Given that I’m in the midst of a major career transition, I’ve been reflecting back on the highs and lows of my years as an IT professional. It’s been a rewarding exercise, and I’d like to share some of it with you here in the next couple of posts. And what better way to start than with one of the worst days of my life.
In my first job out of college, I was a computer programmer on a large government project. After about a year or so on the job, a senior team member (let’s call her Terry) was promoted to manager. With that promotion, our relationship changed from senior-junior colleagues to superior-subordinate. What I didn’t realize was that she brought into her new role some initial impressions and expectations of me as a professional.
ï»¿After one particularly bad month, she called me into her office, and started unloading. I can’t remember the exact words, but they went something like this…
Jesse, you really messed up that last software module. Because you weren’t able to figure out the solution, your team lead had to come in and finish it for you. Consider the impact of that, Jesse. Because he spent so many hours helping you, his own assignment was late also. Remember the last time this happened?
…um, no I don’t. When?
It was the file manager. Remember how much trouble you had with that? Don’t you realize there is a pattern going on here, Jesse? Now, I’m left wondering if I can give you anything substantive to work on, or if we’ll just end up having to send someone else bail you out of the next problem. In fact Jesse, I simply can’t believe you spent so long on the module without getting anywhere. I think you knew your team lead would be there to bail you out and so you didn’t try as hard as you could have.
…are you saying I messed up on purpose?
That’s what it looks like. I don’t know what to do with you, Jesse. But whatever your issue is, you need to fix it, FAST!
Step 1: Get expectations out in the open.
Yeah, it was that bad. ï»¿But when I look back, the root cause of her blowup was simple human disappointment and frustration. From her perspective, I was the key issue. But the real problem was that I had no idea.. She was viewing my previous difficulties as a liability, and had put me on a secret probation. Instead, the two of us should have known way ahead of time what was expected of me.
- For managers, you need to be 100% positive your team members know what you expect of them. When you move into a new leadership position, you should have both private and group discussions about what people understand their roles to be, what the team expects of you, and what you expect of them. Obviously, Terry didn’t do that, so I was left to continue my current work style, setting me up to fail.
- For team members, just because you’re not a manager, that does not mean you’re not off the hook. Expectations are a two way street. Namely, if Terry didn’t initiate the expectations chat, then I should have. I learned this from the One Minute Manager books by Ken Blanchard. If you as a team member don’t know where you stand with your boss, supervisor, or manager, then it’s up to you to fix that problem. Ask for a meeting with your boss to ask “how can I best help the team? What skills do you want me to focus on?” If your boss doesn’t give you the for that conversation, then at least send her an email spelling out your own understanding of where things are (heck, email is formal written documentation, so if anything you’ve generated some positive input for your next performance appraisal).
Step 2: Vent first, then confront
Because of Terry’s delivery I couldn’t hear her message. Instead, I internalized it by posting this little self-pity manifesto on my cubicle wall:
- For managers, no matter how frustrated you are, don’t confront your team members in the head of the moment. Let’s say you are boiling with frustration over a team member, someone who gets you so enraged that you know you can’t control yourself right now. If that’s the case, then right now is not the best time to confront him. Instead, go to a peer or to your own manager, ask for permission to vent, and then vent. If there isn’t anyone good to vent to, then go vent in the bathroom mirror. But whatever you do, don’t go to your people, with full engines revving and unload on them. ï»¿
- For team members, this is NOT how you deal with an unreasonable boss. First, it tells her that yelling at me is okay. Second, I allowed the intensity of the message to drown out the critical feedback that could have made me better. Looking back across the years, I really wish I had done some venting myself. If I had confided in a co-worker to get some additional perspective, I could have gotten past the episode. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I let the emotions get the better of me, and I held a grudge. In fact, some 8 years later a very similar situation came up, and I did confront my manager about a tirade. This time, because I took the risk of first venting, then confronting we were able to get underneath some stuff, and build a much better working relationship.
ï»¿Step 3: After You Confront Well, Follow Up
Eventually, Terry found out about my self-pity document, stepped into my cubicle and said,
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that”
At this moment, Terry was taking a risk. She’s in a rational state now and wants to follow up after the poor confrontation. And my epic response was
“Don’t worry about it. It’s an inside joke.”
Yes, I know. That was really wimpy. After my response, she smiled and left, and that was the end the conversation, and our working relationship. I soon started looking for a new job and turned in my notice a few weeks laterï»¿.
- For managers, even if you or your manager exert the emotional discipline not to blow up, even if you take the risk of a rational confrontation, there is still the need for ongoing follow up. ï»¿ï»¿ï»¿Terry did just that, but gave up when I made it hard for her. As a manager, you can’t take no for an answer. Yes, I wish I had responded better, but I also wish she said: “Well Jesse, regardless, I’d like to have coffee with you this afternoon to work through our last conversation. Meet me at Starbucks at 3pm”. This is what is expected of leaders; this is why you are chosen for the role of a manager. Because Terry didn’t go that extra mile, she lost me the opportunity to steer me into a productive team contributor.
- For team members, if your manager follows up with a peace offering, then it’s your obligation to accept it. Furthermore, if she never does follow up after yelling at you, then you need to initiate that. I held onto the grudge, and I lost the chance to grow through the experience.
So, when it comes to managers losing their cool. It’s a two-way street. Prevent it with open expectations. Control it by venting first. Resolve it with intentional and determined follow up.
QUESTION: Have you experienced similar conflicts? What worked or didn’t work for you?