Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Screw Ups Happen: Temper, Temper

This is really part one in a series of "Screw Ups Happen." Today's episode is dealing with your temper and the team.

The Set Up: You missed breakfast, overslept, slammed your foot into the coffee table on the way out, ran into stupid drivers on the street, got a flat, got into work late, and were confronted with some serious idiocy by your team. You lost it.

(Image courtesy of public domain at Zorger.com)

Maybe you're a yeller. Maybe you're a "I'm disappointed in you" type of person. Maybe you're a snarky and sarcastic chainsaw. Whatever your chosen method of taking out your personal unhappiness on other people, you did it today, and it was either not deserved or a serious overreaction.

Having followed my blog this far, one would assume that you don't randomly make people feel bad, as I've pretty much covered how that's counterproductive to managing people. But, as the title of the post states: Screw Ups Happen.

The Affect:

So now you have a team that is literally avoiding eye contact. Some folks are angry at you, either for their own treatment or because they thought your treatment of others was unfair. Others are scared--this is not like you. Their brains will start putting together scenarios you can't even imagine, with the common theme that "something bad" is going to happen to them or the team. Worse, some people are going to internalize your bad morning and think that, even for a brief moment, they are bad people.

Managing This:

This damage is done. There's no going back. Running back to folks and telling them "it's ok" isn't going to cut it. An apology is required; or rather, two. The first is to the people on whom you lost it, in private. No excuses, you should never have talked to them that way, and its all on you. No matter how bad the problem or mistake they ever make, you should never take it out on them like that, and apologize and ask if its possible they accept your apology. Offer them options so that if they can't accept right now, there are things you can do or touch base with them on in the future to try and rectify that trust that you've been building over months but which you just basically took a hacksaw to (my sentence construction here is sucky, I admit that, and I hope you'll accept my apology).

The second apology is to the team. In your next team meeting, which, if it isn't that day, make one that day, call 'em all in and tell them what happened. You can talk about the attack of your killer coffee table and the conspiracy of your alarm clock to prevent your waking, and the overall stupidity of people driving. Make 'em sympathize and, if you can, laugh. Then tell them, soberly, that while those are context for what happened, those are no excuses for what happened today. Then a apologize to the team as whole (not the individuals involved that you already apologized too, as they are likely to feel self-concious or confused if they have already accepted your apology). Tell them they are important to you, and their trust is very important, and that you will work hard not to have a lapse like that again. Explain everyone has lapses, but the trick is not to have too many, and to try never to have the same mistake happen twice (if you can help it). End with the fact that anyone can talk to you at any time about the behavior you express if they are concerned or scared or upset, and that you recommend they wait until you're a little calmer to do it, but that you will not punish anyone for asking you to treat them how they'd like to be treated.

Note, these things will not automatically fix and repair the relationships you thrashed. But it will provide the structure on which new trust can grow and build.

If you find that this is happening more often than random chance would dictate, you might want to talk to someone about your potential anger issues. Anger is a useful emotion--it can get a lot of work done and help you survive some pretty horrible experiences...but those experiences are typically not the kind you find in a healthy work environment. So you need to talk to someone about evaluating both you and what's going on in your life, and your workplace.

In order to provide a safe, trusting place for your team, you need to feel safe and to feel trust as well, and this type of outburst can be a warning sign to which you must pay attention.

Usually, however, these incidents just occasionally happen because you are human. We get aggravated sometimes and behave irrationally. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, make it as right as you can, and remember it the next time a member of your team goes ballistic for what looks like no reason.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Be Prepared to Stand Up For People, Especially People Who Have Done Really Stupid Things

As boss, your job is to cushion the blow that comes to your team from outside it (no matter how richly that blow is deserved). This means standing up for people who've done dumb things, and taking responsibility for the dumb things that were done. As the Manager, the team is your responsibility, and anything stupid any particular member does is also your responsibility.

Your team should feel that you will watch out for them, and give them room to make mistakes. This is also the same charitable spirit that will make you fly like an eagle when they have successes. The flip side is that when they screw up, you feel that screw up rather intimately, too.

You can talk to those people, but I recommend not coming to them right after you've been berated with their issues (I have a whole blog post on not talking to people when you're cranky).

