Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Frustrations and Rants

The vast majority of the time, we can all get along and still get work done. We work together and frequently agree with each other.

And then there are the few times where that doesn't happen.

Work is fun, but sometimes it's really frustrating. Sometimes people take that frustration out on each other. It sucks, but it happens. And you find yourself on the giving - or receiving - end of an attack. A rant that's about frustration, but that dredges up every disagreement along the way.

Whoo.... deep breath.

First of all, sometimes frustration is warranted. Sometimes you really are in a situation where only a sharp rebuke will bring the other party to her senses. For example, I worked with someone years ago who consistently did a large checkin, broke the build, and went home for the night. Her response every time was, "whoops. I'll have to try not to do that again." That was acceptable the first and second time. By the sixth time in a month, it was time to express the team's frustration.

But no matter how good a rant feels, hold off. Slow down for just a second. Rants are costly - that foaming-at-the-mouth-sputtering look is not flattering. You don't want to have to do it often. Make your rant effective.

Frustration will only be effective if it's expressed accurately, sparingly, and with purpose.

Frustration can be a powerful communication tool; it's a strong wake up call to someone to say, "hey, there's something really wrong here and it's important that you fix it.". That only works if frustration is expressed:
  • Accurately. Accuracy serves two purposes: doing the research may change your perception of the problem; and you keep the focus on the effects of the behavior rather than getting sidetracked into the details of the behavior.
  • Sparingly. If you're the guy who snaps at every little thing, then your snap loses power quickly. No one cares, because, hey, that guy whines when the free pizza has an odd number of pepperoni on it. If you always snap, all your problems are at the level of the odd pepperoni count.
  • With Purpose. Have a goal in mind. The purpose of a rant or frustration expression is to achieve change in behavior. To ask for that change, you need to know why you're expressing frustration. Also, if you don't have a goal, you probably shouldn't start ranting because it's likely to be misdirected.
So how do we do this?

Take the build-breaker I used to work with. Once we decided to approach her, and once it became apparent that "please don't do that again." wasn't working, then how we expressed the team's frustration had a huge effect on how likely we were to see her change.

We could say:
"Okay, seriously?! You always break the build and then you leave us to fix it! What do you think we are, your minions? Grow up, already! Be a real engineer! Have a little pride!"
It would feel good to say. It's also inaccurate. The word "always" is a big hint that we're probably inaccurate. It also fails to ask for change; we don't describe the behavior we're seeking. Lastly, we're attacking the person, not the behavior. This is a rant just about designed to make the recipient defensive and to escalate the disagreement. Let's not say that.

Instead we say:
"We've noticed a pattern where 6 times in the last 4 weeks, you've gone home at night after a checkin and the build is broken. That leaves the rest of us to fix it, on top of the work we've committed to, and we're getting pretty frustrated that this is becoming a pattern. What needs to change so that you can make sure your checkins finish building before you go home for the night?" This doesn't feel nearly as good to say; it's not nearly as satisfying as unleashing your wrath. But it's a lot more likely to be effective. We've done our research and we have an accurate description of the problem. We're noting our frustration and that there is a problem that needs to be resolve. We're ending with an action call: asking her for an immediate response targeted at a fix. We're leaving the solution itself up to her; that way she has the opportunity to identify a fix that resolves the problem while still meeting her needs.

Finally, by approaching the frustration gently and with a tone of reason, we've left ourselves an escalation path. If the problem continues, we can impose a stronger solution, or even indulge in a rant. We hope it doesn't get there, and that the problem is fixed while preserving the working relationship. But if it does get to a new and more frustrating point, we've left ourselves the escalation path to handle that.

Frustration happens, and sometimes we need to act on it. That's never an excuse for a rant, though. Solve the problem. Express the frustration. But be nice about it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice timing with this post, now lets see if I can put it into practice... might help my blood pressure as well