It’s his job

Perhaps it is. But does he know it? Have you told him? In teamwork, as in marriage, implicit expectations create tension that’s bound to explode at some point. Disarming that bomb is as easy as saying “could you?”

Some jobs have tighter-defined responsibilities than others. Across the spectrum of employment that’s obvious—if you’re, say, a train driver your job is to safely steer a few thousand tons of steel, carrying a few hundred human lives to their desired destinations. If you’re an artist, there’s much less specificity.

Even within the IT industry there are vast differences in job descriptions. A DBA is tasked with maintaining dabatase servers, often including developing data models and optimizing queries for efficiency. For a developer, things get a bit more blurry, being expected not just to write code, but these days often also setting up server infrastructure, configuring deployments, monitoring service health and, perhaps hardest of all, understanding and catering for user needs.

Then there are the managers, whose job descriptions are becoming increasingly confusing. Ensuring timely delivery, supervising quality, motivating their reports and caring for their career development. Everybody nods their heads in agreement on those, but what do these mean in practice?

In the (inherent) absence of specifics in one’s listing of responsibilities, both the manager in question as well as everyone around them will develop their own image of what these should be. In particular, their reports will have varying expectations. Some will want them to be a communications bridge, others will prefer communicating directly. Some will want vision and guidance, others will want to have their own say. (I’m singling out managers here because of the evidence of the problem here, but the same concerns every job with a blurry description.)

The issue? Nobody tells them! The manager have their own view on responsibilities, obviously, and will execute against those. (Plus there are the manager’s managers to cater for.) They will, regretably, often not sit down for a frank conversation with their team to talk out what everybody’s role is. The result is frustration buildup. Reports holding watercooler conversations, complaining about their manager not leading this, not reacting to that, not talking to someone, etc. And they won’t tell the manager because they feel it’s inappropriate or for fear of retaliation.

I made a sport of calling out these situations. My lovely wife had thaught me from the outset of our relationship that if either of us wants the other to do (or not to do) something, we better voice it. Otherwise it’ll pile up over time, explode at the least opportune moment, causing irreparable damage.

It’s the same at work.

Take your manager out for coffee (if it’s your first time, the setting should help loosen up everybody), then tell them: “Bob/Kathleen, could you ask our CTO for help with resolving the issue we’re having with this vendor? Could you tell me how you see our priorities for the next three months?” No “I expect you…”, “it’s your job to…” crap. Just a human to human request—firm, direct, but very much considerate. You’ll be well on your way to deflating the baloon of unmet expectations that would’ve blown you both away when (not “if”) it popped.

Respectfully rejected

“I’m sure somebody will get in touch with you”, sneered the Google developer, closing a phone interview I went through years ago. By then I knew I wouldn’t get the job, but these words and their tone convinced me that I shouldn’t try again for years to come. The way in which a company rejects job candidates speaks tomes about its culture.

Google was merely one of many similar experiences. I once called up a company to ask for my interview’s results, having received no answer. The lady I connected with looked up my application and replied, “oh, says here you know too little about the software development process”. Thanks for telling me.

Rejection happens to the best of us. History knows countless cases where individuals were sent away as unfit for a job, then built exceptional success elsewhere. Without much digging:

Peanuts: Nobody likes me

It’s tempting to think of a candidate who didn’t pass the interview as just not smart or talented enough. That’s almost always bollocks. It’s much more likely that the person you just met either

  1. didn’t work long enough with the domain you interviewed for; or
  2. doesn’t have the right profile – character or set of talents.

That means the same person might become a very good match later on, when he or she gains more experience (1), or a different position opens up, calling for their unique skills (2). Besides, in the rapidly shifting world of business, one day you could again be meeting that same person, and this time you’ll be the one answering questions.

Leaving candidates with a bad memory of the recruitment process is therefore ludicrous, and great companies, like Fog Creek Software, know it:

Recruiting is a series of delicate communications. It’s about managing a candidate’s experience and expectations throughout the interview process. It’s marketing and PR: everyone you talk to leaves with an impression of the company. A recruiter creates the company’s brand, and, if done right, leaves a candidate still wanting to work for you even after they’ve been rejected. [emphasis mine]

Liz Hall, Lights, Camera, Offer!, Fog Creek Software

It’s really very simple, though admittedly not easy. Every candidate should receive

  • honesty – a full evaluation of their interview, time permitting;
  • constructiveness – advice on how they may improve to become ready for the position they applied for; and
  • positivity – all of the above in a friendly, respective manner.

Such experiences provide answers to the often unsaid questions every promising candidate will have: Will I be given freedom to fail and the support to learn from it? How will I be told when I err and how I can correct my ways? Is this a place where I can grow?

