Category: care and feeding

On Frustration and Listening

Eric pointed out, in a comment on my previous post:

I think another key component is to make sure they feel like they are heard. This goes beyond letting them vent, and making sure that you can state back to them why they feel that the chosen course is wrong. Nothing is more frustrating and disempowering than feeling like one’s expertise (because every geek is an expert in his or her own mind) is being overlooked.

Once they believe that you understand their position, then you can explain the reasons why their position doesn’t address the other concerns of the company. They may not care about those concerns, but I think it does help for geeks to hear that there are reasons for the decision, even if the geeks don’t agree with those reasons.

To really get them on board may require several repetitions of this cycle.

And he’s absolutely right. I alluded to this a bit in my post On Praise, where I mention that the geek must accept the thought that she is not talking above my head. Another way to put that would be to say that it must be clear to the geek that I have listened to her and understood what she said.

So how do I make a geek feel heard?

Step 1: Step away from the Blackberry/telephone/computer. I know you’re too busy for words, but parallel processing while a geek is trying to talk to you is insulting to him at best. If you’re expecting a vital call, warn him early in the conversation that there will be a call that you have to take, and apologize. If you have to answer an email (or need to finish the thought you’re typing), ask him to hold on a moment while you finish your thought so that you can pay attention.

I used to turn myself towards my geek while I finished typing. It usually caused amusement that I could keep typing while looking at him, and gave me a chance to finish my thought. Oh, and if you must fidget? I’d ask if it was okay if I opened my mail while we chatted, or I’d play with paper clips or various office supplies. Some of us just can’t be still, I suppose, but don’t fidget with your Blackberry.

Step 2: Make eye contact. Okay; so your geek might not be pretty, or he might tend to stare at the floor as he speaks, but you should at least be looking in his vicinity so that he notices that you’re paying attention when he glances up. Besides, if you’re not looking at him, I’ll bet you’re looking at your Blackberry, aren’t you?

Step 3: This one’s classic: paraphrase back. If you don’t like sounding like you’re waiting for your pirate to give you a cracker, you might find that paraphrasing back via asking questions is easier. For example, “So if SP2 might break our document management system, which of your two avoidance ideas seems best to you?”

These are the three steps I’ve learned the hard way are effective for making geeks feel heard. I’m sure I’ve missed some steps and suggestions–I’d love to hear about them!

On Frustration

I’ve noticed that geeks tend to get frustrated fairly easily. They especially do not like when others are pursuing or demanding courses of action that the geeks believe are clearly wrong. Add in their losing arguments about the actions with said others, and you have some really frustrated and angry geeks.

As a leader of geeks, I’ve found myself between the geeks and the “others” (any other Lost fans out there?) many times. In each case, it has been my job to make sure the geeks take the “wrong” course of action. Not a fun place to be, because pissed-off geeks can bring technology departments to a screeching halt.

I believe that much of this frustration happens because geeks just aren’t accustomed to losing arguments–especially if they believe that the other side’s opinion is just plain wrong. They also dislike when others will not listen to their logic. That it might be because the others have valid business reasons and logic for the “wrong” actions does not usually enter into their thinking, in part because the business reasons and logic have been expressed in language they do not hear or understand (see below post On Language for more on that).

So what do you do if you’re in the middle? Well, there’s no sure-fire fix here. I try to do three things: let them vent, apologize, and try to make it easier for them to carry out the “wrong” task. If they are still struggling with frustration after several days, I try to schedule a night out for the team–bitching about the “others” (and even about me) in a non-work environment often makes the task easier. Also? Many geeks like alcohol.

No geek likes doing something he sees as wrong or being unable to convince folks with his logic. All you can do as a leader is try to ease his pain and hope that your actions help the department to start running again.

On Praise

Geeks can be funny with praise. Some of them are content with the usual, “Good job!” or, “Well done!” I’ve found this type to be the exception, rather than the rule, however. In my experience, praising geeks requires a bit more thought.

Some geeks seem a bit skeptical if praise for an idea or action comes before she knows that you completely understand what she is thinking or doing. As such, I’ve had to make sure that I either ask questions or say enough about the subject that the geek accepts the thought that she is not talking above my head. She then accepts that I know what I’m talking about when I say, “Good idea!” Once she accepts my comprehension, she can, in turn, accept my praise.

Other geeks are trickier. While they understand on the surface that you understand the idea or action and approve of it, they have a little voice in their heads saying, “I didn’t really do much. She just doesn’t know. Maybe she thinks that I did, but I didn’t. I should have done or thought of so much more.” A friend of mine once described this behavior as pathological, and it is especially common among geeks who went to MIT—that institution practically embeds it in their (okay, our—fine, I admit it!) collective brains. But MIT geeks aren’t the only ones who find it virtually impossible to accept praise without internally denigrating themselves; other geeks do this as well.

There is no sure-fire leadership behavior that can help the geek in denial accept your praise. If the geek denies the praise outright to you, you can attack each self-denigrating point in order to try to bludgeon the geek into accepting your praise. Most geeks, however, do not vocally deny the praise—some might actually act as if they accept it—but you can tell that something isn’t quite “right” with how they have physically reacted to your positive comments.

If you see this type of physical reaction, you have two choices: try to make them internalize the praise, or simply go on with life. My first reaction is always the former; I’ve given the praise, accept it, darn it! However, after years of hitting my head against that brick wall, I have slowly come to the conclusion that the only things that will allow these geeks to recognize their positive contributions are time and experience. That is, their OWN time and experience—not yours.

However, just because your praise might not get through to your geek doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t praise him. Praise, either in speech or email, allows your geek to understand and recognize your expectations for his performance. Just make sure you understand your geek’s idea or action, and react accordingly. The results might be subtle, but you’ll get better overall performance from your geek.

