Tag Archives: interpersonal skills

Self-Awareness Matters: Finding Your Filters

I remember sitting in a project meeting back when I worked for a Big Company. The project manager, Ted, announced the top three priorities.  When I offered a different view point, Ted declared, “You’re wrong. We decided on these priorities yesterday.”  He didn’t notice six out of eight people at the table  shaking their heads “No.”  

Ted didn’t notice the responses and reactions of people around him. He also didn’t  notice that he didn’t notice.

We all have filters. That’s a good thing–our cognitive systems can’t process all the data that’s available. But most people filter out useful information as well as extraneous information (for example, the size of loops in the carpet or shoe styles). What any one person filters depends on his preferences for big picture vs. detail processing, intake style (verbal, visual, tactile) and training.

Learning about your own filters builds self-awareness. Knowing what you tend to filter allows you to choose to ignore that information or make a conscious choice to notice it.

Ted deprived himself of the choice to notice people’s reactions. Ted was continually surprised when people “resisted” or “backtracked” on decisions. He didn’t pick up on the fact that after he made a few sharp criticisms, people stopped offering ideas.

People who lack self-awareness don’t realize their own observational biases or notice the impact of their behavior. They wonder why things don’t work well (or work well) but don’t see their part in the situation.

One relatively small action by a manager can send ripples or shockwaves through a system. Ted’s lack of self-awareness suppressed the groups effectiveness. Some people ignored Ted’s dictates and did what they thought was right–which splintered the group’s effort. Others left for positions where they could participate in solving problems rather than carrying out the managers prescriptions, driving turnover. Since hierarchy amplifies biases, it behooves people in management roles to build their awareness and find their filters.

Here are two exercises to build awareness of your own filters.

1. Work with a colleague who has different type preferences or a different sensory intake style. Make an agreement to share observations after meetings or working sessions.  What does your colleague consistently notice that you miss?  What do you miss by missing that?

Work on noticing those things that you have missed up until now.  Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.

2. Reflect on a recent meeting.  Did  you notice anything about the flow of conversation?  For example, in what order do people speak? Who interrupts whom, and how often?  Did you notice anything about physical arrangements? Or who is on their iPhone? Did you notice what emotions came up?

Choose an aspect of human behavior that you normally don’t notice. Then, practice noticing it.  Notice what insights you gain about yourself and the group.

If it fits for you, report back here. If you would like some help honing your self-awareness, drop me a note.

Best at argument != Best ideas

I was talking to my friend Penny the other day about a team she coaches.

There’s a really smart guy on the team. I’ll call him Bob. Most of the time Bob is an asset to the team. But when the team needs to decide on a technical solution under time pressure, he’s not.

“But Bob is a smart guy,” you may say. “How is it he’s not an asset? Won’t he have the best ideas?”

When it comes time to solve a technical problem, Bob is always first to offer his idea. Then, Bob dominates the conversation with a constant stream of words, leaving no opening for another to insert facts, ideas, points of view. When someone does find a voice and interrupts the torrent, Bob cuts him off, declaring “I’m not finished.”

When Bob does finish, and another team members asks a question, Bob implies that the other person doesn’t get it, and might be too stupid to see the brilliance of Bob’s idea.

When another team member proposes a different idea, Bob shreds it. He points out the flaws in the other person’s idea, while pointing to the strengths of his own idea.

When he does let others speak, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t listening to learn. Bob is figuring out how to score his next point.

I don’t believe Bob has bad intentions. I believe he wants to be helpful, and believes he is. Bob is helping the team in many ways, but he’s also hurting the team. Here’s how:

1. The team don’t have enough ideas. Due to Bob’s style, there is seldom more than one idea (Bob’s) that receives serious consideration. That’s not enough. Even if Bob is smart, so are the other people on the team. But Bob is the most extraverted and the best at argument and debate. That’s not the same as having the best ideas.

2. Over time, Bob’s style will wear down the other team members. It’s really not terribly satisfying to be browbeaten, or have all your ideas shot down. At some point, other people will stop offering ideas, and acquiesce rather than endure another argument with Bob.

