Use the personal touch in a technological age
College graduates today are the most tech-savvy generation ever to enter the workforce. While knowledge of the latest and greatest devices can be a tremendous asset for landing a job, it's also proving to be a hindrance. Graduates too often use technology as a replacement for essential communication skills that are still coveted by employers.
Each year, the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania conducts an annual survey to evaluate the status of professionalism in America. The most recent data from college and university career development offices noted a troubling trend. Respondents who believe professionalism has decreased in the past five years attributed that drop to a loss of communication and interpersonal skills due to technology.
When so much of an average workday is spent in front of a computer screen, it's easy to see how interpersonal skills can slide. But there are some rules of engagement that can help young people hone their skills in this area.
Don't go it alone. No question, it can be intimidating to go solo in a professional setting. You're putting yourself out there with potentially serious ramifications for your career. Instead, it can be helpful to have a "wingman" or "wingwoman" to watch your back and advocate on your behalf.
When making new contacts at networking events or professional conferences, the ice can be too thick to break on your own. Working as a team doubles your chances of being seen and heard.
Keep your eyes peeled. When in a group conversation, a lot of seasoned professionals will maintain the conversation but, as they're talking, also scan the room for people who might want to join the group but aren't sure how. There's no reason you can't do the same when you see someone you know struggling to join the conversation.
Protect your credibility. It's important to be an advocate for others, especially when they'll return the favor for you, but be cautious about putting your credibility on the line. As a young professional, you don't have the stock to vouch for anybody who isn't a good fit.
Anyone you bring into the group conversation is a reflection on you and your credibility. If you bring in someone who fits in perfectly, you've just established yourself even more. But bring in someone who appears incompetent, and the group is going to think you're no better.
Start positive. When you have an "in" with a group, start off by making a good impression. Chime in when somebody says something you agree with so you can engage on a positive note.
You can play contrarian later, after you've developed some rapport. But a simple affirmation helps set the right tone for the conversation and assures the group that you're not out to second-guess them on every topic.
Watch the group's dynamics. In most circumstances, it will be easy to tell whether the group wants you in or wants you to move along. If you stumble upon a group that is close-knit, they might not want to include you right away. Don't force yourself on them if they're not welcoming.
After several minutes of standing nearby and a few attempts to join the conversation, if the members don't step back to include you in the circle, it may be time to look elsewhere.
Start now. Networking and personal interaction in a professional setting don't come easily to most people. But the data shows these skills are still expected of you, and failing to practice can hurt your chances at landing a job or moving up the corporate ladder.
It's best to start early. People expect young professionals to come off a little awkward and unpolished at first because it's a new experience. Most people will be empathetic to nerves when you first start out. However, if you're 45 to 55 years old and still learning the ropes, people might question your interpersonal skills.
Take advantage of this leniency while it's granted, or your wingman or wingwoman might soon outrank you.
Matthew Randall is executive director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org