Management Learn schmearn. I'm a genius.

Lost in Translation

Early on in your mastery of a complex thing you are going to catastrophically overestimate your ability.

Your confidence is going to be artificially high. This new job, hobby, or sport is going to appear magically easy. You’re going to feel gifted. Those watching your miraculous aptitude keep saying, “beginner’s luck”, but that’s neither what you’re hearing nor what they’re saying. What you’re hearing them say is, “We are jealous that you are gifted at this thing you totally don’t understand”, but what they’re actually saying is, “We understand it’s intoxicating to instantly feel like an expert and we will most certainly bite our tongues when you painfully discover how much you have to learn.”

Learn schmearn. I’m a genius.

The gift of the enthusiastic beginner is blissful and empowering ignorance. They are not burdened with the depth and complexity of understanding; they shine brightly with enthusiasm… until the Fall.

Wallace Hates Me

I wasn’t even a manager. I was a lead of two engineers, but titles don’t matter. It was the change in attitude of one the engineers that got my attention. Harold didn’t miss a beat after I became his lead. He was in my office on Monday morning: “Where do we start?”

“Maybe we should, uh, fix error handling in the test framework? Maybe?”

“It’ll be done by Wednesday”. Cool. I can so do this.

Wallace was indifferent. I waited until Wednesday to walk into his office to ask, “Hey, I was wondering what you were working on?”

“Same as last week. Endless bugs.”

“Ok, great… super. Uh, holler if you need anything, ok?”

Silence. Ok, fine. I’ve never really gotten Wallace, he’s done his own thing and he seems to do it well, so let him do it, right?

Besides, I was a lead. Look at Harold — he bolts into my office every morning in his bright orange Philadelphia Flyers jersey and asks the same question: “What’s next?” He and I were cranking, so much so that three weeks after I became a lead, they added Stan to the team. Stan was a Boston Bruins fan, but he and Harold were birds of a feather. They grabbed coffee together in the morning, argued about hockey, and then darted to my office: “What’s next?”

I can so do this.

Three weeks turned into three months and Harold, Stan, and I were nailing it. Yes, I’d dutifully check in on Wallace each week, but the action was with the three of us. I figured when Wallace was ready to climb out of his shell and join the productivity party, he would.

Three months to the day, my boss walked in my office with a paper in his hand. “Wallace has been keeping a daily log of every interaction with you and claims, outside of meetings, that you’ve collectively spent 30 minutes with him in the last three months. Is that true?” He handed me the paper:

  • 3/21 — Asked about bug status — 47 seconds.
  • 3/22 — Question about performance — doesn’t know what he’s talking about and/or asking for — 1 minute 12 seconds.
  • 3/23 — No interaction.
  • 3/24 — No interaction.

Six pages of meticulous, single-line entries documenting every single minute of my managerial incompetence. My thought: “I thought he didn’t care.”

It’s called the Fall because in an instant the normally predictable floor upon which you stand vanishes and you enter a mental free fall where you feel like throwing up because you no longer know which way is up.

The Fall is Not the Lesson

The sensation of the Fall is disproportionate to the size of the lesson. You experience not just the sense of failure, but also the colossal irrational disappointment that you are no longer an expert at this task with which you have no previous experience — which is goofy. Here’s the kicker — you now have just enough experience to understand the actual work involved in becoming proficient at a task you previously thought you could magically improvise.

A Wallace-class Fall is common with freshly minted leaders and it’s one exacerbated by the commonly introverted tendencies of engineers. It’s the discovery that not only is someone you lead not following, but that there is a complete and total personality disconnect with this person. None of your usual networking moves work. They stare blankly at your witty repartee and when they do talk, it’s as if they haven’t heard a single word you’ve said.

It’s a frustrating discovery because part of the reason you became a leader was due to your natural and proven people skills. But it’s an enviable discovery because on a planet full of people most of them aren’t like you and your first Wallace will not be your last.

Your Instincts are 100% Wrong

A complete personality disconnect with someone you intend to lead, like in a Wallace situation, is rare, but for the sake of figuring how to tackle it, let’s assume this is the worst case scenario.

In a normal getting-to-know-you situation with an employee, the first question I want to be able to answer is: “What do they want?” What is their core motivation with regard to their current gig? Are they working on a promotion? Are they just figuring out the gig? Are they adrift? Are they ok with being adrift?

