Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bonus Blog: Help! I hate my job!

As noted in earlier posts, I occasionally get private messages from folks with questions. The writer wished to remain anonymous:

I am having problems with work. How do I stop my boss from acting one way and expecting something else? Should I even try? How do you know when to get out?

First step: Do nothing.

Yes, take all the stuff that is making you crazy and do absolutely nothing. Acting when crazy = bad (whether you're a manager or driving a car). Suck it up, get to a place where you can think clearly (or, with the car example, pull over), and then mull your options.

In a bad situation at work, whether it's with a bad boss or a haunting in the office, the following are your available choices:

1) Do nothing. If the economy is full of suck and/or your options for employment are limited, sometimes continuing to suck it up is your best option, and you can review your choices later. Alternately, you might look at your choices and realize sucking it up is the least bad alternative.

This is not me advocating you stay in a job where you are unhappy; this is me saying you are the only person who knows what works for you, and its perfectly ok not to make any change at all if it works out that way in your personal calculations.

2) Take action in the workplace. This can start with talking to the offender causing the problem for you. Traditionally if you're going to do that, you need to be non-confrontational, come with problems and solutions, and do your best to put both of you on the same side in the conversation, so it's in the best interest of the person causing you misery to stop causing you misery. This is sometimes impossible, but typically you won't know if it's even an available option unless you try. In the case of your boss saying one thing and meaning another, talking to him/her is likely to reveal that this is not the only part of their lives where they are having this problem, and a particularly open-minded person can help you with solutions that work in other parts of their lives.

Non-opened minded individuals may respond with "What the hell are you talking about, I'm totally not like that," or "How dare you?" or "What? This is the first I've heard of this." Any of the defensive responses should be talked through, up to the moment you worry you may be pissing them off. Then back off, and contemplate other options.

"Take actions in the workplace" is way more than one step; if its more than one person, you need to talk to them all. If it's a ghost moving stuff around your desk and whispering "Get Out" in your ear, you need to talk to HR about working from home. All action taken to change the status quo will cause some kind of waves. Typically, however, it is totally worth trying to fix the situation; you deserve to work in as a comfortable environment as you can make it. It makes you more productive and happier.

In the case of a boss who gives mixed messages, btw, "take action" should span to include new behaviors to protect against the trap of mixed messages. With bosses I have had in the past, I typically wrote down everything we talked about and sent it as an email to them with the message "This is what I got out of our last convo, if this is not what you meant, please respond ASAP and let me know, otherwise this is what I'll assume." Most bosses don't LIKE this, but will understand and accept it. Bosses that give mixed messages and specifically tell you not to document what they told you and email them about it generally raise a red flag in a good, productive working environment. In that case, I'd keep my own running notes of each meeting (date and rough time) and try to have witnesses present whenever deliverables are discussed. It's not a fun way to work and live, but it can be done.

Finally, after you've talked to the perpetrator(s) and modified your behavior to reduce the issue, sometimes the only remaining option is escalation. This is the most dangerous part of breaking the status quo, as going over the head of your boss can sometimes get your head cut off in an organization. Best to dot all T's and cross all I's in terms of trying other things, so that management doesn't see this as a standard behavior and more as a behavior of last resort; never escalate above your boss without doing everything in your power to get what you need at his level or below. Upper management remembers people who go around the chain of command, and they frequently do not like people who do it--they assume that makes you hard (if not impossible) to manage.

My suggestion is, before escalating, visit your local Human Resources rep and talk over what's happening and what you've tried. The HR person is interested in making sure neither you nor your boss sue the company (as that person's primary goal) and therefore is likely to provide a lot of good data on communicating with your boss before escalating any further. He/she may have additional things to try. If they don't (or, if they do and you've tried them and they didn't work), this person can help you follow the appropriate process to escalate above your boss. While you could go over your boss's head rather easily without involving HR, its better to involve them to prove that whole crossing T's, dotting I's thing.

As a note when talking to HR: HR's primary goal is to protect the company. They can be kind. They can be nice. They can be helpful and friendly and awesome. Some folks reading this may well be in Human Resources. However, their primary purpose is to prevent HR incidents and to avoid financial or other liability to the company. That comes before all other things that an HR person is. It's like asking a police officer to stop being a watchdog for the law. He/she may be off-duty, but they can't watch you commit a small crime and let it go. It's their JOB to enforce the law (or in the case of the HR person, the company rules).

Escalation above your boss is never going to end well. I have no happier way to write that last sentence. Asking someone above your boss to help with your boss's behavior will be seen as a slight by your boss. It's like you automatically added a negative item to their yearly review. Do it if you are getting low on choices--eg: you're going to quit if things don't change. It takes a lot to restore trust/balance in a relationship after this type of escalation.

Likewise, escalating issues with your boss only works (in my experience) about one time in every three, assuming that you have logic, data, etc. on your side. It's hard for your boss's boss to agree to alter the behavior of your boss without setting a bad precedent for everyone else below your boss. One in three times upper management is typically willing to take that chance for various reason--the infraction is so severe, the boss's boss doesn't like your boss, the problem is a hot button for upper management, and a few very special other exceptions. Otherwise, 2 out of 3 times you've pissed off the person who writes your yearly review and calculates your bonus and raises and you get nothing from it. So think very carefully.

3) Finally, you have an option to change venue. This doesn't mean that you quit your job. You could find another position within the company. You could talk to your boss about a move to another manager (or build up political good will with another manager to ask you over to his/her team).

You always have the option to "walk" when you're upset in your position. I recommend thinking carefully before doing it, however. You rarely want to burn bridges behind you--the employer you leave today is the person called by another HR department tomorrow to ask about your employment. Legally they cannot say anything hurtful or bad about you (or they could be sued), but legally they aren't prohibited from saying things like "Yes, she was scheduled for termination when she quit."

If you look at your choices, try everything available, and still hate where you work, leaving is a good option. I typically look at it in the happy/sad test way: If I am sad more than half the time because of work or at work, then I need to find a new place to work. If I'm happy more than half the time because of work or at work, I'm right where I need to be (for now). Simplistic, yes, but happy/sad taps a wealth of subconscious information.

So, you have decided you're leaving. Things to consider: the state of your finances, any big events upcoming (at work or at home), and the state of the job market. In a bad economy with good finances you could quit without having any additional work lined up, but that's a medium risk proposition. Leaving your friends in the lurch during a massive project when the market is good and your finances are not might make you interested in hanging out a bit longer. A baby on the way can also complicate when you want to leave--do you need the insurance (answer is typically yes), and if so, how will you pay for things insurance pays for if you leave?

If you are pissed off or angry, go do something else before contemplating your leaving time frame. While you might not be able to shake either completely when you're contemplating a change, changes made out of negative moods rarely bare a positive influence on your overall resume (or networking). Basically, if you're cranky you are probably not making decisions that are going to benefit you greatly in the long run without a lot of careful thought.

Always try to give at least two weeks notice. I know most people know this, but you'd be surprised at how many people still don't give that. Don't try to poach people where you currently work for your new place--it's actionable (legally) and also quite rude. You would also be not surprised to know how many people try this (both during their leaving period and six months later).

Finally, think carefully about what you're going to say is your reason for leaving. As heartening as would be to say "I'm leaving because my boss is a doodoo head with the reasoning of a three year old," it falls into the "burning bridges behind you" category (and in some cases, when negotiating for unpaid vacation time, bonuses, or raise installments, can be like setting fire to the bridge while you're still standing on it). Unless you are specifically attempting to make things officially better for people (through the use of HR) as you leave, typically cite a more vague reason about other opportunities when asked why you are going.

One other thing on not saying what you actually think: will it actually help? Are you just sabotaging a future reference? Usually by the time that you get to the point of quitting, you've tried all the reasonable methods of communicating your displeasure. Is saying something as you go really going to be effective? If so, by Jove, do it! If not, preserve your reputation and leave sleeping dogs lie. Alternately, split the difference and tell HR quietly about what happened, what you tried to do to resolve it, but then still make your official reason for leaving something vague and not specific to the issue itself.

Your mileage may vary by state, by the way, but in some states quitting in a situation where any reasonable person would quit means that you may still collect unemployment; for example, I left a job in the early 2000's because of health reasons. The company did not dispute my claim for unemployment and the state in which I lived granted it because anyone quitting to preserve health was understandable and appropriate.

So there you go. Way longer than expected, and I'll likely come back to these ideas and touch on them in future posts. To sum up: you can do nothing, take action, or change venue. Hopefully my blog has given you a little more info about the best ways to look at and implement these potential choices.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Part of Management/Managing that Totally Sucks: Lying

So I talk a lot in my blog about manipulation and bribery...things that, unless you are upfront and transparent about are more likely to breed an atmosphere of distrust and a difficulty working.

Let's just be clear: I don't advocate lying. Lies of omission, lies of commission...anything that breaks the trust of the people you need to trust you to do your job (and whom you need to trust) is toxic to the work environment. If it doesn't immediately end badly, it gets exponentially worse before it ends badly.

There is, of course, a more practical approach, too, which was Mark Twain's: "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."

Now that we're clear that my normal operating procedure abhors a lie, we're going to talk about lying because, as a manager, this is sometimes part of your job.

Now keep in mind most management texts and advice advocate my approach--don't lie--and therefore don't cover this part of the program. Which is annoying, because as much as we'd like to always be upfront and transparent, we, by the nature of our jobs, cannot be.

