Tag Archives: emotions at work

Fill in the blanks

I’ve been noticing what’s missing lately. In some ways, its harder to see what’s not there than what is. But there’s lost of useful information in what isn’t said, as well as what is.

For example:

A manager, talking about one of the people who reported to him said:

“He’s difficult to manage.”

What’s missing?

“He’s difficult (for me) to manage.”

“(When he does X), he’s difficult (for me) to manage.”

“(When he does X,) he’s difficult (for me) to manage (because I don’t understand his actions).”

“(When he does X), he’s difficult (for me) to manage (because I don’t understand his actions and I don’t know what to do).”

There may be another follow-on sentence, that hints at the crux of the matter.  That sentence might be…

And I’m worried that if I can’t bring him around, I’ll miss my goals and my boss will think I’m not competent.

And I have judgements about that behavior because I was criticized for that when I was in school.

And I feel threatened.

And I feel I have to defend my ideas.

I know what I’m asking doesn’t make sense, but my boss told me to do it.

It may have been more comfortable for the manager to say the first sentence, as he did.  He may even believe it.

As long as the manager deletes parts of the sentence, it’s easy for him to see the other person as the problem. As long as the problem resides entirely with the other person, there’s not much he can do to improve the situation (other than fire the “difficult to manage” person).  But the deletions contain important information that could help him improve the situation.

What examples would you add?

Team Trap #3: Failing to Navigate Conflict

“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy .” Eisenhardt,  Kahwajy and Bourgeois

“(….or acquiescing, or avoiding).” Esther Derby

Conflict is inevitable at work. Sooner or later, people will disagree about what to test, how to implement a feature, what “done” means, or whether “always” means 100 per cent of the time or some thing else. If team members can’t muster the involvement for a disagreement, you’ve got problem. failure to navigate conflict

Conflict holds the possibility for building trust or tearing it down. How team members choose to approach conflict will affect the outcome, relationships, and ultimately the ability of the team to function.

Conflict often feels personal–but often it is not.

Structural Conflict

Systems and structures drive behavior, and in almost every organization structures create conflict.  Misaligned departmental goals, reward systems, emphasis on functional roles , and differing priorities can all engender conflict

But often people don’t recognize the structural source of the conflict. When the structure  behind the conflict isn’t visible people personalize the conflict.  I hear this when developers talk about how stupid the marketing people are or when testers complain that devs don’t really care about quality.

Communication Misfires and Mismatches

Once structure is ruled out, the most common source of conflict in groups stems from communications where language is misunderstood, mis-construed or data is missing.  These sorts of conflicts are usually easy to fix.

Many English words have precise meanings.  But there are plenty of common terms where definitions vary between professions or among people. When I worked in a mutual funds company the term share price was used to refer to the monetary value of an individual investment vehicle (a share of stock), and the monetary value of a share in an mutual fund.  If you didn’t know which area a person worked in, it was pretty confusing. Confusion can escalate to conflict when people don’t recognize that they are using one word with two (or more) definitions.

Entrenched Positions

Advocacy isn’t bad in and of itself. But when advocacy proceeds without inquiry, it can become a position conflict.  Position conflicts are often easy to recognize. Each person (or party) argues forcefully for a preferred solution without reference to the problem they are trying to solve.

When neither party is willing to explore the other option, examine assumptions, and  generate additional candidate solutions, advocacy turns into conflict.  Once people frame advocacy as win-lose, it’s hard to back down. Doing so might look weak, feel like giving in, or imply that one was*wrong.*  Most people will go to great lengths to avoid admitting they were wrong, especially when eating crow is part of the bargain.  Backing down from a strongly held position can feel like eating crow, especially when the other person crows over his victory.

At a recent workshop, a participant asked “Why wouldn’t you start by advocating your own idea?”  It’s an understandable question; in the US we grow up on in a system where the best argument (or at least the loudest one) wins, where competition is valued and zero-sum game thinking is the often the norm.

The first reason not to advocate is that when you advocate, you are not learning.  You’re defending and pressing your idea, not examining the problem and seeing different points of view. You aren’t learning about another possible solution or seeing improvements for your own.

Different Values

Arguing points of view and potential solutions is one thing; some times a conflict goes deeper and touches basic beliefs about what is valuable, true, and good.

This sort of conflict can look like a position focus conflict.  The difference is that each proposed solution seems as if it could solve the issue or be a reasonable approach. But either or both may leave out key elements of what the other party describes as “reality.”

Different Preferences and Styles

Differences in how people process information, make rational judgements, and plan their day can provide the fuel for conflicts.  So can differences in boundaries, social needs and styles, times-sense and ideas about ownership.