Understanding core motivation does not give me a complete picture of a person, but it gives me a place to start. When I know where they want to be, I can start to figure out how to get them there. Unhappily adrift people want immediate action. Those seeking promotions are eagerly seeking opportunity and will own anything to get it. However, this is Wallace and Wallace stares blankly when I blithely ask, “What floats your boat, Wallace?”

Give up on the idea that you’re going to finesse Wallace into telling you his secrets. Nothing that comes to you naturally is going to work with someone who honestly believes you are an alien. Your first job isn’t understanding core motivation, it’s basic communication.

In any situation where communication is suspect, I rely heavily on clarification. Whenever I say something that might be ambiguous, I ask, “What did you hear?” In return, when I’m listening and the topic or intent is not abundantly clear, I restate, “Ok, what I heard was…”

It sounds like this:

Me: “… and new requirements came in this weekend, but Jennifer still wants to see an initial spec by Thursday. Wallace, what did you hear there?

Wallace: “Jennifer wants a spec on Thursday.”

Now, if this was Harold or Stan, we’d be done. A verbal commitment was made and we’d move on, but this is Wallace and I can assume nothing.

Me: “Yes, a spec on Thursday. And what does that mean for your work?”

Wallace: “I was planning on finishing doc review on Monday and building out test data on Tuesday and Wednesday. I won’t get to that if Jennifer needs a spec on Thursday.”

Me: “What I’m hearing is that you’ve got a pile of work that will need to be rescheduled, right?”

Wallace: “Right.”

Me: “And if we do that, do you think you can have the spec done?”

Wallace: “Maybe.”

I know it feels like the passive aggressive Olympics, but I swear this is how Wallace thinks. In his world, a work commitment is never implied and must be verbally stated. We need to go back and forth until he states, “I will reschedule all of my planned work from this week until next week. I’ll relay the implications of these changes to the docs and QA teams and I have moderate confidence there will be no issue in delivery of a first draft of the revised spec by close of business on Thursday.”

It’s pedantic, annoying, and inefficient, but when personalities are disconnected, you don’t know how to communicate, so that’s where you start. With practice, you’ll learn the unique rules of engagement. You’ll discover the words and the ideas they use to describe both their happiness and their displeasure. You’ll learn the visual and verbal tells they employ when they have no idea what you’re talking about. In time, you’ll develop a mental map of this person who is decidedly not you.

The sensation of interacting with these aliens will never feel natural. It will always feel deliberate and foreign, but practice will provide you with a guide into how they think and a map that might provide insight for you into what they want.

The Size of the Lesson

It took months. It took months of conscious and intentional conversations with Wallace for us both to subconsciously agree to a communication peace treaty. It was painful — each time Wallace and I would drop into that primitive conversation dance, Harold and Stan would stare at each other and shake their heads — This nonsense again?

The nonsense was the essential lesson I learned from my first managerial Fall: when communications are down, listen hard, repeat everything, and assume nothing. The Wallace situation was the first of many Falls, and the beginning of understanding something fundamental to make future Falls less catastrophic: that people are the best puzzles you’ll never solve.

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21 Responses

  1. bill duncan 13 years ago

    Thanks for another excellent article as always! At the end of the third last paragraph, “..what they want.” I think.

  2. Frank 13 years ago

    I’m pretty sure I’m at least partially a Wallace, actually, and there is something to be learned in that regard as well.

    For me, accepting that Jennifer needs the report by Wednesday implies a verbal contract, but the realization that other work will have to move has been slow in the coming, usually.

    What helped was when people realized this and brought it specifically, painfully to the forefront. I don’t think I’m too extreme, but to be taken out of my little corner of work to look at the bigger picture has made everyone’s life easier. Now, sometimes, I even poke my own head out and take a gander, and mail people I am going to have to reschedule work for.

  3. Kristo 13 years ago

    Nice article. Gave me the sinking feeling that I might be headed for the same Fall. One question though. How did you manage to go three months without telling your boss that you couldn’t communicate with someone on your team? Did your boss let your Fall happen on purpose?

  4. @Frank, I’m also a partial Wallace, but i don’t think that necessarily needs to be a bad thing. I hate leaving assumptions on the table when they are so easy to get wrong and the consequences are so large.

    Rands, if you are in the employee role, how do you promote the excruciatingly detailed conversation without making it feel so passive aggressive / not pissing your manager off? Somebody has got to build that bridge, especially if your manager is not picking up the cues.

