#78 - 14 Aug 2021
Words matter; Communicating firings; Giving feedback to your boss; Effective oversight; Ransomware is about the basics
Words Matter: Is Your Digital Communication Style Impacting Your Employees? - Samantha Rae Ayoub, Fellow
“We need to talk”. “Fine.” These all messages or responses that would be very uncomfortable for us to receive from our boss; but when things are busy it’s pretty easy for us to communicate in exactly that way with our team members or peers. Your boss (probably) isn’t a jerk, and neither are you, but when we have a lot of things on our mind it’s easy to not pay attention to how our words might seem.
In this article, Ayoub councils us to routinely put a tiny bit of effort into written and to some extent even video communication with our team members:
Put yourself in their shoes - how will this be received? This is really easy to understand with a moment’s effort: before you hit send just read the message over imagining it was coming from your boss.
Mind the punctuation - a little “!” goes a long way to a “Thanks” or other message
Always respond - even if just to say that you read the message
Practice CATTE - make sure your response gives Context, Answer to the question, Timeline (does this need to be done now or is it for a week from now?), Transparency, and some kind of Emotion
Balance digital interactions - with whatever kind of face time is feasible
Of Ayoub’s recommendations, I’m personally the worst at always responding, even (especially) when I don’t have time to do anything about the message at the moment. I need to get better at that. I know for a fact that it makes my team members feel ignored (and why wouldn’t it?)
This stuff is especially important with us all being distant from each other. When we switched to everyone working from home, I started putting a lot more exclamation marks in my emails, started using emojis a lot more in Slack, and added a lot of gushing to positive feedback and compassionate (but still firm) tones to negative feedback.
You know how in silent films, it initially seems to modern eyes like the stars are overacting? Compared to today’s movies, they lacked an entire channel of communication - sound - and so they had to make up for it in expression and body movement. It’s not overacting, it was acting the appropriate amount to convey the intended meaning given the limitations of the medium.
It was initially uncomfortable and unnatural for me to emote that way in text. But written communications, unleavened by in-person interactions, is pretty limited. You have to “over” emote to effectively convey your intended meaning. Otherwise, people will imagine all kinds of things lurking behind your opaque words, and they are apt to latch onto the worst possibilities.
Three ways to lead effectively when you fire somebody - Sarah Milstein, LeadDev
In a way, this is related to Ayoub’s article above. If you aren’t communicating effectively with your team, that won’t stop people from thinking and talking about the meaning behind actions; it’ll just encourage that thinking and talking to go somewhere farfetched and ugly, unburdened by facts.
We don’t like to talk about firing, and it doesn’t happen often (enough?) in academia or R&D but it does happen; that relative rarity makes it all the more dramatic. Even someone who chooses to abruptly leave for completely benign reasons causes the same waves. Worse, managers are generally (and by and large correctly) constrained in what they can say about why someone has been fired or left. The combination of drama and relative silence makes for stress and speculation for your team members, even if it’s happening outside of your immediate team, leading to fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Milstein provides some guidance of what to do when you (or someone else) fires someone in your organization”
If you’re the manager on the case, have a communications plan, and communicate immediately
If you’re a manager but not directly involved, reach out to your direct reports once the news is public
If you’re a leader at the company, tell people that this is normal, and regrettable, and it will happen again
As Milstein points out, even if you are extremely constrained in your environment about what you’re allowed to say (and are you sure you’re not allowed to say anything at all, or are you just assuming?), there are lots of things you can say:
You can talk about why you can’t give reasons, and communicate that in a way that (correctly) emphasizes that you and the organization cares about team member privacy
You can talk about the process, including feedback, and that these things don’t come as a surprise - your team members don’t have to worry about waking up fired some day out of the blue
You can recognize that this impacts them both in terms of professional relationships and workload, and can come prepared with a plan for handling work
Managing Your Own Career
How to Give Difficult Feedback to Your Boss (Even When You’re Scared) - Karen Hurt, Let’s Grow Leaders
Giving negative feedback to your team members takes some courage the first times you do it as a new manager; when you’re providing feedback to your own manager that’s a whole other level. Here Hurt provides some steps for how to proceed (paraphrased)
Be clear up-front about your intent and goal, and how you’ll communicate
Set up a time to talk in a private place
Be objective and specific - this is a place where it’s especially important to focus on behaviour and impact
Ask for their perspective (and really listen.)
Look for opportunities to help
The biggest difference is that, as with your peers, you can’t simply ask your manager to change their behaviours - all you can really do is point out an impact.
A prerequisite to any of this of course is that you trust your manager; if you haven’t felt comfortable raising issues in the past, this probably isn’t the way to start.
And for you as a manager or lead, keep in mind for your team members - you want them to bring you their feedback, and they’ll agonize over doing so in the same way you would with your manager! You can help them by routinely asking for feedback in your one-on-one sessions and in retrospectives, and taking the feedback seriously when it is given.
An example of Governance as a Service - Richard McLean
We’re experts. We often either provide oversight to efforts, possibly as some part of committee or advisory board.
Like everything else, oversight/governance can make things better or worse. It is not carved in stone that it has to be a waste of time. The more we resign ourselves to unhelpful pro-forma meetings, the more likely we make that outcome.
When we provide oversight we can be prepared and provide useful input that gives the team the confidence they need to keep solving the right problems; when we receive oversight we can make sure those overseeing the work are given the right information ahead of time, asked the right questions, and are encouraged to give constructive, helpful guidance.
Here McLean gives an example of receiving oversight going well:
They went into the meeting with:
three clear questions that had just come up
a presentation on an element of their plan they were concerned about
And left with:
An interesting problem and a challenge to consider how they might solve it
A useful connection between their work and another project they hadn’t thought of
Backing and encouragement
(It also includes a shout-out to a Camille Fournier article we saw in #84 advocating for structured monthly checkins for critical projects).
Just as we have to shake off the inferiority complex about research computing and can hold ourselves to high standards, we have to have high expectations of other parts of our community too - user groups, scientific advisory boards - and hold them accountable to meet those expectations. When they do, great things can happen.
I’ve grown quite fond of having GitHub Copilot on when noodling around with some simple go code. It’s like having a naive, overeager, but sometimes surprisingly perceptive junior programmer constantly offering suggestions to you while you type. Ok, it sounds terrible when I say it like that, but I find myself really enjoying the experience. The underlying model, OpenAI Codex, is being made available via an API.
Leadership is hard. This is a nice post about the arc of leading a team to a challenging goal.