Instead, I recommend the following:

1) Get all the facts. The person coming down on you like a ton of bricks who would prefer to come down on your employee like a ton of bricks may not be at his or her most rational. Get the details and then tell them that you'll handle it and get back to them, and send them away from your team. Next, investigate. Before going directly to the person or persons involved, talk to people tertiary to the event and try to get an impersonal view of what happened. This may mean interviewing people, it may mean reading log files, whatever, do it.

2) Send an email to the appropriate folks after the first step in your investigation. Your boss, the person or persons who are upset and their bosses, as needed. Let them know you are investigating and what progress you've made so far, and that you will be following up by interviewing those involved. Be polite, be professional, and admit nothing about the allegations other than your true concern to alleviate the distress of the parties involved. If this springs up several more emails, this really only makes the distressed party look bad, and, to a certain degree, takes some heat off of whatever the stupid thing was. It may also reveal additional details for your investigation...people tell their bosses things that they don't tell other people and you might find additional witnesses or locations for facts, or even facts themselves in the subsequent email thread.

3) Track down any additional resources garnered and collect the data.

4) For issues that involve more than one person, interview each of them individually.

5) Ask the person to describe what they thought happened and what they were thinking when it happened. Get details from them about additional witnesses and information, and check their stories against the data you've already got; I don't mean "but X said the exact opposite, what do you say now?" prisoner-of-war interrogation, I mean, "X remembers it this way, any idea why?" You are that person's manager and you are, therefore, on their side. They should know that. They should also know that whatever hell they've rained down will also be raining on you, so you need the facts.

6) Once you've got the facts from your interview, collect more data from the clues you received from directly speaking with these folks.

7) Set up a meeting with the person or persons in questions who did the stupid thing and go over what you've found out with them. Explain why the choices might not have been the best, and ask how they could make better choices next time. Ask them for any additional input on the process before you turn over your results to the parties in question. Ask them if they can think of any relief that might please the parties who were aggravated and write their suggestions down.

8) Follow up with your boss, the person(s) affected, and their bosses. Give the details of your investigation as devoid of emotion as possible. Explain the learnings from the issue and the steps being taken to allay the issues resulting. Be clear that you are handling any additional recrimination/punishment for your team yourself, and thank them all for their patience. I recommend concluding via email; if you get additional emails, just keep politely explaining it's been dealt with and thank them for their involvement and honesty.

9) Talk to the members of your team who have screwed up and put in place a plan to avoid the same kind of screw up in the future. If they feel they deserve it, give them a duty that no one really likes to make up for it, and then, END THE DISCUSSION. The incident never needs to be spoken of again. They're adults. You are an adult. They've learned what they can. Let everyone move on.

A brief aside here--this doesn't mean you don't go over with that person that this was bad and you didn't enjoy getting in trouble for their mess. But it does mean that this is not the central theme on which you're working. You are a part of a team, this is the part you accepted when you accepted being their manager, and the results you want are the situation resolved, never to come up again, not to vent your anger (as fun as that sometimes sounds when you're in the middle of something like this).

It's your job as a manager to help people recover from and learn from their mistakes, not to make them afraid to try new things for fear of making mistakes. Its also your job to protect them from people who are emotionally charged on the issue--even, and especially, if your team is responsible for the issue, those people go to you, not your team. Its your job to shelter them from the rain and to lift them up into the sunshine, and to help them know the difference so they can improve themselves, the team, and the overall project.

If, for some reason, you, yourself are agitated by this whole business, you are welcome to communicate that before the close of things, but it is not ever to be the central theme. Finding and fixing the problem, and then making sure it never happens again are the take-aways. Not venting your frustration. Your team needs to trust you, and the quickest way to erode that trust is to let emotions get in the way of productive work.

Your team will learn and they will respect you for protecting them from the fall out. They only want to be treated fairly and they will do good work. There are always the occasional bad apples, and, of course, you'll have to deal with them over time. But when you look at your team you need to know that they are going to screw up, but, they are a team of people that you are happy to support in their screw ups because they will learn from it and get better as a team because of it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Controlling Inappropriate Behavior In Your Group

Alternately, this could be titled "The Day My Team Decided to Play (Very Loud) and Sing Along with 'Sit On My Face and Tell Me That You Love Me,' By Monty Python."

