Take care of the little things


My grandmother told me two things when she dropped me off at school:

  • Be good
  • Do your best

Simple, right?

In most systems, especially those that deal with people, this simplicity is something you have to claw and scratch for. It doesn’t come free. If you’re a manager it’s usually at your expense and it’s a part of your job.

Learning what makes people happy or sad is an important part of achieving this simple success. Getting the best out of your people, and having folks do things the right way — for the right reasons — requires some basic knowledge about what motivates or demotivates people.

Unfortunately, this takes some time. You’re not going to know everyone inside-out after a few days; not even after a few months. So where do you start? You start simple. You start with the small things:

  • Be polite. Wait your turn. Hold the door. Say thank you. Clean up after yourself. Say sorry and mean it. Offer other people gum.
  • Listen to people. Make eye contact. Let them finish talking. If you don’t know what they said, ask them so you can understand. Empathize with them.
  • Be on time. Show up when you say you will. Let people know if you can’t. Reschedule promptly if you have to. Don’t waste people’s time.
  • Random acts of kindness. Notes saying “thank you!” or “you’re awesome!” mean a lot. Cards on birthdays, holidays, new babies. Gifts: trophies, action figures, mugs, gift cards, scotch, etc.
  • Go out of your way for them. Stay late. Reschedule a meeting if they aren’t done yet. Put off your dinner plans to be there with them during a launch. Reply to their late email. Give them a ride home when it’s raining.

If you find yourself in a corner because you don’t know everyone on your team, relax. The best part about these small things is they are universal motivators. They build trust and relationships at work, home or elsewhere.

Over time, you’ll get to know your team and build on what you’ve started. Until then, do the small things — and keep doing them. Eventually, your team will be good and do their best because you did the same first.

More reading:

Engineers and other anomalies


In cased you missed it, Nicholas C. Zakas wrote a great post about the care and feeding of engineers and why they’re so grumpy.

If you have worked with engineers, this should either resonate with you, leading you to recognize your past misunderstandings and want to bear-hug engineers tomorrow OR you won’t read the whole thing and pass it off as another passive-aggressive rant from the techno-elite. Seriously, though, please at least read it.

If you are an engineer with some decent experience, you’ll likely grab a box of tissues and nod along like you’re seeing Shawshank Redemption for the umpteenth time. Near the part where he talks about engineers as creators, you’ll get the same feeling you got when Red said, introspectively:

“But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”

So. Beautiful.

But wait! Put down the tissues. Before you start emailing your non-technical colleagues or tattooing this article on your chest backwards so you can read it in the mirror, there are some points I want to cover:

Mental fatigue and the culture of NO

Adopting NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! as your default response to things usually doesn’t work. Here are situations where it won’t work:

  • When U.S. customs asks you for your passport
  • When your grandma asks you to pass the mashed potatoes
  • When a cop asks you for your driver’s license and registration
  • When your best friend asks you to babysit their dog

Why smart and talented people would adopt this as their default reaction to questions is beyond me. The motivation behind the response is pure — focus on shipping, no time, reluctance to context-switch, etc. — but the reaction is entirely predictable in almost every case:

  • Jail
  • Dad punches you
  • Jail
  • (# of friends you have) – 1

All I’m saying is you get a chance to apply some creativity here. When that doesn’t work, at least apply restraint and say two magic words: “Yes, but…” Still confused? Here are some examples:

  • Yes, but it’s buried in my bag. Just a second, sir.
  • Yes, but my hands are terribly swollen and I have to use the bathroom. Ask Dad.
  • Yes, but my glove compartment is locked. It will take me some time to gather my legal documents.
  • Yes, but my house is getting fumigated and I’m flying to Peru that day.

Take the mental leap and apply it to work situations. If you can’t, your manager should be able to help. If they can’t, quit now.

Stop fixing stuff and take time to celebrate

An engineer’s obsession with creating is a great, wondrous thing. In my experience, it’s not unlike an addiction. It’s almost instinctive for an engineer to stay up late, whittling way at an impossible problem, fighting for that extra inch of performance, elegance or security. They can become immersed in fixing every bug, every issue in their project — but what about the positive parts? Where is there time for celebrating, recognition, reward and reflection?

Nicholas stated it well:

The software is our baby, and we like to care for it as such.

But as with most addictions, there isn’t much room for anything else. That baby can consume you, robbing you of some basic necessities like food, sleep, companionship, paying your taxes, personal hygiene and fashion sense. Bad baby!

I often remind engineers to spend equal time on the positives. In a culture so focused on finding creative ways to solve problems, we forget to recognize some basic things:

  • how much work went into the whole thing (a ton)
  • how much we learned from the project
  • what actually went well (a lot)
  • how cool the final result was

Don’t be selfless and obsessed. It makes you grumpy. Take time to appreciate what you’ve done together with your team (which includes designers, product managers, etc.) and take time to stop worrying about bugs. It’s not just about being positive — it’s about being human and letting yourself feel good about what you did.

Sometimes you’re just an asshole

There are those times where engineers are assholes. Yes, I know this may come as a shock to many, but engineers are also capable of being unjustifiable assholes. Over time, life will help you identify when you’re doing this, but if you need help read The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton.

If you’re an engineer and you engage in asshole behavior, it’s not justified by a silent frustration caused by other people. In those cases, it’s way easier to say, “Wow. I was an asshole yesterday and I’m sorry.”

Don’t go down the road of asshole justification. It’s a messy road, filled with bullshit. It’s often public, humiliating, and irreversible. Just say sorry and learn how to get your point across without alienating the people you will need to work with tomorrow. It actually feels great to talk it out with the team, the person you had issues with and regain your footing.

