Walter, a fellow programmer at work, was failing. It was evident to me because people complained about Walter when he wasn’t around. They complained about his work, his attitude, and generally vented some pent up frustration.
The first time I heard this, I was a little surprised at how upset they were.
“Has anybody told Walter?” I asked.
Nope. Nobody was talking to Walter about Walter. This was before I became a manager, but the lesson has stuck with me. Complaint without action is pointless. Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.
When I think about it, this is one of my most deeply held beliefs about management. I’ve managed software teams for nearly a decade now, starting with ownership of the schedule and parts of projects, then the people, then just about everything (up to and including IKEA furniture assembly). Now that I’m a middle manager occupying the fuzzy space between a VP and Engineering Managers, I’ve begun to reflect on lessons learned.
In those reflections, a single question represents the first and most important lesson I learned: “Has anybody told Walter?”
Virtually every manager you come across will tell you how important it is to communicate well. Clear communication with our direct reports is, I believe, the most important type. When it comes to a situation like Walter’s, communication about an individual’s performance (and perception of that performance) is vital for success.
I don’t know what was really going on with Walter because I wasn’t his manager and I didn’t ask him, but in retrospect it could have been many things. Maybe he felt like he was doing a crappy job and was just happy that nobody noticed. Maybe he came in every day thinking he was going to be fired. Maybe he didn’t know what was expected of him and figured that since nobody complained, he was doing a pretty good job. Whatever the case, Walter’s manager should have checked in with him.
Boil it down
If I was Walter’s manager and I could go back in time, I would take all those complaints and boil them down to a single piece of feedback. It’s important to limit critical feedback because people can’t change everything at once. But, just like in developing software, people can work through one thing at a time and achieve steady progress.
In Walter’s case, all the complaints essentially boiled down to, “We don’t know what you’re doing.” So I’d tell Walter, “Hey, you and I need to figure out a way to show constant, steady progress on your projects.”
Back it up
I firmly believe that third-hand complaints should only be used as the basis for change if it’s unavoidable, so I would back up my first statement to Walter with observations I have personally made. Something like:
“I’ve noticed that you tend to assign yourself 15 stories at a time and then disappear for weeks. During that time, you don’t tell anybody what you’re working on. In standup meetings, you sort of wave your hands and say that you’re still working on the same thing as yesterday. This doesn’t tell me or anybody else where you’re at with the project. I’m unable to communicate to other people what you’re doing and frankly, I worry that you’re not making progress.”
Based on Walter’s response, I might need to use stronger language and explain more about the impact on the team or the company, but I’d use I statements rather than passing along third-hand complaints wherever possible.
Come up with a plan together
Before coming up with a plan, it’s important to make sure that Walter believes there’s a problem to solve. If I haven’t convinced Walter, he’s not going to be motivated to change. But let’s say Walter is convinced. At that point, it’s likely that Walter will have some ideas of his own. Either way, I’d sit down with him to figure out how he can demonstrate steady progress. It might be as simple as setting a work-in-progress limit and/or asking for better reports at standup, or it might require a more creative solution.
Be prepared to repeat yourself
I may think Walter understands the problem. Walter may in fact understand the problem. But anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks later, there’s a strong chance that he will slip back into old habits. Hopefully, I’ve got a strong rapport with Walter and can gently remind him to do better. Either way, it's best not to get frustrated and be willing to repeat myself or add new information to the conversation as I track his progress.
Summing it all up
The single biggest lesson I learned early on, even before I began managing people, is that you have to actually talk to people and set clear expectations if you want them to change. I am most comfortable giving critical feedback when I can boil it down to a single area, give the feedback from myself, and then partner with the person in finding a new pattern. I’m always prepared to repeat myself because we are all humans and change, after all, is hard.