Don’t Make Users Understand You; Understand Them Instead

People with information technology degrees may know a lot about computers, but often they are poor at communications. Seldom has there been a better example of how not to communicate than the co-CEOs of Research in Motion, manufacturer of the BlackBerry phone and PlayBook tablet, during an earning call last week with Wall Street analysts.

Although this may seem like a management and investor issue, the reaction of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie to criticism is a classic mistake that IT professionals often make. The company has been slow in finishing new products and readying something that could compete with iPhones, iPads, and Android. Things have been so bad that some large shareholders have suggested that one of the CEOs should go.

In the earnings call, the company announced its first significant quarter-to-quarter drop in BlackBerry units sold. And yet, the two praised each other and said no one outside the company could understand the pressures it was going through. Therefore, no one other than they could offer legitimate criticism:

“RIM has taken a unique path and the reason why we do things might not always be obvious from the outside,” Lazaridis said on a conference call with investors.

That is a textbook them-versus-us response common in IT organizations. When end users (Them) criticize development efforts (Us), technical staff members say that the users are being unreasonable. But that’s backwards. Technology exists to solve business problems and respond to corporate needs, not the other way around. Knowledge of computers is not innately superior to understanding how to market and sell a product, run a factory, draft a contract, or deal with an aggravated customer. The us-versus-them dichotomy is at the root of many of the worst ways to communicate with end uers, including showing off, losing patience, being dismissive, drowning someone in unnecessary information, or failing to listen. Here are three steps you can take to improve communications and step away from an us-versus-them mentality:

  • Understand what the company needs — Make a point to study corporate goals and strategy, not only by reading memos and reports, but by asking people. The more you grasp, the more you can respect others and realize your own limitations.
  • Put people into the big picture — When someone has a problem or a request, fit it into the context of the company’s needs. For example, helping someone learn how to perform a task brings greater efficiency.
  • Collaborate with the user — When you both work together to solve the problem and help the company, you’re on the same side.
  • The more ways you can find to break down the wall between you and the rest of the company, the more effectively you can communicate and do your job.

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