3. As long as Bob’s ideas prevail, others don’t have a chance to develop their ideas.They are deprived the opportunity to learn, think about problems and risks, and increase their capability. Over the long run, that’s bad for the individuals involved, bad for the team, bad for the organization.

Penny has given Bob feedback on the effects of his behavior. It’s made some impact, but when there’s pressure to come up with a solution, Bob–as most people do–falls back on his default behavior. Chances are, Penny won’t get Bob to change that. Bob’s behavior is driven by his natural tendencies, and years of cultural exposure that taught him that competition and argument are the way to find the best ideas.

However, Penny can change the process so that the team has sufficient ideas to consider, and that credible ideas receive due consideration.

Here’s how:

Separate generating ideas, explaining ideas, exploring ideas, and evaluating ideas. As it is now, all of these are mashed together (and done mostly by Bob).

Equalize participation. From what Penny has told me, I suspect Bob is a strong extravert and the other team members are introverts. That means that Bob is very comfortable thinking out loud, and the other team members need a bit of time to organize their thoughts. Before they have time to do that, Bob is on a roll. One way make room for more participation is to start the process with a few minutes of silent brainstorming. Then, ask each person explain (orally or through sketching) the essentials of his or her best idea.

Apply the Rule of Three. If you don’t have at least three ideas, you don’t have enough ideas, and you probably don’t understand the problem. You may end up with deciding the first idea that came up is the best one…but you may not, or you may refine the first idea based on further discussion.

Test for agreement. Some teams get carried away with voting. But when a decisions are routinely highjacked by one individual, it can help to test for agreement using a gradient of agreement or fist of five.

Establish a small set of tests for technical solutions. In this team, some of the tests that make sense might be:

The solution …

  • is the simplest thing that can work.
  • doesn’t add to technical debt.
  • can be implemented in the timeframe required by service level agreements.

Bob may have the best ideas on the team. We don’t really know if that’s the case. No one else’s ideas are fully considered. We do know he doesn’t have a perfect record. Some of his fixes don’t work the first time. Some of his fixes break something else.  If the team had a process to consider and refine ideas, that might not happen as much.

It may sound like it will take more time to separate generating ideas from explaining, exploring, and evaluating them. It may seem like a lot of effort to find more than one idea and test the ideas for soundness and test the level of support for a given idea.

But in years of observing teams, I find that slowing down and separating the steps of the choosing a solution helps the team speed up. A mashup process forced by a dominant individual may appear to save time in the very short-term. That’s seldom true if you account for all the time costs and other effects incurred.

There’s I(ntelligence)Q, and then there’s I(nfluence)Q

People who work in software are smart people who take pride in their abilities to understand complex information and solve difficult problems. But much of the work isn’t only about smarts. Creating most software requires the help and cooperation of other people. Telling, convincing, and winning arguments won’t work to bring people along, change their minds, or help them help you. That requires influence.

To some of people, influence is a dirty word. The word may bring up images of sleazy organizational politics or strong-arm tactics along the lines of “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

But influence doesn’t have to be slimy or manipulative. Simply put, influences is the capability to affect the opinions and actions of others. You don’t have to be in charge to have influence; the elements of influence are available no matter what your role.

Let’s eavesdrop on two conversations to see what we can learn about influence.

The Alpha team is working towards their next release. One of the major goals is to make it easier for customers to migrate their existing data when they install a new version of the software.

Brandon knows there are two stories in the backlog that will require table updates: one story is scheduled for this release and one for the next. He has figured out how to design the table to accommodate both requirements with one table change, which means customers will need to do only one database conversion, instead of two. Plus, they can roll out the improvement with this release rather than the following one.

Brandon wants to convince Cindy–who is working on the story that’s part of the current release– that his idea is the right approach. Brandon stops by her desk to chat about his idea.

We’ll pick up the conversation after Brandon’s sketched out his candidate design.

Cindy: You can’t do the tables that way, Brandon.