  5. Oh, I’m definitely the Wallace.

    My bosses over the years usually have the “go to” guys, and leave me alone to do my work. As long as I have assignments to do (and they are usually the assignments that others have failed at, and they are given to me because I have a reputation for getting the seemingly impossible done), I’m happy doing them. It irritates me that some boss can come in and mention something, without engaging me in a conversation about my becoming involved and expect me to jump in and fix it. He (and overwhelmingly they have been “he’s”) needs to take responsibility for proper assignment of tasks. Some of us are *NOT* motivated by the pat on the back, the public recognition, the plaque, the bauble, the citation, or any of the other myriad *non-remuneration* forms of pseudo-motivational dreck that management seems to crap out.

  6. vlion 13 years ago

    What do you do as the engineer when you realize you and your boss have totally different communication styles, and it took 5 months to realize that? How do you effect a positive change in that relationship without being insubordinate or going over his head?

  7. I’ve had this exact experience and on both sides.

    You managed to capture it perfectly, and this kind of active listening/communication is exactly what geeks (and nerds) need in conversations.

  8. Harry 13 years ago

    No no no, you’ve got it completely wrong, Rands.

    Here’s the deal: if your boss asks you to lead, he either gives you the power to sack people, or you don’t accept his job offer.

    Your duty to deliver something needs that power. Without power, you cannot lead.

    In your case, Wallace is obviously not compatible with you. So you sack him. Not on the first day, but after 3-5 tries that went nowhere.

    Then you hire better people, because as a leader you not only got the power to fire folks, but to hire folks. And with those folks that are better or more compatible with you, you go on delivering the stuff you’re meant to.

    Remember: The hiring and firing of employees is one of the main tools of a leader. Without that, you’re not a leader, you’re just a talker. If you’re asked to lead, make it clear you need the power to hire&fire. If that is not given to you, tell that you don’t have the tools to do your job properly.

    As a leader, you too are getting rated on how well you deliver. A leader who did not ask for these base powers is just a sucker. He will never have great accomplishments to show other employers.

  9. I’m with Harry. It sounds like Wallace just isn’t a great engineer, and either needs to be reassigned or encouraged to find another place to work.

    A large part of competence in any field is initiative. An employee who doesn’t show initiative is just a tool who sits on the shelf waiting for someone to use them. Tools require an inordinately large share of your finite attention if they’re going to do anything, and that’s a resource you can’t just throw around. Wallace is a tool.

    Wallace isn’t showing you any initiative. He’s been working on “bugs” forever without any clear status updates or indication that he wants to do more. He hasn’t sought out any time with you, and then claims it’s your fault for not spending time with him. Most damningly, he forces you to spell out the consequences and instructions for every piece of work in excrutiating detail. He’s not even trying. Let him go and get someone who wants to be there.

  10. Harry and Beal, you make some valid points, but I think you’re missing one key attribute. In this scenario, it seems to be implied that Wallace had been around, probably for a while, prior to being put on Rands’ team (or whoever the new lead actually was). To me, this suggests he’d been doing fine under whoever was his lead before. I’m also not seeing any statement of incompetence, or that he wasn’t getting his work done, just that the visibility wasn’t there and the communication wasn’t happening. It’s a problem, but one that’s fixable.

    I’ve been a Wallace, and I’ve also been a Harold, and from my standpoint it has less to do with personality than with context. You can have a poor team dynamic, with no clear leadership and constantly-shifting goals, where everybody ends up isolated in their corner and becoming Wallace, at least in part. Or you can have a good team, where even the most Wallace-y engineer becomes Harold for at least a few hours each day.

    That sort of relationship cuts both ways, too; anyone who’s ever had to develop their project manager-wrangling skills knows what it’s like having Wallace as a lead.

  11. Vince 13 years ago

    Sounds like Wallace simply didn’t acknowledge Rands’ leadership. I suspect that Wallace was the more experienced engineer, but Rands had better people skills and was put in a leadership position that carries more responsibility but no real power. Some leaderships positions have power, others need influence which can only be earned. Rands simply had to work real hard to earn that influence. Perhaps as an experienced engineer, Wallace had seen his fair share of incompetent leads and managers, and Rands could have been the next one.

  12. My issue right now is that I’m neither Rands nor Wallace, but that rather disconnected relationship is affecting me. My local version of Rands doesn’t seem to have realized the situation he is in (the fall has yet to occur). I’ve been nudging, but without authority the circumstances are not changing.

