Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Picking Your Battles: Letting things go v. lettings things drop

This may come as a surprise, but you cannot control everything.

I spend a lot of time each day desperately trying to remember that fact.

My weakness aside, a lot of stuff happens in a work day when you're the boss; a million little decisions need to be made, and you make them, sometimes aware of it, and sometimes not. Things are bound to irritate you. Over time, they may, in fact, fill you with wrath.

Rather than turn into a large green copyrighted character with anger management issues, you need to look at something no one ever really discussed with me about management: when to let things go as opposed to letting things drop.

Now, semantically, that sort of sounds the same. "Let it go" and "Drop it" both are things you tell a dog to do who has absconded with your fine silver ladle. For purposes of this article, we're not talking about a Great Dane and expensive silverware, we're looking at the concepts of what your ego can allow to pass over and through you, and what you know is important but is not as important as other things that you can drop.  In the first case, you're letting things go that aren't as important, in the second case, you're holding onto things so important that it's okay to let go of other important things.

Letting things go, of the two, is probably the easiest...when you're not emotionally engaged in the problem. For example: a team you depend on changes the code you depend on from them without telling you for the hundredth time. At this point, you're pretty sure they aren't thinking outside their own box, and it's probably pissing you off that you have to spend thirty minutes with the team figuring out that is actually the problem (and not your teams' recently checked in code), then another twenty minutes to an hour waiting for the folks on their team to get back to their desks from lunch or a meeting to discuss the issue, then another twenty or so minutes proving the problem is on their end, followed by a hasty apology and then code work on the part of both teams to resolve. Upon querying those involved, this is not malicious. Steps put in place to minimize this damage/time taken in this process is working. It's not legal to choke co-workers. 

You have to let it go.

If you can think of other ways to optimize the solution, great, implement them. But if you've done all you can, you cannot control everything...its going to happen again. Take a deep breath. Find a nice pillow. Scream into the pillow. Let it go.

The reason allowing things to drop is so much harder is because you have more of an illusion of control over the situation than you do in the "let it go" situation. Pretend, a moment, that what you're managing are fine china plates (I know, silverware, now plates, my brain is throwing a fancy cocktail party and apparently I'm not invited), and you're juggling those plates. Now imagine that a circumstance has occurred to throw in another, larger, but even more precious plate into your juggling routine--maybe your boss tells you this is "the highest priority!"; or the front end servers have crashed and the team that normally manages them isn't available, so your team is on point; or the freaking president of the company has his car here to test out your service first hand and your team needs to do the best possible job of their lives on changing his oil and rotating his tires. Well, not his, but his car's.

You didn't screw up. You were juggling what you were told to juggle. There's a wiggling voice in the back of your head that says "maybe I can juggle this one, too" while the reasonable voice is shrieking "let something drop before you break EVERYTHING."There's this feeling that, maybe, you can do this, too, when if you were advising a friend about such things you'd be unloading plates from her hand faster than she could grab them back from you because what she's suggesting is insane.

But if you don't have someone to help you balance the load, you are, at least figuratively, going to be dropping some things that, up until the crisis, you thought important. This may break those things--their deadlines will be missed, it will set the team back time as they transition between that item and others, an opportunity to provide information to get better or furhter sales might be lost--but a rational person would look at all the plates in the air and pick the one that you need to let go of, even if it might shatter, so you don't drop and shatter everything else.

This is balance for your team, of course; they have a finite amount they can work in a day or week. But this is also balance for YOU. As a manager, you often feel important because people treat you as an important person. But the reason you are important is because you make the hard decisions and have to stand by them. You make them with input from others (you'd be stupid not to), but you do make those decisions. You choose which plate drops so the other plates can keep being juggled safely.

This is very, very hard to do.

You can cushion the landing of an item you let drop by communicating like a crazy person, so that it comes as no surprise to all involved. You can create contingencies for when to recover from the risks created by dropping that item, and when you can pick it--or whatever it turns into--up again.

But you still have to figuratively have something in your hand that you open your fingers on and watch/hear plummet to the floor.

Letting things go is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to no control force your hand, and letting go of your emotional load related to that issue can make you happier and more capable. Dropping things is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to not control force your hand, but you have to pick which items you're working on suffer because of that interruption...and then let go of the emotional load related to the issue as it plummets so you can be happier and more capable.

Once you recognize these are things you will have to do--that you will disappoint someone (even and often yourself), you no longer have two brutal things happening to you at any time...you have two, brutal options to use to help make you and your team more effective.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Be Present in Your Managing

That sounds very Zen, and could mean anything. I'm going to try to extrapolate around the concept, though, so hang in for some meandering.