We find other people difficult when they don’t meet our expectations of “appropriate” behavior. The trouble is that each of us has a different definition of “appropriate.” To further complicate matters, some areas of mismatched expectations are easy to see and comment on, but others aren’t.

All Roads (May) Lead to Personality Conflict

Some times conflict does get personal–usually when a string of smaller unresolved conflicts fester.

From the outside it may look like two people plain don’t like each other.  At it’s worst, it looks like the warring parties are out to destroy each other, no matter what the personal cost to career prospects or the productivity of the team.

It starts with one interaction that goes off track, an irritation that’s not addressed, or an action that’s interpreted as a slight or attack.  When these situations aren’t checked an corrected, one person starts making up stories, stories about himself, and the other person.

The story he tells about himself portrays him as someone whose motives are pure, and bears no responsibility for the situation.  The other person is portrayed as the perpetrator, the one who is insensitive, crass, or down right evil.

Once you have some idea about the source of the conflict you can apply different strategies to steer back towards productive discussion.  Conflict isn’t bad, and it doesn’t have to be painful or confrontational.  Conflict–handled well–is an opportunity for learning, creativity, and building trust.

Are You Ready to Coach?

Agile coaches are expected to help teams learn agile methods, engineering techniques, and improve the productivity of the teams they work with.  But before they can do they need to be ready to coach.  Being ready to coach means that you have coaching skills, relevant technical and process skills.

But the  foundational skill in coaching is skill in managing yourself.

Your attitude will contribute or detract from your ability to make contact, assess what coaching is needed, and actually help the client.   So,  before you begin, ask yourself a few questions.

Are you aware of your own emotional state? Manage your own emotions before you coach. Coach from a neutral, curious, and encouraging attitude. If you’re feeling angry or impatient, your emotions will leak into the coaching. Anger, frustration, or impatience won’t create a helpful interaction. Look inside to see where your emotions are coming from: Are you expecting an inexperienced person to perform as well as a master? What are your assumptions about what the other person should know or be able to do? Rather than blame the other person, reframe your judgment as “He doesn’t do that as well as I wish he did” or “She doesn’t know as much about this topic as I wish she did.” Shifting your attitude will make you a better coach.

Is coaching the best learning opportunity? When the team struggles and puts the team goal at risk, ask yourself: Where is the biggest opportunity for learning? Will the team learn most from making their own mistakes and learning from the consequences (That’s the beauty of short iterations—if the team misses a goal, the risk is limited by the length of the iteration) or will the team learn most if you coach them in a different direction?

Does the other person want coaching? Coaching always works better when the other person actually wants help. Try to wait for the person or team to come to you for help rather than immediately stepping in the moment you see trouble. Many people learn from solving problems on their own. That doesn’t mean you always have to wait until someone asks you for coaching. Coaching is part of your job, so you can always offer. But remember that it’s an offer—so ask before you inflict help. However, if you see a pattern emerging—a team member repeatedly refuses help when stuck—you have an opportunity to give feedback on how that pattern of behavior affects the team as a whole.

Does the other person want for coaching from you? Sometimes people want help, but they want it from someone else. Don’t take it personally if a team member would prefer to receive help from someone other than you. But again, look for patterns. If a team member is open to coaching from everyone but you, it’s a clue that the relationship may need repair.

Are you clear on the goal? If you aren’t clear on the desired outcome, you risk setting up a frustrating cycle called “bring me a rock.” “Bring me a rock” happens when success criteria are vague (or nonexistent). Here’s how it goes. You say, “Bring me a rock.” The other person goes off and finds a rock, and brings it back to show you. You look at the rock and realize it’s not the rock you had in mind. You hand the rock back and say, “Not that rock.” And the cycle begins again. The result is frustration and de-motivation—guaranteed! Of course, sometimes the goal isn’t known in detail. In that case, make it clear that the goal is to explore options and gain clarity.

Are you open to other approaches? You may have a very clear idea of how to accomplish the work or handle the interaction. But is it the only way? In most situations, there are many reasonable and acceptable paths to success. If you find yourself expecting things to be done a certain way, ask yourself if that way is simply your preference and not the only correct method. Help the person you are coaching think through different options and discuss the pros and cons of each approach. Then let the person choose the one that fits best for him or her. Team members gain capability when they develop based on their own thinking modes, strengths, and talents.

Are you ready to encourage rather than evaluate? Coaching is about helping another person develop skills and capabilities; it’s not a time for evaluation. Evaluation hinders coaching by creating a “one-up, one-down” dynamic. Most people have enough trouble asking for help in our culture without adding this burden. Stay away from comparative words such as good, better, worse, and bad. When you think the other person is headed down a rat hole, ask questions about risks and impacts rather than criticizing. Then help generate new ideas. Offer encouragement to let people know they are moving in the right direction.