As a manager, your responsibilities are to your employees, your peers, your bosses, AND the company; the company is the one who pays you, so it has to make the list, though typically it is at the end of the list in terms of importance. However, you should be keeping in the back of your mind that the health of the company is important to your employees, your peers and your bosses, so while it may not always come first, it has to be a present factor when you're making decisions in your every day job life.

Why am I singling out the company? Generally, when you need to lie, it's related to the company more than anyone else. What I'm talking about is things like firing people, lay offs, sales projections, reorganizations, and support of management. That's not an all inclusive list regarding when you may have to lie, but its a pretty good chunk.

Your bosses may ask you to lie, too, but that is usually a far more gray area; if they are asking you to lie for the company to align with specific goals to which you agreed when you started working, it sucks, but its not too alarming. If, however, they are asking you to lie in a less structured way, start looking for a new gig. People who ask you to lie for them are likely lying to other people, such as yourself. Start documenting EVERYTHING and polish up that resume.

While I'm not going to go into firing, lay offs, et all today, I am going to talk about the kind of lies you will be required to tell (or not tell, as the case may be).

When you are prepping to fire someone, often you have a lot of notice: you've talked to them several times about their behavior, tried to rectify it, etc. However, if you just started to work on a team, or the offense is so egregious that immediate action is required, that extra padding of trying to make things work out (which helps build trust with other team members who want to know that they won't be suddenly fired), is gone.

While you're prepping to get rid of that person, you may still have to take complaints from co-workers about him, who would feel TERRIBLE (or relieved in some cases) to find out that he/she was being fired. By the very nature of their reactions--let alone what damage informationally some people can do by saying "don't tell anyone else" and then spilling a secret--they can betray what is happening before you or your HR team is ready. This is particularly problematic because if that person opts to get legal counsel, any such breaches become serious problems for you personally as well as for the company: screwing up badly here can have fiscal implications for YOU and not just the company.

So you end up having to lie. Are you going to fire him? Answering that with "I can neither confirm nor deny" = "Yes, I am firing him" (assuming your employees/peers/etc. are not complete idiots). Instead you need them to believe you are not firing him/her until he/she has been notified they've been fired. If this means a bald faced lie, "No, not firing him" or "I'm investigating what is happening for now" (which is true, but doesn't answer the question), you are lying either by omission or commission. Whatever lie you choose to use, you need to be ready to answer for it when that guy is FIRED. Note, HR will usually talk to you about what you can and cannot say in this instance, but inevitably, you'll be lying to someone about it until its all over. In the case of a firing, typically at least some of the lying will come to light--especially if the person asking if you're firing "him" is the person being fired him (or her) self.

Layoffs and reorgs are similar beasts, but on a much larger scale. Imagine your entire team losing their shit for months at a time. Now imagine you know all their jobs are safe. BUT YOU CANNOT TELL THEM. Its unfair to the folks whose jobs are not safe, its a requirement from management, and HR is not 100% sure its true (even if they are 99% sure), and so they want to delay making any promises that can be acted on in a court of law. You spend months, weeks, etc. telling them to "hang in there" and "you're sure it will all work out ok," but answering "Do you know if we're losing anyone" with "I don't know, they haven't told me," because you cannot communicate to them that their jobs are ok. It is a seriously suck situation.

It becomes worse if you do know you're losing headcount. Suddenly you want to give them advice about whether or not to buy that new car or move to the more expensive apartment...but you cannot. Legally, you can't tell them their job is going away for a variety of excellent HR reasons that make you feel like a terrible person/snake/inanimate object made of goo inside. You will have to lie to them (though you may certainly hedge those lies by telling them that "that model of car isn't fully tested" or "that apartment seems way too small" or whatever else you can think of to dissuade them without giving up the fact they may not have a job).

Sales projections are slightly easier to lie about (unless you are talking to the person actually making those projections, and then good luck). Normally people care about them as an indicator of the health of the company--whether or not they should start looking elsewhere. Typically, unless there are upcoming layoffs, you don't really want people looking elsewhere. This series of lies walks the fine line between doing what is right for that individual and doing what is right for your team and the company. Most companies insist you always talk about sales projections as being positive (even if they suck rocks). This usually involves lying, because no company has positive sales projections forever. Your employees, again, are unlikely to be idiots, so they will know this. So your lies need to cover the sales projections in a positive manner, but you probably don't want to be saying that "everything is sunny" all the time, or you will lose a ton of credibility.

Finally, upper management may be changing the direction for the company; often this includes reorganization and/or lay offs, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it means your team is going to end up doing stuff they didn't sign up for--ever been in a company that decided that "every employee is a salesperson"? You end up going to classes, and people quit in droves...because if they wanted to be a sales person, they would have become one, rather than say, a systems engineer.

To keep face with your bosses, to keep the company in the best light possible so people don't flee like rats from a sinking ship, you have to be positive about the new direction even (and especially), when you may hate it yourself. Here the lies may be considerably less believable, but you're still going to have to lie, and you'll be accountable for those lies as long as those members of your team remain on board.

Most of these lies force you to pit the good of the company against the good of the people with whom you work. I don't know about you, but I usually think of myself as working for the people I see every day, rather than for the company that employs me, which makes it even harder. My boss and HR are individuals I often weigh against the individuals on my team or who are my peers. This is really the only way I can remain sane; that + knowing my legal rights (note: the web is an awesome place, but a night class on current HR stuff is invaluable every couple of years).

So basically, you will have to lie. Pretty much you do it all the time, to a certain degree; if you are out at a restaurant and a buddy asks if the shirt looks ok, and it totally doesn't, but there's squat he can do about it for four hours, the answer is "You look fine." This is a lie. But its a small one, compared to the secrets you may have to keep and or lie about as a manager.

A future installment will talk about how to make peace with yourself and your people in the hairy world of lying, but for now, I've certainly said enough. Probably too much.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Never Volunteer. Well. Sort of.

This may seem counter to my overall message of help and bribery, but it fits in just fine. Before I explain how, however, I would like to give you the story my father gave me on the topic of volunteering that illustrated why not volunteering is a really, really good thing:

Dad and a bunch of other young men whose heads have been freshly shaved get off the bus for the first time at the Marine base for their very first day of boot camp. Carrying their supplies, they line up outside the bus and are confronted by a drill sergeant.

The drill sergeant says "I need 2 volunteers!"

Two hands go up. My father is neither of those two men.

"You two, report to the barracks to clean the toilets! Everyone else, drop your stuff off and head to the mess hall. And Gentlemen, let this be your first lesson: never volunteer."

The moral of the story is that you should never volunteer when you do not know what you are getting into.

This, in general, is a good lesson: don't leap into something without knowing what you're leaping into. I'm sure there are some Mammoths (not especially known for their leaping, but let me have this metaphor!) that wished they'd thought it through before moseying through the tar pits.

It is not always possible to know what's around the next corner, but when you do know, then volunteering might be an option; as I note in my early blog posts, bribing people in advance is a really good idea. Volunteering can be a method of doing a good turn for someone or some project either in thanks or to bank up good will...who knows when you'll need it?

When volunteering, know and enforce your boundaries. Which is to say, volunteering to give a brown bag to five people about X process is very different than when upper management thinks that's swell and wants you to do it at the quarterly meeting for 20 minutes with full PPT presentation.

When you are volunteering, you are agreeing to do a service for a charity or someone else in a charitable way. Many people who are involved with volunteer work capitalize on the fact that we do not like to disappoint or upset people, and put themselves more in a customer seat than in the seat of someone who is--at least in this case--getting something for nothing. Since customers give us money, we work our butts off to make them happy. But charities and folks receiving charitable energy/money/etc. do not have to receive the same quality level of service; its always good if you can put in your best effort, but if you're doing someone a favor, at the end of the day, you're still the one doing the favor--you get to decide the parameters of what you are willing to do, and subtle or not-so-subtle pressure by them should not change that...whether you're giving money or time to build homes for families in need or running that document to the fourth floor for your boss down the hall.

Now, if I could just tattoo that last paragraph on my forehead (backwards), I could work on one of my own weaknesses, which is, as you have guessed, maintaining boundaries around volunteer work. I am a sucker for someone in need.

On that note, Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You Can’t Just Nag People. It’s Rude. Also, Everyone Has Expectations, They Just Don't Always Tell You.

But it is technically your job to nag people, if you are a manager (or a lead, etc.). Just sayin'.

I’m not advocating a paranoid world in which people are completely unreliable and projects never get done due to stupidity or maliciousness (although I'm certain the world seems that way sometimes). I’m just asking to take a look at the fact that because the word “manager” is somewhere involved with you, your job is to make sure stuff gets done, and you will likely be held accountable for that expectation that others have of you.

While people make mistakes and forget things or prioritize them lower than other things, or spill coffee all over themselves ten seconds after saying yes to you and what they promised flees their mind as the searing pain tears through their clothing, its not a really good idea to let people feel like they’re in need of a constant nag. You’re no one’s mother (ok, you might be, and you might be at the office, but you know what I mean). But you are interested in getting things done in a specified time frame in order to meet your own obligations and goals.

