A few years ago I worked in a medium sized business with an excellent computer programmer named Arpan. Several times during management meetings I saw him present his work, making a clear case for why the computer architecture should be revamped using industry best practices.
Our department head, who had been promoted via the finance track, would invariably ask for him to make changes to the architecture, even when it ran directly counter to what Arpan, the technical expert, just said. Without much commotion Arpan would register a weak disagreement (in the form of a question) and then nod his head in agreement- ultimately submitting to a sub-standard product.
After witnessing this interaction a couple of times I invited Arpan to coffee to ask him (subtly) why he caved so easily when it was clear that his suggestions were more secure and stable. He agreed that he gave in easily and brought up differences between U.S. and Indian work culture that made him feel compelled to easily acquiesce to a boss’s suggestions.
Then Arpan segued into the something that vaguely resembled a complaint. “I just don’t want to argue, I have told him what is right; it is up to him to choose it.” He went on to say that all he wanted to do was work, he had turned down other jobs that he thought might put him in a position of conflict. “Besides,” Arpan said, leaning confidently back in his chair, “look at what arguing does for others in my team.” I turned around and saw Arpan’s manager Tom, whose constantly high stress levels made him nearly unbearable to be around.
Tom was one of those guys that argued over everything with management, refusing to give even an inch when he knew his way was better. Initially Tom had been promoted to IT manager very quickly but he had stagnated in that role for almost a decade. Although he was good to his subordinates, defending smart programming, he was highly disliked by management.
Despite being a part of management, Tom was sparingly invited to meetings, even when Internet security or database management was on the docket. Although several directors had come and gone they all were left with the same impression- Tom argues about everything, and we can’t get anything done when he is here. While I couldn’t personally evaluate his skills, it was well known among the IT department that Tom was highly skilled. Yet management didn’t take his advice.
Ultimately, I left that coffee empathizing with technical experts in general. It must be very difficult to have a sophisticated knowledge of a topic a specific area, and have to take suggestions from people who are objectively wrong about what is the best way forward. In effect, management gives you a goal to do something, and then their input pushes you further from that goal; or asks for results that are totally unfeasible.
I know that there are a lot of technical experts- that are better than Tom at picking their battles, and better than Arpan at sticking up for themselves. But I have long wondered why businesses don’t teach their experts how to disagree with management.
I firmly believe that companies that can impart diplomatic skills on their technical experts will benefit tremendously. There must be huge amounts of time and money wasted because the technical experts spent their time learning how to do something- not
Everyone has interests- why do they want to believe what they believe?
The very first thing you learn in diplomacy school is that everyone wants something. It is easy to forget that your boss/client is not always focused on building something that is technically correct. Instead they may want other things (what negotiators call interests):
- To feel respect of subordinates (or at least feel like they are in charge)
- To preserve their standing with their boss by advocating for their point-of-view
- To account for money/time/personnel
The list of things your boss/client could want is literally infinite. However, as you work with an individual for a long time you will begin to see what interests they prioritize. The more you know about the interests of the decision maker- the more you can show them why your suggestion will help them get those interests. Almost no one will make decisions counter to their interests- find the interests they care most.
The hardest part of almost any negotiation is learning what your counter-part’s true interests are. While it is human nature to serve your own interests, the human brain is also good at obfuscating your motivations. Rare is the person who will admit that they long for the feeling of approval of their subordinates (but that is a very real interest).
When evaluating another person’s interests it doesn’t do you any good to err on the side of cynicism “Oh she just does that because she is power hungry!” Instead, learn about the person, maybe they were burned a while back by another “technical expert” and they question you because they have an interest in not getting burned again.
I will write more about interest discovery in another post.
The power of pushing the repeat button
Once you read this “secret” trick, you will figure out that some of the most effective people you interact with have been doing it all along and you never even noticed. When you hit a point of contention between you and your boss/client- repeat back for them exactly what you think their point is and ask (genuinely) “is that what you meant?” If they agree that you understood, ask them to “tell me more about it.”
I know it sounds totally lame and you think they will suspect something is up, but they never notice, and it really works. When you hit a point of contention, people tend to freeze up. Ever notice how some people yell in confrontations- some psychologist suggest that the same chemical reaction is going on in your brain when you think someone can’t hear you as when they don’t agree with you.
By repeating back to someone what you heard them say, and then giving them a chance to expound, they will loosen up. Furthermore they will be more willing to work with you because they think you are listening to them. When they get to the end of their new explanation- mirror them again, “I am hearing you say… is that correct?”
More times then I can count, I have entered into what we call “the mirroring cycle,” and without arguing my point again the boss/client ends up agreeing with me. If they don’t loosen their point of view then feel free to ask them “could you tell me what you think my point of view is?” With practice this method can make the rustiest of relationships move smoothly.
(Again, this is a big topic so I will write more about it in another post)
Even though they are making the wrong choice, leave them an “out.”
The worst thing you can do when you know the wrong decision is about to be made, is force the issue. I once had a boss who would grow frustrated when she felt like the wrong decision was being made. She would ask very direct questions and the supervisor would start back peddling. Sometimes she got them to re-consider, but in the workplace we don’t have once off-transactions- as payback that same supervisor would stand their ground on ridiculous issues sometime later.
It is rarely advisable over the long term to push people into back peddling. Instead, a technical expert could offer chances for the boss to save face when they are caught suggesting something that is a bad idea. One trick I saw Persians be particularly adept at using (I lived with a Persian for several years and worked under another Persian for several more) is the suggestion of going over things together sometime in the future. “Perhaps I could swing by your office with some of the numbers and you could help me see how your plan fits together.”
The savvy technical expert knows that knows that a lot of decisions are made behind closed doors. If you find yourself knowing that the wrong decision is being made; do your best to make sure you get behind those closed doors- at a later date. Offer to send more information or to stop-by and give them the latest information.
The flip side to this suggestion- is that some people that are particularly adept at office politics will always try to delay decisions as a tactic of risk mitigation. Technical experts rarely use this tool, and are often totally unaware that other people in the department use the stall tactic to avoid making decisions that might get them in trouble. Be careful not to become a staller in your organization- it may be politically advantageous to avoid risk- but it sure sucks to live your life that way.
I am not sure what Arpan is doing these days- but hopefully he is engaged enough to stand up for good work- and not so engaged that he blows up over everything like Tom.
(FYI Tom & Arpan- not their real names (but very real people!))
*I emailed “Arpan” after my first draft of this blog- and he is doing great just had a baby girl and still in the same job- but “Tom” “moved on.”*
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