When you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’re ready to make contact.  And then you  can start to coach.

Team Trap #5: Withholding Information

I’m not talking about information related to the task and context, here, though that can damage a team. Withholding that sort of information is unacceptable, and probably pathological. I’m talking about a different sort of information: information about your internal state .

Let me tell you a story about a team I coached. They’d asked me to observe them solving a problem, help them see their process and offer advice.  Ten minutes into the task things started to go awry.

The team was standing around a  whiteboard, and had generated a list of possible solutions to the problem. They’d started filtering the options, testing them against the requirements of the assignment, adding notes as they went.  As they eliminated options the guy with the marker, Jon, crossed off the options.  Until he got to Harry’s idea.  The board was getting crowded and when Harry’s idea didn’t pass the tests,  Jon erased it.

Harry tilted his chin down.   Then he crossed his arms over his chest, and took two steps back from the group. Everyone else was focused on the white board and didn’t notice as Harry withdrew.

When he didn’t rejoin the group within a few minutes, I approached him, touched his elbow and asked “What’s happening for you?”

“They rejected my idea,” he said. “Wiped it right off the board, like I’m nothing.”

(Notice that he equated rejecting his idea with rejecting him. Easy for us to say that’s not the case; you have to start where people are, not where you think they should be.)

“You have to tell the team,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No one is even notices that I’m not participating anymore.”

“All the more reason to let them know. They’re engrossed in the task, and they’re missing some important information about what’s happening to the team.”

Harry gave me a blank stare.  “You are withholding information that the team needs to function well,” I explained. “They need to know that one of their members has just checked out.  Will you tell them?”

He nodded, got the attention of the group, said his piece.

He was right, no one had noticed that he’d checked out, and that surprised everyone.  Jon was surprised that his erasure had affected Harry so. But he didn’t try to talk Harry out of his feeling or get defensive.  “Gosh, Harry, ” he said, “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Harry rejoined the group.

This sort of thing happens all the time.  One member of the team feels like he’s not being heard, or isn’t valued and withdraws. The rest of the group goes on, discusses, makes decisions, starts to act. The team is missing out on the intelligence, creativity and participation of that member.  They won’t  have his buy-in for decisions, and won’t have his full-hearted support for action.  When situations like this aren’t handled, relationship fracture and drains away.  When you’re part of team, you need to be willing to say what’s going on for you, so that the team stays healthy and connected.

I anticipate that at least one reader will judge Harry as thin skinned. Someone will assert that people need to “man up” and stop being so sensitive.

What I’ve noticed is that some people talk that way until they feel rejected ….and they they act pretty much the way Harry did (though sometime less grown up).

Dealing with “Difficult” Co-workers

We all have coworkers who rub us the wrong way, get on our nerves, and generally drive us crazy.

Let’s consider these examples of three people who have difficult coworkers:

1. Ted finished working on a difficult bit of code and headed for the team meeting. When he got there, Sandy looked at her watch and glared at him. “You’re late,” she snapped. “Hey, it’s only ten after,” Ted responded.

How selfish! Sandy thought to herself. Ted has no respect for other people’s time.

Meanwhile, Ted wondered why Sandy made such a big deal about arriving precisely on time. It’s hard to put down what I’m working on when I’m in the middle of something important. What’s more important, anyway?  Getting the code done so we can release this fix or coming to a  meeting? Why doesn’t Sandy understand that?

2. When the technicians showed up to install more memory in Frank’s computer, Frank asked Talia if he could use her machine, since she was going to a meeting. “Sure,” Talia replied. When she returned to her cube and logged into her computer, she discovered that Frank had changed the settings. She spent half-an-hour fixing the obvious ones, and stumbled over more of Frank’s little “fixes” for the rest of the day.

Sheesh, thought Talia. He asks to use my computer for an hour, and he acts like it’s his. I’m never letting him use my computer again. I wonder if he read my mail, too.

Frank, however, was pleased that he’d set up several helpful shortcuts on Talia’s machine.

3. Sam greeted Jennifer with a cheery hello as he entered her office. “How was your weekend,” he asked. “Did you do anything fun with the family?” Jennifer scowled. “Let’s get down to business, Sam,” she said.

What a grouch, Sam thought. I’m just trying to be friendly and build a working relationship.

Jennifer, on the other hand, wondered why Sam was so nosey. Doesn’t he get that I don’t want to discuss my private life at work? I don’t want to talk about having to take Chad for a psych evaluation over the weekend.