Yours may a company that does all that for employees, but you have to make sure it shows just as vividly in your interviews, especially those where someone gets rejected.

People remember. Negative experiences remain in memory much sharper than positive ones, and every rejection by nature is negative already. Don’t make it worse. You want people to see your company as a great place that just may not have been fitting at the time:

The title is all there is

I was invited once to speak at a Toastmasters Leadership Institute, about the Leadership Track of the organization’s educational program. I crafted a short title:

The Leader In You

designed to arouse curiosity, while a short companion abstract provided information on what the actual content was. Happy with the result, I went over to the event only to realize, that the nifty abstract had been stripped, and the only thing printed in agendas was the title.

Of course the title alone was meaningless. It was never meant to work without the abstract. It wouldn’t have attracted even myself to attend. Luckily, lots of people did show up for my session, but the lesson stuck.

For a later appearance, at Tech Open Air Berlin, I still delivered a nice abstract, but this time made sure the title was sufficient:

Weapon of Mass Attraction: Public Speaking

Predictably, during the event, the only piece of information attendees saw were the titles. But that was all I needed.

Not everyone knows what they’re talking about

I can’t watch presentations anymore. Having been an active Toastmaster for some time, I notice all the speakers’ mistakes. The “uhm” sounds, the non-purposeful fidgeting, the illogical sequence of ideas, the obsolete information. I can barely hear what the speaker is saying.

A layperson watching the same presentation might notice that something’s wrong with it. It’s boring or just not resonating. But they can’t really put their finger on it. Once I explain: “he mixed up presenting an abstract concept with giving concrete advice” they go “ah!”, and confirm “you nailed it!”

Switch to a company doing an employee satisfaction survey. Its results are miserable, so the participants are asked to work out concrete recommendations for what should change. Ask that question separately to line employees and to managers and you’ll get distinctly different answers. Worlds apart.

The employees will tell you all kinds of things, that could be jointly labeled as: more money. Not necessarily in monetary form. The managers will come back with flowed processes, working conditions, credibility, vision, communication flaws, and lastly perhaps compensation, but only as one of many factors.

It’s not that the first group is dumb or greedy. It’s that they cannot really put their finger on what they feel is a problem. Perception takes training, and training takes time and appetite for learning. Not everybody wants to think broadly.

When you set out to improve morale, by all means do include all of the affected employees in the conversation, but:

  • drill down past the first answers (symptoms) to the root cause of issues, don’t just take requests and throw some money at them,
  • explain how the results fit into the broader picture of work, taking the time to educate the people you work with.

It’s democracy with a healthy dose of moderation.

A side effect of such surveys could be discoveries of talent. An employee who speaks, demonstrating an understanding of the broader context, is a good candidate to develop and promote. A manager who does not speak this way, may in turn be in the wrong position.

Solomon was wrong

You get this often when managing people. Somebody, often outside of your chain of command, comes to complain about your subordinate. “He’s stubborn.” “She’s doing this wrong.” “He exceeded his competencies.” and anything else you can think of. What do you do?

There are two natural reactions to this situation:

  1. you go to talk to your subordinate, get her version, decide who’s opinion is correct and persuade the other side to comply.
  2. (with time) you get both interested parties in a meeting, have them discuss the situation and either mediate to find a solution or come up with a Solomon-like compromise that should fit everyone.

Which one is right? Probably neither. The right thing to do is nothing.

When you do react in any of the above ways, you give others permission to shortcut resolving conflicts, by relying on command & control structures to force compliance. Consequently the people you manage will always feel as if you’re not on their side, but are instead giving in to external pressures and opinions. You lose their trust.

What you should do instead is to explain to the complaining party that your subordinate has good reasons to react the way he or she does, and both of you are working their best for the organization. Whoever is coming with complaints should continue to work directly with the other person in question until they reach understanding and a solution.

There are obviously cases of valid complaints, where your subordinate is guilty of misconduct. But 99% of the time you’re working with competent, committed people, who get into conflicts because both sides are devoted to doing a good job. They might simply have different ways of getting there, different definitions of what a “good job” means, or might be placed in an organizational system that naturally sets them against each other.

Once in place, your behavior creates a system and culture where everybody is responsible for keeping good relationships with others whom they cooperate with. It’s the equivalent of what Collin Powell named “mommy’s not here, son, broadly present in the military.

I remember once watching a documentary on Navy Seals training. Whenever a team of them got into conflict they were ordered to walk rounds in the sand, carrying a long, heavy wooden log with a huge inscription “MOTIVATOR”, to understand that they must work together. None of them could carry the log alone.

There are no logs to carry in white collar companies, but there are just as many conflicts. And people need to learn to handle them as grown-ups. It’s a powerful lesson I learned from Tribal Leadership and still often fail to implement in my daily work.