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I have a co-worker who is talented and technically competent but a has trouble accepting direction from others. We need to make two major changes to a system.

Based on my experience, I have proposed that we make the first modification, wait several weeks, and then make the second modification. The second modification is very difficult to back out since it modifies a database. I would like to be able to back out the initial change if necessary.

He is insisting that we do both changes together. His main argument is that if we don't do both changes now one of them will never get done. The project is losing support from management but the tool is widely used.

Several times in my career I have seen senior staff members simply use their title to strong arm their position. I have first hand experience in the amount of resentment playing the seniority card causes.

I am asking how do I win him to my point of view before just telling him he is junior to me and to do what I say?

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  • I have explained and the general consensus 3 to 1 against him is not enough. Francine's suggestion of giving him a feeling empowerment and not needing to fight for my respect is a very good one.
    – ojblass
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:32
  • Who is the project owner? If you aren't his manager, then the project owner needs to resolve this.
    – NotMe
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 22:33

3 Answers 3

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That's a tough one. Younger co-workers can be a little hair-trigger regarding their status. They tend to feel marginalized and each time they make suggestions that are rejected, that just reinforces their beliefs that they have to fight for respect. They may view coworkers as a threat, trying to "keep them down".

As an aside, how many other co-workers do you have that are involved in the project? How do you make decisions about how to proceed? If you don't have a process, you need to work on creating one, even if it is just by habit. If there is no clear decision making path decisions can flounder, because it isn't often that everyone concerned will be in agreement.

Perhaps you could address his concern. Let him know that he has a good point, and ask him how "we the team" can make sure that doesn't happen. Encourage him to come up with a plan. You might even put him in charge of implementing it; giving junior members responsibilities and making sure they feel their efforts to accomplish those tasks are being noticed. If you can give him to opportunity to feel respected and relied upon, it may be that he will grow into those characteristics.

At the very least it will probably make him view your directives in a more positive light. The reason for this is that he will see you as being an ally rather than a competitor. That is how team trust is built between the senior and junior members.

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  • I decided to just show the coworker this question and answer. Let me see how it works out. Thank you for the amazing perspective.
    – ojblass
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 18:55
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One method is to "reframe". Consider some basic sources of authority:

1) Positional/Post/Title - A person is in charge because they are given an official title that confers upon them authority. In short, you are the boss because you are the boss, like it or not.

2) Executive/Ownership - You own the thing - whether it be the product, the company, the project, etc - and therefore it is "yours" in at least some limited sense of psychological property rights. You are the boss because the 'thing' is considered to be yours to do with as you think is best, so you get the final say.

3) Expertise - You are in seen as having authority because of your special knowledge, skills, ability, and experience. If someone is seen as clearly knowing more than you on a topic, shouldn't their words be given serious weight? What's the point in having an expert in your presence if you are just going to ignore what they say and think is best anyway? You can be in charge in some matters because you seem to know more than others in this particular area.

4) Referential - You are seen by others as an authority figure, and you are respected and deferred to by nature of this perception. People admire and revere you more than many others, and your suggestions and opinions are given weight and consideration in accordance with this.

Now, none of these are mutually exclusive, and the exact same basic situation can allow you to attempt to tap any one (or a combination of more than one) sources of authority. The reaction from others will be based upon their comparative authority, their personality generally, and their relationship with you.

So, let's consider an example using this situation of each in turn, and see how we can reframe the same basic method to capitalize on different sources of authority.

Title: Ultimately as the Senior [Programmer/Developer/Associate/Consultant/Other], this decision is mine to make. Therefore the first change will be done at once, and the second change will be rolled out two weeks later. If this should prove to be a good idea or a bad one, ultimately its my responsibility to take the heat, not yours.

Reaction: Certain personality types (types that are especially common in technical fields, by the way) have very little inherent respect for traditional authority figures, especially those who are only in charge because of position or official title. If this is not seen as legitimate, they will probably not react well.

Other people might be happy to have someone else ultimately responsible, and with a plan in place they love to implement. Planner personalities will hate this as they prefer to come up with a master plan, but Implementer personalities might much prefer to have a plan in place and just have to figure out how to make it work. The difference can be dramatic!

2) Executive: As the Project Owner [inventor, guy who made the tool what it is, etc] its up to me to ensure the continued success and popularity of this tool, and it is critical that this situation be outlined as follows...

Reaction: Much like the first one, only it's more about how legitimate a person considers your claim to psychological property rights and whether or not they particularly respect such a thing in this particular case. "It's your project, so the decision is ultimately yours to make" is generally the concession that is made by the other person when they find your authority to be legitimate.

3) Expertise - I've handled this tool for X number of years, and I've seen how people can react when something seriously disruptive goes wrong, and how unpleasant it can be to have to deal with a serious unexpected problem in a database. [insert war story illustrating your point] While this might not seem likely to you or it might seem minor, as someone who has been there before, we can't afford to take that risk. We need to do...

Reaction: Are you actually seen as having greater knowledge and expertise in this area? If you are dealing with someone who doesn't think highly of you or who has a very high opinion of their own experience and wisdom, they might tend to find your claim unconvincing or irrelevant. Arduous arguers might try to say that may have happened in the past but they know better in this particular case.

4) Referential - This is really hard to think of an example of how to make use of this, because as you develop it people tend to either recognize it or they don't. The best way might be to remind them of the sorts of reasons why people give weight to your opinions, such as with stories of how some other important employee sought your advice on something like this and they took your advice and were glad they did. Basically you seek to remind them of why you are considered an authority figure around here in the first place.

Reaction: As with the others, some personality types are more amenable to this than others. If this person doesn't respect your authority matters and you aren't able to 'lend' authority from someone they do trust and respect to make this up, they will likely just completely ignore what you are saying.

Any of these methods can work, and there is no single 'best' route, but the less "forced" you make the other person feel the better. If you are going to play a trump card of authority and "win", how can you make them feel that their input is still valued and that while you are going a different way in this case, you still value their thoughts and input?

So you can try to persuade the other person to agree with you, or just make an appeal to authority as with the above suggestions; if you do the latter, just be prepared to use additional methods to provide encouragement and positive recognition for someone's use of thoughts, sincere concern, and dedication to the project.

If you can make a person feel good while not getting their way, everybody wins! It just happens to be easier to say than to accomplish, but its very much a skill worthy of development!

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What you mentioned about lack of support from management speaks to the root of the problem more than anything as it's probably not limited to just the project in question. This situation could be resolved by improving that relationship between management and the team. Unfortunately this can be an almost impossible task if there is some fundamental disagreement in culture, strategy, etc. In this case, your team member might benefit simply from you soothing their concerns and promising to "fight" management for them. Something like: "I understand where you're coming from. Let me take your concerns to management and see if I can get them addressed. In the meantime I would appreciate your patience and understand that we need to do things this way because of x"

Another possibility is that there is a lack of clarity in the direction management wants to take and that is hindering the focus on the team and causing undue tension where normally a consensus decision could be reached. The individuals, especially in owner/designer type roles, may feel like their responsibilities are being diminished and that can lead to a sour attitude overall. You may want to find ways to let them continue to exercise their skills in other projects so they don't feel as "crushed" on others.

I think that Francine and Brian provided excellent insight with their answers, however I feel that at times you need to consider the "external" influences on behavior as well.

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