    So, if you’re experienced and you’re used to leading, but if you’re not the leader this time and this situation occurs, how do you intervene? Or should you? Or should ‘leading from the back of the pack’ be a new post for Rands? ๐Ÿ™‚


  13. @KRISTO

    “How did you manage to go three months without telling your boss that you couldn’t communicate with someone on your team?”

    I’m a teacher. I make specific, detailed, plans to check all of my students out on a cycle each month. Otherwise, they can hide and you can ride. Its so easily done.

    There is a considerable literature on reflection on practice in teaching that some may find useful. This article reminds me very strongly of Stephen Broofield’s ‘imposter syndrome’.

  14. I have been patiently waiting for a post of this class. The old Rands is back! Fantastic!

  15. Michael 13 years ago

    Harry is exactly right – Wallace is the weak link in the otherwise efficient chain. He either needs to find a new position or be shown the door, quickly.

  16. @MICHAEL:

    I think you are seeing it wrong. After all Wallace is a programmer. Wallace is paid to fix bugs – which he does very efficiently. The reason why Wallace is a programmer and not a manager is that he is insanely good at fixing difficult bugs, while weaker in communicating and strategic thinking. If every single programmer would be also a communication and strategy expert there would be no reason to hire guys like Rands to manage them. It is Rands who is paid to communicate and manage: a communication failure in his team is his failure to supplement the skills of his direct reports with his own.

    I say this as an engineering manager: unless you can beat your engineers at their core expertise you should rather not challange them in your core expertise. In other words: as long as you don’t excell at fixing insanely nasty bugs yourself accept that your job is to supplement the communication skills of those who are.

  17. Frank Booth 13 years ago

    “Passive Aggressive Olympics” – I could Captain the national team.

  18. “Me: โ€œโ€ฆ and new requirements came in this weekend, but Jennifer still wants to see an initial spec by Thursday. Wallace, what did you hear there?โ€”

    Wallace: I heard that you’ve tried to sleazily give me some more work, in a hurry, based on what someone I don’t know “wants”. It can’t be important because you haven’t said it has any importance. You haven’t said why it matters or what consequences it has if she doesn’t see it or why an arbitrary deadline of Thursday is valid or higher or lower priority than whatever else I have to do. I heard that you haven’t actually told me to do it, and that you haven’t acknowledged any other work needs to slip and that you are OK with that. I heard that come Thursday I will either have you complaining that Jennifer has no report, or you complaining that something I put off wasn’t done instead. Lots of people want lots of things, it’s your job to manage so tell me what to prioritise higher and what lower.

    @HARRY: “I only want to lead if I can lead the people I choose to make my life easier!”. As unhelpful as “I only want to code if I can use the framework I like which makes my life easier!”

  19. Chris Kai 13 years ago

    I live in a foreign country with a different culture… I deal with personality disconnects all the time and it’s a constant challenge to adapt and figure out a common language.

  20. I’ve read this thing probably three times now. I’m in a murky situation where I’m an apps engineer, but manage/pair program with a more experienced software contractor. The contractor complains about how I’m the only one he gets to talk to. And he has a damn good reason to complain after working for us for nearly a year, but I think this will change in the coming months as the work he’s been doing for a while will finally start coming together and become usable enough for engineers to try/give feedback. I’m also covering him from noise to focus on development.

    Worse though, my manager left 5 months ago and now the “director” is managing the group. The director seems to talk to everyone except me, and I’m the most senior member in the group. I had a good relationship with my old manager, yet the director hasn’t had a one-on-one with me once, actually I can’t think of a single instance since he joined a few years ago.

    Part of me wants to initiate contact, but I’m more motivated to look for new work because of the whole scenario. Overall I feel like I’m dealing with the “management”-issues of keeping people happy while being stuck in a position with no growth or communication with management myself.

  21. When did acknowledgement of receipt of a message become a commitment to accede to its demands?

    I must be a Wallace, because I too think it’s alien to form commitments implicitly. I don’t even mean the sort of implicit that lacks only a commitment phrase like “I agree”; no, I mean that sort where failure to reject a message is enough to form a commitment.

    To be fair to Rands, Wallace could also learn to be a bit more forthcoming with objections, otherwise it becomes a game of 20 Questions to determine which of an infinity of possibilities is blocking a resolution.