On Language, Part 1

Last night, in my Leadership, Governance, and Accountability class, the prof said (in reference to papers he had just graded), “…and finally, this is just a pet peeve of mine, but impact is a noun. If something has an impact, then you say that it affects something. However, I’ve already lost the business battle on incentivize, although we already have a verb for that as well, which is motivate, so I’m probably going to lose this one as well.”

I was amused, as I had used the word impact as a verb in my paper–I guess I’ve learned a lot of business-speak in business school. (Go figure!) As I was telling my husband the story, he started telling me about how, as a geek, he completely tunes out anything that might come after one of those “business speak” words.

He’s absolutely right–one of the worst things to do with your geeks is to try to speak to them about aligning synergies or some such business school nonsense. You’ll be speaking completely different languages, and an essential part of leadership is communication. In order to communicate properly with geeks, I find that if I first listen and then respond in kind (professionally, of course–“your mother” jokes probably aren’t appropriate for leaders), I not only do not use MBA-speak, but I get better responses from the geeks.

On Boundaries

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people want boundaries. Oh, sure, we all claim to really want freedom in everything, but how many of us are deadline-driven? I know that I want to know what requirements are so that I can meet them (okay; I actually want to know what they are so that I can exceed them, but this isn’t always the healthiest behavior).

So what’s the deal with geeks and boundaries?

On the one hand, most geeks prefer fewer boundaries. Many of them were the brilliant kids in school who were bored and always making their own intellectual fun. This type of geek will rebel if boundaries are too strict. For example, if you require a certain geek to work from 8:00 AM sharp, take a 30-minute lunch at 12:00 PM, and leave at 5:00 PM unless you have approved his staying later, he will rebel and not work well. His creativity will be completely stifled by what he perceives as your arbitrary boundaries.

On the other hand, geeks still need boundaries in a working environment. Do you want your geek to apply her creativity to your remote access problem? Then assign her the task and discuss your overall goal (e.g., “connections are dropping–help!” or “no one can print,” or “it’s wicked slow.”). Some geeks are very deadline-driven and need a deadline to which to work. Other geeks need to know that you’ll be checking in on the project progress regularly so that they don’t spend too much time playing computer games.

So how do you balance this?

I have two ways of balancing this for my geeks: treat them like adults, and find out what they need.

Is your geek over the age of 18? Then I would suggest treating him like an adult until he proves that he needs to be treated otherwise. Instead of saying, “You must be here by 8:00 AM,” try saying, “The Help Desk phone needs to be covered at 8:00 AM, and I know you’re a morning person. Can you do this for me?” The latter not only gives your geek the feeling of control, but it makes him verbally commit to a boundary, and therefore will be more willing to comply with it.

The second way of balancing boundaries takes quite a bit more work, but is absolutely worth your time. Find out about your geeks and what they need. The only way to do this is to talk to them, ask questions (note: not illegal questions if you’re the manager. Check with your HR department if you’re concerned about this.), and learn by trial and error. When I first became a geek leader, I made the mistake of not setting enough boundaries, which threw my geeks into flux, because they weren’t aware of their requirements. I began to have initial conversations when I assigned projects that would discuss my requirements, our collective timelines, and their necessary resources for completing a project. Once I started this, projects ran much more smoothly, because they knew my requirements, and I knew their regular status.

My final thought on boundaries is that of a “boundary check.” Boundaries should be firm, so that all parties know the defined expectations, but they should also be negotiable. The geek that gets in at 8:00 AM should know that he can approach you if his child care arrangements suddenly have to change. The remote access geek should be able to let you know if the issue is more complex than anticipated and she will need more time or resources.

Overall, boundaries work very well, but only if all parties know where they are. If you treat your geeks like grown-ups, allow them to set boundaries with you, and often check on the boundaries, you will give your geek a framework in which she can use her creativity to your advantage.

On Honesty

One of the funny things about geeks is that they can be rather un-trusting people. Perhaps they don’t trust those who are not geeks themselves. Perhaps they’ve been lied to many times in the past. Perhaps they think stupidity = dishonesty. Perhaps they’ve actually worked in the business world.

Well, that last one is my cynicism coming through. But seriously, how many times are geeks lied to during the day?

Geek: Did you make sure your computer is plugged in?

User: Yes! Of course! Do you think I’m an idiot?

Geek goes to desk; computer not plugged in.

Personally, I’ve always valued my own honesty. For example, one conversation from early in my career:

User: Jenn, it was amazing how fast you got the network back up!

Jenn: Thank you; but it might have been better had I not crashed it in the first place.

This honesty often surprised my bosses, co-workers, and staff. If I had information that I could not share with my staff for business/HR/other dumb reasons, I’d say, “Well, I do know something, but I’ve been asked not to tell you. I know it’s annoying, but please trust me that I’ll tell you as soon as I can.”

I encouraged this honesty in my staff. Yes, we might have been better able to get users to do what we asked them to do if we made the consequences sound more dire, but that wouldn’t be honest, so I wouldn’t allow it. Unless it was funny. I mean, if we could tell them they’d be eaten by wolves if they didn’t reboot, I would have sanctioned it. Because hyperbole is a literary tool, and they would obviously recognize it as a joke. Also? I can’t figure out where to get hungry wolves in Boston.

The results of my honesty surprised me. Anyone who ever worked for me trusted me, even if I had to terminate their employment. One person to whom I had to do this said (when I assured him it wasn’t personal), “Jenn, I absolutely trust you when you say that.” It was mind-blowing to me at the time. After all, honesty is just part of who I am.

As a result of my experience, I have to say that one very good way to be a leader of geeks? Be trustworthy. The results will amaze you.