13 June 2008

Don't Fight the Music

As with most forms of art, there are those pieces of music or sculpture or painting that you'll dislike. Perhaps what they portray or teach don't match with your ideals of right and wrong. You'll disagree on a moral level. Perhaps they bring forth memories of the past. Maybe they just look or sound chaotic and simply don't make any sense to you. In all honesty you may not know why you don't like the art, but it might just be grating to you and make you want to turn away. Still, there was and often is a real, living, feeling, breathing human being full of senses, sympathies, misgivings, prejudice and paradoxes behind that creation. Behind all art, prose and poetry are the feelings approximated in the expressions of their craft. The ability to see and feel through the art into the heart of another person, this is the challenge and amazing quality of art. Everyone has a song and they are always singing it. They want to be heard, really listened to, and find out they are not alone.

Appreciating art because of the human behind it, has for me become a simile to working with people with whose opinions I disagree. My Dad would say, "Son, behavior has its reasons." I first remember him saying this when I worked as a Scout leader and got a front seat to the varied expressions of teenage boys. Invariably as I got to know each boy, I found many reasons for strongly held opinions, and behaviors. Often, the life experiences behind these behaviors even for young boys are deep and poignant.

I see similar issues when working in a team of people. The disagreements had in office discussions of the "obviously objective" technology problems often have their roots in other aspects of life much deeper and more powerful and often hidden. This is why teams that have learned to interact with each other "off the clock" as friends and treat each other as respected individuals, for who they are, today, are more successful at solving problems.

I like a good debate and enjoy the challenge of a difficult problem and opposing viewpoints. My experience at Microsoft was of a very "challenging" kind of culture. There you can't squeak out an idea without several counters and objections. This can be good, honest disagreement, but also can turn into ugly contention that yields no redeeming fruit. (It can also drown out innovation since ideas don't have time to germinate and grow and most importantly interact.) Everyone has different tolerance levels for this kind of discord and those who are naturally shy, not quick witted in a debate, or easily persuaded will often find themselves quieted and discontent. This is especially sad when that individual is full of really good ideas, ideas that need to be listened to and acted upon.

Certainly you can't change others, but how can you avoid the destructive discord? How do you know when a good debate has turned into a bad debate? I have noticed in myself the following warning signs:

Respect. If I don't have a deep respect, on a personal level, for the people with whom I'm working, a discussion can degrade incredibly fast. When I'm working with people like this, I have to keep on a higher state of alert.

Civility vs. Hostility. This includes the obvious things like pointing and repeating "you" a lot. In all things keep the discussion civil. Take the time to reinforce with sincerity that you think there's something you don't understand. Let them know you are pushing forward because you think there's something important worth understanding.

Desire to understand. When I sense my desire to understand dissipate and my desire to prove myself right increase, this is a sure indication that the discussion is heading down a destructive path. I can feel it. There's something not right in the air. I get tense, not relaxed. These are signs for me that I need to regroup, reevaluate and possibly try again later.

Judgement. Another indicator is if I am in my mind passing judgement on the individual. I can sense this when I find that I'm thinking about what I'm going to say next while they are still talking, or when I interrupt their thoughts and don't let them finish. I think I already know what they are going to say, so why wait it out? This kind of impetuous behavior indicates that I'm placing myself on a higher moral ground, and this lack of humility doesn't allow understanding, and without understanding, there's little possibility of unity or resolution.

I'm sure there are other even better ways to avoid the pointless and destructive arguments, but this is what I've found so far. In reality, everyone has a song. Listen to it. Find the art in it. Discover what it is saying and if possible the reasons behind the melody. Don't fight the music. There's a person in there waiting to be found.

11 June 2008


I just found this great quote by Dee Hock, founder and CEO of VISA.

I ask each person to describe the single most important responsibility of any manager. The incredibly diverse responses always have one thing in common. All are downward looking. Management inevitably has to do with exercise of authority — with selecting employees, motivating them, training them, appraising them, organizing them, directing them, controlling them. That perception is mistaken.

The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self, one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts. It is a complex, never-ending, incredibly difficult, oft-shunned task. Management of self is something at which we spend little time and rarely excel precisely because it is so much more difficult than prescribing and controlling the behavior of others. Without management of self, no one is fit for authority, no matter how much they acquire. The more authority they acquire the more dangerous they become. It is the management of self that should have half of our time and the best of our ability. And when we do, the ethical, moral, and spiritual elements of managing self are inescapable.

Asked to identify the second responsibility of any manager, again people produce a bewildering variety of opinions, again downward-looking. Another mistake. The second responsibility is to manage those who have authority over us: bosses, supervisors, directors, regulators, ad infinitum. In an organized world, there are always people with authority over us. Without their consent and support, how can we follow conviction, exercise judgment, use creative ability, achieve constructive results, or create conditions by which others can do the same? Managing superiors is essential. Devoting a quarter of our time and ability to that effort is not too much.

Asked for the third responsibility, people become a bit uneasy and uncertain. Yet, their thoughts remain on subordinates. Mistaken again. The third responsibility is to manage one’s peers — those over whom we have no authority and who have no authority over us — associates, competitors, suppliers, customers — the entire environment, if you will. Without their support, respect, and confidence, little or nothing can be accomplished. Peers can make a small heaven or hell of our life. Is it not wise to devote at least a fifth of our time, energy, and ingenuity to managing peers?

Asked for the fourth responsibility, people have difficulty coming up with an answer, for they are now troubled by thinking downward. However, if one has attended to self, superiors, and peers, there is little else left. The fourth responsibility is to manage those over whom we have authority.

The common response is that all one’s time will be consumed managing self, superiors, and peers. There will be no time to manage subordinates. Exactly! One need only select decent people, introduce them to the concept, induce them to practice it, and enjoy the process. If those over whom we have authority properly manage themselves, manage us, manage their peers, and replicate the process with those they employ, what is there to do but see they are properly recognized, rewarded, and stay out of their way? It is not making better people of others that management is about. It’s about making a better person of self. Income, power, and titles have nothing to do with that.

Your example can be your greatest method of influence. Sadly, for some, you may be doing all of these things and find very little appreciation from those you manage. That's okay. They may think, "What does my manager do?", but it doesn't matter that they fully understand, unless you are preparing someone to take your place. Your job is not to prove your worth to those you manage. If your team is feeling individually appreciated, inspired, free to explore and get things done, then you are largely doing right by them. Still, your team will likely fail if you don't manage your superiors, peers and yourself properly, which is to say, I agree whole heartedly with Dee Hock's comments above.