Mad. Furious. Instantaneous rage. I’m not proud to admit it, but there is a short list of seemingly inconsequential events that give me blind, piercing rage.
It’s an embarrassing list that I cannot fully share, but here’s a few:
I told you they were trivial, but I didn’t tell you the depth of the rage I experience because it completes my embarrassment. If I sit here carefully and clearly explaining that when you chew with your mouth open (and I can hear it) that I sincerely want to lean across the table and punch you in the mouth, I realize this is batshit insane. You can be assured that I’ve never actually slugged a single human, but this doesn’t change my internal reaction or my point.
Every human has a handful of triggers.
It’s beyond my ability to explain how these triggers are built, but if you can’t yet relate, remember the last time you accidentally hit your head on a kitchen cabinet while your significant other watched. You noticed two things: first, it hurt — bad. Second, when your significant other asked, “Oh no, are you ok?” your instinct was to scream, “NO, I AM NOT OK, I JUST HIT MY HEAD AND IT HURT.” You want to lash out at the person who is caring about your well being.
After years of professional self-reflection, I am sure of three things regarding triggers:
You have triggers. They are delightfully, privately, and weirdly yours. I don’t need to know them, but as a person who hangs with other people I need you to feel and remember the sensitivity you feel in the middle of a trigger — the instant mindlessness. The blind rage. The lack of rational faculties.
Can you feel it?
Good. Let’s talk about how to communicate with your team.
The Big Three
There are three situations that can easily trigger members of your team.They involve: title, compensation, and location. That’s right. The title on a business card, the amount of money someone receives, and where they sit. In my career as a leader of humans, I have spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning up where a lead has underestimated the trigger impact of a seemingly unimportant discussion regarding title, compensation, and location.
I call these the Big Three and the Big Three are part of a handful of objective measures and goals a person can achieve that are well known, easy to compare, and understood by the whole team. The Big Three, right or wrong, have accreted unexpected status; they’ve become disproportionately highly valued. They’ve become a yardstick by which a person measures success. This is why something seemingly as simple as office relocations become a multiple meeting clusterfuck. It’s not just that they care where they sit; it’s that they believe there is measurable status applied to where they sit.
There is a single universal realization that occurs in conversations about the Big Three, and it’s a doozy: In a moment, I understand that the world values me drastically differently than I expected.
Drastically Different Than Expected
“Frank, we had a really good quarter. We shipped the update, we’re solidly into the next major release and I’d like to give you a $5k raise.”
First, before you try to untangle anything, before you try to handle the situation, before you screw this up further, repeat after me: trigger. Frank just metaphorically hit his head on the corner of the kitchen cabinet and just about any proactive action on your part will result in him lashing out further. While we sit here waiting for Frank’s next move, some advice:
Understand that judgment is temporarily impaired by triggers. Just like The Disaster, judgement is way off not just at the moment of the trigger, but for some time. Unlike the kitchen cabinet scenario, chances are, as we’ll talk about more in a moment, Frank saw part of this coming. This doesn’t decrease the intensity of the trigger, but it does increase the duration, because he’s been chewing on this trigger for a while. When I know someone has been triggered, I don’t trust their judgment regarding much of anything: they’ve been triggered.
Understand that while facts, data, and conversation will eventually be helpful, in a trigger situation time is the only initial cure. There’s value in talking through the situation in the moment, but, again, faulty wiring. They’re furious — perhaps for valid reasons — and until the fury passes, it’s less a conversation than a very important vent.
Wait for Frank. It’s not always the best advice, but when I stumble on a trigger, I usually wait — sometimes a long time — for Frank to say something. In my mind, I’m watching him standing there, rubbing where he hit his head, shouting, “YOU KNOW THAT FUCKING HURT.” Too often I have jumped in with some helpful advice only to have it twisted and thrown back in my face because Frank was triggered.
Right, it’s been 37 seconds and Frank has just said something disarming that acknowledges the magnitude of his reaction. Now, you can start mentally triaging. How in the world is a $5k raise a reason for quitting? Here’s the cheat sheet. Do you remember when Frank was hired two years ago and you brought him in on the high side of the salary recommendations? You forgot that, right? Yeah, you also didn’t notice his subtle disappointment to the $5k raise last year. You didn’t expect him to talk to several members of the team regarding their raises, which were $10k. Of course, he didn’t ask about base salary, which is much lower than his. Frank’s trigger is based on over a year of build-up where he believed he’s being under-compensated, when the reality is that he’s the highest paid engineer on the team.
