Get Off Your Ass And Talk To Them

To preface: no, this is not dating advice.

One thing I’ve noticed during my time as an engineer is an over-reliance on technology to accomplish all communication ends.  By this, I mean that an engineer will sit at their desk and exchange a series of 20+ emails and instant messages to discuss a topic that could have been resolved with a two-minute face-to-face conversation.

Let me begin the discussion by saying that I am a text message fiend (as in, I send over 1000 a month).  I’m also a mild Facebook addict along with Twitter, email and various other social networking sites.  What can I say, I enjoy talking to a lot of people in a variety of ways.  There is nothing wrong with having some level of dependence on networking and communication tools; in fact, I wholeheartedly encourage people to reach out and communicate by any means at your disposal.  The unfortunate side-effect of our technology-driven society is that somehow, the longest-lasting time-honored and effective tool we have, has been largely forgotten: face-to-face communication.  Now, phone conversations also suffice for this to a large extent, but there is something about looking in someone’s eyes and watching how they elaborate on their topics with body language as well as voice inflection that merits a look at the physical proximity of communicating with others.

I recently moved across the country, from Reno, Nevada to Gainesville, Florida.  The move was not lightly taken, but was a huge next step in the life of my family.  This left us with nearly all of our good friends and direct family 3000 miles away.  We call our friends and family as often as we can, but to be honest, speaking with my mother and father is not the same on the phone as it was when we would go out to lunch and enjoy each other’s company for an hour.  By no means am I saying that you should take a different coworker out to lunch every day, but rather making the point that the phone simply is NOT the same as looking at someone while they talk to you.  I have also had many experiences where those 20+ emails went back and forth with no one really understanding what the other was trying to say, only for me to go physically stand in front of them and figure out that, in fact, we’re talking about the exact same problem and have more-or-less the same solution (obviously with some minor tweaks).  The language of an email wasn’t the right mechanism to see the nuances of the conversation, so while I thought my idea was being attacked, the other person was using different terms for their standpoint and feeling like I wasn’t listening.

A former coworker of mine was constantly reminded that his language and tone of his email was unacceptable.  Rather than adjusting his emails’ “tone”, he decided that it’d be easier to append a disclaimer to the end of his emails with rectification steps should his tone be considered inappropriate.  Needless to say, eventually this disclaimer disappeared because the problem was never solved by simply having it there in the email.  When you’d speak to him in person, you could see why people would see his tone as condescending and rude.  He freely spoke his mind and had some sarcasm throughout the conversations with him, however, none of it really was rude.  Back to the point at hand, the tone in his emails was the same, but without the lighthearted amusement that was included in his actual conversation, the essence of his discussions was lost and thought nasty.

Have you had an experience where a conversation through non-face-to-face means turned bad?  Or perhaps, clarified matters in a way that speaking directly to them couldn’t do?   I’m interested to hear!

 

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Lazy Co-workers, What Do I Do?

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Kick That Lazy PM Into Gear

Project managers are essential to system functioning, but as I described before, some are just plain lazy!  Take a look at the post to get an idea of some problems that arise, but here, I want to discuss some strategies to deal with them.

  1. They don’t respond to requests for information.  One thing I have learned through my life is that people will communicate only as much as they deem necessary to maintain whatever level they want to have with you.  I mean, if they don’t want to talk to you and converse, get over it! You can’t force something that won’t happen, so don’t push for a friendly relationship that is mutually beneficial.  If the PM is unconcerned with that email you sent out yesterday, and avoiding the telephone call you made earlier today, the time has come for you to walk over and ask your question in person.  They can’t push you out effectively when you’re standing there staring at them.  (One caveat to this, of course, is ensuring that they ACTUALLY are ignoring you and not merely too busy to respond)
  2. They come to meetings noticeably unprepared. The boy scout motto of being prepared is ignored by many people including those lazy PM’s who can’t seem to understand that meetings have one purpose: to get things done.  To “help” them out, a couple days before the meeting, contact them (actually speak to them, no voice mails or emails) and ask what they plan to have accomplished at this week’s meeting.  You likely won’t get an answer to this request on the phone, so leave them with some things YOU expect to have discussed.  Follow up with an email to the group asking for their input on what needs to get decided during the meeting, and on the day of, ask the PM for an agenda of the items that need to be discussed that day.  If they don’t provide one in time for the meeting, print out the emails your team has thrown around and have them ready.  If the PM won’t take charge of the meeting, the time has come for you to do so.  Now, at least you’ve given everyone a day or two chance to add items and you can begin with your own concerns, and move on to those of everyone else.
  3. They behave reactively, rather than proactively.  This personality trait is one that takes time to overcome, and effort.  First step here is to be proactive yourself.  If you push them to think of things before they want to, it will likely get done before they would have accomplished it.  I don’t mean to inundate their inbox with emails or harass them with phone calls, but rather, at the beginning of the day, contact them and discuss the points you need to be discussed.  This will force their brain to align itself to yours for at least the moment.  If you ask for resolutions to issues, discuss with them how long it will take, and call them shortly before the due-date.  If you wait until the due-date is reached, you’re pushing back the procrastination beyond YOUR acceptable limit.
  4. They are unresponsive unless the boss asks or you go talk in person.  My overarching point in this area is that communication is up to YOU.  If they don’t reply until you go talk in person, perhaps you need to speak to them in person every time you need to talk.  Again, they can’t ignore you when you’re standing in front of them, so that’s what is needed.  If there is a pattern of unresponsiveness, you may need to move on to their boss to find out a more effective way of keeping them accountable.  That could mean emailing their boss first, and having the boss ask them directly to ensure that communications are responded to.

