Friends of mine who don’t work in engineering generally assume that the engineering workplace is a rational, left-brained, emotionless environment where subdued brainy people devise inventions that solve techy problems and where everyone gets along well all the time because they’re usually just agreeing about inarguable facts.
Little do they know.
You know the engineering workplace isn’t like that. Agreeing and getting along with everyone all the time isn’t the norm, and there’s no such thing as "inarguable." Not everyone is subdued. Not everyone is brainy, for that matter.
Instead, disagreements are common. Sometimes they lead to outright arguments. Competition in the industry is fierce. Timelines are tight, and tensions run high. People get frustrated, disappointed, or offended. Or they become self-protective, maybe even insecure. Criticism and blame aren’t all that unusual.
And how do tension, frustration, offense, and insecurity show up in the workplace? In our communication with others — how we speak to them and how well we listen, as well as what we say in writing. Strained conversations, anxious presentations, and angry emails are all examples of how pressure and disagreement play out on the job.
Frustration, stress, and anger are, alas, common reactions to everyday work situations. But communicating when we’re annoyed or anxious opens the door to all kinds of terrible things. We don’t listen. We say things we wish we hadn’t. We forget important points. We fight for attention. We compete rather than speak. We "cc" the world on an email tirade and lose credibility.
Then, after the verbal sparring or the angry email, we feel worse. Venting and ranting don’t really make us feel better. What really happens is that when we vent, when we let it rip, we’re magnifying our anger. We make ourselves feel madder — righteous, perhaps, but mad nonetheless. Blood pressure goes up, and good will goes down. No one walks away after an argument feeling calm and balanced.
Think how much better our communication with our colleagues would be if we somehow managed not to be angry and stressed-out, even (especially!) during controversy or crises. Imagine how much more productive we’d be if we were, say, patient instead of frustrated. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, I admit. Erupting is more common. But is it better?
Staying Cool in the Hot Seat
I used to work with a tech support manager who rarely came unstrung during a crisis. Considering his job — which was often attending to hair-on-fire emergencies — this was a very good characteristic to have. Major system down? He didn’t flinch. Response time tanking and hundreds of users up in arms? He rallied without frenzy.
There were, however, people he worked with who didn’t appreciate his calm response to crises. They thought his lack of obvious distress was unprofessional, that he couldn’t possibly be taking the outages and errors seriously enough if he wasn’t pacing, yelling, or otherwise carrying on. Yet he and his team were rock star problem solvers, and they rallied to just about anything that came their way. I’m convinced their success was due, at least in large part, to their manager’s ability to communicate with them well. No matter the crisis, the information he shared was complete, he listened thoroughly to them, and he never flipped their panic switches to the "on" position because he never freaked out.
This tech support manager embodied something I came to understand better as time went by: that our internal reaction to a problem is separate from the problem itself. When there’s a system outage, I can panic, freak out, and wring my hands. Or I can keep my mental balance. Regardless of whether I panic or keep cool, the task ahead (find the problem’s root cause, fix, test, implement) remains the same. I’ll be better at getting it done if I don’t panic or lose it.
The Nature of Problems
We tend to think that problems and our reactions to them are one and the same, that the problem makes me do something or be something. Sev 1 system problems make me anxious. But in fact it’s not the problem that’s making you anxious. It’s you that’s making you anxious. The problem by itself doesn’t have the power to do that; only you do. The fact that some people react to urgent problems differently from you — fearfully or calmly, for example — proves that the problems, by themselves, don’t have the power to affect you. If sev 1 problems had the power to make you anxious, then they would make everyone anxious. But, of course, not everyone does react the same way because problems, themselves, aren’t doing it.
We don’t control external problems but we do control internal problems (reactions). If that distinction seems logical but you’re not sure how it’s useful, consider that when we control our internal reaction, our state of mind, we’re much more likely to communicate in a way that’s more complete, better understood and better received.
Easier said than done? Of course. Everything from frustration to freak out is quite normal. Not optimal, not our "best self," but normal.
There’s no simple technique-based fix for these kinds of communication problems. You can’t count to ten before you speak and hope that fixes it. Nor can you assume that deleting your angry email before sending it will improve your state of mind. And there’s no faking your way through this, either. You can’t hold a tension-free, conciliatory, peace-making conversation with someone you’re harboring critical thoughts about.
Just like any problem fix, if you want to fix these communication problems, you have to get at root cause. I’m not suggesting you or your entire team needs a few weeks of therapy to get at what’s wrong. There’s an easier way to come at this, to defuse your reactive state of mind.
We get a lot of practice recognizing other people’s faults. We examine, judge, criticize, and sometimes even expect the worst of them, routinely! And that single perspective — other people never measure up! — is at the root cause of our dissatisfaction. It drives us to be annoyed, impatient, distraught, and distressed. It’s lurking between the lines in every angry email. It’s the subtext of every tense exchange of words.
So let’s shift our perspective. Instead of assuming the colleague(s) we disagree with are deserving of criticism, instead let’s assume they’re worthy of admiration. How many people do we know who are really such great disappointments? I’d venture to guess that most of the people we work with are pretty smart. Most of them come to work every day to do the best job they know how to do. They’d rather not make mistakes, and they don’t actually make many. At heart, in fact, most of them are probably agreeable, decent people (who are probably loaded up with their own troubles and insecurities) who are doing — just as we are — the best they can. They have a lot of good qualities we usually overlook and a few bad qualities we usually focus on.
So if you want to defuse your reactive, critical state of mind — which will immediately improve your ability to listen and handle difficult situations — take note of your colleagues’ good qualities, and keep them in mind while you’re talking or writing to them. Even texting! Especially the colleagues you struggle with the most. Maybe that’s your boss. Or your boss’s boss. Or someone you have a long history of arguing with.
You don’t have to tell anyone you’re doing that. Just do it. (Sorry, Nike.)
There are many advantages to this perspective shift. For one, it doesn’t cost a cent. Another, it’s really easy. And the last and most important advantage is that, when you stop zooming to the bad qualities and instead focus on the good ones, your outlook and communications at work will improve immediately. Guaranteed.