Brandon: Let me tell you why I this this will work, and be easier for the customer…

Cindy (cutting Brandon off): We’ll have to write lots more code with this table setup. Did you think of that?

Brandon: It might take another access call, Cindy, but it makes it much easier for the customer to install the new release.

Cindy: We’re going to have to write ten percent more code, at least. And then we’ll have to test it all. It’s a bad idea.

Brandon: I don’t agree, Cindy. It’s not going to take that much more code. And there are several advantages to this approach.

Cindy: Do you really want us to blow our iteration goal? Is that what you want?

Brandon (trailing off): No, of course, I don’t want us to miss our commitments…

Brandon felt like he was being backed into a corner and it felt like Cindy was picking a fight.

After a couple more brow beatings from Cindy, Brandon gave up.  Arguing with Cindy wasn’t worth it.

Cindy, however, felt a little rush of pride. She believed that her powers of argument had moved Brandon to see things her way.

Cindy is exhibiting one sort of influence, perhaps a sort that gives influence a bad name: browbeating and emotional manipulation.

Brandon is missing the influence boat, too. He didn’t ask Cindy what she needed or what her concerns were to see if they had some common ground.

Brandon made two other mistakes:

  • He responded to Cindy’s objection by explaining his position rather than exploring her objection.
  • He responded to her second objection by arguing the facts.

In another part of the country, Jason and Tom are working on a virtually identical project:

Jason: Tom, the customers are really screaming about having to convert their databases with every release. I think I’ve found a way to eliminate a conversion for the next release–three months earlier we thought we could. I think they’ll love it. Is this a good time to walk through my idea?

Tom: Sure, show me what you’ve got.

Jason walked through his approach.

Tom: Well, the way you have it set up, we’ll have to write another call every time we access this table.

Jason: Ah. That’s true. When I was fleshing this out, I saw there would be an extra call. Can you tell me more about the impact you think that will have?

Tom: Well, I’m worried about writing and testing those calls.

Jason: Can you tell me more about that? You’re not concerned about performance?

Tom: Performance shouldn’t be a problem (but we’d need to test that). I’m worried about Teddy. Teddy is sweating the release plan. He just added a a big new feature, and he’s worried about upholding his commitments to one of our key customers.

Jason: Oh, so your concern is about what we can fit into the release.

Tom: Yep, I don’t see what we can take off the plate to fit this onto the plate.

Jason: I see. Well, what if we talk to Teddy about the tradeoffs and see if we can shift something around to make this work?

Tom: Okay. Let’s to talk to Teddy. And let’s talk to the rest of the team. They may see something we’re missing.

Maybe Cindy would need Prozac to be this mellow. But most people will hear more and be willing to cooperate when they feel like you have heard their concerns and understand that your goals intersect with their goals.

Here’s what Jason did:

  1. When Jason approached Tom, he checked to make sure it was a good time to walk through the design before he started.
  2. Jason stated his goal explicitly, and tied it to something they both cared about, customer satisfaction.
  3. When Jason heard Tom’s objections, he asked for more information rather than starting to explain his position.
  4. He acknowledged Tom’s concern, and obtained Tom’s agreement that he’d heard the concern correctly.
  5. He showed his willingness to help Tom overcome that concern by talking to the Teddy, the product owner.

in short, he connected, listened, learned, and found a potential ally.  That’s high IQ.

Talk, Talk, Talk

I wrote an article about the many ways that managers inadvertently plug the communication pipeline (free registration required). In doing so, they deprive themselves of the information they need to do their jobs. It reminded me of one of the most common ways managers block information–talking too much, listening too little. Some advice for managers…

***

I recently observed a manager meeting with a team member. The manager gave the low-down on a leadership change at the top of the company, speculated on the economy, described his plans for the future, and detailed his mother’s heart attack.

At the end of the meeting, the manager smiled at the team member and said, “Keep up the good work. You’re doing a great job!”

How would he know?

The team member barely got a word in edgewise, and certainly didn’t have an opportunity to describe what he was working on.

