A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

People Skills for Web Workers

The web touches everything an organization does—marketing to customer service, product development to branding, internal communications to recruitment. This is the era of cross-platform digital services, fast networks, and mobile devices. Sounds like the ideal time to be a person who makes websites.

Article Continues Below

So why do we feel frustrated so often? Why do we experience burnout or depression? What makes it difficult to do work that has meaning, that satisfies us?

The problem is that we need to collaborate, but we haven’t focused on developing our people skills.

Back in the day, we could get by with technical skills alone. If you could get HTML and CSS to work across browsers, you’d find work, and you might even break new ground. Technical skills still matter, but today making digital services that meet users’ needs also depends on our ability to collaborate across many types of boundaries:

  • Disciplines like interaction design, content, front-end and backend development, user research, and product management
  • Departments in the organization like marketing, sales, IT, communications, and customer service
  • Channels like websites, native apps, social media, print, and the call center

People skills are as difficult to learn as technical skills

Think back to when you first learned a technical skill like CSS or JavaScript. How did you feel? If you’re like most people, you felt scared and overwhelmed. And it never ends: however accomplished you are today, there’s always more to learn. That’s why you read sites like A List Apart, follow discussions on social media, and attend conferences: to keep learning.

The same is true of people skills—often called “soft skills” in business—like coaching, listening, facilitation, and leadership. There’s a myth that you either have these skills or you don’t—which Meri Williams calls “the soft skills fairy.” But that’s like saying, “You can either code JavaScript or you can’t.” You didn’t fall out of bed with technical skills, and the same is true of people skills.

Learning people skills is challenging, but when you take the time to develop them, it’ll seem like you’ve gained a superpower—one that allows you to:

  • find common ground with people who have different perspectives, like when marketing demands its latest campaign go on the homepage, regardless of the user experience;
  • handle stressful situations—like difficult conversations between backend developers and content editors who need to use the CMS—with grace and compassion;
  • feel confident about your contributions without criticizing others, e.g., when your product team implements an agile process and you’re concerned that your area of expertise might be sidelined.

Behind each of these scenarios are collaboration problems. Let’s talk about four of the most common ones, and the people skills that can help with each.

  1. You don’t get appreciation for your contributions.
  2. You struggle to keep up and know everything.
  3. You experience conflict with people who are scared of change.
  4. Your organization can’t adapt.

1. You don’t get appreciation for your contributions

Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.
Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Although it’s counterintuitive, the first person you need to look out for when you want to collaborate is yourself. Everyone needs appreciation for their contributions. When that need isn’t met, we feel frustrated or angry, and we start judging others.

For example, imagine you’re presenting a prototype of a mobile application to your team. They seem to object, saying that the app would take too long to develop and isn’t “intuitive.” Your defensive instinct might be to tell them that they’re wrong—this is the way we “should” do it—while feeling frustrated because they’re rejecting your work. Notice the judgment? These judgmental behaviors lead to conflict, which prevents collaboration.

Learn to communicate without judgment

You can begin to spot this behavior by looking for language that implies people are “bad” or doing things “wrong,” or that tells people what they “should” do. You may also notice self-judgment, where you tell yourself you’re wrong, or that your work sucks. The jargon term is “negative self-talk” and we all do it.

Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model helps us identify these moments before they lead to conflict by focusing on four steps: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. You can observe that your colleagues offered “feedback” (rather than “criticism,” which contains a judgment). Then you can identify your feeling, in this case frustration. (If you’re stuck on “angry” or “upset,” try the NVC list of feelings to get more specific.) Next, figure out what you need: is it respect, appreciation, contribution, autonomy, growth? You may have several unmet needs: try this list for ideas.

Finally, put it all together into a request. You could say, “You shared your feedback about the prototype. I’m feeling frustrated because I need appreciation for my contribution. Would you be willing to share areas where the prototype meets user needs, as well as those where it may not?” Notice that you’re taking responsibility for your own feelings and needs.

NVC is difficult to pull off in the heat of the moment, so you need to practice. Get started by reading Rosenberg’s book.

2. You struggle to keep up and know everything

When we collaborate, everyone shares control and no one knows exactly where they’re going. It’s uncomfortable because we’re leaving what we know and stepping into discovery. We need trust to tolerate this discomfort together. When we aren’t confident about our expertise—when we feel insecure—we can’t build trust, so we find collaboration difficult.

Your colleagues and clients look to you as an expert: someone who can tell them how to do digital “properly.” But technology changes fast. New mobile platforms, new ways of working (Mobile First, Content First, Lean UX), and new technologies (Sass, responsive images, server-side JavaScript) appear all the time.

People want the “right” answer, the solution with proven return on investment, the fail-safe plan. Whether it’s a fixed budget, the “right” CMS for the corporate website, or the “best” mix of mobile platforms, people are asking you for certainty. You don’t have all the answers, so you can’t offer certainty without faking it. And you’re afraid that your colleagues won’t accept you unless you pretend to know everything. You feel insecure because you have an unmet need for acceptance, and it prevents you from building the trust you need with your team or client.