No one in these examples is a bad person. They aren’t wrong or behaving atrociously. But Ted, Frank, and Jennifer are acting in ways that are different from how Sandy, Talia, and Sam expect people to act.

The opposite is true, too: Sandy, Talia, and Sam are acting in ways that Ted, Frank, and Jennifer find puzzling and irritating.

Conflicting Definitions of Appropriate Behavior

We find other people difficult when they don’t meet our expectations of “appropriate” behavior. The trouble is that each of us has a different definition of “appropriate.” To further complicate matters, some areas of mismatched expectations are easy to see and comment on, but others aren’t.

In the first example, Ted and Sandy have different ideas about how important it is to arrive exactly on time. Sandy believes that not arriving on time shows disrespect for the group. Ted believes it’s more important to accommodate individual needs and be “close to on time.” These mismatches are easy to spot and most people are able to reach some accommodation because there is some external reference point: the clock and the agreed upon meeting time.

Other mismatches are about personal space, personal property, and privacy. What may seem like friendly conversation to one person may seem like prying to another, as in the example with Sam and Jennifer. Fred doesn’t view Talia’s computer as “hers.” To him, it’s company property and, therefore, belongs as much to him as to anyone else who works in the group. There’s no external reference point for these.

Each individual has his own idea of what’s appropriate. Psychologists call them “boundaries.” But, unlike boundaries on maps, we don’t always know where our boundary lines are until someone crosses them. Others don’t know where our boundary lines are unless we tell them.

Deal with Difficult People Where You Have the Most Leverage

We can hope that people we find difficult will realize how unreasonable they are and will change on their own, but they won’t. They won’t wake up and change because they don’t see themselves as difficult or inappropriate. These troublesome (to us) people believe they are acting in a reasonable way. In fact, they may wonder why other people are so upset.

To deal with difficult people more effectively, start where you have leverage. Start with you. When you feel yourself becoming upset, ask yourself if you’ve been clear in what you expected from the other person. Check on your emotional response. If you are having a strong response and wondering why the other person doesn’t get it, it may be a clue that someone just walked all over your boundary lines for acceptable behavior.

Understanding why people drive us to distraction at work doesn’t mean you have to tolerate behavior that you find distressing. Talia could set a boundary with Frank by saying something like “Frank, it’s fine for you to use my computer as long as you return the settings to my preferences when you’re done.” You can always make a request for a change—not for the other person to fix herself, but to respect your boundaries or find a third way that will work for both of you.

Life is too short to let the people we work with fray our nerves. We can’t change those irritating people, but we can recognize the source of our irritation and change our own response.

An slightly different version of this article appeared on stickyminds.com.

Bully Boss

A recent phone call reminded me of this article that I wrote in 2004. The story is real, the names are not. It’s a story that is all too common.


Not too long ago, I had lunch with my friend Sarah. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so I was surprised when she mentioned that she was leaving the company she has been with for almost ten years. The developers, testers, and other managers at this company respect her, and she loves what she does. Her workplace sounds ideal. So, why is Sarah leaving?

Sarah isn’t leaving for a more prestigious position or a higher salary; her boss is driving her out the door. Sarah’s manager blows up when things don’t go the way he wants them to, and she has had enough. “I’m tired of being screamed at,” Sarah said. “Life is too short.”

Sarah’s not the only one who has had to deal with a hostile boss. According to an article in American Way, “42% of US workers reported incidents of yelling and verbal abuse in their workplace.” While some people may feel they have to accept abusive behavior from bosses in order to keep their job, I agree with Sarah: Life is too short.

The Costs of Yelling and Verbal Abuse

Some people I talk to dismiss my concerns about workplace abuse. They tell me I’m too sensitive. “It’s just Frank,” they say. “He blows up, and then it blows over. Nobody takes it seriously.” But there are costs.

People who work for abusive managers often have stress-related problems and illnesses. They miss work due to symptoms, and they are less productive when they are at work. Their energy isn’t going into building software; it’s going into dealing with the emotional fallout of their manager’s behavior.

Yellers also drive attrition – turnover is higher, and it’s harder to entice internal candidates to work for a manager who has a reputation for outbursts and abuse. Many people would rather walk out the door than work for an abusive boss. The people who do stay may feel trapped by the job market or their own beaten-down self-esteem. People who feel trapped or beaten-down are not productive workers.

In my experience, abusive managers fall into three categories. How you handle the situation depends on which kind of screamer you’re up against.


Strange as it may seem, I’ve actually met managers who were not even aware they were yelling. Some people come from families where yelling is part of their “normal” communication. They see yelling as expressive, not aggressive. They may not be aware of the effect their yelling has on other people.


