About a year ago I had a chance to sit down with a member of an IT team that was working for me in order to have a heart-to-heart with him. We’ll call him Tim. Tim was a project manager on one of my teams and so far he had been a steady performer. I’d say that he was strong on the analytical side and soft on the interpersonal side; however, he was doing a good job and I had really had no complaints on his performance. Recently, things had changed with Tim. His whole demeanor had been transformed as a deep depression seemed to both surround him and flow off of him and onto anyone that he interacted with. It had gotten so bad that nobody really wanted to have anything to do with him. Clearly this was having an impact on his ability to do his job. It was time for me to step in and see what I could do.
I took Tim with me down to the cafeteria in order to get him into a neutral location. I started my conversation with him by explaining that I had been pleased with his work up until recently. I told him that it sure seemed like something had changed and I needed to find out what it was because things couldn’t continue like they were. Tim initially said exactly what you’d expect a guy to say: “Nothing’s wrong.” I thought about opening up on him with both barrels – look, he was doing a lousy job and he was going to be out the door if he didn’t shape up. However, I knew better and so I kept gently probing. Finally, Tim got around to saying “I hate my Director.” Once again, my gut reaction was to tell him “Too bad, he’s not leaving so you had better make some changes.” However, somehow I was able to hold my tongue and instead said the three most important words that an IT Leader can say “Tell Me More…”
Tim started telling me the standard things that everyone says about their boss behind their backs “He doesn’t give clear instructions, he changes his mind too often, he’s never around when I need to talk to him, etc.” This is regular stuff – not enough to cause such a change in personality. So I went on and said “What else has happened lately?” This finally got Tim to confess everything. In a staff meeting, his boss had found some errors in some slides that Tim had prepared showing the status of the project and had called him out on it in front of the rest of the department. Given Tim’s personality, this was just about the worst thing that anyone could do to him. He was wounded and still sulking several weeks after the event. Bingo! We had our smoking gun.
This was a problem that I could (and did) fix rather easily. That’s not the point of this posting. Rather, my first reactions as Tim’s story unfolded would have been the wrong ones to act on and if I had, then I would have ended up doing a great deal of damage and not fixing the problem. I guess that’s why we all have two ears and just one mouth.
David Benzel is an author and a speaker and he points out that as IT Leaders we all have four main responsibilities when it comes to communicating with our IT teams:
- To listen
- To get the facts
- To determine the problem
- To help resolve the situation
As hard as it is to do, listening is both an art and a science that all of us IT Leaders need to get better at doing. Listening is hard to do because it requires you to focus your attention and use your full brain to process what is being said – no multi-tasking allowed! By keeping your mouth shut and your ears open, you allow your staff to do the talking and when they do that, you will learn amazing things.
Have you ever been in a situation in which you spoke too soon without doing enough listening? What happened when you did this? Have you ever seen someone who was a good listener at work? How did people respond to them? Were they more or less effective at their jobs than their peers? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.