On a side note (see, meandering!), I've always believed the sound of one hand clapping was a slap in the face.

A slap in the face is pretty direct; the ripples from that are, literally, on the skin of the person being slapped and on your slapping implement of choice (I'm a open-hand slapper, and typically only slap people who get fresh with me).  Immediate repercussions are that the person being slapped doesn't think the Zen koan answer is very funny, and are likely to be pretty upset as a series of hormones are released into their system causing them to want to fight or flight. In the immediate span after that, you might get slapped back (no joke at all this time), or worse, depending on how healthy their fight reflex is. The less immediate ripples include the potential for broken friendships, explanations to management, HR involvement, police involvement (technically it's assault)...the list goes on.

So, what I mean is, be aware of the ripples your behavior creates. The above example is very easy to anticipate and think through (although when people typically resort to any kind of violence they aren't well known for thinking things through). But after some distance, you can look down the road and see that HR, police, or managerial visit coming (or trip to the marriage counselor, or return with lots of strong men to beat the guy up who earned the slap), etc.

A less obvious example is what ripples come out of you dealing with someone who does really good work and does that work really fast. You praise them. You appreciate them. You might even take them to lunch. But you're also going to give them more work and responsibility. Their reward for working harder and faster than everyone else is getting harder work and more of it. Not everyone finds that as rewarding as the verbal praise or the lunch out (unless you're buying them lunch every day). To help control the ripples, to reduce the radius, to keep that person happy and coming back for more, you have to think about what their good work means to you, and to your group, and then think about how to tell them that getting more work exposes them to more people, increases their chances of promotion and bonus, etc. You can stop after you've thrown the rock in the water; you need to cup your hands around the pool and help the ripples go where they suit everyone best; funneling towards improving that employees lot in life at the office. People will work hard for you because they like you, but they stop liking you so much when you don't think ahead to what they get out of working hard for you, besides you liking them back. You can stop ripples by having your employees' backs, being visible about it, and by showing them how their contributions are not only helping you, your team, and your company, but also helping them.

Another ripple example is all about you.  Everyone knows that when the manager changes behavior drastically SOMETHING is coming. Well, they all know that, but as the manager you may know that you slept funny last night and there's a hitch in your back so you're moving slower and sort of limping (newsflash: getting old sucks). A team newly forming or a tight knit group--it doesn't matter the state of the team--will be affected by the affect of the manager. Can't get too high, can't go too low, and you need to be reassuring. I find jokes work pretty well, and, when I don't feel like laughing, I hand out candy. Since I do that a lot when I am happy, they really don't know the difference, and never should: even if the whole team is being laid off tomorrow, there's no sense in their agonizing about it today.

This also goes for professional relationships, as the boss. For example, you can't not like anyone who works for you when you're the boss, even, and especially, if you really don't like someone. The team will notice you don't like a member. Factions will form--those who think its unfair you don't like that person, those who stand by you, those who don't want to be involved with the conflict, even though there actually isn't any conflict. People are not stupid, and, hopefully especially not the people who work for you. So, if you dislike someone or are unhappy with them, even if you're undergoing a performance plan with someone, no one should see you being down on that person. You should highlight them like you do all your employees. Greet them, small talk with them. Be human. It goes a long way towards reducing ripples that might otherwise overturn your work boat.

Finally, employees themselves can cause ripples; a divorce at home, a custody battle, a death in the family, a health issue...any and all these things (and more) could cause difference in behavior from what the team is used to. Many of them are in fact, NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, or that of the team to manage or untangle. But their behavior will create ripples that you will have to deal with. In this situation, talking to them, but not demanding they talk to you, is best. Explain the ripples, offer yourself, HR or any options the workplace may have as support (legal services, counseling, time off, etc.); when they begin to act out, change the subject and pull them aside to give them time to calm down. Each situation is different, but each employee can and will create ripples, and may or may not be in the head space to understand the repercussions of what they are doing.

In our daily lives we don't think about repercussions constantly; some people would never get into a car and drive if they really looked at vehicle accident statistics. As a manager, you need to set some time aside each week to look at yourself, at the team, at what is going on, and look for those ripples; you can trace them back to the source and reduce any additional damage if you take time to be present in your managing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Not to Make Other People Uncomfortable (Unless for some reason you want to)

In previous posts I've talked about some traumatizing stuff that has happened or I've had to deal with when I was an employee and as a manager. Today we're going to discuss how avoid that happening to you, or at least look at some basic guidelines on how not to creep other people out. In the blogosphere as a whole, there is a lot of discussion about Creepers; people creep other people out without actually recognizing, or in some rare cases, caring, that they are doing so.