Watch the Conversational Balance

In a social situation, a 50/50 balance between talking and listening feels comfortable. But management conversations are different. Managers need to understand how people are working, and where they need help. Managers need to understand the status of work, risks, and obstacles. The manager described above talked 95 percent of the time and listened 5 percent of the time. 30 percent talking and 70 percent listening is a more appropriate balance for management conversations.

Prime the Pump

Aiming for a 30/70 balance doesn’t mean you sit there silently and wait for the other person to fill the silence. Nor does it mean that you need to listen to a rambling monologue that doesn’t provide the information you need to do your management job.

Hone your questioning skills to help you explore the work and understand your team members. Ask open-ended questions, questions that invite expansion, to draw out relevant information. Open-ended questions often start with “What” or “How”.

Some of the questions I find useful in starting conversations with team members are:

• What’s going well?
• What’s keeping you up at night?
• What obstacles are you running into?
• How did you approach the ____________ issue we discussed last week?
• Tell me about your work on __________.

Ask probing questions to gain further insight:

• What else?
• Can you give me an example?
• What’s behind that?
• What else have you tried?
• What other information would be helpful?

Closed questions often start with “Can”, “Do”, “Are” or “Is.” Closed questions naturally lead to a one-word answer. A steady stream of closed questions feels like an interrogation: use closed questions when you want to confirm specific information.

• Did you check with Fred on that?
• Did you try the transaction under load?

Avoid “Why?” Questions

Of course, you want to know why, but asking “Why?” isn’t always the best way to find out. “Why?” questions put people on the defensive. Try asking questions that start with “How” or “What” to understand the reasons behind an action, approach, or decision.

• How did you arrive at that conclusion?
• What factors did you consider?

Ask One Question at a Time

I once sat in on a planning session where the leader started by asking a series of questions — eight of them (I counted). “Well, what are your answers?” he asked, looking expectantly at the dazed group. No one knew where to start. Should they start with the first question (if they remembered it)? The last? Some where in the middle?

Compound questions have the same effect:

“How are you doing on the performance tests – and are we getting anywhere with the memory leak – or is Ted handling that now, and is he able to work independently on that or is Sally helping him and how is that effecting the load testing?”

If you really want answers, ask one question at a time, and then…

Wait for an Answer

Some people like to think then talk. Others like to talk as they think. Our industry tends to have more people who like to think, then talk. So when you ask a question, give the other person some time to answer, pause, and count to ten. Wait patiently. The other person will answer.

The Other Side of the Desk

What can you do when your manager doesn’t leave room to get a word in edgewise?

Based on what I’ve seen, many people, like the 95 percent talk manager I observed, are unaware of that they are dominating the conversation. Some managers are uncomfortable with silence. Others assume that since the other person isn’t jumping in, they don’t have anything to say.

The trouble is, when you don’t share the same style, jumping vocally can be difficult. Try telegraphing your desire to speak in other ways:

• Send an email ahead of time with the topics you’d like to cover. Bring a copy with you to the meeting. Before the manager builds up a head of steam, gently push the topic list across the desk.
• Lean forward, open your mouth as if you are about to speak, and raise your hand slightly. Clear your throat, then begin speaking.
• Wait until your manager takes a breath (everyone has to inhale sooner or later). Start talking.
• Raise your index finger and place it in front of your lips. Most people recognize this as a sign you want them to be quiet for a while.
• If you are comfortable jumping into the monologue, say something like, “Excuse me, I have some information I think you need to know.” Then keep talking.

Managers need excellent communication skills and that doesn’t just mean talking. Part of good communication involves knowing when to ask a question and when to be silent and listen.

This article originally appeared on stickuyminds.com.

As Goes the Contracting, So Goes the Contract

A while back, a colleague, Susan, called to ask me for some advice.

“I’ve been planning a vacation with my family for months,” she said. “And now my new client wants me on-site next week. I’d be happy to come the week after next, but they keep pushing. I told them I couldn’t come because I had family plans.”

“Have you been able to schedule the visit for a time that works for both of you?” I asked.