Learn to coach yourself and others

Instead of feeling insecure, you can choose to tell yourself that it’s okay not to have all the answers, and use coaching techniques to identify both your strengths and the areas you would like to develop. You can also learn to coach your colleagues. This will help you meet your need for acceptance because you’ll be providing real value to them, instead of pretending to have all the answers.

Coaching others means acknowledging that we we can’t “fix” other people’s problems and instead supporting them to make decisions about their own development. This allows us to get real about skills and growth while also being kind.

Get started with the GROW model, which is a structured conversation based on a set of questions. Notice that the coach doesn’t offer their own ideas or fixes:

  • Goal: Where do you want to be, and how will you know when you get there?
  • Reality: Where are you now? How far away is the goal, and what are the challenges?
  • Options: How could you overcome these challenges to get nearer to the goal?
  • Way forward: What action steps will you take to carry out your preferred option?

You can both learn to coach other people and ask for coaching yourself. For yourself, this means being honest about the areas you want to develop and being brave enough to ask for help. You can even buddy up with a colleague and coach each other using this tool.

3. You experience conflict with people who are scared of change

The internet is a symbol of disruption for many people: marketers are nervous of the shift from mass media to direct customer relationships, salespeople worry that websites make their skills obsolete, and publishers’ entire business models are threatened by the decline of print. We want to do digital work we can be proud of, but we’re on the front line of this disruption—a front line that’s thick with unmet needs and the feelings they create: anger, frustration, and fear.

Our culture makes things worse. We try to avoid conflict, as if ignoring it will make it go away. We tiptoe around sensitive issues or send long emails that we hope nobody will read instead of engaging face-to-face. We agree to a spec we know will never work, because it seems easier than risking an honest conversation. We choose to avoid “difficult conversations” instead of doing what the project needs.

Learn to turn conflict into collaboration

Imagine a conflict situation: the IT director won’t approve the budget for your new cloud-based web server. Ask yourself what the other person is afraid of. What don’t they know? Why do they perceive the situation differently? To turn conflict into collaboration, you need to listen with empathy.

Listening is a superpower. When you listen to someone with empathy, you meet their need for understanding, which makes them more likely to listen to you. When you see shared humanity—that is, when you realize the person you’re talking to is a human being—you can always find common ground.

Web designers talk about having empathy for users. To overcome conflict, we need to have empathy for our clients and colleagues, too. When our needs for trust and respect are not met, we feel tense, as if we’re about to fight. That makes it difficult to listen with empathy. We can get better with practice. To get started, check out the active listening technique, where you listen, reflect what you heard the other person say, and clarify your understanding.

4. Your organization can’t adapt

Our organizations are structured like industrial factories, with each department separated and optimized, working in isolation. Often digital work seems like diplomacy, as you try to get departments to collaborate instead of fighting over turf. If the team designing the mobile application won’t talk to the desktop website team, what hope do you have? You can’t change your organization’s structure on your own, so why even try?

I’ve fallen into the trap of complaining about culture as a way to avoid leading. If I say, “The culture here is the problem,” that’s a version of, “You’re doing it wrong”—i.e., somebody else needs to change. Change only happens when individuals choose to lead. Even if your organization’s culture is blocking collaboration, you can help it to adapt by leading change on a small scale.

Learn to lead by being honest

You might think that to lead your colleagues through change, you need to present strength, crush opposition, and have a bullet-proof plan. You’ve probably seen managers behaving like this.

But being aggressive is actually a defensive response to feeling insecure. You’re trying to build yourself up by putting other people down. This makes people feel resentful and afraid, which stops them from listening to you.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown teaches that showing vulnerability is the true indicator of courage. It takes courage to be yourself, to admit that you’re imperfect. If you admit that you don’t have all the answers, people will trust you, and you’ll inspire them to be brave, too.

Being a leader often means being the first person to listen. Share your vision—e.g., designing a digital service that puts users’ needs ahead of organizational structure, and makes a profit too—and listen to your colleagues’ ideas, feelings, and needs. Overcome your insecurity, take a risk, and be brave. It could be as simple as proposing an agile process for your next project, admitting that you don’t know whether it will work, and convincing people to try it by building trust. Or you might bring together a multidisciplinary team from across the organization and work up a minimum viable product, while convincing various stakeholders to trust you. The outcome may surprise you.

People skills are web skills

As the web continues to transform our society—in ways that both excite us and scare us—we need more than new technologies to keep up. We need collaboration.

Now that you understand how people skills can enable collaboration, you have an opportunity to change your work, and perhaps your organization. Invest your time in people skills and you might just change the world.

12 Reader Comments

Load Comments