In this episode:
What would it be like if your team had an amazing sense of teamwork? In this episode I talk about how (even if you’re not “the boss” you can help establish the ground rules to help your team really function well as a team.
Have you ever had an “email war” with someone? A back-and-forth that led to frustration, anger and generally going off the rails? I talk about a simple rule that will help you stay on track.
4 Levels of Thinking as a Geek Leader – This easy-to-read graphic clearly illustrates the 4 Levels of Thinking, individually breaking down each level.
Man: Becoming a Geek Leader, Season 2, Episode 9.
Welcome to the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast. My name is Tom Cooper. As a geek, I’m on a mission to figure out better ways to lead others at work and at home. Through the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast, I’m sharing what I’m learning so I can help make you more effective at leading people too. Ready?
In today’s episode, I want to share a couple of ideas that are gonna help you improve teamwork and reduce miscommunication. In the Coach’s Mailbox segment, I’m gonna answer Bill’s email about how to handle it when somebody’s copying the universe on an email chain, leading to Bill getting in trouble with his boss. And in the mentoring segment, I’m gonna talk about how you can create a team culture that brings people together and gets your brilliant experts on your team to work as a team rather than just as individual contributors. Let’s jump right in.
Tom: Let’s talk about culture. In an ideal world, your senior leaders have determined ahead of time what the culture of the organization is gonna be, and they have carefully shepherded that culture throughout the entire life of the organization up to the time that you join. Realistically, that rarely happens. And even though culture-setting is something that theoretically ought to happen at the most senior levels of the organization, this is a skill that you can start to use when you’re at level two of the four levels of thinking as a geek leader.
Man: Level two, team member. Level two is where you work well with others and together you all succeed.
Tom: Have you ever worked on a team or in a group that really didn’t seem to like each other very much? Have you ever worked for a company that has a terrible culture where people seem to look for ways to throw each other under the bus or undermine each other or make other people look bad? Maybe it’s a company where people seem to take particular pleasure in the failures of other departments. If that’s true for you even where you are now, I might ask you, “Well, why do you want to work for a company like that?” But let’s say for the sake of argument that these types of problems are isolated or this company really is your best option. So what do you do then?
When it comes to culture, culture is really the expression of the values we hold. And values are all about answering the question “How are we going to treat each other along the way?” In most organizations, there is a difference between the values that are on the wall or on the website and the values that you actually practice. And I’m talking about the values that you actually use as you and your teammates work together. In a perfect world, the values that your organization actually puts into practice would match your personal values. That would be the best-case scenario. Now, in practice, that doesn’t actually work out that way, but the best thing to do is to make sure that there’s as much alignment as possible between the things that you value and the things that the organization values.
And, moreover, in that perfect theoretical environment, you would have good examples of values in practice, and you would have support for making decisions that would enforce those values. Your team members would share the same values. You could recruit people who were high performers who also shared those values. And with those values as a guide, you would work together as a cohesive team to get things done.
Now, that’s the ideal situation, and I’ll just say here that it’s probable that you work for an organization that doesn’t quite have that. Maybe you work in an organization that doesn’t treat people very well, where there’s a value system that says it’s okay sometimes to throw people under the bus. So what do you do in that situation? Well, my mom always used to say, “The speed of the leader is the speed of the group.” If you want to establish a positive team culture, you are going to have to set an example. You’re gonna have to live out a specific set of values and challenge people to live up to those values too.
In my career, as I worked with highly technical experts, there were multiple times that I found teams or so-called teams where people really acted as individual super star performers but not as a cohesive team. In a recent episode, I mentioned the idea that geeks are an interesting bunch to lead because they’re able to be influenced by logic, but they’re driven by ego. Now, ego can be very, very valuable because it encourages us to pursue excellence and to create things that are beautifully elegant in their efficiency. But, unfortunately, there’s also a dark side to the ego.
One time I was working with a couple of engineers who were responsible for building a certain tool. And they had worked together, and they had done a great job because even though they never said it out loud, they actually shared one core value. That value was they aspired to perfection. Now, this aspiration, never articulated or specifically expressed, that drove them for their egos to work extremely hard to eliminate all errors from the final product.
