Last Tuesday, I went to a pub near my house to watch Sounders FC win their third straight US Open Cup. For most of the game, there were just three of us watching the match, but it was still a lot of fun to watch.
With about five minutes left in the match (the Sounders were ahead 1-nil, and closing in on their second goal), a group of men came into the bar and filled 10-12 seats at a neighboring table. One of the men – I’ll call him Frank looked at the three of us watching the match, looked at the screen and claimed loudly, “That’s not a game!”. Apparently, that’s all of the commentary vocabulary Frank had, because he repeated the claim to his table-mates several more times during the remaining minutes of the match.
A part of me (perhaps the soccer hooligan in me?) wanted to confront Frank and ask him why he didn’t consider the most popular sport in the world to be a game, but I held my tongue and put my focus on watching the sounders score late to seal the game, and on their subsequent celebration.
But then I thought about Frank.I wondered what circumstances would lead to his statement. First off, soccer isn’t that popular in the US, so he’s certainly not the only one around who doesn’t value (what I see as) the beauty of the game. It also looked as if Frank and his friends came from a sporting event (it’s not softball season, but it could have been flag football). Perhaps Frank’s team lost, or he was frustrated with his performance. I don’t know many people who would purposely act as he did without some sort of other motivation. In short, there’s a lot going on with Frank I don’t know about, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Over time, I’m sure I’ll see Frank again, and as I get to know him (even solely via observation), I’ll get more insight into his motivations and know what drives his statements and social behavior.
This is how I try to behave at work. One of Microsoft’s core employee competencies is something called Interpersonal Awareness (which I prefer to call IPA). Most people think they’re pretty good at IPA because they get along with others, but that’s only a tiny scratch in the surface of IPA. In fact, I’ve stated on a few occasions that IPA is one of those skills that you’re not any good at until you realize that you’re not any good at it. When you think you have it down, you probably suck at it.
IPA is more than playing nice with others. It’s more than paying attention to how you come across. It’s reading people (including yourself), and adjusting to how you’re coming across based on reactions and words, while taking into account whatever may be motivating the people you’re interacting with – in real time. Yeah – I suck at it too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work on it.
Let me try to bring it home. Think of your favorite “stupid” manager, “dumb” tester, or “egotistical” freak. Chances are, that those people are neither, stupid, dumb, nor egotistical. They have, however, acted that way and it caused you to react. There are two things going on here – you’re reaction and their behavior. Take a moment to think about why you had a negative reaction to whatever they did or said. Does it create more work for you? Does it violate your values? There’s a reason, and it’s worth it for you to take the time to understand why you reacted the way you did.
Now dig into the “stupid” manager’s statement. Perhaps he asked you to increase your code coverage percentage to some arbitrary number, and you think (rightfully) that increasing code coverage just to hit a number is s dumb idea. But first, take some time to think about why Mr. Pointy-Hair would have asked you that. Do you think his manager asked him? Do you think he thinks the number means something. Do you think he’s under any pressure himself that may have triggered him to ask, or is it something you think he’s valued in the past? Chances are, that Mr. PH isn’t stupid (despite his request). But until you know what motivated him to make the request, you can’t actually give him what he needs vs. what he (thinks) he wants. You probably won’t guess motivations right away, but without practice, you’ll never figure it out.
Think about this the next time you read (or say) that something is dumb, stupid, idiotic, or even careless. I may be overly optimistic, but I don’t think there are nearly as many idiots in the world as some would lead you to believe. But smart people say dumb things all the time – and without understanding the motivation behind their statements, we can’t grow – as professionals, or as humans.