The long and short of it is that when people aren’t responding to you, or doing their job correctly and effectively, there is a problem with the team, and that problem needs to be resolved.  These are some strategies to employ when you’re first seeing problems, or when you feel that the problems can be resolved without much escalation.  My next post will discuss what to do when these simple strategies don’t work.

 

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Top Problems With Lazy Project Managers

I’ve already discussed that project managers are a necessary addition to a development team, as well as the fact that some are overzealous, which takes its toll on the team dynamics. Today I want to discuss why lazy project managers are actually terrible and destructive additions to any development team.

  • They don’t respond to information requests.  How many times have you contacted someone with a question and not wanted to receive a reply?  I’m not sure that’s ever happened to me, because generally I ask questions with the expectation of an answer.  This is no different for project managers, and in fact, the majority of their job is balancing the plates up in the air while shuffling people toward the end goal.  This requires providing INFORMATION when individuals need it.  An engineer, artist, designer, etc. should not have to ask twice, or even three times for an answer that is relatively easy to obtain.
  • They come to meetings noticeably unprepared. I’ve been to numerous meetings where everyone arrives on time, is ready to contribute and discuss, and all that is necessary is the person in charge to get things underway.  In fact, the project manager has that duty.  So, the meeting begins, he/she then asks what needs to get discussed.  Wait a minute, shouldn’t the purpose of a meeting be to have an agenda?  A plan of action?  Open ended meetings tend to be rather unproductive and useless, which is why we rely upon the manager of the project to get things focused.  Not knowing where people are, what they are to do, or why the meeting was being held in the first place is a huge issue with productivity in teams.
  • The behave reactively, rather than proactively. A sign of any truly great person is their ability to see problems ahead and act on those before they become a problem.  Lazy project managers, however, sit in their cubicles and no one really knows what they’re doing with their time.  The idea is based on the knowledge that they don’t go out of their way to resolve issues ahead of time.  Until YOU go speak to them, the issue doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned, and in reality, once you leave their office, it gets shoved to the back burner for some YouTube amusement.
  • Are unresponsive unless 1. The boss asks, or 2. you go and talk in person. Everyone is interested in maintaining their job placement for as long as it suits them.  This is a fact of the working world, so of course, when the boss asks a question, the answer must be somewhat forthcoming.  With non-supervisor people, however, the communication channels tend to be more lacking.  In fact, sometimes, the communication becomes non-existent.  This forces the coworkers to actually go to the project manager with questions because they likely will never get answered via the telephone or email.
  • They destroy team enthusiasm and engagement. This is less a feature of lazy project managers, and more of a symptom of having one on a team.  When a project manager is performing their duties to the best extent possible, they provide a level of cohesiveness to the team that is hard to obtain any other way.  This aspect is removed, however, when the project manager is lazy with respect to their duties.  The ties of comradery never fully develop, and in fact, many times are reduced to merely “having to” work with your team on some project that no one cares about.

There are some things I’m missing in the above list, however, these are the most problematic issues I have seen in my time engineering.  Project managers can, and I would argue MUST, be the lynch-pin in any development project.  Success or failure to launch lies significantly on their shoulders, and as such, they should be treated with reverence and respect so long as they get off their asses and do it.

Mind you, more often than not, the project managers I have worked with have been proactive and successful, but those that cause problems are the ones that stick out in peoples’ minds.

What have I missed?  Am I off-base?  Let’s discuss in the comments!

 

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How To Get Your Ideas Heard

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Project Managers Don’t Listen To Anyone’s Ideas

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Overzealous Project Managers: Problems and Solutions

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Tips for Engineers to Stop Underhanded Behavior

monty burns with fingers together looking deceptive

One of the biggest complaints I hear from fellow engineers is that of feature creep.  For those of you who don’t know, feature creep is the process where others in your project team, or management, get a great idea that they think would be good in your project.  They then proceed to tell the engineer that this feature is critical and needs to be implemented in the system, and then, “how long will it take?”

This post is not devoted to feature creep though.  Its focusing around deceitful and underhanded behavior in trying to coax something out of another person.  It is also about a coworker of mine who came into my office and began to explain how a desired feature was requested by one of the team.  He informed  them that he couldn’t do it in the time he had already allotted, so if she wanted the feature put in, she needed to move the deadline back by a few days to accommodate the development time.  To her, that was not a satisfactory answer, and so she spoke to another in the design team… who then went back to the engineer and asked for the same thing.  Yes, he got the same answer.

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Why Engineers and Managers Can’t Communicate

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Talking to a brick wall

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