To that end, let people know you’re going to nag about items that require such time frames. When you know you need something, do not be afraid to ask for data back by specific dates and times. Always explain why, try to be as transparent as possible about your requests, and reiterate that you understand that it is a request. If it’s a pressing request and they cannot agree to the time frame, that’s ok, too. You can either escalate to get the time you need from that person or tell the person who requires the data that they’ll have to wait (more on escalating—preferably without making people upset—in future blog posts). Then be sure to follow up with your information source after securing a time when you can check back.

What about requests that you have to fulfill that come in with no time frames? So, for example, you need an answer about a question you received this afternoon. There may be no time expectation expressed by the person who asked you, but using you judgment you would try not to assume there isn’t one. Because, for every request you will ever receive, there is always a time expectation, even if one isn’t expressed. Assuming there’s no hurry, or assuming that answering immediately is required can both be problematic. Answering too soon may mean your answer may not contain the full expected data set, and answering too late can be, well, too late.

When you receive requests, always try to get an idea of the importance of the request and the time frame. People will, without fail, inadvertently distort both. However, with both, you can make an educated guess about how fast you need to get an item completed. In turn, after taking the task, you can have a better idea of how much time to negotiate with others over before getting the data you require to return to the original requestor.

And, doing it all patiently, calmly and consistently will make some people actually ENJOY you nagging them. Really. It has happened to me, and all of those who reported as such are certifiably sane (or so they tell me).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Escalation: The No-Man’s Land full of Assumptive Landmines

Generally when someone hears that you are planning to escalate an issue, they assume that someone is in trouble. In many cases, they assume they, themselves are being put on the spot. This generates a lot of unpleasantness, to say the least.

In future blog posts I’ll talk about communicating up to management, but escalations are a tad different. They should be used as an informational medium, and not a tool for punishing people. I’m not above punishing people—oftentimes a mature team will do it for you—but you should never punish publicly or without cause. Whenever you do "punish" you should do so without relish and with all your facts in a row. Because of their association with punishment, escalations must therefore also be handled carefully.

Step 1: Don’t get mad or frustrated. Very easy to say, somewhat hard to do. Think about it this way: a person may not be able to help you because its physically impossible, they have higher priorities, they are a dingbat, they are recovering from deep grief, the alignment of the stars, etc. Never assume someone is deliberately annoying you. In the grand scheme of things, you (probably) don’t spend a ton of time plotting the unhappiness of your co-workers…you should therefore leave the benefit-of-the-doubt that they are not plotting against you. If you are spending time plotting the downfall of your co-workers, you might either a) look into another job, b) get a hobby and/or c) develop a hearty evil laugh.

Step 2: Before you escalate, ask what you can do that might help you get what you need to get done…basically, follow the tenets of altruism and bribery as listed in previous blog entries. You can always trade work for work. A lot of the time you may receive a “no” because they perceive themselves helping you as to preventing them from reaching their goals. But, if you find a way to help them reach their goals (get their stuff done), then they are likely to reconsider helping you (and you therefore wouldn’t need to escalate). A good example that comes to mind is that you need to borrow a technical expert from another team, and they are struggling with an issue your tech expert could help with. Trade hours between the two, and everyone is happy.

Step 3: Once you’ve both realized that you can’t move further without an escalation, tell them that you need to escalate. The words you choose will frame your future relationship of trust—or lack thereof—with this person. So choose carefully. You don’t want to say “Since you can’t help me, I’m going to your boss.” What you want to say is something like “It’s ok if you cannot help me in this endeavor. I am going to talk to both our bosses, let them know I’m blocked, and see if either can get us unblocked.” You don’t have to say these exact words. You should obviously use your own. But talking about talking to your own boss and this person’s takes the sting out of the escalation, and including them with words like “us,” make them less likely to see what you’re doing with cynicism or malicious intent. A lot of people DO assume malicious intent, especially where there isn’t any, so this step really helps manage that concern. Of course, if you are being malicious, do what you will (you will anyway).

Step 4: Talk to your boss, then their boss. In that order.

Step 5: After talking to their boss, write down what was said and send it out to everyone—your boss, their boss, and them.

Step 6: Report back where you are to the person who requested it. Either you’ll have permission to use that person’s time now or in the future, or you can show that you tried, are blocked, and leave the requestor with other options.

I have often said, and will probably bore you with it again: I will not bend time and space for people. If I could do that, I would totally be on an island somewhere right now (see previous posts on this topic) AND I'd be diving the Great Barrier Reef AND I'd be blogging about all of it at the same time..."MaiTai tasty, Great White Shark huge and, thankfully, distant."

My job is to introduce reality to the situation where I work (aside: Firefox doesn't know the correct spelling of MaiTai, and neither do I, sorry). People are not always going to be happy about reality, but reality will actually produce them results in the log run, and well, as a manager (and a human, I like to think), we're in it for the long run (to totally mix my metaphors).

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bonus Blog: No Ifs, just Ands and Buts

This one is in response to a comment from my father (who is apparently trying to stump me):

Here is a unique one...

Your favorite worker has just saved your behind, now you discover he/she has been bad-mouthing the company on FaceBook and the company president wants ACTION!!!

What do you do?

I'm not really sure how unique this one actually is. People are often both fabulous and seriously damaged in some ways.

People are full of "ands." What I mean is, they can be lazy and productive; maybe being lazy helps them find the best way to be productive, for the amount of productive they want to accomplish (as opposed to the amount of productive they might accomplish if they were less lazy). People can be racist and compassionate. They can be reasonable and irrational.

People are typically not "buts" (at least spelled that way); while a person would probably like to be aggressive but friendly, traditionally "but" negates the word in front of it when we process it in the back of our skull. So even if the statement is true--I, for example, am a control freak but I want everyone to like me--there's a good chance you'll wander off thinking I'm an attention whore more than thinking I need to micromanage stuff. "But" cuts out part of the thought. "And" is inclusive, and lets us know that people can have good traits and bad ones.

As a co-worker or manager, the fact that they have good traits and bad ones is intrinsic and important knowledge. As long as the good activities outweigh the bad ones--for various values of weight and your mileage will vary--they are worth keeping and putting up with. If the bad outweighs the good, and if you can't correct the behavior, you'll spend a lot less time with them and someone may fire them.

And that is a key point: behavior. People are not their behavior. When working with someone, be clear on the difference between the person and the behavior. You cannot change a person; they are who they are and honestly, would you really want to change who you are for work unless you REALLY love your job? But behavior can change. Behavior is a lot easier to change.

In the case my father sites, the person in question is very good at their job, and has done their manager an excellent service AND they've seriously pissed off upper management.

So you talk to upper management. You also talk to Human Resources. Typically, most firms where you work will have an employee handbook or website spelling out what is and is not allowed respective to the company. It will also include the practice by which you redress failures to respect those company rules and regulations.

Most of the time, a person's overall value is weighed against the transgression, and the handbooks/websites/HR policy is written to allow for a first offense without being fired as the immediate result of a transgression. In most states (and you should really check with a local lawyer or your company's HR person), if the handbook indicates a warning is required before firing for most or all behaviors that are forbidden, even if the president of the company is so mad he/she is spitting teeth, your employee will not be fired. You may be heavily recommended to have them clean the bathrooms with their own toothbrush (or some other type of correction), but they'll keep their job.

If this is not their first transgression, however, you have to do some thinking. Can this person be trained out of the bad behavior? How hard will that be to do? Have you already approached them on this (or a similar) topic? What is the value of their work compared to the transgression and the potential of it re-occurring?

In the example given, that person did do some great work. He/she, however, has bad mouthed the company in public on Facebook. A first time offender is a relatively easy answer: whatever HR has prescribed is what you can do; if that prescription involves firing, you can certainly stand up for that person and, if you believe their behavior can be corrected, agree to take that on (and any future bad behavior in this area from them). This will usually preserve that person's job, but involve follow up steps; anything from restricting website access at work to random checks of their pages.

An offender where this is not the first time this behavior has happened (or behavior equally as bad) is messier. In this case, a conversation with the offender is required prior to talking to upper management. You need to discern from the conversation if a) they know what they did was wrong b) they have a plan in place to prevent it from happening again and c) if this is a second or third or close to another "bad" type of offense, what makes this time different than any other. With this information you can decide if this person is worth risking your reputation to preserve in their role. By asking they not be fired, you are in effect, telling upper management you can and will manage the behavior. If you do not or can not, then your reputation will be damaged the next time something happens with this employee. So think carefully.

I am a huge fan in believing in your team. I have a later blog post planned about defending your team, even if you want to kill one member (or all of them). Know that, in defending a teammate, you are making or breaking yourself (a little or a a lot) with the fortunes of the person being defended.

So, in the end, only you can prevent forest fir can really assess if the behavior can be changed, if it will be changed, and if you are willing to stick your neck out for someone under those circumstances. As noted, I'll have more to say about the fact that you should stick your neck out for your team--it makes the team more cohesive and builds trust--and it can backfire spectacularly.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Musing on Meetings: Agendas, Switch and Bait, Giving People Back Their Precious, Precious Time

I was just in an hour long meeting where I was a bit unclear on what the organizer wanted to get out of the meeting until 20 minutes in. While many people consider this an unsuccessful meeting because they eventually figured out what was going on and thus, boredom had a chance to enter their brains, I consider this a less than successful meeting because I kinda should have had a better idea going in what we were talking about and what the organizer wanted. In this way I could avoid meetings that don't concern me (or which I don't want to be concerned with) and actually be (gasp) prepared for meetings I should actually go to.

