You're not the boss of me now...
January 16, 2011 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Caution- overbearing colleagues ahead!

My area of expertise is finally being recognized as having actual value in my company by people who previously dismissed it or ignored it. They have come to me for help on a fairly significant project that will reach every one of 500+ users. They are at the "home office" in one city and I am in another "branch" office, 4 hours away.

They presented the project and why they want me involved, with a veneer of ass-kissing I found insulting. It's all for show anyway- I have to particpate. My strategy is to keep quiet and only speak up when I absolutely have to; document everything and ensure as best I can that I can point to their instruction or requirements for every element I contribute. Previous involvement with these people taught me to refrain from assumptions I was on even footing or that my unsolicated input was welcome or expected. When they sense they've pushed that envelope, they quickly backpedal and regurgitate more of the "but you're so good at this we need you" drivel that makes me roll my eyes in disgust, hoping it will cancel out what just happened.

Due to their lack of knowledge about my area, they don't understand the need for most of my questions and requests for information. They interpret this at best as "overcomplication" and at worst as insinuations that they are incompetent. Already, after only one phone meeting, the merest clarification attempts I made were responded to with barely concealed exasperation and sharp refrains of "we really just want to keep it simple."

In my area, how many questions I ask or requirements I try to gather has nothing to do with the level of complexity of the result. The two do not scale proportionally. I know from experience that more work on the front end pays off big later. I can virtually guarantee that if I hold back now, their project will be much less successful than it could be. But the immediate pushback I get is so infuriating that already I wish I could back out.

Have you dealt with this type of situation? My ego is as big as theirs but I'm not invested in power games. I can subjugate that part of myself for this project for my own sanity if I have to. But this may sacrifice overall quality and value to the company with the end product. How can I make this work?
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Work & Money (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Would it work if you put your information requests into a questionnaire you could email them with a note saying "this is the information I'm going to need from you in order to proceed at this stage"? It seems like you and they aren't communicating well verbally and you need to document everything anyway. If they don't respond thoroughly then if things don't go well because you lacked the information, you have written proof that you did request it and they dropped the ball.
posted by hazyjane at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

What kind of a project is this? IT, HR etc?
posted by lampshade at 8:52 AM on January 16, 2011

Could it be that your eagerness to cover your ass ("document everything and ensure as best I can that I can point to their instruction or requirements for every element I contribute") means that you're refusing to use your own creative judgment and asking them to make decisions that they're not qualified to make, based on variables they don't understand? Not that I blame you for acquiring defensive habits after being burned -- I don't at all -- but this sounds like a situation where you've backed into a cave and are now wondering why it's so dark. You might consider taking a few risks... or looking for another job.
posted by jon1270 at 9:00 AM on January 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Interesting situation.

I've seen that happen between our offices in two different cities.

There can be ego, control, territorial issues that come up.

I like the documentation approach but I would also consider making sure the hard work you are doing get to a level higher than your colleagues. Your manager and their manager. More visibility for your work and if any issues come up, at least everyone will be aware of who has expertise in which area.

I also think its management responsibility to make sure communication is good between two office sites but it sounds like that is not happening. Indicating that to management may result in some action on their side. Its easy to feel isolated if you're physically isolated.

Also, perhaps there are examples of successful projects that you can point out to everyone. Maybe internal or external to your company. Can you provide links to how such projects were done in the past and perhaps even a project plan so they can clearly see what is involved?

That way everyone can see the scope of the project and all the little details involved.

Instead of what they seem to do which is brush something off and think its too complicated and not required for the project.
posted by simpleton at 9:09 AM on January 16, 2011

I have a feeling this is not going to turn out well. I think they are not answering your questions because they don't understand them, and they probably do not intend to let you have the credit for success.

If you think that a lack of information is going to lead to project failure, you're probably right. And I think you might get the credit for that.

I think the house is divided against itself and will fall. You could try getting a copy of the book Critical Confrontations which I immediately downloaded after another MeFite recommended it yesterday. Try everything in that book before you give up.

However, I think you should simultaneously be looking for a job because you have a history of frustration working with these people.
posted by tel3path at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2011

It's your colleagues that are the overbearing ones? Maybe they are: but from the way you write it sounds like you need to look a bit more about your own behaviour, and how it could come across as overbearing in its own right. If you interpret someone being nice as ass-kissing, and some mean dismissing you & your knowledge & your area of knowledge, you might be someone that's difficult to deal with. Are you sure there isn't a middle ground?

Something less than ass-kissing on one side, and something less than them being dismissive on the other. You say they don't understand your work, and so of course they don't quite know how to expect or not expect things form you... Maybe from their point of view, you are involved in power-games, and they respond to them by doing what appears to you to be backpeddling.