So, I'm sitting at my desk against the wall and working on a backlog. The team has quietly gathered across the area from me at a desk that faces the main room of the building, right next to the break room. Then I hear it; the first strains of Monty Python's "Sit on my face and tell me that you love me." I spin around and see the entire group present that day--around 8 of them--gathered around my lead dev's desk watching the video I linked to above in full sight of the rest of the building, and at blaring levels that HR on the second floor might have trouble missing.

I think I teleported.

Suddenly I was right there, hand on the mouse, closing the browser and being booed by my team. "But, Lori," they said, "It's funny, and it's team building. You always want us to do fun things together as well as work together."

Yes, I respond, but I don't want any of us to get FIRED for doing things. I'm persnickety that way.

Rather than call a meeting later for the entire team on why songs about sexual positions are a bad idea in the office, I gathered those present around me further from the break room and, despite the fact I have all kinds of advice about how not to punish people publicly and to be gently with your people, tore them all new orifices in a quiet, professional tone that brooked no further discussion. I told them they were, other than this one incident indicated, adults, and that as adults they had the opportunity to share these types of things privately and, especially, outside the office, but not on office time and in full view of other folks in the office who might be offended enough to get us all fired. At first, because I rarely blow up at anyone, they thought I wasn't particularly serious. That changed in about thirty seconds. They all agreed not to play songs relating to body parts nor watch videos with naked human butts in the office, and I got some apologies right then and there.

And then I NEVER said anything about it again (well, until now. It is a funny story in retrospect. At the time I was just seeing my professional life pass before my eyes).

Most people see that type of incident as the primary way to control a team, btw; the leader of the team comes down like a ton of bricks and then the team complies and everyone moves on their merry way. I, however, see it as an exception to my general rules, and know that the only reason it was effective at all, was because this is not how I normally do business.

As a manager--well, as a human being if you want to extrapolate--you always have two options: direct and aggressive or indirect and a little passive. Whenever you reach for aggressive first, you immediately remove the other option from the table; you can't shout at someone and demand things of them and then become sweet and suggest they do the thing you just shouted about. Well, you can, but they'll probably think you're nuts and it won't be very effective.

This is why I always try the indirect, almost passive approach first; I build a team that agrees to its own standards and goals. Then, when something goes awry, I point out to the team that something has violated their goals or standards. Then the team, typically, steps forward and does the correcting. They feel empowered. They feel responsible. They are invested in doing things the right way.

Every once in a while, this does not work. Group Think, a topic I will explore further in a later post, is "a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints." Sometimes, you can get a team so cohesive that they have trouble looking outside their boundaries for critical thinking, and then you get Monty Python.

In these cases, having reserved the aggressive option, you may now use it. The team is not used to you being aggressive, but they trust you (as you are part of the team as well as its leader), and they do what you ask. They may do it grudgingly and with grumbling, but they will do it. Eventually they'll evaluate it and come back to talk to you or others on the team about the "fairness" and "appropriateness" of the behavior, and that's where my overall management technique of managing by being nice, reasonable, and kind wherever you can causes this natural bubbling of resentment to settle down, become accepted and send the group back to its own norms.

Managing by telling people what to do all the time...that's just exhausting. You won't be everywhere they could do something inappropriate, and if they aren't invested in the group, but just soldiers to your constant barking, they're not going to have the tools to manage inappropriate behavior (or heck, their jobs) when you're not around. Overall resentment, as well, may DRIVE them towards the behavior you dislike. On the whole, reserve strong arming the team for moments when you are seriously worried for them--in my case, if an HR person had come down and see the bare derrieres of John Cleese, Eric Idle, et all and listening to the song, some of them might have had to pack up their stuff and be terminated.

Being a manager is being a friend, a resource, a confidant, and a hard ass. By building a team that self regulates behavior, you as the manager don't have to take those roles--people will come to you when they need them (even hard ass--seriously, some people know when they need a good butt kicking). But never forget that you are their manager; you're here to help them and your team succeed, and sometimes the way to do that is to be the hard ass, but most of the time it's to be a leader that lets the team set boundaries and be productive.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Musings in Meetings: What do do when you're not running the meeting (and you're bored...)

It happens to everyone. You get invited to a meeting of at least one hour length (sometimes more). You're there in case something drops about which you or your team need to be informed. Pretty soon you're doodling and all you can hear from the other participants is the sound that Charlie Brown's parents make when they talk.