A brief aside: I 'prepare' for meetings by reading the agenda somewhere between 2 and 5 minutes before (sometimes I read it on my laptop while we're waiting for the rest of the meeting participants to show); if I am presenting, I usually schedule a half hour before the meeting to get my act together, which usually involves at least one Dilbert cartoon. Life is busy. Meetings are boring. But they are useful, and knowing what is going on is always useful, whether you need to know if you need to fake a kidney stone to escape a dull meeting or if you need to know the fastest route out in case of fire.

Some people are very militant about meetings: they write an agenda in the invite, they write the agenda on the board; they go over every agenda item with the people who attend the meeting, and then cover action items before the meeting closes. And even in these kinds of meetings you can go in and have very little idea of what is actually trying to be accomplished as opposed to what you were hoping would be when you arrived.

The only time I think that being vague about the meeting contents is when you are doing so deliberately. I call this the Switch and Bait; use a vaguely worded or similarly sounding meeting content to attract people who would otherwise not show up. You know, like that exec who has accepted your last three specific meetings and then just not shown up and failed to answer any of your emails. That guy will come to this, because, maybe you've used some keywords to make him think its his pet project you are talking about. Once the squirrelly people show up, you tell them that you will be talking about X, but only after you've talked about what you REALLY need to talk about, usually with a very thin connection between the two. Traditionally people then spit out what you need about X so they can get to Y. Effective on occasion, Switch and Bait is not a good meeting habit to get into--use it sparingly or people will just stop showing up to ALL your meetings.

However you wish to communicate it (agenda items, goals, talking in person), before the meeting I like to be clear about why we're going in and what I want to come out of it. For example, I might set up a meeting with the lines"We're losing data when we move content to production; I'd like to find out possible reasons for that and come up with at least two ways to mitigate it." Everyone knows what the meeting is about. They can come "prepared" or not (some people are VERY eager to weigh in on things and will appreciate the time to do their homework). It also gives a clear indication of how to stick to the topic and when to determine the meeting is over.

For example, someone who comes to your meeting to complain about the content loss can be redirected to the meeting purpose, which is to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it happening again, not to blame anyone or further vent on the topic ("vent" was originally going to be "piss and moan" but I am a lady). Once we have at least two ideas, if people want to stay and give more, great; if not, you can end the meeting...even if it didn't go the full amount of time. Yes, Virginia, Meetings Can End Early.

I'm a big fan of using early meeting endings as incentive to work the problem presented in the meeting; for example "Guys, if we can just find one more mitigation, we can all get 25 minutes of our lives back." Most people love that idea.

Ok. Speaking of meetings, I need to "prep" for my next one. What does the world of Dilbert have to offer me today? God bless you, Scott Adams.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How You Eat an Elephant (Cake)

I have always disliked this particular metaphor; it's supposed to help you understand the basic fundamentals of problem solving. How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.

However. Who wants to eat an elephant? They're intelligent beings that are actually pretty damn nice to humans (one of the few species that will actually go out of their way to help a human occasionally). Aside from that, the purpose of the metaphor is to make you think of surmounting a huge problem, but in essence it generally makes me queasy because, say, I start eating the elephant at the front right leg...I fill up before I even reach his KNEE. I could consume the entire elephant in small bites, yes, but there's a good chance that by the time I reached his shoulder (assuming an elderly-already-going-to-die-senile-elephant-who-lived-a-good-life-but-with-a-degenerative-disease-that-killing-him-really-saved-him-a-lot-of-pain but which will not infect me, so I don't feel bad about eating him), the rest of him would have gone BAD. Note, this does not make it a horrible project management metaphor--I've had plenty of projects that were a lot like trying to eat a lot of dead rotting elephant. But its not really the best image to have when you're trying to remember something useful and positive.

I would rather eat cake. I'm more of a pie girl, really, but cake has its place. The metaphor works for cake, too, btw: if you ask most people how they eat cake, they do not say they put the entire cake in their mouths at once, struggling to breathe and swallow. They eat cake one piece at a time. I could, in fact, consume an entire cake this way, and, furthermore, would want to.

Cake and elephants aside, however, troubleshooting problems does require breaking them down into smaller pieces.

Here's an example: your group has a reorganization. It now fulfills different functions than it did before, with more people than you had before. Your boss wants to know how much to budget for this team for the next year. You can't grab last years estimates and tweak them to get the right numbers because they really don't apply. Well, you could, but it would be similar to the second option: make stuff up from your gut. There is a time and place for making stuff up based on gut feelings, but deciding budget for the rest of the year is really not one of those times. So, in this case, like the cake, you have to break the problem down into tastier bites and then calculate based on those.

So you look at the number of people and how easily they've done their previous jobs. You assign time per day for the average person (I'm a HUGE fan of booking six hours in a day rather than 8, because I cannot remember the last time I came to work and didn't need to use the bathroom, get something to drink, chat at the water cooler, attend regular meetings or put out multiple unexpected fires...all which eat at that 8 hour day). Then you look at how much of their time per various project you think it will take them to do.

Now, in a perfect world, you take your resulting numbers and consult those people. Frequently they will freak out. "How can I estimate how long it will take me to do something I won't start for another 2 months?" Pretty much, you have to wing it--with budgeting for an entire year, it's better to have some basis for your wild guessing than none at all; responding to your boss with "There are too many unknowns" will not get those unknowns defined for you--they'll get him to make up a number (however he does it) that you have no influence over. So calm the freaky person out, and ask them to eat the cake in small pieces (I would avoid suggesting he/she eat an elephant as I don't think it would help here).

Once you've assured god and country (and everyone on the team) that they will not be held at gunpoint to these numbers, take them to your boss and go over them. Bosses like to cut stuff off they don't understand. While that may reduce the total amount of elephant/cake you have to eat now, you'll be eating moldy cake/rotting elephant in a few months if that money isn't there and you couldn't justify it.

A lot of the time, your boss will tell you he needs those numbers for a meeting in X hours (where X is the amount of time you intended to go out with a friend to lunch, which you suddenly have to cancel). In this case, you can't run the numbers by your team. But you still have to eat the cake/elephant.

In this case, I recommend going through and giving your best guess for time estimates. Go with your gut, knowledge of the person, or, absent that, estimate of an average person learning that job doing it over time. Once you've got it where you think it ought to be, mark all estimates of time up by 20-25%. That should make up for not being able to vet your numbers with your team, but not be too huge an increase as to have your boss freak out (more so than he/she already is, anyway). Next, tell your boss--as you are handing over the numbers--that these are WAGs (Wild Ass Guesses) and not to hold you to them...then follow that up with an email that you can show him/her in a few months when your boss has forgotten his/her promise and wonders why you aren't keeping to "schedule."

So now we've eaten the cake/elephant. Budgeting is just one example where you're going to be asked, as a manager, to make decisions about how long things will take. Your teammates do like to go on vacation, will have sick days, and might want to go to training. All of these require estimates about their current projects--made by them and approved by you--to determine slips in schedule or the best time you can do without someone for a while.

The moral of the story? You will have to make WAGs and to do that and you'll need to break things down into manageable pieces. It's up to you if those pieces where once a pachyderm or of the frosted, baked-good variety. And now I kill this extremely overused metaphor (but don't eat it).

A very Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it, and I hope Friday comes fast for those of you who do not.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Awesome is Better Than Normal

A basic theory around the idea of advance bribery and overall transactional communication is to take advantage of human norms and expectations. A “norm” is defined as “A rule or authoritative standard; a model; a type” by Think for a minute about standing in an elevator. You’re there, in an elevator. Which way are you facing? The norm is to face the door. It’s a small space, and the norm developed so strangers in a tight confine would not feel uncomfortable so close together.

In the business world, there are many norms like the elevator example. Norms differ per place of business and the group at the business within which you work. As a manager, trying to make a difference to the culture means understanding those norms.

Think about the elevator example. If you didn’t know that most people face forward, and you entered a crowded elevator and faced the people, instead of the doors, statistically speaking you are currently making a bad impression on some of the people in the elevator, most likely the ones closest to you who no longer have the illusion of personal space because you’re staring right at them. If this is one of the first times you’ve met them, you have a long, rocky road of changing the opinion formed while you’re violating this norm.

Now think about a team that you might work with. It may be the norm in the team that every shouts over everyone else. Waiting for your turn may never come, and be seen as a sign of weakness. This may be a norm you want to change, but if you don’t know about it until several meetings, you’ve already established a pattern of appearing weak. Trying to change the framework—making sure everyone gets a time to speak—would be perceived as stemming from your weakness in the situation where the norm is present, rather than in an enlightened view that everyone would be happier if they could speak their mind without fear of interruption.

Can you always know the norms before you screw up? No. But when you start at a new place, interact with people you’ve never interacted with before, or try to grow communication or interaction with strangers, be aware that norms—subtle and not-so-subtle—are there and need to be looked for.

Once you’ve got a feel of the norms, you can then look at ways of changing them if they are not producing the effect you would like to produce. Alternately, you can look at ways to encourage them if they are producing what you’d like to see.

