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My team has been brought in for a turnaround situation at a acquisition with a few thousand employees. The company has recently lost a major revenue source and become unprofitable, and the hope is that new technology will fix everything. I've been tasked with designing the platforms that the company will use.

There are a few "big ideas" being used as constraints, and sometimes these ideas conflict with each other. Some parts of the vision are really smart, but some don't make any sense. When I ask for clarity or point out a challenge I see (and am ready with a solution), my supervisor says I'm being "negative" and either chastises me or reminds me that negativity is the primary reason for termination at this company.

For instance, my supervisor thought it would be cool to run a video call center off of tablets instead of desktop computers. I reminded him that our wifi is quite poor and the financial cost of using data plans for a hundred two-way video streams all day would be astronomical, but I was just given a look of disgust and a talking to.

The stress is getting to me. We've been sold to the employees as a messiah and I am confident based on our track record and the conditions we work in that we're going to fail. Even if I thought it was the right thing to do, I can't go over the boss' head. The CEO and I both report to the same guy. I can't be happy working in an environment where I feel my work is forced to be of poor quality or where I'm forced to be a yes man.

In general, how does one deal with a situation like this? Should I as a systems designer just nod my head when the constraints I'm given don't make sense to me? Does it seem like the issue is actually with me instead of my supervisor? What should I do?

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    I feel my work is forced to be of poor quality or where I'm forced to be a yes man. In IT field, it's on those kind of situations that you end up with a lot of turn over because old people move on and new guys won't stay. – Walfrat Sep 28 '16 at 11:09
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    If your supervisor interprets challenging ideas in (what is hopefully) a meritocracy as negativity, and issues veiled threads that this negativity can get you fired, that is a toxic attitude. You may want to report it to HR. In any case, it's a red flag for staying in your current position, if not your current company. – Pedro Sep 28 '16 at 15:29
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    Unfortunately, that's not possible. The first thing he did after the turnover was fire HR. All HR concerns go through him now. – SecondaryAccount Sep 28 '16 at 17:47
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    @SecondaryAccount Do you only point out problems? Do you also tell people you love the ideas they give? "negativity is the primary reason for termination at this company". That makes it sound you only point out problems. If that is not true, then indeed they want you to just agree and say yes to everything. – Jeroen Sep 29 '16 at 14:20
  • @Jeroen, that is an excellent way to put it. I'll be mindful of how often I support good ideas and compliment others. If I find that it's too seldom or that the boss is no longer upset with me because paying attention has changed my behavior, I have my solution. If there is still a problem and I can't change my behavior in reasonable ways to correct it, the issue is beyond my control and I'll need to find other work. – SecondaryAccount Sep 29 '16 at 15:32
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What one person sees as a problem, another sees as an opportunity. Don't say "we have poor Wi-Fi "; instead you should say "Great! We'll need new hotspots; I'll do some research and put together an estimate."

If someone proposes something which truly is dumb, then of course you have to speak up. But you should put more energy into coming up with solutions than into pointing out problems.

  • While this is true, the more crucial point is to use those estimates as a base to push towards not doing this. Managers like numbers. If you can prove how expensive and time-consuming this change would be, the manager will not even need explanations. They'll see for themselves and just decide not to do. Or they might go for it, at which point at last your conscience is clear. – simbabque Sep 28 '16 at 9:31
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    I don't think this really address the point of the OP while it's still a good generic answer. The OP stated himself that even when he has a solution in hand his manager see it as negative. When I ask for clarity or point out a challenge I see (and am ready with a solution), my supervisor says I'm being "negative". OP seems already being professional in his way to communicate. – Walfrat Sep 28 '16 at 11:14
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    Agreed that this is a good generic answer, but the problem in my case is more one of bikeshedding. We have complete freedom in what languages, frameworks, databases, etc. we use because only we understand the tech side. We are completely limited in art and user interaction because the supervisor feels qualified there. These ideas are seen as complete, usable products instead of rough diamonds to be cut and polished. Questions doubt the inherent perfection of the idea. – SecondaryAccount Sep 28 '16 at 12:52
  • @SecondaryAccount I've edited the question to hopefully clarify meaning. In short I believe this answer addresses your issue directly. The issue being is that you're starting with an issue or pointing out flaws rather than jumping directly to a solution. If this doesn't address your question then you may need to reword the question. – Rawrskyes Oct 5 '16 at 3:15
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Personally, I like using the Socratic method. You just ask questions and let the person think the idea was their own.

For instance, my supervisor thought it would be cool to run a video call center off of tablets instead of desktop computers. I reminded him that our wifi is quite poor and the financial cost of using data plans for a hundred two-way video streams all day would be astronomical, but I was just given a look of disgust and a talking to.

Example for this scenario. "Great! How do you want to handle the WiFi upgrades?" or "Sure, do we have an estimate of how much we need to increase our data plans?" or "What's our budget for this?"

You cannot tell someone they are wrong. Nobody wants to hear that. But if you ask questions tactfully, you allow them to save face, also saving yourself looks of disgust and a stern talking to.

Also, document all of these points. If you have a conversation with this person, sit down and write a follow up email. "I was thinking about our conversation earlier, and have a few more questions".

Of course, you are also going to want to keep your resume up to date in case you are ignored, or worse.