Interestingly, this organization’s values did not require perfection from the tool. However, these geeks felt that perfection was so important that they insisted on pushing themselves and pushing each other to deliver an increasingly perfect product. As geeks, we think perfection’s good, right? But the challenge we run into is sometimes the cost of delivering perfection is far higher than the value received by having the product be perfect. If we’re talking about NASA or pacemakers or some other form of lifesaving device, I suppose perfection is something that really is worthwhile. However, I would submit to you that the majority of the projects we work on, the systems that we’re building, it’s really a lot more like making chocolate milk.
Now, I have to say I’m confident there’s some ideal ratio of cold milk to chocolate syrup which allows you to make the perfect glass of chocolate milk. Too little syrup, and you just get a slightly gray-brown glass of milk. And too much syrup, and you’re basically just drinking sugar, so there’s probably an ideal ratio, whatever that is, between the milk and the syrup. But when I’m making a bunch of chocolate milk to give to my kids, I’m really not particular about hitting a precise ratio. There’s a pretty wide tolerance between the minimum amount and an overwhelming amount of chocolate going into the chocolate milk, and I’m confident my kids would lean toward the overwhelming amount of chocolate, but along as there’s enough chocolate in the milk, they’re gonna be happy.
Getting back to that product my engineers were building, their tolerance for error was more like NASA, and the organization was more interested in getting some cold chocolate milk served and getting that milk served quickly. In fact, the amount of work that the company was demanding from that team was growing, and it was growing so fast that the engineers who were working on that product just couldn’t keep up. So in hindsight, I think one of the challenges they really ran into was their standards were just too high, and that made their pace of work too slow. And it probably would have been worthwhile to fight the battle of challenging them to lower their standards to improve productivity, but I didn’t really get into it that far at that time.
I tried a number of different things with them to improve their throughput, and eventually we settled on adding another team member to the engineering team. Now, unfortunately, the new guy didn’t hold the same standard of perfection that the other two guys had. In fact, because those first two team members personally held that value of perfection so highly, they never even needed to say it out loud. It was an unspoken, expected requirement. Well, you can predict what happened next.
The new guy joins the team. He gets the list of requirements, and he starts building. And when he believes his contributions are good enough, he submits them. And the original two team members take a look at what he’s produced, and they are disgusted by the low quality that’s been produced. They don’t say anything to the offender. No, no, that’d be way too easy. Instead, they mock him, and they belittle him, and they disrespect him, and they say he’s stupid. They’re far superior to this new person, and their response to his unacceptable work is ridicule and anger.
Now put yourself in the new guy’s shoes. You’ve been assigned to do some work, and you deliver what you think is good work product. And your new team members, who are already in trouble and needed your help, are not satisfied with the work you’re doing, but instead they criticize you, and they’re angry with you, and they don’t appreciate you. So the whole team now is confused, bitter, and angry, not exactly what I was looking for.
As I tried to get to the bottom of the problem and I talked to the original two team members, they scoffed. They said, “This guy’s a moron. His work is crap. There’s no way we could use anything an idiot like that produced.” Now, was this new guy an idiot? Actually, no. Fundamentally, his values were much more in line with the values of the organization. He focused on delivering on productivity even when it meant delivering something that wasn’t perfect. He got it. He understood that the organization really wanted chocolate milk served, not perfect chocolate milk but milk that could be served quickly.
So how does this relate to culture? Well, I definitely had my work cut out for me, and in this example, we were not working as a unified team, but we were a group of primadonnas. So I started to answer the question, “How are we gonna treat each other along the way?” Now, clearly, it’s not okay to have contempt for somebody who’s supposed to be a team member. Here’s the principle. You have to say it out loud. I had to say it out loud. I had to say, “We don’t throw each other under the bus. We don’t say bad things about each other in public. If we have a problem with a specific person, the first place to go, to that person. And if that doesn’t work, then we can get some help from a leader. But either way, we don’t talk trash about each other. That’s not what we do. That’s not who we are. We don’t do it.”