In the previous example, you may screw up and not talk the first few shouting matches where talking over each other is the norm. But once you figure out what is going on, you can make changes to your behavior—such as joining the throng of shouting voices—a few times before you attempt to change overall behavior. Is it healthy to yell at each other? No. Is it a good idea to come in and make changes without seeming to try to understand how people do their work currently? No.

Some people may see the shouting and think they understand immediately. Some people even do grasp things that quickly. However, the people who have been following the norm for some time cannot comprehend how someone who just entered the situation could understand it so quickly. Some people may feel that you feel you need to do something just because you’re new, and a manager, and in need of proving yourself.

Now, they’re probably not wrong about the proving yourself part. But the application of proving yourself is probably different than what they expect. You need to, at least for a week or two, obey and observe the norms of the group. Try to understand what they get out of following those norms and the behaviors they follow. Instead of just looking at things as “what can I change to make it better” you need to look at them, as well, as, “what are they getting out of doing things this way?”

It seems pretty fundamental, but looking at our example of the people shouting at each other in meetings as a norm, you’re not going to immediately grasp that some people in the group might feel that it produces a good environment for the challenging and developing of new ideas. Or that some people really don’t like to talk in front of groups, and everyone shouting and considering them weak is a small price to pay to doodle or check email during a meeting. Finally, some of the people in the meeting like to feel important, and expressing themselves through this norm allows them to feel that way.

Now that you’ve engaged in the exercise, and come to these conclusions, changing the norm is a matter of providing the good parts of the norm without the norm itself. Schedule shouting matches. Do not invite the people who do not like to shout. Do not attend, nor allow others in a position of authority to attend, these meetings. This will allow those who feel that they get the best ideas out of the situation to continue doing so. It also looks to the rest of the team that you’re not breaking up their norm completely. Finally, it has the added benefit of making the meetings less interesting to the people who were fighting for the sake of fighting—there is no one there to impress in a position of power.

Regular group meetings should next be altered. Explain that, because you have a place to get out controversial ideas, that group meetings are now a place of collaboration. Ask the team to come up with goals for their “new” group meeting. Inject some goals as “suggestions” of your own. Suggestions like a round robin approach to answering questions, where people can say “pass” if they haven’t got anything to add. Going around the table will restrict the amount of time that grandstanders (who were doing this for attention) can grandstand, and encourage people who were otherwise tuned out to speak up. At the very least, they have to pay attention to what they’re actively passing on commenting about.

Finally, meet with the people outside the meetings. The people who like attention, set aside specific time to talk to. Keep their conversations constructive about their work. Praise them as appropriate. Do not use these conversations for negative interactions (you can handle that in a one on one when you also cover the things you liked for the week). Encourage them to come to you when they have things to talk about. In so doing, you’re encouraging them not to dominate meetings by giving them a place where they can still be important, but focused towards their work.

Talk to the quiet ones, who don’t speak up much during meetings. Let them know they can always come to you if they want something or had something to say they didn’t feel comfortable talking about during the meeting. Stop by their desks when you don’t want anything, just to be friendly. Encourage, them, slowly, to come out of their shells first to you (as a safe person) and then to the team, in small, controlled and safe ways.

As you can see, we’ve altered the norm when we’re done. There were a ton of benefits from understanding it, and then using that understanding to alter it.

What if you see some behavior, expressed as a norm in your group, that you like? For example, most of your team deliberately attempts to spend social time together because they enjoy each others’ company so much.

This is a really good thing in a team. People who willingly spend time with each other are less likely to do things that screw each other over. I do say less likely, because not every human understands every other human, and they will occasionally mess up; possibly more than usual, because they spend so much time together. However, because they opt to spend that time together themselves, they tend as a group, to be a lot more forgiving.

When a norm like this develops, there are always folks that are left out of the socializing, even folks within the same group. It may be that they have restricted diets so going out together doesn’t make a lot of sense, or they are new to the group, or have cultural differences…who knows.

In encouraging this norm, you want to make sure to expand it a little. This is hard to do if you’re already IN the norm. If you are one of the people who always gets invited, you may not even notice the folks in the group not being invited. This is why you really need to step back and look for norms in a group. As positive a norm as this is, and you wish to encourage, it still needs to be modified so it doesn’t create a negative affect on those who are not part of it.

This means suggesting that people who don’t normally go get invited, or inviting them yourself. It means changing up the restaurant so the folks with restricted food choices feel comfortable going. It means, as the manager, occasionally arranging company group social events, rather than letting them start organically, in order to keep everyone feeling included, and as if they could be part of the “cool crowd” who goes out together at any time.

The moral of the positive norm story is that, even if a norm is very good for your team, you still need to examine it and make sure its as good as it could be, for the whole team.

This, however, are just a few norms. I challenge you to go to your workplace and identify a norm in operation there. Then ask the following questions of yourself:

1) What is the behavior that everyone finds “normal” that makes up the norm?
· In our elevator example, the behavior is everyone facing forward.

2) What are the people engaged in the behavior trying to get out of the behavior?
· Per the example, if everyone is facing forward, they have the illusion of privacy and boundaries in a small, cramped space they share temporarily.

3) What other behaviors could take place during the norm that might achieve the affect the people are trying to get out of the behavior they are performing?
· In the example, if people tried to space themselves more evenly, it would give even a better feeling of boundaries and privacy.

4) What are the negative things that you notice about the norm?
· In this example, it encourages people not to talk to each other or otherwise to really interact with each other.

5) Are the outcomes of this norm overall positive? Do the positives of the norm outweigh the negatives you notice about the norm?
· In the elevator example, is it better to sacrifice a few moments of polite but potentially awkward interaction with strangers for a calming affect of privacy and personal boundary in a tiny space?

6) If the negatives of the norm outweigh the positives of the norm, how can you alter the norm so that the balance is changed—that the positives outweigh the negatives?
I leave this as an exercise to the reader when thinking about their own examples.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bonus Blog: How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Nothing like a "Sound of Music" reference to get you in the managerial mood.

In a previous post I mentioned one of my favorite managerial axioms: Praise in public, punish in private. I also said I'd get to the "punish in private" part in a later blog post. This is that post.

First, "punish" is kind of a misnomer. One adult punishing another adult in a workplace environment in any other manner beyond passive aggressive is rare. No one wants their manager or co-worker to act like a parent who punishes them, and no one wants their co-worker or manager to be a child that they have to parent. I have a friend who is a pre-school teacher, so, in some ways she is effectively expected to parent during the normal course of her duties, but, by the same token, she doesn't actually consider any of the 3-year-olds her co-workers (or peers).

In a work environment, your co-workers might ACT like 3-year-olds, but parenting is still not the expected or appropriate behavior.

Note, I did call out the "passive aggressive" type of punishment that happens pretty freaking regularly in the workplace. As a manager, I try to stamp that stuff out as fast I see it. Like a wildfire, it can rip apart a functioning organization and cause damage. While the damage is not irreparable, trust broken takes a long time to rebuild.

People behave in a passive aggressive manner (or act out in other ways) because they cannot get their needs met (or what they think their needs are, met), they do not feel comfortable communicating that fact in a direct way, and what they need is to fix their issue. Maybe they are conflict averse, maybe no one hugged them enough as a child...whatever the reason, they're striking out at people with whom they should be bonding. Further, they're doing it covertly.This makes the group in which you operate suddenly not a safe place, which is the death knell of productivity. Here that tense silence? Yeah, that's a cry for help. A team without trust is a team that doesn't do much and isn't very happy.

As a manager, passive aggressive behavior is not really a tool you should ever use. Ever. A lot about your gig--being a project manager, QA manager, developer manager, etc.--is about trust. People trusting your judgment, people believing you will protect and take care of them, people trusting you will kick their asses and get them going as needed...the list goes on. Be passive aggressive and you forfeit the trust you've earned.

So, how do you lay down the hurt on someone who is making waves inside (or outside) your team when you need a behavior correction?

First, let's talk about the standard ways you can punish someone. I mentioned in an earlier post that you have a standard tool kit as a manager, full of carrots and sticks that everyone knows about. Forgetting the carrots a moment, let's talk sticks. You can give someone work that may not be their first preference, you can demote someone, you can (sometimes) dock their pay, you can put them on a "performance" plan (usually the last step before you fire someone) that requires specific goal compliance, and you can fire someone. There are variants of this at most positions based on HR and the HR handbook, but that's a summary of the most common options.

In each of the above cases, you, as the manager, are wielding the stick. If you've ever been corrected by anyone, yourself, the person wielding the stick rarely gets a fair shake from the person being hit by it. Anger clouds judgment. As the stick wielder and not as the person doing the behavior, you usually see a narrower band of what is happening without any context. Even a good manager, attempting to gather such context before laying down the law with his/her stick, rarely gets the story from inside the mind of the person causing the ruckus. In effect, you have lots and lots of room to punish someone without all the facts or mitigating factors, which destroys their trust in you (and may erode trust with the rest of the team) and creates damage in overall group relations.

But what if you have no stick to wield? Maybe this person is managed by someone other than you. You always have the option to talk to their manager, but escalating like that can cause problems that aren't always solved by the escalation.

Assuming we reject the normal manager's toolbox of punishments, how do you punish behavior you don't like/that isn't productive?

First, despite how trippingly "Praise in public, punish in private" trips off the tongue, let's dispense with the word "punish." As we noted earlier, you're not the parent of any person on your team, and as adults we sort of assume that we won't be punished, we'll be talked to like adults. Let's keep that dream alive as managers. So let's call it a correction.