Some managers believe that people are basically lazy and will not work without coercion and threats of punishment. This view is called “Theory X” management. It doesn’t work. I don’t hear many developers or testers say, “I work better when I’m a little afraid. If my boss didn’t threaten me, I’d never get a thing done!” But some managers believe that this is the case. People who hold this view see yelling and threats as appropriate management action.

Sometimes yelling works in the short-term, as people will do what the yeller wants to get him to stop yelling, or keep him for yelling again.  This reinforces the yeller’s mental model of management.  He seldom looks at the other effects of his management methods: stress, illness, information hiding, lack of engagement.


Some people are not able to manage their emotions and responses. These are the bosses that react disproportionately, blow up, vent, swear (we’re not talking the occasional “Oh, %#@!”),and generally fly off the handle.

What You Can Do

If your manager is the Out-of-Control variety, you can try solve the problem by working with HR.

When your manager becomes abusive, stand up, state that you will not tolerate verbal abuse, and leave the room. Go to HR and file a formal complaint. Keep in mind that HR’s job is to protect the company’s interests, not yours. In my experience, the higher in the management chain the abuser is, the less likely HR will take action. The company has probably tacitly accepted his behavior for years, but when there are multiple complaints on file, HR may decide that it is in the company’s best interest to deal with the abuser. If there are witnesses to the abuse, talk to them about corroborating your account. And be prepared for an tense and uncomfortable patch while the process works out.

You may be able to manage this situation by making your own power move. Bring a recorder to your next meeting. Don’t hide it. (That could lead to some other problems.) Be quite open, put the recorder on the desk and say “I’m going to record our conversation, so I don’t have to rely on my memory to recall all the important things you have to say.” Start the recorder. This reduces the chance that your manager will yell. And if she does, it’s on tape.

Rarely, I hear from someone who has found a way to survive an abusive boss.  They manage to cope and let it roll off their backs.  The fact that you can’t let it roll off yours doesn’t mean you are too sensitive, thin-skinned, or weak.

Threats of physical harm, retribution, and personal attacks are well over the line. Verbal abuse is never acceptable.

People who cannot manage themselves should not manage others.

No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses. End of discussion.

Sometimes the HR department isn’t willing to take any action. Consider what you are willing to live with, and start examining your options for another position, in or out of the company, and make an exit. If you do leave, state your reasons for leaving in the exit interview.

There’s more hope for managers who aren’t out of control. Start with the most generous interpretation and the smallest intervention.

Assume your manager isn’t aware that he’s yelling. Comment on the yelling and the effect it’s having on you. In a calm voice say, “What you have to say is important to me, but I can’t hear you when you’re yelling.” This may be enough to jolt the yeller into awareness.

A manager who continues to yell may be a Theory X Manager. You probably won’t change his mind, but you might change his behavior. State again that it’s important that you hear what he has to say, but right now you can’t because of his yelling. State that you will reschedule the meeting for later in the day, and then leave the room. When you meet again, tell him the effect that his yelling has on you. Request that meetings and conversations take place in a normal tone of voice. If that fails, consider bringing a recorder to meetings, and contact HR.

Employees have a right to be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. Many mega-decibel managers cease and desist when faced with resistance. When you encounter an abusive manager, hold on to your self-esteem, take action, and decide whether the paycheck is worth the price.


Reader Jerry Conklin sent this response when the article was originally published (posted with permission):

The manager who uses his position to bully employees is pathetic and worse than useless. The negative effect of such people is powerful. This kind of bullying behavior has produces human misery and project failure. Such people need to be weeded out of management.

Like all bullies, the bullying manager hates himself. Since he cannot face that fact, he uses whatever power he has to dump that hate on anyone perceived as weak and vulnerable. At bottom, he is a cringing coward and can generally be seen to grovel before his superiors. He is drven by fear.

The main responsibility of any manager is to remove obstacles to productivity not to create them. The fulfillment of such a responsibility requires character, integrity and courage. The bullying manager is often tolerated because she has high technical qualifications. When someone has shown herself to have the cited leadership traits, then we can talk about technical capability. The bully is a weakling who is, by definition, devoid of the character traits necessary to lead people.

Well said, Jerry.

Also check out Bob Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule.

An earlier version of this article appeared on stickyminds.com.

First Things First: Deal with the Human, then, Work

I recently read some advice suggesting that when we’re stressed or feeling non-positive emotions because of situations out side work—the illness of a spouse or child, a divorce, or other personal problem–employees should hide their emotions and pretend to be eager and positive.

I can’t endorse that advice.

