6

Here's a (representative) conversation we just had. We were in the middle of a conversation about something else, where he did answer me - it's not like he was looking at code or doing something and I've just interrupted him.

Me: So I was going to work on XYZ feature today, but there's two pieces to it - I can add the feature, but once I add the feature, I'm not sure what to do with it.

Him: <Slight nod>

Me: So, when I add this feature, it's not actually going to do anything until we decide what we're going to do with it.

Him: <pause, no response>

Me: So... I'm not sure exactly how we should use it, I need you to tell me what we're going to do with it.

Him: <slightly annoyed, I read his body language as "why are you telling me this? / are you still here?"> Yes, I know.

You can think of this feature to be something like adding a server side AJAX response to a webpage - it doesn't do anything unless the served page on the other side makes the new type request.

We have so many things to work on and I don't want to spend time working on something that's ultimately not going to be useful when I don't know how long it's going to be for my boss to get back to me about the design question. I'm looking for him to say something like "I'll get back to you by the end of the day" or "Don't worry about it until next week" or "I need to think about it for awhile". Just say the words instead of saying NOTHING in the

Note: I am going to be writing BOTH sides of the code, it's just that he hasn't decided what he wants the other side to be yet.

His boss has actively been trying to get us to communicate better, but many times I don't really feel like my boss is making the effort. How can I get him to, I hate to phrase it this way, but "act normal" (i.e. respond when spoken to)? It's almost like he considers the conversation to be over but he doesn't say the niceties like "I need to get back to ABC thing now, let's catch up later".

  • What seems obvious to you like the "niceties" isn't universal. When someone comes talking to me, I don't say "I need to get back to XYZ", that kind of seems rude to me. What if the person has more to say, I've just told them to leave using your preferred method. Instead, when I think they are done, I'll hesitantly start getting back to work. If they speak up then I give them my attention. To me, this makes perfect sense. I've given the signal that I have nothing more to say but I haven't told them to leave, like your "niceties" implies. So they have an opening if they have more to say my way. – Dunk Feb 5 '15 at 18:11
  • Something else to consider. Is he annoyed at you or annoyed at himself for not being able to give you a good answer or just the thought that there's yet another item to add to his TODO list and you are misinterpreting the "are you still here?" part. – Dunk Feb 5 '15 at 18:33
  • I find it impossible to believe that the manager the OP is talking to doesn't realize that he is being asked questions and that input is required of him. There is definitely something here which is causing a clear negative reaction in this manager. Most likely it is something deeper than merely the exact questions which are being asked. – teego1967 Feb 6 '15 at 15:49
  • @teego:Well believe it. I don't find this all that abnormal. People who work with each other don't need formal openings and formal endings to conversations. Quite the opposite. You simply learn each person's style and roll with it. In the above case, it seems like the boss acknowledged they need to tell how the OP how they are going to use it, but it is obvious to me that he doesn't have a good answer at the moment. Why does he have to say "I don't have a good answer at the moment. Give me some time to think about it then I will tell you the details". "Yes, I know" covered all of that. – Dunk Feb 6 '15 at 23:00
  • @Dunk, it would have taken less time and fewer words to simply assure the OP that the feature in question is needed but that the full plan isn't formed yet. Moreover, this is likely a pattern of behavior rather than one incident (or else why would the OP ask?). The OP should look for underlying reasons for this behavior. It most likely is not a mental disorder like autism on the part of the manager. – teego1967 Feb 8 '15 at 20:48
20

I notice your transcript doesn't contain any direct questions. You should ask more questions.

It sounds like you're narrating your experience and expecting the other person to chime in when they have something to offer, which is a commmon conversational style because it's fairly easy for the narrator. However, it's not necessarily very accessible for the other person in the conversation, especially in a business environment.

Even by your third sentence, all you're saying is that at some point in the future further specification will be needed for the feature to be complete. Your boss agrees. That's a perfectly acceptable outcome for a conversation.

Sure, many people will by this point have picked up that you're not just moaning about a lack of specification but trying to ask "What should I do with the feature?" (without actually coming out and saying it), but your Boss presumably hasn't. He doesn't know your conversational objective is to get him to write a spec on the spot (or whenever you need it). You're just stating lots of facts at him that he's already aware of.

