#72 - 2 July 2021
Know your lines - phrases for managers; Keeping an eye on stress
Managing Teams and Your Own Career
There’s a couple of items this week which go back and forth between managing your own career and helping your team members, so let’s merge the sections this time:
Everyone who’s managed or been a team lead for long enough has had the experience of thinking aloud or asking an idle question and then having a team member waste hours following up on what they thought was now a Suddenly Important Thing.
As a manager we need to stay involved in the work enough to understand what issues are likely to come up while not micromanaging the work - letting the team members make the decisions they’re best placed to make. That means we need to be asking questions, probing, and checking our understanding, while providing our team members clear context that that’s what we’re doing and inviting corrections rather than them thinking these are directives.
Begbie provides some linguistic context-setters - he, following author Robin Sloan, refers to these as “linguistic instagram filters” - that he uses (and when he uses them). My favourites in this context are:
“Here’s what I’d be worried about…”
“This is just a half-baked idea but…”
“‘Here’s how I like to think about it…”
“Let me try to explain it. Correct me where I’m wrong…”
Two things I’d like to add. First - that last approach in particular, where you listen to a problem or proposed solution and then try to explain it in your own words to check that you understand, is an incredibly useful technique in almost any setting. Communication is hard, and pausing to verify that accurate communication has in fact taken place is so so so helpful. My own version of that last phrase is: “[listens carefully, asking clarifying questions here and there]… Ok, so let me see if I understand this…. [my re-explanation]. Is that close? What did I get wrong?”
Second - as a new manager, it will feel weird to have set phrases that you say over and over again. Don’t worry about it. It is good and useful to keep using the same phrases. One of the things a decent manager brings to a team is a certain amount of stability and even predictability in their actions. If you want to experiment with a different phrase to see if you get even better results, outstanding, please do, but don’t change up things you say just because you feel funny repeating yourself. Communication is hard. A conversation starter that has been used often enough for everyone on the team know exactly what context it sets is a valuable thing.
In the second article, Hogan suggests going further and actively seeking out useful approaches and phrases in meetings and conversations you’re in, then poaching them and making them your own. She particularly suggests keeping an eye on how people:
Change the direction of the conversation.
Pause a conversation.
Push back or disagree.
As you start watching experienced (or just talented) leaders and team members participating in meetings for these sorts of approaches, you’ll start collecting lots of potentially useful tools for the tool box. You might have to re-cast them in your own voice, and they may take a few times to work in your team, but learning from others is how we work in science and in leadership.
The Hotel Giraffe - Michael Lopp, Rands in Repose
There’s a lot in here about stress, how it builds up, and how it’s hard to see sometimes from the inside.
Lopp has four questions he asked his team members during a previous job:
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 == low, 10 == high): How stressed are you right NOW? What is your IDEAL stress level? Ideal meaning the stress is useful and not debilitating. What is your MAX stress level? What behaviours do you see in yourself when you close or at MAX?
Most of us in this line of work like to be a bit stressed, if the stress is of the right kind - learning challenging new material, developing new skills, reaching to make stretch goals. But when stress builds up, it gets unproductive (sometimes this distinction is referred to as eustress vs distress). Lott walks through his failure modes when he’s near max stress:
Lossiness: I become unreliable. I miss on commitments and I’m not aware I’m doing so until reminded after the miss which leads to
Irritability: Small annoyances have a disproportionate effect on my mood. I have strong negative reactions to small developments that I normally easily shrug off. Then I start to become
Increasingly Pointlessly Tactical: Stuff is dropped, I’m grumpy, so I start to make lists. Lots of them. […]
Rage: The final straw. When we’re not all following my irrational unspoken script, I get rage because of my totally unrealistic expectation that everything must proceed exactly to plan.[…]
I think mine are pretty similar; certainly lossiness and irritability are early warning signs.
Much of the article is a particular example of how he only belatedly discovered he was very stressed out because he was missing on commitments to himself (food, exercise, sleep). The key is to pay attention to early warning signs - in yourself as well as your team members! - and then course correct, rather than letting things go too far.