I don't know. Maybe they are assholes. But maybe you could look at different ways of communicating, of asking the questions you need to ask and expressing your needs and what you can offer to the project. Maybe one of the reasons they don't understand your need for information is that you are not communicating it well.
posted by squishles at 9:16 AM on January 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

p.s. I think they are being unreasonable in their responses to your questions, but probably not 100% unreasonable. No matter how much you try to hide it, your exasperation with them has got to be shining through.
posted by tel3path at 9:18 AM on January 16, 2011

Having worked with many groups like this, one thing I've learned is that you have to let them feel like they're the experts, not you. When they come at you with "this is overcomplicated" or "we just want to keep it simple", one thing you can do is say something like "Okay, how would you suggest we solve this problem?" or something similar. This gives you a basis for starting the dialogue - when they make a suggestion, you can then say "well, that's a good idea, but here's something that might work better" and go from there.

Another thing that is important with groups like this is demonstrating results at every step. Where a lot of efforts like this fail is that users only see end products - people gather requirements, walk away and develop, and then sit with the customers and say VOILA and expect everything to be magically awesome. This is not a recipe for success, it can build resentment in the customer because they will think "oh this person thinks they know it all but I actually DO the job, they just show up and want to fix what's not broken just because they can, and they don't really care about our job". And then you see the behavior you're seeing.

So, interim results are key - the next time you have a difficult call with users like that, set objectives. Say "Thanks for the information - I'm going to take what you've given me and do (whatever needs doing), and in (some appropriate timeframe) I will show you what we've done", even if it's a really small thing that might not matter in the overall scope of the project.

What this does is it builds trust in your audience that you know what you're doing, and also shows that you're NOT overcomplicating things - if users can get their hands on their toy before it's finished, and see where it's heading, they're more likely to buy in to the idea that you're on the right path.

I don't know what industry you're in or the nature of the project, but I would be willing to bet that the people you're struggling with do not have any experience on structured software projects. I would absolutely avoid saying things in an overly technical or jargon-filled way - for instance, I would never say a phrase like "the two do not scale proportionately" to an end user because it just scares them. Speak conversational English, not project English, to your users, and you'll get better results.

It's a hard process, but it is doable, and I wish you luck.
posted by pdb at 9:22 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like there's a big failure to communicate here. You need to figure out (but not in a defensive way) why what you perceive as necessary they perceive as overcomplicating. You need to take their views into account rather than dismissing them as ignorant. For example, maybe they would be happy to provide the extra info if they understood the need, but would prefer that you be more succinct about it (eg, send them a list of all your questions once a day rather than a million separate emails.) It could be that you also need to work on how you convey your questions - maybe you write unclearly or include jargon they don't need.

It's also important to keep in mind that they might be happy with a b+ job, whereas you only want an a+ and all the attendant extra work that entails. It's perfectly legitimate if they are prioritizing speed and saving resources over an absolutely perfect product. As the expert, you need to ask the clarifying questions: "team, to do the best job possible I will need to have four or five conference calls to review x things. I can do a more basic job in y days, but the drawbacks are ... "
posted by yarly at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2011

This is an IT project.

HazyJane, there are basic things common to all projects in my area that would lend themselves to a questionnaire approach; unfortunately, the bulk of what must be known is not apparent at the outset. I can't just ask for info once and be done with it, to do it right. I have to come back at least a few times, sometimes more for bigger projects, and get more info. That's one of the steps they respond to so exasperatedly and perceive as "overcomplication." In fact, they exacerbate it with a "need to know" attitude that forces this situation- since they want to "keep it simple," they don't offer enough info up-front which I need. When I find out later, it can cause major setbacks as I rework elements that, had I known X, I never would have completed. But they withheld X (or glossed over its importance) in an effort to "keep it simple." I think in some twisted way they think they are doing me a favor. They feel if they provide too much data, I'll be afraid to participate, so by holding back they are easing me in at a palatable level. It's a rotten catch-22.

Jon1270, you said "your eagerness to cover your ass... means that you're refusing to use your own creative judgment and asking them to make decisions that they're not qualified to make, based on variables they don't understand?" This is kind of true, in a mixed way. I am not asking them to make decisions they aren't qualified to make- I am asking them questions they are perfectly qualified to answer and have the power to make; in fact, should have already made, in the context of a project plan or strategy- but that they have not thought through because in this case, they want to just cross this off their list, hand it over to me and assume I know what they want (or what they would do/decide). When I go there with my questions, it spotlights that they have not done all their homework and they don't like that at all.

In any other case, I would use my best judgement and not worry so much about these points, because I would just do what I think was best and feel confident I could back up my decisions. Since this is such a high-profile project, and because these particular people are involved along with their territoriality and entitlement, I don't feel free to act as I usually would. My boss usually has my back but I get the "be a team player" speech whenever these turf wars occur.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2011

Thanks yarly and pdb- good stuff. This project just got started so I still feel very comfortable with laying some ground rules or otherwise expressing some of the "here's what I need" type-things pdb covered.