Now, I call this the little brother principle. This is the example of where big brothers sometimes harass or bug or pick on their little brothers at home, but at school or on the playground or anywhere else, if somebody messes with my little brother, there’s gonna be trouble. At work, this translates to, during our team meetings, we’re kind of in the house, and we can argue and discuss and campaign for, passionately advocate for our ideas. And there might be table pounding, and there might be raised voices, and people getting frustrated and angry, and inside those closed doors that’s fine. That’s in the family. That’s our internal discussions, and we can be open and specific and direct, and we can even challenge each other in a respectful way.
But once we open those doors, we are all one team. That means we don’t say bad things about team members in front of other people. That means when somebody makes a mistake, we share responsibility for the mistake. Rather than saying, “I can’t believe Joe did that. That was really dumb. Joe should never have done that,” wouldn’t say that if Joe’s on the team. We say things like, “That’s the decision we made. Now we get it. We see that’s not the best decision. We’re gonna do a better job next time. And in the interim, this is what we’re gonna do to try and fix it.” By not throwing Joe under the bus, what this does is it builds a sense of team, and it helps develop trust because we all want to feel like our team members are gonna have our back.
Now, it’s easy to talk about, but it’s not simple to do because we have to remember to do it. Let’s go back to my engineers who were building that product. They had to start to say out loud what their standards were. And once they said it out loud, boy, did we have work to do because, first, we had to align their standards with the company’s standards. We had to help them see that they were making chocolate milk and they weren’t making a medical device. Now, this was a big challenge because, remember I said ego matters? Well, they were saying things like, “Well, I’m not putting my name on that. I’m not gonna sign off on anything that’s that terrible.” So we had to reframe it and get them to buy in to the idea that they were making chocolate milk, that they were making something that had to be good enough, but we couldn’t afford perfect. So once we aligned their standards, then we had to ask ourselves, “How good is good enough?” And we had to be specific. We had to say out loud what we would tolerate and what we wouldn’t, how wide is the tolerance for error.
Now here’s what’s really interesting. Once we said it out loud, the new guy had no difficulty meeting that standard. He was able to meet the standard from the beginning, but his internal standard just didn’t happen to match the internal standard of the other guys who were on the team. And I want to point out that it’s not even that either of the standards was right or wrong. Neither one of them was bad, but we had to agree as a team what our standards would be, and that is part of developing team culture.
On an upcoming episode, I’m gonna talk about how to define the types of skills and competencies that are needed for a well-rounded, highly performing technical team, and I’ll talk also about what I did to help identify those skills and competencies and challenge my team members to stretch in those directions. But for today, I’m gonna summarize it by saying this. First, you have to define your operating values, and if you’re not the boss, you can still agree with your team members about what the operating values are. In the example I gave, mine involved working as a team, supporting each other, not saying bad things about each other in public. We use the say it out loud principle to agree about our quality standards and expectations. And we use the little brother principle to make sure that we weren’t gonna let anybody beat up on our little brother outside in public even if we might have picked on him behind closed doors and at home.
Just starting with these key principles, we developed a culture that was much more unified than other teams in the organization, and that improved our trust and improved our overall productivity. So as you think about your role on the team and the team that you’re working on, what’s something that you need to say out loud? Culture matters, and that’s today’s mentoring segment.
Tom: Email challenges. We all have them, and the letter that I’m gonna be answering today is a set of skills that you can use when you’re at level one of the four levels of thinking as a geek leader.
Man: Level one, individual. At level one, you may even be a superstar technical resource. Level one focuses you on improving your technical skills.
Today we have an email from Bill. Bill writes, “Tom, my boss gets upset with me when I CC him on emails. He says he gets too many emails already, but the problem is that other people copy their boss and my boss, and then I get in trouble. My boss is telling me I need to solve more of these things without him, but I’m stuck. What am I supposed to do when the other guy is copying his boss and then I end up getting in trouble? I can’t win. Help.”