Stop digging a hole, put the shovel down and apologize.

Congrats, you made it this far!

Those were just some side comments to accompany a thorough post by Nicholas. Hopefully it helps and you spent the time to read and understand what I was saying. But if not, well…

He’s flippant, but is he right?


Criticizing tone instead of having rich discussion is a waste of time. In most cases, the time it takes to criticize tone and delivery can be spent arguing the issue at hand.

In a case where someone has the courage to raise their voice and question things publicly:

  • Try not to discourage them from speaking up in the future
  • Focus on what they said, not how they said it
  • Address the issue in your response, always

In Paul Graham’s post about how to disagree, he states:

“So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”

While it’s not constructive to react and submit knee-jerk comments, it’s just as counter-productive to criticize tone and delivery instead of offering solid reasoning as to why you disagree.

Of course, we can frame things initially in order to not invoke a predictable response to our snarky comments. But outside of insults or out-of-bounds comments (which are usually best ignored), I usually prefer to focus my energy on the problem, not examining words and etiquette.

Be wary of criticizing tone. It’s not as productive as it might feel and won’t do anything to change the end result.

Stalemate: Are you building a culture of silence?


Courage. Trust. Great teams have these, weak teams don’t.

There is nothing quite so disappointing as a group of talented people who can’t achieve because they lack mutual trust. Likewise, it’s tough to see folks who can’t speak up because they either don’t have the courage or don’t trust their colleagues enough to listen to what they have to say and react constructively.

With dwindling trust or courage, you’re building yourself a culture of silence. This manifests itself in very destructive ways:

  • People do not speak up. Even when it is important for the progress of the team and company, people are reluctant to voice their opinions. It takes individuals with tremendous courage to speak up and when they do, they are labeled as dissenters and not supported even though they are saying what everyone wants to say — but won’t dare.
  • There is no room for failure. Most successes are preceded by wonderful failures. Not having the trust of leadership or colleagues eliminates failure as an option and stifles innovation. If you can’t fail for fear of retribution, you probably aren’t going to succeed at higher levels.
  • Nobody challenges each other. If I think you’ll try to sabotage me or get revenge because I disagree with you, I’m going to be less likely to challenge your points and assumptions. I won’t be vested in your success enough to challenge your core arguments. Healthy discourse goes out the window and those with the loudest voice — or those who speak first — start winning out.
  • Your true talent bleeds. People with better options don’t tolerate a culture of silence. They recognize lack of trust and leave fairly quickly for better opportunities. You often won’t hear about why they really left. It’s always the “opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” As you might suspect, there’s usually more to it than that.
  • Politics run rampant. In an environment where nobody truly knows where people stand, extroverts get a lot of credit and overshadow the silent majority. Politics, defined as, “people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution,” replaces any meritocracy with a bureaucracy. Ben Horowitz wrote a good post about politics.

Here’s how you can prevent building this culture of silence:

  • Listen to people. People who do not listen or practice in selective listening do not trust the speaker enough to consider they may be right. Maybe you’re formulating your response before they are done talking. Maybe they are just totally wrong. Either way, if you start talking immediately after someone makes a point and come back with 10 reasons why they are wrong you are telling them something very clear: I do not trust you and I don’t value your opinion. Don’t do this — just listen.
  • Forget about blame. Blame is a huge waste of time in most cases. Can you recall any time you pointed out it was someone’s else’s fault where working with that person again was easy? If so, congratulations; that might be the first time in human history. Assume the best in your colleagues. Allow them room to fail and help them. It will pay off tenfold in the long run.
  • Sort things out directly without bosses. I can’t recall a time where cc-ing someone’s boss resulted in a positive outcome. Adults tend to work things out directly and when they can’t, they escalate. If you conduct normal business thinking, “if I say something, it could go directly to my boss,” you’re going to say less — or agonize over what to say. Try to work things out with people directly and avoid involving their superiors unless you’ve already tried and didn’t get results. You just might be able to resolve things with less drama and avoid losing trust.
  • Don’t play the victim. Everybody hates you and you’re just trying to do your job, right? I remember hearing stuff like this; I think it came from 6 years olds dealing with their first exposure to groups of other people. It has no place at work. Excuses, blaming others, entertaining all forms of outward influences as plausible scapegoats before addressing what you did or what you could have done differently is a good way to lose people’s trust and confidence in you — it’s also mentally exhausting. If you play the victim and enter meetings like mama bear protecting her cubs, you’re going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t be a victim. Be strong. People will respect you for it.
  • Avoid character attacks. Maybe you think Jim is a huge asshole. Maybe Mike is crazy and he gets on your nerves. Maybe Jenny said something that hurt your feelings. A good way to screw yourself is to be irresponsible in how you share this internal dialogue. Vent to your friends, your partner, whatever — but keep it clean — always. Word gets around and you don’t want people to hear your internal dialogue. Keep the nasty stuff to yourself. Don’t play that game — everyone loses when it becomes too personal or vindictive.

Organizations lacking trust and courage can generate both noise and silence at inopportune times. Those who get drowned out have a lot to offer; the analytical, the listeners, the silent majority contribute just as much to the long-term health of the organization.

So speak up, be heard, but always listen to others. Trust they are saying things for the right reasons — give them the time they deserve before you hammer their opinions into tiny itty-bitty pieces. After all, their next point may be brilliant. But you’d never know if they lacked the courage to speak in a room full of people ready to pounce.