July 25, 2013

Equivalent Exchange

I've noticed over time that I have a fairly unique ability relative to others in my various and sundry roles. I find that, if I'm put in a people-facing position, (regardless of if it's public or internal, support or leadership) then the people I interact with demonstrate a loyalty to me personally.

The first few times it happened, it wasn't something I'd orchestrated. It just...happened. I chalked it up to my excellent leadership skills and my willingness to be available and supportive of my subordinates' projects. But then it happened again. And again. As my choral director said: once is luck, twice is practice, three times is mastery.

Case Study: Gary D'Addario


I read David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which follows the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit as they solve (or don't solve) murders over the course of a year. In the course of the narrative, we learn a bit more about Lieutenant Gary D'Addario, one of the shift commanders who inspires a great deal of direct loyalty in his detectives:

As a supervisor, Gary D'Addario is generally regarded by his sergeants and detectives as a prince, a benevolent autocrat who asks only competence and loyalty. In return, he provides his shift with unstinting support and sanctuary from the worst whims and fancies of the command staff. [...]

Soft-spoken and introspective, D'addario was a rare breed of supervisor for a paramilitary organization. He had learned long ago to suppress the first impulse of command that calls for a supervisor to intimidate his men, charting their every movement and riding them through investigations. In the districts, that sort of behavior usually resulted from a new supervisor's primitive conclusion that the best way to avoid being perceived as weak was to behave like a petty tyrant. [...] Supervisors like that either grew into their jobs or their best men ducked and covered long enough to transfer to another sector.

Up in homicide, an authoritarian shift commander is even more likely to be held in contempt by his detectives -- men who would not, in fact, be on the sixth floor of headquarters if they weren't eighteen of the most self-motivated cops in the department. In homicide, the laws of natural selection apply: A cop who puts down enough cases stays, a cop who doesn't is gone. Given that basic truth, there isn't much respect for the notion that a cop shrewd enough to maneuver his way into homicide and then put together forty of fifty cases somehow needs to have a shift commander's finger in his eye. Rank, of course, has its privileges, but a homicide supervisor who exercises his divine right to chew ass on every conceivable occasion will in the end create a shift of alienated sergeants and overly cautious detectives, unwilling or incapable of acting on their own instincts.

Instead, and at some cost to his own career, Gary D'Addario gave his men room to maneuver, providing a buffer against the captain and those above him in the chain of command. His method carried considerable risk, and the relationship between D'Addario and his captain had frayed around the edges during the last four years. By contrast, Bob Stanton, the other shift lieutenant, was a supervisor more to the captain's liking. A buttoned-down veteran of the narcotics unit handpicked by the captain to command the second shift, Stanton ran a tighter ship, with sergeants exerting more overt control over their men and detectives pressured to hold down the overtime and court pay that lubricates the entire system. Stanton was a good lieutenant and a sharp cop, but when compared with the alternative, his frugality and by-the-book style were such that more than a few veterans on his shift expressed an eagerness to join D'Addario's crusade at the first opportunity.

For the sergeants and detectives blessed by D'addario's benevolence, the quid pro quo was both simple and obvious. The had to solve murders. The had to solve enough murders to produce a clearance rate that would vindicate His Eminence and his methods and thereby justify his benign and glorious rule. (Simon, 39-41).

It's interesting to me, because D'Addario exhibits a lot of the traits I thought were why my first team was loyal to me: he demonstrates a clear loyalty to his crew, he treats them with respect, and (we see later) he's honest about why he is asking his team to take on mundane/ridiculous tasks. He doesn't impose these restrictions on his team for longer than necessary, and he is appreciative when his team follows through with his requests and commands as passed down from the upper brass. Beyond that: he recognizes the skill and talent of the crew working with him and, knowing his interference would be a hindrance, chooses to step back and allow the detectives to do their job.

Put another way, D'Addario is cultivating loyalty in his colleagues by:
  • Being loyal to his team even before they are asked to do anything.
  • Treating his subordinates as equals.
  • Being upfront about why the team has to do something in a specific way that isn't preferred.
  • Abstaining from unpalatable requests when possible.
  • Expressing gratitude to his subordinates for their work and effort.
  • Working with their talents and skills.
  • Recognizing his role is to be a buffer and an intermediary, not to micromanage.

From what I have come to understand over time, this is almost exactly what management of a high-performing team -- development, support/community managers, design, sysadmin, etc. -- should look like. Teams like these are (assuming you've been doing your hiring correctly) filled with A-player types, who work hard and well with little direction, exhibit a significant degree of self-direction, are self-motivated, instinctively understand what the next move is, and are skilled enough to follow through with given tasks/projects. They tend to be autonomous, not requiring a lot of direct management save for resolving disputes or clarifying objectives.

This means that your role as a manager is to basically get out of their way and make sure other people do, too. But, as a manager, you want this team to trust you and, by extension, be loyal to you. Frankly: exhibiting good management is the first way to build this loyalty. Doing this in a way that gets back to the team you manage without you having to be like LOOK LOOK I DID A THING is a good idea but not necessary.

One of the other points that sticks out at me from the quoted section above is how, in being the right kind of manager for his team, D'Addario has had to take on a significant amount of risk. While I don't think his behavior would be risky in most organizations, and certainly not in tech, I do think that the fact of him putting himself at risk for his team was meaningful. As the quote says, D'Addario and his team had an understanding: he would put himself in the line of fire and his team had to rise to the challenge of solving cases. A good manager is both Captain Kirk and Ensign Ricky in the same breath.

