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:

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.

How to fix Facebook

An endless stream of music videos, LOL content and the occasional drunk party photo. Facebook has become the new TV with 500 different channels and absolutely nothing on. Nothing we consider worthwhile watching or discussing. And a solution is 2 steps away:

  1. Give users a way to easily dismiss/hide others’ messages.
  2. Let users know how many people dismissed their posts.

In other words: provide everyone with feedback on how lousy their content is, not only how “great” it is via “Likes”. Feedback they will consider when typing their next post: “is that really something my friends will enjoy?”

We already know how badly everyone needs feedback. Both on the good and the bad things. It’s a natural process in educational organizations like Toastmasters, somewhat broken in corporations with their formal appraisals, and slowly crawling into general education with a push by Bill Gates himself. Time to get this working in social media.

Feed it back

How am I doing?” He was with the company for 2 months by then, with his team leader located abroad. For some reason, unrelated to his work, we sat down to talk – he and two of us team leaders. We finished a topic and then he started: since he was already there with us, maybe we could help. Nobody gave him any feedback regarding his performance.

Moments like these make my brain form a couple of new neural connections. There he was, a young software engineer, with decent experience, not merely interested but desperate to get some evaluation of his work. Many like him never speak out. Whom else have we been neglecting?

And so I set out to meet every one of my team members in private once a month, just to talk out how we feel about each other’s work and performance. Not formally, not in a framework, but openly and candidly. Beginnings are awkward, because people aren’t used to being able to speak freely. You see them sweating and avoiding eye contact. So you, the superior, start talking about yourself and your own mistakes. Then you make space. They will follow. And they will tell you what’s been wrong, often things you haven’t noticed at all.

Once you show yourself open to their criticism, they will open to yours. Turns out, they really do want to be better, and do want to stay on course of your expectations. While it’s inevitable that they’ll be drifting apart once in awhile, when you explain yourself and your motivations properly, they’ll quickly change and you can continue sailing at full speed.