“No, not yet. The next day, my client called me back and said they really needed me, and to make it easy for me, they’ll put me and my family up at a five star hotel for the week and through the weekend. They’ll provide a nanny, a car and driver, and obtain VIP passes at the local theme park and children’s theatre.”

“Are you going to do it?” I asked..

“It’s tempting,” she said. “They say they really need me, and my kids would probably love it. But something doesn’t feel right.”

I had to agree.

Susan is at a turning point with her client: the way this initial exchange about scheduling her site visit unfolds will color the rest of their working relationship.

All of us establish working relationships, whether we are employees or external consultants like Susan. We make agreements with others about what’s expected and how we’ll work together. Sometimes our agreements are explicit, as in creating a project charter, setting a sprint goal, or establishing the boundaries of a new assignment. Other times the agreements are less explicit—the agreement comes about without conscious attention.

Pay attention to what happens in the early stages, when you’re working out how you’ll work together. The early stages often foreshadow the entire working relationship.

Susan’s client was establishing that he expects people to switch priorities at short notice and sacrifice personal balance to support his sense of urgency. If Susan acquiesced to this request, her client would have her asking “How high?” each time he said “Jump.”

After we analyzed the situation, Susan decided to stand firm. She called her client and thanked them for their generous offer, and said it didn’t fit for her to upend her family vacation. She reaffirmed that she’d be happy to be on-site with them the week after her vacation.

Susan’s client was surprised that anyone would act this way, but accepted her schedule.

After her week at the client site, Susan called me back. “You know how my client wanted me to drop everything, change my plans, and react to their sense of urgency? It wasn’t really urgent. And they treat almost everyone that way.”

“Yep,” I said. “Everyone but you.”

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.

The Blame Game

No one likes to be blamed, so why do we blame each other in the first place? What place does it have in our relationships, and how does it affect our problem-solving abilities? A personal experience with customer disservice to highlight our attraction to assigning blame and how it delays us from reaching solutions.

Not long ago, I took my dog to the boarding kennel as I was leaving for a business trip. Usually she stays at home, but this time my husband was going to be out of town, too.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked. “I’m here to drop Pudge off for boarding,” I replied, expecting I’d spend minutes to sign the papers, give Pudge a goodbye pat, and head to the airport.

The receptionist pulled up a computer screen and examined it. Then she looked a paper file. “You’re not supposed to be here today. Your reservation is for next week on the 28th,” she declared.

Oh, crap, I thought. This could be a real problem. The first thing to do is determine whether they can fit her in. If not, I need to start making phone calls right away.

“Oh, dear,” I said out loud. “That’s odd. I was sure I made the reservation for today. Is there room to board Pudge for next three days?”

“You’re wrong,” the receptionist asserted. “Your reservation is for the 28th.”

Let’s skip the fact that this exchange is not a stellar example of customer service. What was really interesting to me was that the receptionist insisted on telling me I was wrong, even in the face of the evidence that I was there and had a plane to catch. I wasn’t particularly interested in assigning blame; I wanted to move on to Plan B if I needed to, make sure my dog would be cared for, and make my flight.

What is Blame?

The dictionary definition of “blame” is to find fault with or hold responsible. There certainly are times when people in organizations need to hold people responsible for when their actions cause problems. From a psychological perspective, though, blame is a defense mechanism. It makes the blamer feel powerful by making the person being blamed feel small. But blaming a person (or a system) for a problem gets in the way of solving a problem.

The High Price of Blame

When blame is the default behavior in an organization, bad things happen.

People withhold information because the fear how they’ll be treated when they bring up problems. That makes it harder for anyone to actually solve problems. Of course, problems can’t hide forever. When the information finally comes out, the problems are usually bigger and the options to solve them fewer.

People invest energy making sure that they won’t be blamed when a problem arises (as problems inevitably do). That leads to paper trails, positioning, and creating plausible deniability.

Once problems do surface, people are scared or disengaged and don’t offer their best ideas. That makes it more likely that the fix will be a band-aid that soothes symptoms, but doesn’t address root causes.