So, let's look at the facts we have on hand; this will dictate how we approach the correction. Is the experience of the problem only your own? If so, as a manager, you can talk to other people about their experiences, good and bad, on the entire team (or interacting with the team where this person is) and ask if everything is ok; you can tell them you've come to understand that there might have been some friction, but do not name names.

This leaves them open to telling you if they are having problems with ANYONE (which is valuable). Sometimes Person A seems like the troublemaker, until you realize that three other people have had issues and Person B was there every time. Then you talk to Person A, and yep, Person B suggested the disruptive behavior.

Now that you anecdotal evidence, you can question these folks, again (if they provided any), and ask if they have any documented instances or additional witnesses to what upset them, so you can fully investigate the matter. Some people are going to clam up, because , in their minds, venting =! getting other people in trouble, and we've clearly moved into the "getting other people in trouble" portion of the discussion. For those people, assurance that you are only gathering information and will not be doing anything to the individual involved until you've talked to him or her will a) make this person feel like they are less likely to be fired/punished out of the blue and b) make them more likely to provide you the information.

Once you've reviewed the witnesses and the evidence, calm the hell down.

Yep. A step in this is "calm down." As a manager, if someone is disturbing your group, a bunch of emotions come into play: everything from "kill the infidel" to "oh my god, I hope the person responsible is ok in their personal life" and many less PG thoughts. You can only provide a correction if you are not emotionally charged. So, go to lunch, take a walk, and/or wait a few hours.

Next, schedule a formal meeting time in a private place with the person involved. If there are more than one persons involved, a separate meeting for each is required, one right after the other and a request not to discuss with each other, if necessary. This assumes one person, which is the most common scenario.

Know what you're going to talk about. Create an agenda for the meeting. It should look something like:

1) There's a problem
2) I think you're part of the problem, and here's why (cite evidence, examples, without using team names, if possible)
3) Please tell me your side of the story
4) Let me repeat your side of the story to you so you can tell I absorbed it
5) Please help me stop the behavior that has caused the problem
6) What are our next steps to doing this/help this situation?

Extra credit: When sitting down to talk to the person, do not talk ACROSS the table. If its your desk, put the chair on the side closest to you, rather than across from you. If its a meeting room, sit next to the person on their side of the table. This is an exercise in "you are not alone, I'm here to help" not "baby did a bad, bad thing."

Follow your agenda. This agenda should work if you manage the person or not. In agenda item 6, you are committing to help solve the problem with the person. Both of you have next steps to follow.

For 60% of troublemaking, this usually works. People don't want to cause waves in the office. Often they don't know they are causing problems. I'll go more in depth on next steps in a later blog, in the event this relatively friendly sit down did not set the stage for success.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bonus Blog Options - Many Masters or What do you do with a problem like Maria?

I have a few ideas kicking around for this week's bonus blog. So I give you, the reader(s) the choice: do you want to hear me talk about having multiple masters--dotted line bosses, bosses of bosses who are very hands on--and being a multiple boss or do you want me to discuss what to do when you need to correct a member of your team/someone you're managing (the unfun half of "Praise in Public, Punish in Private").

Of course, if you have any ideas you'd like me to explore, that's also free game (Assuming they have something to do with management and are not, you know, profane).

Look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Everyone is well aware of how Assumptions can make an ass out of you and me. Typically, then, people tend to think of assumptions as bad things, to be avoided at all costs, often while they're making an assumption about something (like assumptions).

A brick can be a bad thing when it careens into your house through a window. A brick can also be a good thing, when it makes an awesomely cheap but very useful book shelf for some poor college student who wants books off the floor. You cannot assume a brick is a good or a bad thing--its what you're doing with the brick that makes it so.

Assumptions work in the same way, but are more delicate for human beings because a) we're trained to make assumptions in order to process data, b) making an assumption typically involves dropping our primary defense--thinking about something--for a variable we're reasonably certain is equal to what we think it is (but might not be) and c) often times, because of (a), we don't always know we're making an assumption, until it hits us like a brick careening through a window.

There is a lot of social psychology work out there on the formation of assumptions. Traditionally, assumptions happen when we lack additional facts but still need to move forward. Because a decision has been made, we often don't revisit it after we've progressed further to get additional data. That is the intricate flaw in assumptions.

However, if you look at assumptions as variables in a math problem, assumptions can be filled in later--this is because for a math equation to work, you have to do the entire equation; you have to look back at the assumptions made and the variables selected, put in values, and process the thing as a whole. Likewise, with the brick, you may be building a cheap shelf, but you might not see, until half the book case is made, that one of your starting bricks was smaller than the others leading to structural integrity issues.

Speaking of integrity, assumptions and integrity go hand in hand. Its not that the most experienced people make assumptions and, because of their experience, their initial thinking is "good," it's because they go back and review their assumptions to maintain the integrity of a project/problem/personnel issue/whatever. And they do it quite a few times, every time they think of that thing.

In high school and college you sometimes got assigned to group projects. I had a nice diatribe about them an in earlier post, so you're probably wondering: what has this got to do with assumptions? Well, as a manager or a member of a group project, there comes a point when you cannot see the people you are working with. You have to assume they are doing their work. You have to let them take the time they need to put their brand on things, to get out of them their dreams and passions, or at least a really, really good spec. You have to let go, and you have to start with the assumption that people who work with you and for you will actually do their jobs.

Being a good manager, however, is finding a way to have contingencies around that so that if that person does do their job (your assumption is correct), they feel you were supportive and believed in them the entire time. However, you also need to be covered in case one of those people assumed somebody else would do the work, or that you and they wandered off with two different sets of assumptions and ended up with the wrong final product.

This typically happens with a new boss to team relationship; you don't know how you all work together, and you won't until you've had a few successes and you've had a few failures. This also applies to when you're "loaned" to another team or other teams are loaned to you--when you're working with a vendor, for example, who provides you dev resources while you manage a specific project.

So how do you make it work?

I'll talk about over communication in another entry. Sufficing to say, you cannot talk to people enough on your team. And you shouldn't be interrogating them; you should be asking them how things are going. I'll also talk about removing impediments (Yay Agile/Scrum!), in a later blog post, but that's another item that you can use--ask them if they are blocked on anything so you can help them.

Then listen to their responses.

Some people are naturally shy and will do monosyllables. Most people, however, will either at least talk a little about the work they're supposed to be doing and where they are, talk a lot about it, or divert/deflect to a different subject. Those who are monosyllabic and those who divert are those that need your additional attention--those that change your assumption from "this is getting done by these people" to "um, maybe things aren't getting done." As you re-examine that assumption, you can provide other methods of communication in case that person prefers, say, email. But after a day or so of poking around with no solid answers, the assumption can be revised to "I need to do something to make this happen."

As an aside: the verbose, confident sounding people can sometimes be the ones not getting their work done, too, but they're better at hiding it.

If you need to do something to make something happen, what do you do?

It depends on the person. You can always ask what else they're working on; if you get a 10 minute excited discussion, then that's probably why they aren't working on their project for you. If they don't know what else they should be/are working on, you can start to troubleshoot that particular individual: revisit specific guidance on priorities and come up with goals for each day, end of day, to help keep them on track. Some people make the assumption that if they are stuck, they should wait until someone comes and helps them, and this type of touching base can a) make that seem like a really bad idea and b) get them on track for what you'd prefer to be assuming: that they are doing their expected work.

Times do come when people fail to meet your expectations (which, in and of themselves are assumptions of a type), and you have to deal with one of the more unpleasant parts of managing: making corrections. Most of the time, however, you'll find that the reason that people didn't meet your assumptions is not out of laziness or malice, but out of ignorance and/or lack of communication.

Never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by ignorance.

Which leads me to another thought on assumption: one assumption you should always have is that the person with whom you are working is trying to do their best, according to his or her ability. Working with this variable in place in your equations makes it easier to stop a moment and find out what is really blocking things and how you can help them, rather than you feeling disappointed and feeling like you need to punish them. Very, very rarely are people who are being paid to work with and for you actually trying to fail you.

Keep that assumption in mind, and the rest of them are a lot easier to manage when they need to be altered to fit the formula of what must be done.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bonus Blog: Busy People Solutions and Calendar Stalking

You may have heard the phrase, "If you have something that needs doing, give it to a busy person." The theory is that a busy person is busy because they are actually accomplishing things.

In fact, however, having been that busy person, I'm not in any way amused by this saying or the subsequent additional work. Most people do not float down the hallway saying "I'm totally swamped but pile it on!"

Usually, we're looking to offload the extra work to get our proverbial heads above water.

This is why when you're waiting on a response from someone whom you know is overwhelmed, and don't receive the response, it can be frustrating. Oh, you know they're busy. You're busy, too. You really need that info, and they have it.

Many bosses think the best way to get that info is to set up a status meeting once a week (or sometimes once a day) until that data is in your hot little hands. Effectively, they have a ton of work they are buried in, so to get what you need from them, give them more work to do and less time to do it at their desks. This should work perfectly!

Ok. A lot of the time this isn't a horrible idea; people who are perpetually incapable of meeting deadlines without a human hovering benefit from these types of meetings. Most people, however, are annoyed by them. I have 60+ hours of work to do and now I have an extra hour each week sitting at a table with people not doing that work. Theory holds it will provide impetus for them to provide the data required so they can reclaim their time. What the theory doesn't include, however, is that a) you're pissing them off and by ) what else is on that person's priority list.

