Could you just do this because I say so?

In this article I’ll go over a particular challenge of communication and how to overcome it. When asking someone to give you more information or to do something, it can inspire insecurity and defensiveness. I’ll go over the strategies I’ve been told to use and some examples of how I use them.

Example Scenario:

You have a operational task you need to do every few months, something like updating a library or rotating passwords. It’s a real pain to do it because every time your team inherits a new piece of software, the corresponding documentation on how to do this isn’t update nor are the caveats. During stand up you hear a coworker inform the team that they are going to do this update.

Teammate (TM): I’ll be doing the quarterly database password rotation this week. It may take a while since I’ll have to hunt down the last people that did it to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

Me: Can you automate this when you’re done?

TM: That’s out of scope and we have other things to do.

Me: But it’d be better if you automated it.

TM: Maybe later. Let’s move on.

To make it clear what happened:

  • I asked my teammate to make an improvement of automating this painful operational task
  • Teammate did not appreciate being given more work
  • I used a subjective comparison of “it’d be better if you automated it” to imply that what they were doing wasn’t the best. The teammate shut down and redirected the conversation.

What does this tell me?

  • Teammates don’t like it when I give them new work arbitrarily
  • Teammates don’t like it when I judge their work

I’ve bolded some terms there. These are a few key things that need to be changed in the conversation. I’ll go through each of them and how to change it.

I give them new work: This boils down to me asking them to do what I want. If I’m not their boss and have no authority, they have no reason to  do what I ask aside from social equity. Based on the first attempt above, you can safely assume I don’t have social equity either. The way this needs to change is that I don’t tell them what to do, instead I ask them if they think we (not “you”) should do the task or suggest the task. “Can you do this?” becomes “would you be interested in doing this as part of your task?” or “I think we should work on this task as well either as a follow up or part of this task”. This other approach does not assume authority, it doesn’t put all responsibility on one person, and by asking after interest or using the group pronoun, it shows you recognize your teammate isn’t alone and also has thoughts of his or her own. Stating the obvious: people are more likely to cooperate if you treat them respectfully as fellow humans.

Arbitrarily: In the above conversation, you may think that it’s obvious to ask someone to automate an operational task, just like you might think it’s obvious that a request for passing salt means that person requesting it probably will use it on their food. However, people misunderstand each other all the time and often if you phrase something as a demand, the fact that you are demanding overrides the part of the brain that logically thinks about what you said. Work on providing a reason for your suggestion and try to make that reason relatable. “Because I think it’s better” isn’t going to motivate anyone to do you favors unless you have authority, respect, and/or social equity. Assuming you don’t have those things, you need to provide reasons that sell your idea to people. Better: “I think we should do this task because it will make this process faster, more reliable, and less frustrating next time.”

Judge: Judgement, in my opinion, is part of survival and makes us good at doing the right things. So judge away… just don’t always share your judgments. If you’re not sure if what you’re saying is a “judgement”, try pretending one of your parents or aunts or uncles is saying it to you. “It’d be better if you chose a different degree.” “It’d be better if you bought a different car.” “It’d be better if you automated this.” When considering those examples said in the voice of my favorite elder, I can feel my shoulders tense up and all my problems with authority flare up in preparation for rebellion. All these things could imply that you think this person made a bad decision. You cannot control how people hear your words and if they’re having a bad day or just got off the phone with an overbearing aunt, they might be more likely to misinterpret your tone. Your best change is to try selling your idea by bringing up consequences and risks in a neutral way. Avoid the nagging auntie voice telling you that “you’ll regret it”. Better: “If we don’t fix this now, it will continue to be a lot of work and we’ll be really out of luck if those people that did it last time aren’t available. Let’s try to get this on the schedule for this round or next round.”

Let’s put this all together into the revised edition of the example:

Teammate (TM): I’ll be doing the quarterly database password rotation this week. It may take a while since I’ll have to hunt down the last people that did it to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

Me: I think we should automate this task because it will make this process faster, more reliable, and less frustrating next time.

TM: Hm… I agree but I really don’t think we’ll have time to do that along with the other work.

Me: If we don’t fix this now, it will continue to be a lot of work and we’ll be really out of luck if those people that did it last time aren’t available. Let’s try to get this on the schedule for this round or next round.

TM: Yeah, I get that. We can add it to our backlog prioritization next week and I’ll make sure to note an estimate after I do the work this time.

Hey, you still didn’t get the job done… you might be thinking. True, the outcome still was that the automation didn’t happen. However, you now have the interest and backing of your teammate instead of a passive aggressive coworker that thinks you are too demanding. This makes it significantly more likely that the work will get done. In fact, in situations like this I’ve seen the teammate find out that it wasn’t actually that much work and went ahead with the fix. That does not happen in the first scenario.

Summary:

  • Don’t assume authority or social equity you don’t have – make sure to request and not  demand
  • Provide a sales pitch or justification for what you are asking for so others can understand why you want something
  • When trying to counter an argument against your idea, avoid blame and judgement. Focus on clear and measurable consequences that relate to the group or person you are talking to.

Finally:

If you think you don’t do this, think again! I do this all the time and it took 3 managers to finally point out that this was my problem. Specifically I was told “you can’t expect people to accept your ideas solely on their merit”. Turns out I needed to become a salesperson. So, if you’re a smart person and feel your ideas aren’t as viral as you want them to be, you may need to build up that inner salesperson.

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