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Career

Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

By Jim Grey (about)

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV

Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I ran QA. Production went down while all of the ops managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

This post expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.