If you want to communicate effectively, you need to look at the conversation from the other side and make sure it's totally clear what you need:

  1. If you want a response, ask a direct question. Then wait for an answer.
  2. Be clear and specific about what you want: avoid "What do you think?"; prefer "I plan to do X, do you agree?". Be prepared to refine your question.
  3. If you're communicating by email, indicate the urgency of the problem ("I won't be able to progress without a decision so please could you let me know by the end of the day?")
  4. If you really do need to give lots of background, it's helpful to sandwich it with an up-front indication of what the question will be so that your boss knows in advance what information they're going to need to pick out of your explanation, for example:

    I need your feedback on which tool to use for this task - do you have a moment?

    If he does, continue with your long explanation of the different options

    ... so I think option 2 might be best - should I go with that?

Finally, in response to the actual direct question you put to us:

How can I get him to, I hate to phrase it this way, but "act normal"?

There's no way you can force him to "act normal", by which you presumably mean adopt or accommodate your conversational style. If he wants to be able to handle your style(s) better, there are strategies he can try, just as you can adapt your conversational strategies to him. But that would be a different question - and one for him to ask, not you.

The best you can probably do is find a moment to talk privately and say something like:

I've noticed that sometimes, I come to you with a problem but I get the feeling you're not sure why I'm telling you about it. If that happens, it's probably because I'm asking for your advice. I'm going to try to be clearer about when I'm asking you something. But if you notice it happening, please do prompt me to ask something specific.

You might then want to ask if he has noticed the same thing, or if he agrees that's a useful way forward when dealing with communication gaps.

10

I am a lead on a development team and often I get so overwhelmed that I end up being a disservice to the most competent people that are coming to me to tell me something. I have a thousand priorities swimming in my head, and I am thinking about the people that are slow or creating bottlenecks and how to deal with them.

One woman on my team is highly skilled and I can just give her a set of tasks and she just runs with it passionately. Having an open door policy, she will come into my office from time to time to strike a side conversation with me and will passionately talk about what she accomplished and what is most important to do next. She will then ask me questions which I know aren't roadblocks for her but immediately my brain will categorize them as low priority. It is not that I think what she is doing is low priority at all, it is just that I have so much confidence in her ability to figure this out that I can devote more of my brain power to dealing with the persistent and pervasive problems of leading a team and dealing with roadblocks on a project.

To make a long story short I find myself doing the exact same thing that you described your manager doing. I just can't even mentally process it because I am worrying about keeping 1,000 roadblocks out of her way so that she can keep doing her thing and being awesome. I want to protect her and other members of the team from having to expend their mental energies on overcoming obstacles they shouldn't have to deal with.

Your manager is probably mentally exhausted and worried about more important problems that maybe you are not privy to at the moment. Try self managing yourself and bring it up again early in the morning before either of you get too busy and you might get a more thoughtful answer.

  • This is probably the most relevant answer when dealing with "techy-first" type managers. People who have very good technical skills tend to have the ability to transition "into the zone" where they achieve a very strong focus on their task. The downside of being "in the zone" is that everything else is temporarily removed from the mind. If someone comes wandering in striking up a conversation, it could take quite a while to make the mind shift back to being "the lead". I recommend e-mailing what you want to discuss ahead of time so the lead already had a chance to think about your issues. – Dunk Feb 5 '15 at 18:03
5

You need to adjust to your boss's conversational style not the other way around. He told you he knew there was an issue for later down the line. Let it rest, bring it up again later if he doesn't return to the subject.

Also consider that some people are on the autism/Asperger's spectrum and they do not recognize the same social signals that others might or give them off. That means their communication style is different. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There is no one right way to communicate. People in this spectrum tend to ignore what you call niceties as they see them as irrelevant.

Different personality types also communicate differently. So do people of different genders and different cultural backgrounds. Stop thinking that what you want is the only right way to have a conversation.