Of course, putting oneself at risk doesn't always mean risking your job / career / personal security / preferences for red shirts. Sometimes it just means being willing to express vulnerability and admitting when you're out of your depth. I firmly believe that people are more likely to trust you if you demonstrate trust in them first. I'm not saying you should fork over your SSN and your mother's maiden name upon first meeting someone. However, when you need someone (or lots of someones) to trust you fast, the most meaningful gesture is to share something of yourself first, whether it's your lack of total knowledge about something, a personal anecdote or seven, or simply putting yourself in an image of vulnerability. Something as simple as wearing your heart on your sleeve (or at least projecting that image) can be viewed as a sort of bravery and endear you to people.

Other Techniques


Other things that have worked for me:

  • Staying honest. -- One thing I've noticed is that people are more likely to do what you need them to when you explicitly tell them why. If you can't tell them why, say that you'll explain when you can but for the time being it's imperative they do XYZ. While I first saw this on The West Wing, actual application in Real Life has proven Aaron Sorkin right.

  • Be considerate. -- It's amazing how many people simply just aren't considerate. It doesn't have to be anything arduous, but the occasional considerate gesture makes a difference, whether it's offering to take someone's dishes back to the kitchen or buying the next round. It's often the smallest things (or the things done quietly) that stick out to me. I had a friend pay for a night of drunken revelry while we all weren't looking, then shrug it off. I still remember that, even almost a year has passed.

  • Offer validation. -- This is something I've seen consistently ruin a person's experience, especially while they're being onboarded. Make clear your team's work is welcome and appreciated. Give them good feedback and emphasizing what they did right. (Critical feedback is part of a different discussion.) Each individual should be made to feel like s/he is an integral part of the team; a part of that is making clear his/her work is important and appreciated.

  • Thank your team. -- Anytime someone does something for you, especially at your behest, thank them. If a person goes above and beyond and makes your job easier, thank them. If someone covers a situation so you can focus on a specific task, thank them. Encourage your team to not take each others' work for granted, either. It's amazing how much a little appreciation is appreciated.

  • Acknowledge your errors. -- Occasionally, when I apologize to someone, they'll try to brush off the situation with a simple, "It's okay." When it matters (or, rather, when the incident clearly mattered to them) I'll usually respond with, "No, it's not okay, but I appreciate that. You shouldn't have had to deal with that, and I'm sorry you did. It won't happen again." Admitting you were wrong, and that you intend to learn from your error is the best thing to do in a situation, and refusing to take an easy out demonstrates character.

Caveats


I think, though, that I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the other side of building this kind of loyalty.

It won't work every time. -- Some people just won't like you, some people have been hurt too badly to ever trust again (yes, dramatic) and some people just don't want that kind of relationship with you. Understand that it's not a reflection of yourself, but rather a reflection of that person's experiences. If you try to win this person over, you're going to end up compromising your role as a manager and effective team lead. Realize when you're pouring a disproportionate amount of effort into getting someone to "like" you. If they do what you need them to, if they respect you, then asking for more is foolish. Quit while you're ahead and focus on more important things.

Sometimes you're not going to be taken seriously. -- It's a risk you run when you demonstrate vulnerability. There's two pieces to this: first, there is a subclass of personality type that will think that ANY demonstration of vulnerability makes you an inherently weak person. Do not let this personality type wear on you, though their dismissal of your worth will be galling. Work with it and around it, which is far easier done than said. With people like this, I find, the bar is already set to "underpromise" -- by delivering at all, you're already over-delivering.

The second piece is a bit more subtle; depending on how you build this trust, your authority might be undermined. People who report to you may see you as a friend and colleague and not a superior. Again, there's ways to work around this. The easiest, I find, is a super simple trick I picked up in university: command with a smile. After a certain point, I don't ask for anything, I mandate. However, because my declarative statements are made with a smile (or at least in a pleasant tone of voice) most people do as I say without complaining. If people aren't seeing you as an authority figure, they won't rebel against literal authoritative action you take, as well. It's a delicate game; overplay this hand and you risk a mutinous team.

Know when to shut up. -- My greatest weakness. At some point, sharing bits of yourself can cross the line from "building trust" to "dear god shut up" because you're oversharing. I've met a TON of women (and it's especially women) who find that their managers tell them way too much about their personal troubles and then act strangely about it later. It's pretty rich coming from me, but I'll be clear: there's a line. Work people don't all magically convert into Real Friends without any drama, and that almost certainly never works up and down the ladder. There's a point where continuing to share yourself just makes people around you uncomfortable.

Ultimately, I've found that personal loyalty is hard to leverage well. However, it's something an organization should watch out for; the more people who are loyal to that individual, and depending to what extent that loyalty goes, it may well be that when that person leaves there will be an exodus, meaning you'll be losing valuable talent. Even if that doesn't come to pass, the loss of a focal point can be a hit to morale, and the ensuing recovery time is productive time lost. Regardless, identifying these centers of loyalty and using them in functional ways (liaison, marketing, management, etc.) will ultimately prove valuable to them and to the enterprise at large.

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