Let me tell you a little story that shows why.

The other day I had conference call scheduled with a colleague, Alysa. We’d emailed back-and-forth before hand, so we had a rough agenda going into the meeting. It only took a minute to list the 3-4 topics.

“Where should we start?” I asked.

“Let’s start with the conference session. No, I mean the consulting proposal. Did you send me email about this?” Alysa said.

“Yep, last Tuesday,” I said.

“Oh, I guess I lost it. Sorry, I’m sort of spacey today.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I have it right here,” and started listing the open items.

“Did I tell you my husband’s been laid off?” Alysa blurted.

“No….sounds like we should talk about that first,” I said. “Tell me what happened.”

Alysa told me the about the layoff, how she was trying to give her husband, Harvey, support, and what Harvey was doing to find a new job. She was feeling anxious, worried, and angry. Mostly I listened and offered a few words of commiseration.

After about five minutes, Alysa had finished her story.

“Ok, I can concentrate on our agenda now,” Alysa said.

We continued our meeting, accomplished what we set out to, and ended the meeting on time.

Here’s the paradox: If I had tried to force Alysa to stick to the agenda from the start, and told her that Harvey’s layoff was off-topic, we would not have gotten our work done. Alysa wouldn’t have been fully present or focused. By taking a few minutes to acknowledge what was happening, we were able to move on to productive work.

We all deal with the potential for people to be emotionally pre-occupied at work everyday. It may be an argument with a spouse or a sick child. Perhaps the school has called to report that Junior is up for detention. All sorts of events outside of work come with us when we enter the office door. Work events can cause emotional responses, too. Mergers, re-orgs, new bosses, downsizing, and even mundane events can create emotional situations. We don’t turn off our human-ness or our emotions when we come to work.

For the organization, ignoring emotions takes a toll on productivity—people are distracted and unable to focus. For individuals, it adds to stress and alienation.

Now, I don’t believe that we should let it all out at work—even when we know our co-workers really well, we’re not in the bosom of our family. Consider the context and recognize that we are all human, and our emotions are part of what and who we are. We need to manage our emotions, not hide, fake, or ignore them. Deal with the human first, and it will be easier to get the work done.

Here are some strategies for managing emotions that make it to the office:

Confide in a friend.

Alysa and I know each other pretty well, and it was only the two of us in the meeting. Alysa feels comfortable saying things to me that she might not choose to say in a more formal meeting.

Sometimes it’s enough to tell someone what’s going on, like Alysa did with me. If you have a good friend at work, talk to him or her. Often when we feel heard and understood it’s easier to put the matter aside and concentrate.

Acknowledge emotional responses.

Karen, a team lead in a software company, was upset because her manager, Ted, had countermanded a technical decision she had made. When Karen told Ted she was upset, Ted responded “I’ve thought about it, and there’s no reason for you to feel that way.” Karen was not soothed.

We feel that way we feel, whether there’s a “reason” or not. Ted would have made more headway had he simply accepted Karen’s emotional response and talked about solving the problem… clarifying decision boundaries.

Notice what’s happening.

Earlier this month I was working with a group to surface requirements. I noticed that one of the key experts, Rosalind, was awfully quiet and kept looking down at her hands. When I looked more closely, I could see there were tears in her eyes. When we reached a reasonable stopping point, I called a break and called Rosalind aside.

“What’s happening for you?” I asked. Rosalind had just learned that her husband had cancer. We took the time before the break ended to decide what to do. Rosalind decided she’d stay for the session, and leave to be with her husband as soon as the meeting was over. Having that settled and telling someone what was going on allowed her set aside her worry and distress (at least for a short while) to participate in the requirements gathering session.

Use check-ins.

For a longer meeting or working session that requires everyone’s participation, consider doing a short check-in. A check-in serves as a boundary between outside and inside the meeting and allows people to say just a bit about their background noise, if they choose to. Something as small as being stuck in traffic and feeling rushed can block concentration. Saying it aloud can help to let it go.

Use the resources available.

Sometimes emotional distractions last longer than a few days. Jon, a programmer on my team, went through a nasty custody negotiation when he divorced. He needed to take time off work for legal appointments and mediation. When Jon came to talk to me about it, he was worried that between the emotions, stress, and time off, his work would suffer.

I put Jon in touch with the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). He was able to find a support group for divorcing dads. (I didn’t try to be Jon’s therapist… that wasn’t my job as a manager. I did put him in touch with HR and worked out a flexible schedule with him, both of which were within my job as a manager.) Jon was able to remain productive at work.

If your company has an EAP, you usually don’t need to wait for your manager to bring it up. It’s there for you to use and there’s no shame in seeking support to cope with a difficult life event.