Reflecting on the many triggers I’ve encountered in my professional career, the situation is always that the story the person was telling themselves was drastically different than the one I, their lead, was suddenly telling them. It’s never a complete surprise because they’ve been picking up on subtle clues about the story leading up to the conversation, but hearing me say it makes it real, and having it involve quantifiable status-based topics like a title, an office, and a raise makes it that much more real.
You Can’t Be Too Paranoid
The Big Three are certainly not the only trigger scenarios out there, but they are a knowable set. I approach all conversations regarding the Big Three as if I were walking through a minefield where there is only one map and it was drawn by me — when I was drunk. It’s certainly useful to have this map, but I remain suspect.
You cannot be too paranoid going into these conversations. You can’t reflect too much. How has every conversation regarding compensation gone with this person? What were their reactions? What questions did they ask? Have they ever said anything about title? What? When? How often? You’re about to alter the story they’ve been telling themselves, so as best you can you need to understand their story — not yours.
Is it a fair change? There are far too many local variables to make this advice that useful, but in considering the change that you are describing to this person, do you fully believe that it’s reasonable, fair, consistent, and understandable? Can you completely tell the story with no niggling concerns in the back of your head? Would everyone on the team agree that this person has earned this title? Does this seating layout acknowledge how this team feels about offices? Does this compensation change reflect your company’s compensation philosophy?
Remember, it’s a minefield because we, as an industry, have fucked up these conversations — a lot. Crap managers who award titles because they like someone, offices because of title rather than ability or need, compensation based on following the broadest guidelines provided by HR rather than taking the time to understand the complete compensation picture. It’s a minefield because they’re expecting us to screw it up because that’s what we usually do.
A First Line of Defense
Healthy paranoia and prior experience in delivering these types of messages will improve your ability to deliver level-setting information. However, even with all this preparation, you’re still going to stumble on triggers. It’s unavoidable.
To talk about triggers, I had to reduce the trigger scenarios down to the knowable Big Three because we’ll likely never know why someone talking with their mouth full causes me unbridled rage. It’s also not your problem that I have this trigger. It’s mine and it’s up to me to stand up when you’re mash-mash-mashing your food and telling me about your trip to Guatemala and say, “Excuse me for a moment, I must rage elsewhere”.
In order to handle triggers in the workplace, you must first own your trigger weirdness. Acknowledging your faulty mental wiring can serve as a best first line of defense - it gives you solid trigger appreciation. Humans are messy and will blow up, but your job is suspend judgement, keep quiet, and give them time to cool down. It’s not your job to fix the trigger, it’s your job to first get them through the trigger weirdness and then to figure out how to close the kitchen cabinet door so they don’t hit their head again.
Each year, the race to get a ticket for WWDC is on. Even with early warning, the window of ticket availability shrinks with every passing year. 2013 being no different: 2 minutes.
Capping the number of tickets is a classic Apple move: we’re going to create a sense of exclusivity by creating an artificial constraint. Moscone Center is huge. Apple could blink and triple the size of the event, but I can’t think of the last time the ticket ceiling at WWDC went up. 5000 attendees - that’s it.
WWDC is a great event. I’ve been going for years without a ticket and I still have amazing nights spending time with dear friends debating the state of Apple. Logic would dictate that increasing the number of tickets would increase the “product”: the army of foaming-at-the-mouth fanboys’n’girls who, I believe, are one of the best (and cheapest?) organic marketing assets in the industry.
Nope. 5000. That’s it.
This type of constraint reeks of Steve Jobs. The rumor at Apple was that Steve capped many of the teams in Cupertino. Mac OS X and Marketing Communications being two successful teams that had their headcount capped. During the 2000s, while Apple was gaining traction across the planet, the team responsible for getting the word out, Marketing Communications (“MarCom”), was allegedly capped at 100 heads. The reasoning I heard was that Steve wanted to keep the teams feeling small, but, more importantly, I think he wanted to keep them knowable.
Of course, with the amount of work they had to produce supporting WWDCs, MacWorlds, product launches, and all the other advertising, they relied on expensive external vendors to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. While back in Cupertino, the 100 represented a small, well-understood group where I believe Steve could not only easily understand every single story being told by Apple, but, more importantly, the 100 could know each other.
