On days when snow wasn't on the ground, Darren could be found in the parking lot of our office park on his lunch break, sitting on a folding beach chair with his hand-washed shirt off, holding a tanning reflector at waist level. His cowboy hat would be tipped back, while his beard hid most of his face. The sliding door of his VW van would be open showing boxes of disorganized technical supplies and an open cooler, while the Beach Boys boomed out of his car stereo.

Standards for dress code and decorum in Boulder, CO are typically more relaxed, but this was pushing it -- especially when delegates from our Fortune 500 headquarters arrived in their town cars.

When he was working, Darren was like a park ranger in the woods. You could hear him on his walkie talkie as he moved throughout the building, talking about his fellow colleagues as though we were ignorant of our surroundings and destined to cause trouble.

He would barge into cubicles, offices and meeting rooms unannounced, startling employees in the middle of conversations on the phone or in meetings. Diving under their desks without warning, he would look for inventory numbers on their CPUs or check connections on cables, causing employees in skirts to turn away quickly or others to scramble to put their shoes back on. We were trees, and the office was his forest.

Darren was an extreme case, but I have worked at several successful companies where similar behavior was tolerated. I often wondered why until I volunteered to help a former IT department get out from under a crushing load of open tickets. For the first 50 tickets or so, I was a polite, friendly, thorough help desk technician. After that, I started going downhill fast -- about the same speed as the tickets that were piling up. Nothing was good enough, it seemed -- I couldn’t work fast enough, often times one fixed issue led to three more requests, and suddenly I was relegated to “the help” in the eyes of the people I used to train. I hadn’t had years of help desk experience to build up a protective coating, so I tended to take things personally when my help was the only hope for the investor presentation to go smoothly instead of down in flames.

Since then I have worked in several IT positions, usually in some form of mediary role where I’m translating tech talk for business folk, and biz speak for techies. I’ve learned how important social skills like respect for others, empathy and clear communication can be for job success and less stress. So here are some insights and tips to help helpdesk reps polish up their professionalism and keep the peace.

Increasing Need for Social Skills

Employees with well-cultivated soft skills, or people skills, are more likely to keep users and clients satisfied, manage job stress and workplace politics, perform well in teams, motivate and lead others easily, and use real-world strategic planning effectively.

According to this TCWorld article by Hansjoerg Schuetz, there are different kinds of social skills.

  • General -- Emotional intelligence, the ability to commit yet be flexible, keeping balance under stress, willingness to learn and openness to new ideas, readiness to perform, creativity, and analytical thinking

  • Self-management -- Self-confidence and a sense of humor about personal weaknesses, discipline and self-control, and willingness to take on a healthy level of personal responsibility

  • Dealing with others -- Mutual regard and respect for others, empathy and tolerance, the ability to receive and offer criticism, team-oriented approach, and communication skills. Special skills include negotiation, selling, marketing and presentation competencies, managerial skills, and intercultural facility

Two key areas that encompass a lot of these skills are emotional intelligence and communication. They also tend to be areas where techies could use some polishing.

Emotional Intelligence -- EI is an assessment of how well someone manages their emotions and relationships, and understands the feelings and reactions of others. A 2011 survey by CareerBuilder asked 2600 HR pros and hiring managers what characteristics candidates needed most to land a job and move forward in their career. Over 70% said they valued emotional intelligence over IQ, and 34% said they had recently been placing more emphasis EI.  

The survey respondents who preferred a high EI level over intellect said that they found people with higher EI to be more likely to resolve conflicts easily, stay calm under pressure, lead by example, act empathetically toward fellow employees, and make more thoughtful business decisions.

Being emotionally intelligent has a lot to do with understanding oneself first. The more self-exploration, life experience, and exposure to diverse cultures and people, the more understanding can be drawn upon at work.

Communication -- Listening, attentiveness, empathy, the ability to articulate what needs to be said, demonstrating interest in what others are saying and thinking, adaptability, fluency, and a balance of give and take are all elements of communication, according to an article by H.J. Payne in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. A person’s degree of competence in each one of these areas can make a big difference when it comes to job performance and compensation, upward mobility, productivity from using technology, and success in supervisory roles.

One interesting finding in the study conducted by Payne was that “low performing employees were more knowledgeable about how to communicate empathy than higher performing employees.” This may speak to a greater presence of ambition in higher performing employees, which does not lend itself well to empathy and compassion.

Refining communication skills can do more than improve job performance and relationships with colleagues, it can helpful with reducing stress at home and with extended family members, with social activities like coaching the softball team or attending a parent-teacher conference, when talking about difficult subjects with friends and family, and resolving personal issues such as depression or anxiety.

Assessing Individual Social Skills

It can be difficult to get a sense of one’s own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to EI and communication. A lot depends on the type of job, the field, and the corporate culture. Ideally, these expectations are spelled out well in job descriptions and performance reviews, but often there are unspoken assumptions about appropriate behavior. This can be especially true in IT departments, where leaders themselves are more likely to be short on these kinds of skills, or to consider them as less important than looking good at quarterly meetings where they have to report on how well they are keeping up with support requests.

The first step is to consider what feedback has already been offered by family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, etc. that may be helpful in measuring individual social skills levels. Second is to assess personal levels of frustration and confidence in communicating with and understanding others. Third is to use tools developed to help measure general EI and communication skills:

Emotional intelligence resources:

Communication skills resources:

How have you learned social skills that have helped you on the job? Share your comments below...

Read Part 2 of Improving Workplace Social Skills for Help Desk Techs


Ellen Berry is Content Director for Myndbend. Her background is in website development, graphic design, career development, project management, entrepreneurship, technical writing, and journalism. She has worked for small start-ups, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, in fields including biomedical research and development, IT, finance, telecommunications, publishing and digital media. Her articles are frequently published on high profile websites such as USAToday, ScientificAmerican, TechRepublic and MonsterWorking.