When blame is the knee-jerk response, people don’t learn from problems and mistakes. The may try something different, but it won’t be from a deep understanding of the situation. They’ll try the least risky action that will protect them from more blame.

All this makes it more likely that it will take longer for problems to become visible—at which point they will be even hairier and harder to fix, creating a vicious cycle.

Shifting the Blame Dynamic

When someone brings a problem to you, you have a choice. You can blame, or you can engage in problem-solving.

First, slow down and become aware of your own response. Are you feeling scared or angry? Are you worried that you will be blamed? Blaming the messenger won’t change whether someone else will blame you. But, if you move to problem-solving, you will be able to communicate what you plan to do, not just bring bad news.

Ask questions—using a neutral tone of voice—to understand the issue and implications. Questions that start with What and How are likely to sound less blaming than questions that start with Why. (Assuming you don’t ask “What the heck were you thinking?” or “How did you make this mess?” Those questions would not be helpful.)

Figure out what to do about the immediate issue. Ask if the person who brought the problem needs help. If she doesn’t need (or want help), don’t inflict it. Agree on how you’ll assess progress solving the problem.

Ask for the help you need to explain the implications to others.

Later (but not much later), you can investigate root causes. Don’t assume that it’s a problem with the individual; the issue may very well be a system problem. There may be other lessons to learn from the problem—for example, how to set expectations, how to break work into inch pebbles, and how to make progress (and problems) more visible. Be careful of your phrasing. Keep it neutral and on an adult-to-adult level. “What did you learn from this” can sound like a parent or teacher speaking to a child. And don’t call it a “teachable moment”—that phrase smacks of condescension.

In organizations where blame is pervasive, blame is the systemic issue. The only way to work out of blame orientation is to choose not to blame. Instead, demonstrate problem-solving, and gradually rebuild trust with those with whom you work directly.

There are times when we do have to hold individuals responsible for their actions. But usually it’s more important to fix the problem and learn from the situation.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of blame, do your best to stay centered and move toward problem-solving. Articulate what you know about the problem, what you have tried, and where you need help. Remember that blamers often feel small and scared. Blaming is their way of coping with those feelings.

So, what happened at the kennel?

When I made my request to check availability the fourth time, the receptionist finally walked over to a wall calendar that showed all the kennel reservations for the week. There was space for Pudge. It took three minutes for the hand off. I expressed my gratitude that there was a place open and continued on my way.

You could look at this and say the receptionist is a little slow and doesn’t understand customer service. But I think there was something else at play. She didn’t want to be blamed. Fear of blame begets blaming, and blame always delays solving the problem.

This article originally appeared on stickyminds.com.

A Coaching Toolkit

As a coach, your job is not to solve or do—it’s to support other people as they develop skills and capabilities and as they solve problems on their own. When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. You need to have a variety of practices in your toolkit in order to approach each situation and individual differently. Here are some of the approaches I use when coaching other people.

Provide Context

Sometimes all a person needs is some context. Knowing how a specific task or skill fits into the work of the team or supports the product helps people make better decisions. And knowing the importance of an activity can motivate people to do tasks they don’t normally enjoy. For example, a person may not like test-first development when he first tries it, but when he understands how it contributes to clean code and good design, he may be more willing to stick with it.

Frame the Problem

Sometimes people need help framing the problem. When people are learning a new skill or a new way of thinking they don’t always have a clear understanding of the problem they’re trying to solve. Ask them questions to help them consider and verbalize different aspects of the problem—the what, where, when, who, and how. Having a clear problem statement is (at least) half the battle.

Generate More Options

In other cases, a team member may choose a solution that you know will not be effective. How do you help without being directive? Well, it helps to know that people always choose what they perceive to be the best option available. Always. The trouble is, sometimes people don’t have enough good options to choose from—the only options they can think of either won’t work or work only in the short term. To help them come up with a longer list of options, ask questions. These questions might include:

  • What other ways could we accomplish the same goal?
  • What would happen if we did this part differently?