As an employee, but especially as a manager, you are in hot water for even the appearance of creeping--perception is reality in the workplace. If any of your employees might be guilty of creepy behavior, or creeping, as a manager you get the extra special bonus of being liable for the discomfort their behavior may create.

What is Creeping? 
  • Creeping is making someone or someones who are not you uncomfortable with your presence and/or behavior. 
  • Creeping can be malicious, but is most often inadvertent--this is to say, the person being creepy may not understand he/she is being creepy. 
  • Creeping can be passive as well as active; its based on how a third party feels, not on how the creeper feels or what the creeper is doing. 
  • Creeping is subjective to those being creeped out. 
  • Creeping IS the problem of the person doing the creeping AND his/her manager, even if the perception of the issue is that the person in question isn't doing anything wrong. This is because, in the work place, expected duties include keeping everyone with whom you work and interact comfortable being in the work place, which falls on each individual to maintain for the group. 
  • Creeping can seem unfair; a person accused of creepy behavior might just be occasionally looking at the person who is complaining of being creeped out. A person accused of creeping may have committed one act that made someone uncomfortable by accident and never do it again, but keep the creeper title and have it communicated by others within the group that felt targeted by the behavior. 
  • Creeping can create a hostile work environment. 
Be Proactive about monitoring/preventing potential uncomfortable behavior:
  1. Know your team. Understand team dynamics. When a team is being formed, uncomfortable and awkward situations can arise as people determine the power structure within the group. These transitions need to be supervised and employees protected from feeling slighted or frightened. Employees who might be creeping others out specifically to achieve a particular position should be dealt with on an as-needed basis; the only common feature should be that they are denied whatever they attempted to achieve through creeping, and going to everything from informal conversation to formal reprimand (or worse) as the situation merits. 
  2. Do not expect that only women will be creeped out by men. While a large percentage of this type of issue occurs when a male colleague creeps out a female colleague, females may end up creepers to other females, males to other males, and females may creep out their male colleagues. 
  3. Creeping behaviors can seem very benign when they are not targeted at you.  Take any suggestion of uncomfortability by other employees very seriously. Initially talk to the person who feels uncomfortable to discuss what aspects make him or her uncomfortable. In talking to someone, you may encounter associated memories to that type of situation of which they are really uncomfortable, and not necessarily another employee. However, you might find that something you find normal or the person doing it finds normal to be culturally or personally inappropriate for the person complaining. The complaint should be taken seriously. Too often creeper behavior--in business and outside of it, say in a group of friends--is brushed aside; this can give the message to the creeper the behavior is okay, which you have someone literally telling you, that it is not. 
  4. Unlike may inner-office conflicts, being the victim of creeping makes it very hard to approach the creeper and ask for change. I often encourage my employees at conflict to talk to each other before they come to me, or to come to me together with my presence ensuring a fair discussion. However, when someone is that uncomfortable, its very difficult for them to communicate it to the source of their discomfort; they may be worried of embarrassing that person, making too big a "deal" out of things and losing support from other co-workers, worried that they may be considered "oversensitive" or have other fears triggered by a co-worker being told he/she is acting creepy and then them having a natural defensive response.  Where possible, men or women who are feeling uncomfortable should be asked to stand up for themselves as soon as the behavior starts; however, if they are unable to, accept that, as a manager or fellow co-worker, you may need to do so for them.
  5. Creeping needs to be stopped as it happens. Typically I recommend praising in public and punishing in private; however, if someone is creeping and someone else is uncomfortable, it needs to stop right then. This could be you removing the creeper from the situation and explaining it, or it could be just telling them to stop whatever behavior is triggering the issue. It can be as distinct as "Cut that out, John, it's creepy," to "John, why don't you and I change chairs so I can sit closer to Jane?" depending on how low key you need/want to keep the interchange. Whatever is done should be done immediately, however. Allowing inappropriate behavior while you are right there is effectively tacit approval
Recommendations to Creepers/People accused of Creeping that you can offer:
  • No touching other people.
  • Increase personal space boundaries around yourself and others (most people like 2-3 feet); always leave enough space someone can walk around you without touching you.
  • When people excuse themselves and leave, let them go away
  • Stop telling jokes for a while - work with the manager on what is, and is not funny
  • Don't stare at people
  • Test out any new tactics/behaviors to reduce creeping on you--the manager--before moving forward with any co-workers.