Making hard people stuff easier

Three techniques I’ve used and recommended for making some of the trickier people stuff a bit easier.

  1. When in conflict, be intellectual about the emotional. Sometimes we find ourselves in conflict with someone, particularly long-term conflict. There’s that person who seems to just rub you up the wrong way, or who you constantly find yourself at loggerheads with. In theory these situations can be resolved by forcing the issue, or sitting down to smoke the peace pipe, but I’ve not really seen it happen that way. More often I’ve seen both sides damage their careers by being unable to work with one another. The strategy I’ve tried to use in these scenarios is to plan intellectually about your (and their) emotions. Reacting emotionally will often lead to poor outcomes. If you instead think about strategies around emotions at an intellectual level it tends to take your in-the-moment emotions out of the game. When needing to interact with someone with whom you don’t get along, consider first their emotional drivers. Then think about yours. Now when planning your actions, how are you going to trigger their drivers? How are they likely to trigger yours? What are the options for avoiding the negative triggers? If they start to trigger your emotional responses how do you steer the interaction in another direction?
  2. If you ever assume people management responsibilities there will be times when you need to deliver some kind of negative feedback. The most common scenario is giving a performance assessment that will be below someone’s expectations, but it might also be in a project or sprint retrospective. Ideally you want to avoid this situation by not having surprises – continuous feedback is much easier – but that won’t always be the case. Giving these kind of feedback is never an enjoyable exercise, and one which many people go out of their way to avoid. My approach in these cases (helpfully provided by a colleague) has been to very clearly mentally segregate the tasks of assessing and communicating the assessment. If you start to think about delivering the assessment at the same time as you’re actually doing the assessment, (i) you end up with a less fair assessment; (ii) you will feel the negative emotions for a longer period. Instead, reinforce very clearly to yourself: (i) I am going to think through the assessment without worrying about how I will deliver it; (ii) once I’ve locked in the assessment I will then think through how best to communicate it. This strategy sounds both obvious and simple, yet I’ve found that it helps me to get fairer assessments, makes me more confident in communicating them, and takes much of the angst out of the process.
  3. We’re often called on to provide “career advice”, but I’ve never really seen a “how to give career advice” manual. Largely we make it up as we go along. One device that I’ve used, both for myself and when giving others advice, is this:
    • Your career is likely the biggest time investment you will make in your life. Unless you get lucky you are going to be spending 40 years across a range of careers to support the way you want to live.
    • Think of your career as an investment.
    • The way an investor approaches an investment is with an exit strategy (or goal) in mind. A sophisticated investor does not plan to park their money in one account for eternity and walk away, nor do they plan to park their money in one place until it either turns into a poor investment or something compelling just happens to turn up.
    • An exit strategy (goal) is not an amount of time, it is a particular state. In terms of your career that might look like “built a strong skills base in <technology X>”; “demonstrated an ability to lead a team”; “shown that I can deliver a large scale project”, “built a set of skills from this end to that end of a technology stack”, but you want to tie that to your life goals. For younger people you might be aiming to build out your skill base so you can find a higher paying job so you can start thinking about buying a house. As you get older it might be broadening your skills so that you’ve got more options going forward, but it might also be chasing the most valuable skills so you can retire early, go out on your own with a start-up, or switch to more ‘meaningful’ work.
    • The time to think about your exit strategy is not after you’ve started something, it’s before you begin. Before you take on a new role be clear to yourself why you’re taking it. Before you start, ask yourself, “why am I going to leave this job” – it will help to crystallise what it is you want to get out of it, and help you set goals within it.

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