It is not your place to determine if you want to work on something or if something is going to to be useless. It is his. So go do the work and remind him that the other part needs to be put into place if he doesn't get back to you in a week or so or when you deliver the module he asked you to work on.

If you feel he is not giving you enough information, then directly ask for the information you want rather than expecting him to read your mind. Your communication in the example above seemed relatively weak to me. Did you say to him that knowing how it would be used would affect the design? Did you tell him that you need a decision on this by x time to make sure that the final product will properly handle the eventual use? Did you make it clear to him that you think there are unresolved issues that will prevent you from working on this task? Are there in fact any issues that are preventing you from working on this now? Or is the information you want a "Nice to have" not a necessity?

  • Answering your questions in order: 1. Yes previously, but not in this conversation. 2. No. 3. Yes. 4. No. 5. It's more about prioritization, I'd rather work on a different issue (that I can complete) if I don't know the other half of this job. – durron597 Feb 3 '15 at 16:05
  • Prioritization is his job not yours. We all have things we woudl rather work on. – HLGEM Feb 3 '15 at 21:05
2

I'm actually not sure what sort of response you expect out of your boss. The dialog (or monolog) you post doesn't have any questions in it.

You didn't ask any questions.

You didn't give your boss any questions to answer.

I repeated this multiple times because I think it's significant. I think it's especially significant when we're talking about a software company and a conversation between a programmer and his supervisor.

Also what's important here is that you've stated you're tasked with writing both halves. So you're not even approaching your boss saying "I'm roadblocked because Steve isn't done with his half, and I can't do anything until Steve is done."

So, I'm not certain what sort of response you expect out of your boss. If you are waiting for him to make a decision, then ask him directly. With a question. "Have you decided yet whether to do X or Y?" And this may even be a thing to do over email, depending on what sort of decision is being made.

But why do I think the fact that you are a programmer is significant to this situation? Because programmers do rubber duck debugging.

If you haven't asked your boss any direct questions, could it be that he's confusing this conversation with you simply talking to him to make it look like you're not talking to yourself?

On at least a weekly basis, I'll talk to someone in the office about a problem I'm working on. I don't need a response out of them. I just need someone to stand there so I can say my thoughts out loud. For some reason, it helps me think. And the person I'm talking to doesn't have to tune in to the conversation. In fact, it's probably better for them if they don't.

So, the TL;DR version is? If you need a direct response, ask a direct question. And in many cases, email would probably be a better means of communicating important decision type discussions.

1

It is a pity that this manager can't deal with simple verbal cues. I don't buy into the overused asperger/autism excuse for high-functioning people. The fact is some folks just communicate poorly and there is no excuse for it-- especially not for managers. The only thing you can do is to continue to try to develop rapport with this person and adjust your expectations of what is normal.

In many places if something isn't explicitly specified, it is up to you to use your own judgment to prioritize or punt on some things. Admittedly, a poorly communicating boss can make taking that kind of initiative risky.

Looking at the paraphrased dialog, it could be that this manager feels you should know what to do and demonstrates that by clamming up. If I were you, I'd look at the situation and just do what makes sense given the information at hand. Worst case scenario, a mistake is made and then he is forced to be more specific/communicative next time.

0

Perhaps you may need to be clearer in the questions directed to him.

There are some great tips via the link below on how to involve and engage team members. The principles here are relevant to colleagues who you have manage up or down.

Hope this helps.

http://www.i3lance.co.uk/2014/03/how-to-involve-your-team-motivation-and-engagement/

0

It seems like the most reasonable way to handle the situation when the conversation stops, is to simply say something like "I'll give you some time to think about [repeat exactly what you want him to think about]. I will follow up with you tomorrow morning. In the meantime I am going to assume [xyz] is the direction we are going to take and proceed from there."

Also, since verbal communications between the two of you doesn't seem to be very strong, you should probably do your follow up via email early in the morning and only go talk if he doesn't respond to the email.

Speaking of which, maybe email should be your number one choice of communication with this person, if that is more effective than face to face.

Nothing you do will improve the other person's communication short-comings. Only their desire and willingness to work at improving that skill will do that. So the best you can do is figure out how to make it work within the limitations you are presented with.

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