Dave, I understand. I have been in many email battles back in my day. I remember working for a large company, and things would definitely escalate. I tried to remember, and I went back and looked at my email archive. Found one message that had 192 people on the CC line, 192. Seriously, you cannot make this stuff up. And I remember how it works. It starts with a miscommunication. You meant A. They hear B. They expect B. They get upset when B doesn’t happen. They send a terse email calling you out for failing to deliver B. You reply to explain it. They copy their boss, and the next thing you know, their boss is talking to your boss about why you can’t deliver on what you promised, for heaven’s sake. You can tell I’ve been in a few of these, and they generally don’t lead to good memories.
And you know if you’ve ever been involved in one of these that it takes a huge amount of time to read what the other person wrote and craft a response, a reply, to the points that they raised and then bring up the specific details that support your point and prove that they’re totally and completely wrong. So, Bill, I want to talk about how you can avoid this situation in the future, and there are two things that you can do, and they won’t take much time at all, and, in fact, they’re gonna save you a huge amount of time and emotional energy. These two tips are gonna let you be able to improve your team communication, deliver better results, and get things done faster. And not only that, but they’ll keep your boss off the CC line, and they’re gonna keep you from getting chewed out too.
So here we go. Let’s start with emails. Early in my career, one of my best bosses ever, Mike Wakefield, he instituted the one reply rule for email. And what’s the one reply rule? Mike said, “You’re allowed to hit reply one time. Only once. If, after that reply, the matter’s not settled, you have to talk to the other person. You can’t text them. You can’t hit them up on Slack, IM them. You can’t use any other electronic communication.” Now, you might be permitted to call them on the phone, but it’s preferable for you to get off your butt and walk over to where they are and speak with them directly about the miscommunication. I can tell you that our team fought this idea. We were really unhappy about the idea of having to waste our time by going to see people who it’d just be easier for us to write an email. But here’s what we found.
It turned out that when we stopped hitting reply and when we stopped adding additional people on the CC line, our communication actually got better. The idea that that one reply only meant that we’d have to interact with them directly forced us to think about what we wanted to say and what we had to do to resolve the conflict. One benefit of speaking with the other person on the phone or seeing them in person is we could hear their tone of voice, and we’d understand the urgency behind some of the things they were saying, and we could help identify the priorities they had so we could address the specific concerns and the exact needs that they had. That type of communication was critical.
Email is just text. Emojis don’t count. And you don’t get any sense of emphasis or tone of voice or priority in that email, and I know from my personal experience that if I’m in a bad mood, I’m gonna automatically add grumpiness to the message as I read it. And that might not at all be what the original author intended, but I brought it in. And since there was no other mechanism to help me think about exactly what tone of voice might be there except my own grumpy attitude, then all of a sudden I’m reading it as if they’re intending it to be grumpy, and that’s not good. Also, sometimes if we’re not clear about the motive that the other person has, then we’re gonna apply negative motives to them, and that’s gonna cause us to react in a defensive way.
By going and having a personal conversation with that other person helps me to get more information about their reasoning, their motives, and their goals. The problem is that we’re more comfortable sitting in our office and investing that time to write a response. It’s less risky, right? It doesn’t take the time. It might be a waste of time to go to their office and find they’re not there. But here’s the thing. After a couple of these reply wars that go on, each side tends to get so wound up with the other one, they don’t even read what the other person says. And I’m reminded of a Bugs Bunny cartoon where Daffy Duck shows up with a knife, and then all of a sudden there’s Yosemite Sam with a pistol. And then before you know it, you got Elmer Fudd with his shotgun, and Bugs Bunny shows up with a cannon.
In these email reply wars, we set out bigger and bigger weapons as we escalate to prove how right we are. And the thing is what could’ve been resolved in a minute or two of conversation ends up taking hours of time for six or eight or a dozen people or more. So let me encourage you to try it. Try the one reply rule. After a single reply, if somebody hits reply a second time or if you want to hit reply a second time, before you do that, pick up the phone or, more valuably, go see the other person. Most of the time what you’re gonna find is you get to resolution a lot faster.