Then one of two things happens: 1) you leave the meeting wondering what you missed or 2) you get called on and have to recollect what was said and formulate an answer as if you've been paying attention the entire time (even if there really wasn't much to be paying attention to).

Both can be bad in immediate and non-immediate ways.

So, this week's blog is about making other people's meetings actually useful, to both you and (maybe) the other participants) without taking over and making an ass out of yourself (hopefully--I can only do so much with the printed word).

1) Before the meeting, contact the person organizing the meeting and ask the following questions: a) What, specifically, do you need me (or a member of my team) for in this meeting? b) Is there an agenda for the meeting, and if not, could we have one, and, if so, can you send it? c) Is there anything I can do to help prep for the meeting--for example, provide data to back up assertions you'll be making or do some other kind of homework, in advance, that I might be called on for during the meeting?

Some people do not respond well to being asked any questions. Some actually actively hate agendas, and some are actually planning on springing something on you when you enter the meeting for whatever reason. Be diplomatic. When you get their replies, if there isn't sufficient substance for the meeting, go to them in person and chat about it and what you two can do together to get that substance. If you don't really need to be in the meeting, reply and let them know that and just ask for an update after the meeting is over. If they are hesitant to tell you your part in the meeting then it could be that a) yep, they're gonna spring something on you, b) they're not really sure and feel safe with you coming or c) its possibly a surprise birthday party or something. Read the response carefully and reserve judgment.

2) Prep for the meeting. You want to arrive at the meeting with something work related done. If you know what the meeting is about and/or have an agenda, bring materials with you (printed out or on your computer) for reference on the topic. Don't take forever on a vague meeting, but have some materials present with you so that if you are called on, you have something to reference. If it's a surprise sort of political manuever, you can shuffle your papers and state you thought you were talking about X subject and will get back to them about Y (rather than seeming flatfooted on the Y issue). And, if it's a party, enjoy the cake and use the papers to prevent mess on the table.

3) Bring something work related to do to the meeting. I like to grab all the notes I've made for myself and clean the up/put them in a list by writing in a notebook during the meeting (typing on the keyboard is still considered somewhat rude, so try to avoid bringing any work that requires that). Having something work related to do makes it hard to completely block out what else is going on, so you're prepared in case you are asked a question or hear a point to which you might need to respond. Also, it looks a ton more professional than drawing daisies on the margins (which is typically what happens to me when I get bored).

4) Don't be afraid to drag the meeting, kicking and screaming, back to the point. Your time is just as valuable as anyone else at the table. If they're off discussing Johnson's vacation or planning the product release of a product not being discussed in this meeting, politely asking if that can be handled "offline" is ok. Don't do this too often (no one likes bossiness from someone who hasn't organized the meeting), but you are allowed to get back to the point at hand, and encouraged to do so. Note: if the group, by majority, deems the topic that they're off on a tangent regarding is more valuable for the meeting time than the original topic, by all means, let them go. Just don't be afraid to excuse yourself if you aren't related to that material and thank them all for their time.

5) People watch. You can learn a lot about things by watching the expressions on the faces of your co-workers. People, especially bored people, let their guards down and you'll see every eye roll. If the person who is talking even seems bored, you can interrupt with useful, pertinent questions and direct the conversation to something that is more meaningful and considerably less boring for all involved. If the big boss is listening intently, you know to pay attention, as well, whereas if he's playing on his phone you can grasp this particular project may not be as important as whatever else is going on. You learn a lot from just watching people, and if you're going to be trapped in a room with them, learn as much as you can.

6) Encourage the meeting owner to moderate. This one is shaky ground, btw. Telling someone else how to run their own meeting can be fighting words in any organization. However, if two people have been dominating the meeting with opposing viewpoints, stalling out further progress, support of the meeting owner and a request for their valuable opinion can help that person get you guys back on track. Think about what you're going to say very carefully, and if you'd hate someone on the spot for saying it while you're running a meeting, don't say it.

7) When all else fails, ask for a summary. Seriously. You can do everything (professional) you can and its not going to get anymore exciting or relevant (you can always be unprofessional and hire clowns or something, but I don't really recommend that). Before the meeting breaks up, ask the owner of the meeting to send a summary with action items to everyone, please, for your notes. At least that way you won't feel like you missed anything really important while zoning out.

Meetings are a fact of corporate life; they don't have to so boring that you wish for sweet death.