Rather than reject an option (or worse, dismiss the person), walk through the option with him or her. Start by saying, “You could do that—and here are some of the risks I see.” Generate additional options together. You can offer the first option, then move to jointly generating alternatives. Between you, come up with at least three options. Having only two options is a dilemma; and it forces a choice between “your way” and “my way.”

Provide Real-Time Feedback

Many times, when performing a new skill, people need to hear some real-time feedback to get a feel for how what they are doing is affecting the project. Help them by offering course corrections and confirmation. Just remember that feedback is information that enables different choices; it’s not criticism or evaluation. Describe what you see or hear and state the impact.

Ask Questions

Sometimes people just get stuck. A few well-chosen questions can prompt new thinking. Here are some that work well for me:

  • If you did that, what would you gain? / If you did that, what would the collateral consequences be?
  • What are three things that could go wrong with that approach?
  • What else have you tried?
  • What are you hoping to accomplish?
  • Who else is affected by this?
  • Who else / what else will be affected by this solution?

Catch People Doing Something Right

You don’t have to wait until something is going wrong to provide coaching. Notice when people are performing a new skill correctly and comment on it. If the moment seems right, use the opportunity to explore the root causes of the success. When people know more about the steps and circumstances that lead to good results, they can consciously recreate them.

Demonstrate

Some individuals learn best by seeing it done. In those cases, demonstrating a new skill for them might be your best option. For example, you might teach about Test-Driven Design (TDD) by demonstrating with FitNesse. As you demonstrate ask if your pace is too slow, too fast, or just right. If you only ask if you’re going too fast, the other person may be embarrassed to admit he isn’t keeping up.

Review

Other people learn best by trying it themselves first and then reviewing it with the coach. Always start by stating what works and making global comments about the work product. Only then should you talk about the problems or issues. If there are classes of issues, discuss those rather than pointing out each instance of the problem.

Provide Information

Coaches are a source of information—and sometimes that’s all the other person needs. Depending on your own skill level, ask questions to understand the problem the person is trying to solve. After you understand the problem, offer examples of what has worked before or what factors they might want to consider. It’s common for people who are learning a new skill to think they need one thing when they really need another.

Bring In an Expert

No one expects you to have all the answers. So when you don’t have the answer, don’t hesitate to bring in another knowledgeable person. You’ll solve the problem sooner and model that it’s okay to ask for help.

Listen

One of the most powerful (and underutilized) coaching practices is listening. Being a sounding board as someone talks through a problem or proposed course of action lets the other person hear their own logic. And as people talk they often come up with new ideas or see weakness on their own. Listening also conveys that you are interested in them not just in showing off your expertise.

Coaches look for opportunities to help build skills and capabilities. The more coaching approaches you have available to you, the more opportunities you will see—and use.

This article originally appeared on scrumalliance.org.

Diluting Appreciation

Mike Kelly has a nice post on diluting the power of appreciation.

 

My experience is that genuine appreciations can transform many situations. A couple of years ago I led a year-long project with a distributed team–no two members were in the same timezone. We had a weekly teleconference. I started every telecon with appreciations (and ended with hopes and wishes, which I’ll talk about some other time). After appreciations–which took about 3 minutes–we got down to business. And everyone knew he/she was valued and that someone had notice his/her contribution in the previous week. And even when we had conflicts, we had that grounding to come back to.

 

This year, we get right down to reviewing action items (I’m not lead this year). To me, it feels brusque, and people seem grumpier and less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. Same group of people. One small change in meeting protocol.

 

It’s easy to dilute the appreciation by making it more removed, more abstract, and more general, because giving a direct appreciation requires making contact with another person. And making contact can mean vulnerability.

 

Here’s the sorry path to dilution, starting with a direct person-to-person appreciation…

 

Harry, I appreciate you….

 

I appreciate Harry….

 

I want to appreciate Harry…

 

I want to thank Harry….

 

I want to thank Harry and all of you…

 

I want to thank all of you…

 

 

….and ending with meaningless sort of group thank you.