  • "You cannot tell someone they are wrong. Nobody wants to hear that." Actually, I love being told that I'm wrong when I'm wrong. – gnasher729 Jun 18 '17 at 10:48
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    @gnasher729 then you are the rare exception. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jun 18 '17 at 12:21
  • Many years ago I was told (no idea if it is true) that in some countries in South East Asia you have to be very careful if you ask for directions. Because it would be incredibly rude of someone to not give you directions. Much ruder than giving you wrong directions. So people will send you anywhere instead of saying "I don't know". I like to know when I'm wrong. – gnasher729 Jun 19 '17 at 10:47
  • @gnasher729 that s true. It also created a problem in dealing with India for a while. The cultural taboos against rudeness caused troubles. They saw it as rude to complain or to say no. Because of that, we had a problem with reporting problems or push-back against unreasonable deadlines. We had to make it very clear that we wanted to know about problems or if deadlines were in jeopardy. We were also cautoned against giving unreasonable deadlines as "stakes in the ground" as our colleagues in India would take them as hard deadlines. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jun 19 '17 at 11:12
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You're already convinced that the project is heading for disaster. Now, it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong. The only thing that matters is that you've lost faith in the project and people running it. You can't fix that. You need a new job.

If you need a rationalization, here is one:

When I ask for clarity or point out a challenge I see (and am ready with a solution), my supervisor says I'm being "negative" and either chastises me or reminds me that negativity is the primary reason for termination at this company.

This can be rephrased: Your job is to anticipate and fix issues before they become problems. Forcing you to say "yes" under threat of being fired "because of negativity" is nothing less than directly preventing you from fulfilling your duties. This is how you can explain why you quit to your new employer. As rath pointed out, it has to be phrased in a neutral way when you want to discuss it outside. Something like "company goals shifted and there were no longer compatible with mine".

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    Nah... I wouldn't badmouth my former employer to my prospective one. That's the internal justification you need to quit, and it's a sound one. You can tell your new employer why you left after you've been hired. +1 otherwise – rath Oct 3 '16 at 10:36
  • @rath I haven't meant it as badmouthing and it can be phrased in a non-offensive way. – Agent_L Oct 4 '16 at 8:15
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Indeed, when pointing out issues, one is likely regarded as a negative hinderance. It's better to show some openness towards the suggestion and raise a helpful question, e.g in your example "Hey, that's a cool idea to support tablets, too! Would you like to provide the same smooth experience as on desktops?" If the answer is "yes", then ask "What's the budget like for providing a reasonable bandwidth?" Never be the source of problems; just raise questions and let your supervisor himself find out the consequences and judge them.

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34 years of experience have teached me you have to approach this situation with caution. The guy has clearly something with you, probably because in the past you already got to disagree about something. The guy is the kind that wants to feel powerful, propositive and expects affiliative suggestions, not contradictions.

Another factor that transpires out of your post is the fact you are stressed and are actually leaning towards a negative scenario both about the project and the company.

For a while, you may indeed use a clever "Socrates" approach as suggested above, but if I were you I'd dust off your curriculum and find another job.

Moreover, if possible, make so that between your current job and the new job you get 2+ weeks for a restoring vacation. The situation has impacted your psyche, it could lead you to a bad start in the new company if you don't recharge your mental batteries.

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For instance, my supervisor thought it would be cool to run a video call center off of tablets instead of desktop computers. I reminded him that our wifi is quite poor and the financial cost of using data plans for a hundred two-way video streams all day would be astronomical, but I was just given a look of disgust and a talking to.

Wow. Your answer was negative, showed that you have bias, and actually showed a lack of technical understanding (suggesting an expensive solution is bad, but suggesting one which does not work is worse - a single 3G cell will not handle enough channels to support more than only a few tables at the same spot - it is much easier to upgrade wifi than to change the design metrics of a mobile cell).

The constructive way of dealing with it would have been not to make it ridiculous by making an absurd comment but by constructive criticism:

  • Make the comment that the company would have to throw in decent wifi access points (and yes, these cost some serious $), and say "I will quickly look it up how much that roughly would take".

  • raise the issue if this is actually compliant with work safety/ergonomics standards/which docking stations are needed.

  • by making an absurd comment did you mean by reductio ad absurdum? – rath Oct 3 '16 at 10:27
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    His answer was not negative and there's no bias I can detect. It was a factual statement - Our wifi cannot handle the proposed load. Similarly the OP did not suggest they buy data plans: he says that even if they did, the cost would be too high. He was arguing against using mobile data. Your comment on cell tower capacity (which I assume is correct) is the technical argument that goes with his financial one. – rath Oct 3 '16 at 10:34
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    The professional way of handling ideas is: evaluate which technically work. Throw out the non-working ones. Then evaluate the cost of the working solutions. The obvious solution to "bad wifi" is not "go to cell data transfers" but "upgrade wifi". Doing so is a matter of cost which adds to that solution. In the end, all working solutions should be on the table with a price tag, risks, and chances. Then Management/Customer can make a decision. Saying: we need also to upgrade wifi in to make this work is a much better response than an arrogant "i reminded him of sth" – Sascha Oct 3 '16 at 10:48
  • and no, it is not "reductio ad absurdum". "reductio ad absurdum" would have been to comment like "and tomorrow, we can just sent the tablets to india and remove ourself from the process". – Sascha Oct 3 '16 at 10:54
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I believe the real problem is with your relationship with your supervisor. If the supervisor believes that you are a negative force, they may project that on most things you say, even if you are trying to be helpful.

Having been in a similar situation, I was able to resolve it (for a little while) by speaking directly with the supervisor. A blunt, goal-oriented conversation with your supervisor may help:

I feel like we aren't communicating as well as we could be, and I'm hoping that we can resolve that. Often times when I am trying to contribute what I feel is helpful input, it seems to be construed as negativity.

How can I express these concerns and ideas in a way that's truly helpful for everyone?

There's no guarantee that you'll be able to change the impression your supervisor has, but at the very least you could gain some insight of how others may be perceiving your messages.

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