When you talk about change or optimum team sizes, Dunbar’s number is usually thrown down as scientific evidence of something you already know in your bones. Shit gets weird somewhere between 100 and 200 people. You can no longer keep the individual state of each of the other people in your team or company in your head. Which means communication becomes more taxing. Rather than walking up to Fred and saying, “What’s up?” you cautiously walk up to a person you don’t know and sheepishly ask, “Yeah… who are you?”
What was easy becomes hard. What used to be maintained in your head now involves an extra email or an additional meeting. What was familiar becomes unfamiliar and frustrating. Culture is diluted, communication becomes taxed, and people start saying, “I remember when…”
Capping the headcount of a team necessary to shaping the story of an increasingly successful company seems counter-intuitive. We’re doing well, we should invest more. This type of thinking puts a big discount on the taxes associated with rapid team growth with, in my opinion, being able to easily discern what is going on in a team of people being number one.
Apple’s MarCom department being capped at 100 achieved two very different objectives. First, it made the work the team was doing knowable - you could discern who was doing what because there just weren’t that many full-time people. This allowed for dictatorial control that has given Apple clear and consistently messaging. Second, the constraint meant that every single person counted. While I never worked on the team, I’m certain they were much quicker in dealing with low performers because you could still discern the difference one additional high performing person would make. While this could certainly be viewed as a constant threat of being fired, it could also make for a high performing team.
The effects of capping WWDC tickets are different because you’re talking about a larger population, but some of the effects are the same. Each year, WWDC is held in Moscone West. You know that the big Apple logo will be emblazoned on the side of the building. You know the names of the conference rooms, you know where the snacks will be. But, for me, I know who will be there. I end up in the same bars with the same dear friends and we get foamy at the mouth about Apple because we feel like we know it.
The cap on WWDC tickets means it won’t go the way of SXSW - a wildly successful conference that has grown consistently since its inception. I used to go every year until one late night we looked around a huge sea of strangers and decided that we no longer knew this conference. The experience had become diluted. It had become unfamiliar, full of strangers, and unknowable.
My family has a disproportionate love of Superman and I never quite understood why until recently.
When I say disproportionate love, I mean manic crazy love. My sister took a tape recorder into Superman II, recorded the whole damned thing, and then transcribed the entire movie via a typewriter. Why? So she could read the transcript of the movie she just saw.
I followed her madness by clipping Superman II ads out of any newspaper I could find and placing them carefully into a photo album. Black and white, low resolution ads. All the same, carefully curated in a photo album so I could remember what it felt like to watch those movies.
Clearly we both had too much time on our hands.
Superman has suffered since those first two movies. The latter movies were awful. We had high hopes for Superman Returns, but the essential story was left on the editing room floor. Meanwhile there were the critiques of Superman the character, that he’s boringly one dimensional. An invulnerable and totally moral character. He’s perfect; he can do no wrong. He’s not a realistic reflection of us mortal humans and therefore an unattainable idea.
Meanwhile, Batman. Yes, pathos and dysfunction. That’s a hero. Look at him - he’s that close to killing The Joker. He thinks about it because even though he’s a strategic fictional genius, he’s kinda fucked up. AND WAIT DID HE JUST KISS CATWOMAN? See, Batman has good days and bad days… just like you and I. I love Batman. While he remains a hyperbolic exaggeration of our ability, if you shoot him, it hurts, and we can relate to hurting. Does Superman ever feel pain?
I better understood what Superman meant when I watched the most recent and final trailer for Man of Steel. When Lois Lane asks him what the S stands for, he says, “It’s not an S. On my world, it means hope.”
When a twisted someone believes that they are delivering an important message by blowing up innocents in a city that is a cradle of our liberty, I choose hope. I choose unrealistic and unbounded hope. I choose Superman.
Superman is a story. It’s a great story. It’s an unrealistic story full of fantastic elements that appeal to our desire to be intensely good humans, to perform amazing feats of strength, and to live forever. These stories, while unrealistic, give us direction, they temporarily relieve our burdens, and they give us an ambitious plan forward.
Perhaps the biggest critique you can make of Superman is that because he makes it look so easy with the flying and the invulnerability that doing the impossible is somehow easy or even achievable. It’s big. It’s over the top. It’s unrealistic and no one human can ever complete the feats of a single Superman. But it’s not the individual feats of Superman we care about, it’s that we, as a group of humans, working together, can do anything, even though it’s never easy.
My family loves Superman because he is an unrealistic and impossible creature. We know that. We know he sets an impossible bar, but we need that bar because that is how we dream big, that is how we aspire to something great, and that is why we choose hope.