Now, this next tip is related. After you’re both on the same page, how are you gonna remember what you talked about? I recently attended a conference where a speaker shared with me the idea that… It’s an idea he called the same-day summary. The same-day summary is where you summarize in an email what you talked to somebody about that day. Now, I have always been a big fan of keeping meeting minutes in a big meeting. The person who writes the minutes controls history. If you’ve got the opportunity to write down what happened in the meeting and you share that with others, whatever you wrote becomes the official record of what happened. And the same-day summary is just a smaller, simpler version of those meeting minutes. It’s a meeting minutes for the one-on-one meeting you had with that other person.
So let’s say that you’re having a conflict with somebody about getting work done by a specific time, and it’s clear from the email exchange that you have a difference of opinion with the other person about what’s required and exactly when it’s due. If you follow the one email reply rule, you go see the other person. You negotiate a little bit, and you agree on exactly what is gonna be done and exactly when it will be done.
So let me make this a little bit more specific. Let’s say you get an email from Julie about moving a server from one lab to another. And Julie says, “You’re not doing your job properly because this task was already supposed to be completed, and now you’re holding up other people.” And Julie needs you to get that done and right now. And you reply, and you say, “My understanding was that Chet and Steve were responsible for coordinating the move, and they told me that it was scheduled to happen next week. Yeah, I’m the contact for that server, but I didn’t commit to getting it done. Check with Chet and Steve, but I’m guessing it will be done next week.” Now, that’s the one reply.
Julie sends another reply, and on that one she copies her boss, and your boss, and she says, “Look, Bill, you’re the contact. The project plan called for this to be done last week. You need to do whatever it takes to get this done, and we can’t wait for next week.” Now right then, right then when you want to hit reply and tell her what an idiot she is because you already told her that it’s not your job, I want you to stop, and I want you to go see Julie because we’ve already surpassed that one-reply rule.
Now, in this example, let’s say Julie works in another state, so you give her a call. And during that call, you clear up the miscommunication. You negotiate a little bit. By the end of the conversation you’re on the same page that while it’s not technically your job and you didn’t commit to get the work done, you’ll reach out to Chet, because Chet works in your office, to see what he can do about getting things done faster.
Now at this point, most of us would feel pretty good because we took care of that problem. We felt like we got to understanding, and there was no more work required, right? But let me suggest that you take just a minute or two to right a quick email. Write the same-day summary. And in that email, you copy the entire CC list, and you summarize the conversation. In this example, you might say something like this. “Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat about that server move today. As we discussed, I recognize the project has slowed down because the task is not complete, and we talked about how the right person to talk to about that box is actually either Chet or Steve. Since Chet’s office is down the hall from me, I will go see him, find out if he can expedite the move, and I’ll ask him to follow up with you. I will email you with what I find out from Chet. Bill.”
Now I’m telling you this email will take you two minutes to write, but I promise that it will save you a ton of hassle later. Taking the time to write a same-day summary documents that the conversation took place, what was discussed, and what the planned next steps are. In this example, I just gave you five sentences. Just five sentences, and these sentences show the leaders the issue is closed or at least in its progress. They’ll also show the leaders that you took initiative to head off an escalating problem. And it also provides backup later when Julie remembers something different from whatever it is that you remember. So, Bill, I hope this helps. The one, two punch of the one email reply rule and the same-day summary should keep you out of hot water with your boss, and that’s today’s Coach’s mailbox.
Tom: In today’s episode, we talked about creating a team culture, how to move beyond frustrated team members and create a sense of one team. We also talked about how you need to say it out loud and apply the little brother principle when you back each other up if a different team wants to pick on one of your team members. In today’s episode hack, I want to challenge you to use the one email reply rule. Look at an email chain that’s in your inbox right now, and take a moment to visit with or call the person on the other side of the issue. If you take just a few minutes to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding and then use the same-day summary, you’ll be glad you did. And that’s today’s episode hack.
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This is Tom Cooper. Thanks for listening. Be sure to join me next time for another episode of Becoming a Geek Leader. Join me in my mission of discovering better ways to lead others at work and at home.