Manage employees who can’t or won’t manage themselves.

Once in a great while I encounter people who are unable to manage their emotions at work. It’s not your job to be a therapist or to fix your employees. When a member of your team is repeatedly unable to focus on work because of emotional issues, coach the employee to obtain appropriate professional help. If the employee continues to be unable to focus and do the work he’s paid to do, coach him out of the job.

What do you do to manage emotions at work? What’s the price of ignoring emotions at work?

An earlier version of this column appeared on Stickyminds.com in 2003.

Facing Up to the Truth

(c) 2001-2010 Esther Derby

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2

The other day I was skimming the Harvard Management Update when a section in bold red print caught my eye: “Why don’t more organizations stop and think? Because they don’t want to face the truth.” The article went on to say that the ability to “face the truth” is a critical business skill, and that failure to do so can have organizational and bottom-line consequences. Does this sound familiar? You and I see these consequences in software when projects spin out of control and shaky products are shipped “on time” in spite of poor quality.

What is “the truth”? Truth is a big word, so let’s settle for something more mundane: the current situation or the current state.

First let’s acknowledge that organizations can’t face truth; organizations are configurations of people and can’t really act as one human person would. But we, the people who make up organizations, can grapple with concepts like truth. So why don’t we? If it’s that important, we should all face up to the current situation, right? What makes it so hard for us?

Let’s look at two projects that didn’t go as hoped for, and how their sponsors faced the situation.

Martha was a new vice president in a software company that was growing by acquisition. Martha saw an opportunity to consolidate accounting and customer functions across acquired companies. She made the business case to her boss, Ben, chartered a project she named “One-Account,” and started the search for a project manager.

The hiring market was tight, and Martha couldn’t find anyone with the level of experience and skill she wanted for the salary she was able to offer. After interviewing a dozen candidates, she settled for a bright young man named Steve, even though he didn’t have much experience.

Pretty soon it became obvious that Steve didn’t have the skills to handle the large and complex project Martha had hired him for. Steve wasn’t able to manage scope or build even a basic plan.

“I can’t go upstairs and tell Ben this,” Martha thought. “If I tell him, he’ll think I’m a fake and a failure. I talked him into this, after all. We haven’t actually missed any dates,” she rationalized, “and we aren’t over budget, so we’re not really offtrack…”

When colleagues started suggesting that Martha needed to step in and put the project back on track, she countered by justifying her current situation. “I really did my best to find a more experienced project manger, but Steve was the fourth person I made an offer to, and by that point…what was I supposed to have done?”

The project continued to wallow as Steve frantically hired more contractors to work on the ever-increasing scope. Martha started moving resources from other projects and initiatives to cover the wildly inflating budget. “It’s all coming from my own budget, and I’ve got the One-Account project covered, so technically we’re not really over budget,” she told herself.

Martha’s boss, Ben, looked at his current situation, and realized he had a vice president who wasn’t able to face the situation and take action. Ben fired Martha.

Several times zones away, Jackson found himself in a similar spot. His organization was building a new Web application, the first for his company. He hired a project manager, Stacey, who had a good résumé and who seemed like a good fit for the organization. She was a nice person and did a good job building the initial plan.

Jackson felt things were going okay, so he turned his attention to a problem brewing with a subsidiary elsewhere.

When Jackson came back, he found that Stacey’s project team was still having planning meetings, but there were no results or tangible signs of progress. The delivery date had been moved out. When the team talked about delivery, they were pretty vague. “Sometime in maybe the fourth quarter,” he’d hear, “or maybe early next year.”

“This project isn’t going the way I want it to,” thought Jackson. “Stacey did well at the planning stage, but she isn’t able to define concrete deliverables so people can make progress. I sure like Stacey and I want her to be successful. I need to do something to put things back on track.” Jackson started by coaching Stacey, meeting with her three times a week and giving her more direction. Still, the project wasn’t turning around.

Jackson sat down and had a long talk with Stacey. It wasn’t an easy conversation for either of them. Jackson realized that he wouldn’t be doing Stacey any favors by keeping her on in a position that was turning out to be a poor fit. Stacey moved into a role where she was more comfortable, and Jackson took over management of the project.

On the face of it, both Martha and Jackson faced similar problems—an important project that wasn’t going as they wanted. And Martha and Jackson were each aware of the gap between the desired state and the current reality.

The difference was that Martha became wrapped up in her fears about what the situation might mean for her career, and her beliefs about failure. With all that emotion swirling around, there wasn’t much room left for her to think clearly about what to do. Jackson, on the other hand, looked at the facts as just that: facts—information about the difference between the current state and what he wanted. Does this mean we should suppress our emotions? No, as managers, we need to learn how to manage our own emotional state, so we can focus on solving the problem.

