TITLE: Things Managers Say AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 13, 2011 9:49 AM DESC: ----- BODY:

Everybody's so different / I haven't changed. -- Joe Walsh

A couple of weeks ago, lots of people were commenting on an interview with John Lilly, the former CEO of Mozilla. Lilly talks about how he had to learn to be a manager, having started his career as an engineer and developer. As a computer scientist who has been working as a department head for six years, I have first-hand experience with the task he faced. I also recognize some of the specific lessons he learned. For example, when you become a manager, even a technical lead on a team of developers, your relationship with your co-workers changes. I blogged about my first encounters with this change within weeks of becoming head. Later, I began to notice that faculty interpreted things I said differently than I intended them. Lilly had a similar experience:
When the founder says, "Why don't you make button a little more orange?" it somehow has more meaning than an individual contributor saying that. Now, that's not how I meant it. I meant it as an individual contributor. As you get more and more responsible for the organization and people, you can start projects with throwaway comments.
Several years ago, I experienced this effect in a slightly different form. I asked several faculty members to meet with me about some department issue. I suggested a specific time for the meeting and asked if anyone had conflicts with that time. Someone wrote to say that he had another committee meeting that overlapped the beginning of my proposed meeting. His committee meeting sounded like one of those standing meetings that we all have to attend but don't enjoy, so I asked if he'd be willing to leave it early and come to ours. He never got back to me but later cc:ed me on a note to the committee in which he told them he would not be able to make that meeting. I saw from the quoted text in the note that the committee discussion could be important to our department. I went down to his office and told him that he should go to his committee meeting, that we could schedule our meeting at a different time. He said that he had interpreted my question as a suggestion to skip the other meeting. Certainly, I was inartful in asking if he could leave the other meeting early. My inexperience showed through. Even so, I was surprised when he said that he had interpreted my question as an instruction or hint. I remember vividly thinking to myself:
Sometimes, a question is a question.
From that experience, I learned that I needed to be more careful. Sometimes, a question really is just a question, but the listener may not know that. There are all kinds of cases in everyday communication where this is true, harmless and standard speech acts that differ from the words actually used. The risk of a misinterpretation goes up whenever there is an imbalance of power between the participants, whether real or perceived. For better or worse, when I became head, such a gap became part of many conversations I have with my colleagues. I may not have changed, but the circumstances have. Something similar exists between instructors and students, of course. But as instructor I've always been more aware of the potential problem. That seems easier, because everyone expects there to be an imbalance of power between instructors and students. I wasn't prepared for this to happen to me and the people I had been working with as equals, some for more than a decade. This was tough on me emotionally for a while. Once I recognized what was going on, I found ways to reduce the risk of misunderstanding. Sometimes, it's as simple as making the intention of a statement or question explicit. Other times, I have to hold a message back and re-think what I intend and how to achieve that goal. In this sense, being an administrator for a few years has probably helped me to communicate more effectively. (I wonder if my wife thinks this, too!) Lilly learned similar lessons:
Over time, I discovered a couple of things--both aimed at reducing these effects. Number one, I went out of my way to explain the context in which I was making the comment. I'd say, "Look, I'm going to say some things, but this is not the CEO talking or not the founder talking. This is a guy who likes design or this is a guy who uses products. Please understand it in that context." The second thing is I started noticing my interactions in the hallway. I'm an engineer by background and a bit of an introvert naturally. When I walk between meetings, I think about things. A lot times I'll be looking down my phone or looking down at the floor while I think things through. It's sort of a natural engineer behavior, but it's pretty off-putting if your CEO walks by you and doesn't look up and notice you.
Once we start noticing our interactions and thinking about them from both sides, we can start to better. Software developers are pretty good at analyzing and solving problems. What comes naturally to us isn't always the most effective way to behave when our role changes. But we can study the world more closely and choose to act differently. Changing habits is always a challenge, but with conscious effort and perseverance, we can do it. If if you want to have a larger effect on the world than writing code can do alone, sometimes you must. -----