable quotes are analogies and metaphors.

“Longbottom, if brains were gold, you’d be poorer than Weasley, and that’s saying something.”

— J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

• Add a personal touch — good anecdote or personal experience related to the topic can make the message much more convincing and help you prove your point.

• Provide the full picture but keep it simple — never assume that your counterpart has the same level of knowledge and full picture. Make sure to be as clear as possible. You need to also remember to keep it simple though, especially dealing with top management or potential investor, when you need to convey a lot of information in a short time. If you’re a specialist talking to management, don’t focus on technical details too much. Try to use the words wisely and focus on the most important points to maintain listeners attention.

• Adjust your language to the audience — some people don’t want to admit they have not understood something (especially if English is their second language), on the other hand, you can make a good impression on native speakers if you’re able to use idioms or more sophisticated words. Therefore, it is very important to choose your words appropriately. Think about the substance of your message and who are the recipients.

• Small talk is a big thing — career is a popularity contest to a certain extent. You can keep saying that the world is unfair, and you should have gotten that promotion or won that deal. The truth is, people like to be surrounded by those who they like. Sometimes asking someone how his day was, remembering the person’s name or reminiscing on common memory can get you a promotion or close a sale.

• Always stay calm — if you are triggered and start blaming others, calling names or raising your voice — it means that you lost. Even if you are right. Keep it calm.

• Avoid polarizing topics — unless you are very close to someone at work, you should avoid discussing politics, sex, and religion. Especially if you work in a multi-cultural environment; something which might seem like an innocent joke in your culture can be a big taboo somewhere else.

• You were right. So, what? — pick your battles, even if you prove that someone is wrong, you might jeopardize a relationship by belittling the other person in the process.

• You were wrong? Admit that — on the other hand, it’s also very important to admit if you were wrong and avoid blaming others. Unless you are a surgeon or army general, mistakes usually don’t have horrific consequences. We learn from them and move on.

“For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success. The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it.”

― Jocko Willink, “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win”

• Stay positive — everyone has their own problems and they don’t want to hear about yours. Keep your communication positive.

• Have empathy — even if you follow all those rules, you might still receive a rude response. You never know what is happening in someone else’s life though and what kind of day the other person had. If you need to communicate something negative, choose a good moment for that! If it’s not important, let it go.

• Respond through the same communication channel — if someone sent you an e-mail, they most likely expect you to respond the same way (not on Slack or Skype). You can propose a meeting if the matter requires a deeper dive, but then always remember to send a summary e-mail. Which takes us to the last point…

• Document everything — This is more specific to project management but can also be a good practice in other fields. The amount of communication in the project is often overwhelming and people forget what they agreed to. Always remember to send out the minutes of meeting and have important decisions documented.

The list above is very subjective and based on my own personal experience. It might seem that it touches other topics like attitude or cultural awareness. That just shows how important communication is though. It just affects and is affected by so many different factors of who are we as a person and how others perceive us. Especially nowadays when so much work is being done remotely. Some people prefer to work exclusively this way in order to be able to travel the world in the meantime (so-called “digital nomads”). There are startups which decided to not use any workspace in order to optimize costs and have every meeting done online with participants joining from different parts of the world. For those organizations and individuals, effective communication is a “make it or break it” factor.

I strongly believe that whether you are a manager or a specialist; working in Finance, HR or IT; a global corporation, startup or NGO — communication is THE most important skill.

What was the most important skill you’ve learned at the beginning of your career? Is communication a big part of your work? I would be more than happy to hear your thoughts on this topic and the article itself. Share your feedback in the comment section!

For those who would like to further study the topic I can personally recommend the following books to start with:

Dale Carnegie — “How to make friends and influence others”

Thomas Erikson — “Surrounded by Idiots”

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My thoughts on career and the IT world based on corporate and startup experience in Europe and North America.

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Karol Glogowiecki

My thoughts on career and the IT world based on corporate and startup experience in Europe and North America.