Typically, people that owe you something have bosses. To their bosses their love be true. Ok, their love of raises and praise, anyway. They have priorities they've approved with their bosses. Your stuff may or may not be on that list. Dragging them to another meeting once a week is annoying, but if their boss hasn't prioritized your stuff for them, they will either a) attend and draw pictures on their notepad for the entire meeting and or/ b) skip your meetings with a refreshing regularity that reminds you of the data you haven't yet gotten from them.

So, you've now figured out that they aren't sending you the data and the meetings are possibly anti-useful in getting the data. What do you do?

Many people would suggest you escalate. Escalation, however, usually casts the person in a bad light. If that person really is doing the bidding of their bosses' priorities, the escalation could explode in your face as their boss takes your boss to task over you pestering their busy employee.

The nice part about escalation, though, is you can do it at any point. So while it doesn't have to be your first option--and is frequently more powerful when it's not--you can try a few other things first.

Ok. Email doesn't work (check). Extra meetings don't work (check). Can't escalate, yet (check). What now?

Well, if you were in that person's shoes, what would you want you to do (and "Go away and never come back" is not a viable option)? You'd want the person who is begging for your time (a valuable resource) to understand why you have not been able to give it. If that work is on your priority list--just not at the top--you'd still want to get it done, but you'd need to communicate that to the person asking you for the data. Finally, you might want some help. I mean, if you're so buried you can't respond to emails and there's this resource hovering around you wanting something from you...well, you're in the perfect position to bargain for some help, right?

As the person doing the begging, you can use your ability to help the person you are begging as another tool to help you get what you need. From a transactional standpoint (see how I cleverly called back to an earlier blog post?), you offer them something, and then you might be able to get what you need in return (or at least get what you need closer to the top of the priority pile). Even, and especially, if you've already done them a good turn, offering to help someone can produce the results you want much more quickly than scheduling a meeting or setting up an escalation. It also makes EVERYONE involved happier.

So you calendar stalk the person--

A brief aside, calendar stalking is where you use their calendar to determine where they are likely to be in the office and then appear there, like a stalker, to get their attention, response, etc. For example, if you know person A is in meeting room 2 until 5 pm, hanging out outside the meeting room at 4:55 makes it a 90% chance you'll get to talk to person A for at least 1-2 minutes (maybe more depending on his/her evening plans). Calendar stalking can even work when people don't open their calendar to you (eg: you don't know what all their meetings are or where they are), because you can still view the gaps in their meeting schedules and then casually wander by their offices during those times to catch them when they might actually be working.

--and you find them in their office or desk (preferably). There you explain that you understand they are VERY busy. Next, you ask them if there is anything you can do to offload their current work to get closer to the info you need from them. You can attend meetings in their stead, review documentation, take them to lunch and let them work on the problem while you're imaginative. Anything is possible.

At this point, either they tell you yes, you can help, or no you cannot. They also can give you an estimate of when the work will be done.

If the answer is "yes", tell them you're sending a confirmation email of your discussion including when they think the work will be done and drop some "Cheerleader Bum Rush" on them--be happy and cheerful and tell them how awesome they are. Then go back to your desk, write up the summary email, and send it to your boss, their boss and them, praising them and telling all parties how you will be helping that person and when you're component will be completed. Include their original estimate of time completion for the task you are waiting on from them. End with additional praise (total Cheerleader Bum Rush here), and submit. Then set your calendar reminder to remind you to poke them half way before their committeemen time, and again on the day the commitment is supposed to be completed. And by "poke" I mean, politely inquire if there is anything else you can do to help them/do they have what they need rather than ask, pointedly, where your stuff is. You want them to like seeing you, not hide when you come around.

If the answer is "no," tell them you really need the data, and therefore you're going to email your boss and their boss and cc them (so they know what you are saying) about your need for the data. Then let them know you're letting their bosses prioritize when it should be done and that you are including the fact that if your info gets prioritized higher than other data on that person's plate, that accommodations will need to be made. Then talk to that person about the highest priority items on their plate and what kind of accommodations would need to be made if your data was prioritized highest for them. Then go back to your desk and send the email with your deadlines and a request to prioritize your item, including the information about additional accommodations that may need to be made for the person whose priority apple cart might suddenly be upturned. Be sure to thank the person in your email about disucssing the issue with you, and end the email with the fact that that person and yourself are awaiting an answer by the higher ups--putting yourself in the group with them makes this a clarification from upper management, rather than an escalation. Additionally, identifying what they need if your priority becomes their priority will make the transition for them to your item easier, and them less likely to be unhappy with you for changing their apple cart's progress in midstream (to mix metaphors shamelessly).

If the outcome of the answer from management is to deprioritize your needs, thank everyone involved and pass the email on to the people with expectations about your project. Plan accordingly for workarounds. If the outcome is to prioritize your needs, thank everyone, offer to help the person (again) and follow up with making sure that person gets the accommodations required to make it easier for your request to the prioritized. Then set a date for response with that person for your data. Create calendar items for the due date and halfway before it, with a reminder to yourself to "poke" them on the topic (politely).

90% of the time, I have found this technique to work with busy people. It also builds transactional credits with them, making them more inclined to help you in the future, while keeping all the important parties informed.

As a person who is the busy, busy, busy one, you can employ this tactic in reverse--get additional work out of someone, praise them and yourself, and build a tighter team by turning "me" into "we." If someone who wants something is engaged and interested in your overall outcome, they are going to be a lot more likely to play nicely with you the next time the two of you cross paths.

After getting something from someone who is incredibly busy--no matter how I got what I wanted--I always do two things. First, I send a message to their boss and my own talking them up. Those emails are frequently saved for review time, and are worth their weight in gold. Also, as noted in my last post, no one ever complains about being thanked too much. Second, I bring them something. Candy or a small toy, or something meaningful to them. An example I have is that a dev here kept trying to tell what temperature it was in his area of the building (always seeming to be 10 degrees colder than the rest of the room), so I bought him a $4 indoor thermometer. It was small, but it proved I was thinking about him, and thinking about his needs, and I like to think that crosses his mind occasionally when he's reaching down to turn on his heater and checks the temperature.

True management, and, to a certain degree, true happiness in the workplace, is spawned by people thinking good things about you, even when you're not around. I strive for that every day (in between picking up apples from my upturned, mid-stream apple cart).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thank People. A Lot. In Public. Seriously.

One of my favorite managerial sounding phrases which has the benefit of actually containing wisdom is “Praise people publicly, punish people privately.” Leaving the punishing part to a later blog post, I’d like to look at the Praise People part.

When was the last time you felt you had been appreciated too much for your hard work and good efforts? If you are like most people who are not delusional, the answer is never.

Empty praise given too often doesn’t hold meaning and many people don’t really know how to “take” a compliment: “Great Job, Johnson,” Um, it was nothing. Really. I didn’t steal anything from the supply room! Some people don’t really know how to give one: “Your code was just like a spider laying its eggs in the center of a perfect web,” Um, thank you?

This is not because those people are self-absorbed jerks, but because singing someone else’s praises brings the risk of attention to yourself (Are you pointing out to someone who makes money decisions that this person is better than you?) and your judgment (What happens the next time this person screws up after you said they were awesome?).

The workplace is where you go to be noticed or invisible and varying degrees in between. Speaking—even talking about someone else positively—can draw attention to people who want to be invisible, while talking positively about someone else can make you less noticed as attention turns to that person.

Add in the fact that, hey, you are being paid to be here, and many people stop even contemplating thanking other people. They get a paycheck, right?

This is not to say that people don’t thank other people in the course of a day; many people do as a matter of civility and habit. Someone holds the door open, you thank them. But what if someone fixes a bug in your code? Unlike the door holding thing, which is not their job, bug fixing is one of their duties. But the reason that thanking people and praising them is important is to avoid one of the greatest sins in any relationship: taking people and the work they do for granted.

Assuming your significant other will have a meal on the table every night for you when you get home without thanking them is likely to involve arsenic or drain cleaner in one of those dinners in the future; they are unlikely to actually kill you, just poison you enough to get you to thank them for taking you to the hospital emergency room.

As someone who cares about you, there are expectations that they will fulfill chores and duties that they’ve assumed, but as anyone who has ever had a relationship with anyone else knows, it’s nice to be appreciated, even and especially for the ordinary things you do.

Thanking people when they do their jobs well is positive reinforcement to continue to their jobs well. Positive reinforcement helps to solidify good behaviors that you like to see in your team and co-workers, and it makes people actually feel good, as well as avoiding any potential poisoning mishaps at home or abroad.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bonus Blog: The Hot Tub Hypothesis

The Hot Tub Hypothesis is a method of contemplating new and valuable resources or options and their cultivation.

First, the Hot Tub Hypothesis: imagine a scenario where everyone wants something awesome and cool (or access to it), but no one wants to maintain or be responsible for said cool thing.

You know, like a hot tub.