The current situation can seem “bad” when things are not going the way we hoped they would. But really, the situation justis. The ability to “face the truth” and take effective action rests on the ability to be in a mental state where our emotions and fears aren’t running us. And managers like Jackson have learned to face the current situation as neither good nor bad—it just is what it is. From that perspective, we can gauge where we are in relation to where we want to be, and take action to close the gap.

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, December 2001.

No is in the air

A while back, Slacker Manager bemoaned micromanaging colleagues who over use “call colleague X” as thier next action (a la David Allen).

And that got me thinking about saying No.

Most of us are inclined to accept any task that comes our way at work– whether we have the bandwith to do the task or not. We take on tasks because we don’t want to disappoint people.

But we do end up disappointing people when our Yes doesn’t mean anything.

There are alternatives to a reflexive Yes:

  • Not now, at some later time.
  • Not by me, but another co-worker.
  • At this time, if you are willing to help me with ________.
  • At this time, instead of __________.


These answers present the possiblity of a choice or negotiation.

When someone says Yes without a clear plan to accomplish the task, the other person waits hopefully (or impatiently) as their options for getting the task done dribble away.

When you can’t or won’t do something, saying No allows the other person to move on to find some option that will work. (Jeffrey Phillips talks about Getting to No –via Frank Patrick— as failing fast… and then moving on to more productive.)

So why is it so hard to say No?

Many of us have Rules about saying No:

Always cooperate.

Always be considerate.

Always be helpful.

Treat the boss and his requests with respect.

(fill in your rule here)

(For ideas on transforming rules, look here.)

Some of us don’t know how to say No in a way that doesn’t feel mean. Try a one of the alternatives to a relfexive Yes, or Satir’s Soft Spurn (from Jerry Weinberg’s More Secrets of Consulting):

Show appreciation
Give a regretful No (but no excuses)
Make an opening for some future relationship

“I’m flattered that you’d ask me. Unfortunately, I’m unable to do that at this time.”

If you can’t say No, your Yes doesn’t mean anything.

(Jerry will be leading a session on choosing Yes or No at the Aye Conference in November.)

Astonishing advice

Oh, dear. Oh, dear.

Sunday afternoon, as I was getting ready to fly out to visit a client, I cast about for some airplane reading. I found a thin little book called Managing Your Boss, by Sandi Mann.

In the section titled “Emotional Management,” the author advises that we learn to recognize which emotions will impress our boss, and systematically display them. She adds that we shouldn’t reserve these displays only for our boss, because that might make one appear false, rather than truly impressive.

Next she advises that we need to learn to “fake and hide.” Some emotional situations — a personal worry or concern, a health problem, feeling ill, being passed over for promotion — she asserts, make it “difficult to display the required emotions while simultaneously hiding your real ones.” Her advice is to try to arrange your physical features to reflect the necessary impressive emotion, or if that fails, try method acting.

You know, I believe “managing up” can be helpful. And I find Ms. Mann’s advice disturbing.

Consider this scenario:

Years ago, when I was a manager, one of the guys in my group, Jon, came into my office and closed the door. He looked awful. He told me that his wife had left him for the guy who lived down the street. He was devastated. And he was worried about needing to take chunks of time off to work for divorce and custody proceedings. He was concerned that the stress would effect his job performance.

We had a long talk about options. We looked at how he could flex his schedule, use vacation, or take some family leave if he needed to. I was able to hook Jon up with the corporate employee assistance program, where he arranged for short-term counseling to help support him through the divorce.

I was willing to accept the short-term dip, knowing that when he was through the worst of the divorce mess, he’d be back. Jon’s work wasn’t up to his usual standards for a couple of months, but it wasn’t shabby, either. He was still a solid contributor. And he did come back.

I didn’t take care of Jon,and I didn’t pretend to be his therapist. I made him aware of what was possible through the company benefits program and made the initial connections to HR so he could access what was available. That was my job as his manager.

If Jon had been on the “fake and hide” program, what would have happened? His stress probably would have been worse. His work would have suffered, and I would have noticed. Then I’d have asked him what was going on, and if he was still trying to impress his boss, he would have hidden the divorce, his distress, and faked enthusiasm . And the story would have a different ending.

Sure, we all need to manage our emotions and consider the context in how much we “let go” at work. That’s different from suppressing emotions, hiding emotions, or faking emotions.

Faking and hiding, showing the emotions that calculated to impress the boss, may accomplish something, but I can’t imagine that it’s something useful.