We're all in IT so I don't think techno-speak scares them; but I will definitely work on an approach that inspires them to feel positive about they help they're giving me vs. resenting me for asking.

Squishles, my assumption that they aren't sincere comes 100% from experience. I have been burned multiple times by these folks and it's going to be hard for me to ever take compliments or receive praise without seeking a hidden agenda. But I grant you it's possible so I will keep that in mind.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2011

Sometimes you just have to work with what you've got. If these people were co-operative your life would be easier, but if you were less conscientious maybe their lives would be easier you know?

IT projects are complicated because you are trying to impose a way of thinking upon people who don't ever think that way. This is precisely why gathering requirements is hard - people don't understand how processes are interrelated, because in the wetware world you CAN make a million assumptions about the interactions between input A and output B, email just appears and a form is just something you fill in and submit. Unfortunately the onus is on you to couch the questions in as appropriate a way as you can. Do you offer context? Do you provide diagrams? Can you travel down to their offices every now and then to cheerfully 'chat' about progress (and sharpen up the perameters?).

And, your 'disgust' is palpable here, so it's probably obvious to them. Maybe they think you're totally obnoxious and their 'sucking up' is a result of their boss (who isn't being troubled by endless questions s/he doesn't understand the point of) telling them that they must keep you happy. No worker is an island after all. So, having been in your shoes all I can say is try talking more, ask about what's going on with their stuff, rise above any percieved snubbings and do the best you can - it's not a perfect world.
posted by freya_lamb at 10:04 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wait, I just saw the part where you're rolling your eyes. If you're openly expressing contempt like this you are definitely part of the problem regardless of what they did to earn that contempt.
posted by tel3path at 10:20 AM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I recently read and enjoyed Other People's Habits, which is about applying behaviorist principles when managing / interacting with others, and it addresses patterns like the ones you're talking about. There's a lot of good, clear information about differences between positive and negative reinforcement, identifying appropriate reinforcements, problems with punishments and penalties, etc., but one point that seems especially applicable here is that persistently negative relationships make positive reinforcement impossible. Because you have had primarily negative experiences with your coworkers, you interpret the rare positive comment from them with suspicion. They probably react to you the same way, for similar reasons. What this means is that your bad relationship with these guys is going to stay bad, and you are not going to have much luck getting them to cooperate, until you can somehow swing the balance of your interactions with them over to the generally positive side of things. Until their general impression of you improves, no carefully concocted positive approach is going to work. There's no way you can continue to be scornful and also make the situation better. Whether they deserve your scorn is totally beside the point.
posted by jon1270 at 11:01 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Clarification: no carefully concocted positive approach to this isolated project is going to work.
posted by jon1270 at 11:03 AM on January 16, 2011

In my experience, the people who drivel at me do so because they believe that driveling -- sincere or not -- is socially important, even necessary. (And, imho, generally they seem to believe it's especially necessary for women.) I've had some luck with driveling right back at them.
posted by sculpin at 11:29 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

tel3path, my eye-rolls are over the phone.... we are in different states. But yes, I agree that even in that context one can sense attitude.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:30 AM on January 16, 2011

For what it's worth, based on the way you talk about these people, and about your work in general, I personally would not want to work with you. The behaviours you describe are passive-aggressive and self-interested -- and regardless of what brought you to that state and whose fault it is, I'm not sure it's fixable. And if your boss is telling you you need to be a team player, that's a huge warning sign that you are part of the problem.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a social scientist who predicts marriage failure based on eye-rolling: he found that that, along with other signs of contempt, was the single most obvious signal that a relationship could not be saved. Sounds like that's where you're at. I just can't imagine you developing a good working relationship, or having any kind of success, with people you feel so contemptuous about.
posted by Susan PG at 5:11 PM on January 16, 2011

I have to agree with Susan PG. You need to take a different and wiser approach. I.T. and the people within it will usually be treated as second class citizens in the board room. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you will take responsibility for educating your colleagues about I.T. and the importance of capturing unambiguous requirements up front. Explain to them how expensive it is to goof up requirements in the beginning. Use analogies about houses and cars or whatever will get the point across.

This is not easy but you can do it if you are savvy. Yeah it sucks but you won't get anywhere thinking that your colleagues are stupid or duplicitous.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received regarding my career is this: "Stop swimming upstream. You have got to swim with the stream if you ever hope to get anything done".
posted by jasondigitized at 6:09 PM on January 16, 2011

Thanks for all the input, especially tips on how to work with the people I am having issues with. I really didn't want specifics on how to fix the relationships- I agree with whoever upthread said they probably can't be fixed. They can't. So help on how to proceed in spite of that is really what I am asking for.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:36 PM on January 17, 2011

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