Imagine the hot tub. It's bubbling. Maybe it's made of wood. It smells like chlorine. Steam slowly rises off the top of it. It feels sensational on your limbs as the heat relaxes you. When you rise from the tub and towel off before going inside, you don't think twice about the tub, sitting there, bubbling happily. Except, of course, if the tub is yours. Then you might check the chemistry of the water, or verify the heater is turned off before you go in. When you aren't using it--say when it's over 80 degrees outside--you're still having to fish bugs and leaves out of it, or you have to empty it (over the course of a couple of hours), clean it, and then seal it, only to open it and clean it, just before you fill it up and start the whole thing again.

Basically, hot tubs are awesome...if they belong to your friends. Then you can visit that sweet, sweet haven and leave, and not think twice about it. Except you probably ought to, just a little; help your friends wipe up, for example, or turn off the heater for them. They'll still do all the truly ucky maintenance, but you want to stay in their good graces so you can use the hot tub again, so you should probably be willing to do a few "guest" chores, right?

Now, substitute "Hot Tub" for "Valuable inhouse resource" and lose the soothing water metaphor in order to stay out of the realm of HR's telepathy. In most jobs, there are resources--people or devices--that take a ton of upkeep.

You want to think carefully about the new server farm coming in, whether or not your dev team lives with them and loves them, or if you give up some of that awesome control so that the Information Technology specialists at your place of employment are prepared to sweep the bugs, poop, and leaves out of the proverbial project. You can volunteer to do things like monitor the servers during business hours or other tricks or options to make the immediate job of upkeep easier for your IT team, but you may not want to actually OWN the hot tub/server farm.

Thinking about any new resources in terms of both upkeep, maintenance, scheduling, and overall referee abilities (eg: how many people can be in the hot tub at once, who is using it exclusively at which times, etc.) is usually a really good idea when you are a manager. Hoarding all the resources is often a temptation, and does make you important in the way that those spikey things that will puncture your tires if you go backwards over them are important, except without the appropriate respect (I respect pointy things, not necessarily people who act like pointy things). Sometimes, letting go is the best way to truly enjoy a new resource.

However you do it the end lesson is don't romanticize new resources or options if you can avoid it, or you'll end up fishing bird pooh (or it's technological equivalent) out of the hot tub while your friends wait in line to use it. Examine the maintenance, the politics AND the utility of new resources or options as well as the resource or option itself.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Transactional Communication -- What it Means to Me -- By The (Im)Perfect Manager, age 36 and a half

I have had a theory that communication is transactional since my first QA Manager gig. Effectively, people communicate to get something, whether that something is social contact, a trade of goods, vent of emotions, etc. Most people (I know better than to say all), don't just talk to hear their own voices.

A quick Google search shows that Transactional Communication is a) not in Wikipedia (Oh NOES--does it still exist if it's not represented accurately or inaccurately in Wikipedia?) and b) is a phrase associated with a child learning from an adult what conversation is supposed to be like as part of his/her development.

The reason that I use the phrase "Transactional Communication" is that, much like higher math skills elude me, the concept that someone other than the person talking is supposed to get something out of the communication eludes a lot of other well-meaning people. Aside: I can probably be bothered to figure out how tall a tree is from its shadow but if you ask me about the spin on a baseball I'm going to start whistling and pretend I cannot hear you.

This is, again, not to say that all people wander around declaring orders and expecting that they will be obeyed blindly; what it is to say is that people are often mistaken about the transaction in question, or about the way to get what they want to get out of the transaction while still making it possible for the other person to get SOMETHING, too.

For example: IS/IT has moved a development code creation to production. There is silence. Information Services/Technology assumes that you and the devs will know that if they contact you, there is a problem, and that otherwise, all is ok. You and the devs, however, are on pins and needles as there is severe disapproval (tm) in the future if this code change takes down the website.

Setting up a communication plan for releases can relieve this burden and set up the transactional part--where both parties get what they need. In this case, IS/IT learns to let the devs know immediately to let them monitor backend information which, in the long haul, saves them from having to do it and the devs are Johnny on the Spot in case something goes wrong. I could go on at length about release process, but I would bore even myself if I did so. The moral of the tale is that if they know they are getting something, they'll give something. That's a transaction. Communication is how you get to the right set of circumstances that everyone is equally unhappy happy.

Another example: this works when you're a project manager and you need information from a developer; the developer, no matter how gently you tell him his or her feet will not be held to the fire for their estimates, will be hesitant to provide them (even if you've been great about those estimates the last five times you've asked). But, if instead of just ASKING for something in the transaction, you GIVE something to them, and they're more comfortable giving you the estimates. You give them a promise to send them an email indicating that you are not setting these numbers in stone, that they are just preliminary, and that you will cc the people who want your estimates, the developer, and his/her boss on that email. Top that off with something the developer wants--anything from chocolate to an hour or two with a subject matter expert to get through a thorny problem--and all future transactions of the estimate nature will go far more smoothly.

Consciously or not, people are constantly considering these questions in a work place conversation: 1) What am I getting out of this? 2) Is it worth my time I might otherwise be using to do something else? 3) Is this going to get me in trouble if I do/don't pay attention? 4) Am I going to end up with more work/my favorite project taken away? 5) How reliable has this person I'm talking to been in the past?

You need to make answering those questions part of your every day conversations. It won't be seamless at first, but letting people know that working with you, giving you what you need, will not only spare them trouble, but will get them something they need (tangible or intangible) makes the transactional nature of communication work FOR you, instead of haphazardly or against you.

Now I want chocolate.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bonus Blog: Cheerleader Bum Rushing

When I took my first ever customer service job, my trainer was this beautiful older lady named Donna. Donna advised me that no matter how upset the customers got, you got nicer and nicer. "Not," she said, "Just because in customer service you should be nice. But because the nicer you are, the madder they get." Then she grinned with glee. I liked Donna.

Her point was a good one, though; people did not call my supervisor and complain that I was too nice to them. So my general philosophy for dealing with people and projects starts with nice (and typically ends there, too).

Nice, however, is not the only tool in my arsenal. I also have "annoyance." Ok, everyone, from the two year old having a tantrum on the floor to the guy next to you who wants the armrest has annoyance as a tool. My theory is "Don't be annoying unless you have to be." Basically, nice covers a lot of bases all by itself. However, nice + annoying = results.

Storming into the office of the developer who has dodged three meetings with you for information to finalize your release process so you can, you know, release your project, and then yelling at him might make you feel better. But it is unlikely to actually produce the information you're looking for, and he's not really going to respect your wishes about helping you the next time. In fact, the developer might not be very pleased with you at all depending on how creative you are and if you like to use existing or made-up swear words.

Walking into his office when he's there and being nice to him MIGHT get what you want; I like to bring some bribery with my to make things easier...chocolate, beer, Starbuck's card...I'm not proud. I want results.

However, if he takes your niceness and does nothing, well, that's when nice + annoying can help you. Typically after one or two simple "hey, how's going it, will you be showing up at my next meeting?" drop-ins, I only get nicer...and more persistent. I drop an email to the person in question that I can show up every hour as needed to provide any information required to get what I need to get done. And then I do. I am sweet as anything. I don't threaten. I just ask if he/she needs anything and offer candy or whatever. Then I go away. Only to return 45-60 minutes later. Repeat.

I have never met anyone that lasted longer than hour 4.

Now obviously the amount of times you do this, the amount of times between doing this, etc. depends on your relationship with the person in question; I have a PM friend who would bury herself and this was the only way to get her to remember she needed to give me stuff, whereas I've had testers that required 15 minute checks to make sure they were completing something I needed for the next day. Every person and position is different. The trick is to get nice, really, really, maddeningly nice, and to sustain it so that its easier to give me what I want rather than endure me any longer. It is a careful balance, of course, because some people who are onto your tactics may get piqued and just refuse to play ball at all.

At that point, you're moving away from nice, nice + annoying, and into escalation territory. I'll have a post about that later. Sufficing to say, I like to try every variant on nice I can manage before I escalate. Escalation is a land where repairing the damage is much harder than if you never did it in the first place. Use sparingly.

The title of this post comes from one of my "nice" techniques; I did not invent the "Cheerleader Bum Rush" approach, but I use it (as noted above, I'm not proud). It involves a lot of gratitude towards the intended victim, and lots of exclamation points! It also lays out the consequences of failing to achieve an action while you are absolutely certain that this person won't ever let you down! It sounds so happy that cc'ing that person's co-workers and/or boss isn't a blot on their reputation because you are praising them, and ends with the carrot (after the previous stick), that when they finish this thing you know they'll finish with flying colors, then something really good (like canceling a meeting) will happen!

Basically, you become a cheerleader for that person, someone that no excuse or previous lack of performance can destroy the belief of. It gives you an opportunity to bring in higher management because you are praising this person, not getting them in trouble, but it also points out to upper management expectations and when they should be met. Traditionally I use this technique if nice + annoying hasn't worked in the past, or in situations where I enter and I've never been there before, but I have an urgent deadline (such as, for example, the first week on the job when everyone's kicking the new manager's tires). This is a nice alternative to escalation.

This doesn't have to be used as sparingly as actual escalation, and traditionally can be used before trying nice + annoying (which is often a good idea to try to stick with my principle of being annoying only when necessary). People feel so, well, bum rushed by your positive attitude, they comply to avoid having to deflate your opinion of them...and having to deflate that opinion in writing, in front of their boss who is cc'd makes it a lot more palatable to them to just finish what they need to get done and get out with your sincere thanks.