We geeks love our tech. Really love it. I mean…really, really get down deep into a technology, decide it’s the best thing ever, and then wave the flag around high. Make the wallpaper. Wear the t-shirt. Evangelize the ignorant. Shout down the naysayers. Mock the competitors. Fan the flames of rivalry. Linux vs. Microsoft. Mac vs. PC. PS3 vs. XBox. EIGRP vs. OSPF. IOS vs. Junos. Geeks *care* about this stuff. If you identify with this paragraph, then I’m guessing that you care, too. You care a lot about your job and the work that you do. You want to do your job right…and not just right. Well. The best that it could be done. Your network, your servers, your virtual machines, your storage – whatever it is you work on, you want to know everything there is to know about it and make it the best that it can be.
Now, not all of your IT co-workers are quite like you. In fact, most of them probably aren’t as passionate about what they do as you are. These are the 9-to-5 folks. They’re perhaps more passionate about football than VMware. The form of lab work they are best at is fantasy sports leagues. Most folks just aren’t all that into their jobs. Work is work. A means to an end. A way to get the bills paid. Problems at work aren’t challenges to be overcome; they are irritants to be endured. Projects aren’t opportunities to shine; they are responsibilities to be avoided. The workplace isn’t a grand chance to whiteboard a fresh design and bounce ideas off of co-workers; the highest priorities are planning lunch or the next after work get together.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that – either the passion you might have or the neutrality of those who don’t. But the point is this: when your co-workers don’t match your passion, don’t let that be a source of conflict. I’ve seen it happen a number of times where someone who cares about their work is frustrated by someone who doesn’t. Alternatively, I’ve seen it where two co-workers with different areas of responsibility and similar levels of passion find each other at odds.
- You read about a new feature, research it, and determine it can solve a problem your company has been having. You bring it up in a meeting, and no one else seems to care.
- You set your sights on a certification and spend lunch hours, evenings, and weekends studying. You pass a series of butt-kicking exams and earn the cert. You get a polite “attaboy” from your boss who you don’t entirely expect to get what you just achieved. But from your peers who you *do* expect to get it, you earn no respect.
- You troubleshoot a nagging problem that has everyone else in the office stumped. After some deep digging and a whole lot of reading, you resolve the issue. Instead of receiving accolades, you deal with negativity because you didn’t follow proper processes and upset a co-worker by crossing over in their area of responsibility.
- A different team brings in a new piece of equipment, but doesn’t coordinate with any of the other teams, including the team you’re on. After doing some homework on the new gear, you find out that it’s not going to work well with the infrastructure your team is responsible for. When you ask for a meeting to get out in front of the issues, you are told to stop making such a big deal out of things and mind your own business.
- You strongly disagree with a superior about a particular design that was decided upon. You know from specific experience that the design has serious shortcomings. Your superior just as strongly believes their design is the right answer to the business challenge and intends to move ahead with or without your support.
The key to these situations is in how you handle them. Think of it from a security perspective. It’s not whether or not a security breach is going to happen; it’s how you handle it when it does. Let’s look at some bad responses, and then some better responses.
- Anger. If you’re angry due a situation in the workplace, your best option is to shut up. Period. Loud, cursing outbursts will only upset those around you. Directing vocal bile at the person who’s upset you will not help to mend the relationship, but rather will only cause harm. Culturally, expressions of anger might be more permissible in some places than others, but generally speaking, you’ll win no friends by letting your fury spill forth onto those around you.
- Confrontation. A direct challenge to the person you’re in disagreement with or who isn’t meeting up to your expectations is likely to result in a fracturing of the relationship. This is especially true if the person you’re going after is an introvert. Introverted folks tend to avoid conflict. Conflict causes an intense personal interaction that an introvert will find exhausting. If you force a conflict by directly confronting someone in the workplace, the result is unlikely to be positive.
- Blame. When things aren’t going your way in the IT field, a natural response is to keep a little file of what’s gone on. Some just keep a mental tab; the more pedantic keep an email folder or other record. That way, when it all blows up, you can shift the blame right where it needs to go…on that other person with whom you had the conflict. In this way, you prove your superiority. No one wants to get dumped on because something bad happened, even when it’s their fault. *Especially* when it’s their fault. Blaming someone makes an enemy for life, because you’ve confirmed their worst fears: you’ll thrust in the knife to make yourself look better by comparison.
- Quiet. Sometimes, it’s okay to not say anything. Not every battle is worth fighting. Not every disagreement must get sorted. Not all points matter as much as you think they do. Letting things go isn’t a sign of defeat, but a sign of maturity. While some issues simply must be handled, in other cases it’s fine to relax. With time and experience, you’ll learn which is which. You’ll avoid winding folks up by being more balanced.
- Compromise. Acknowledge in your heart of hearts that your way isn’t the only way, and then open up to alternate suggestions. Very often, the best designs come when sharing your ideas with others, and letting them offer different points of view. While confrontation makes you out to be a bully, compromise makes you out to be a reasonable, careful person who considers all possible solutions before making a recommendation or offering a solution.
- Offer options. When bad situations of someone else’s making come up, a useful channel for your enthusiasm is to kindly offer options to resolve the situation. Blame is not necessary; leave that for the post-mortem if it comes up. Situations that could result in blame also need a humble savior. Be that person, instead of the haughty “I told you so” peer who revels in someone else’s failing. Remember – the business you work for is impacted when the IT engine stops running; it’s not about you.
In my working career, I have found that the hardest things to manage are my expectations of others. When someone has a certain title, my natural expectation is for them to live up to the implication of that title. Perhaps someone holds a certain certification; then I expect that they will have a certain level of competency. Over time, I’ve been disappointed in this strategy. Now, I manage my expectations of others with careful optimism. I hope they live up to their title. I hope they can execute their job description. I hope they didn’t dump their way to a certification. But…I reserve in the back of my mind the possibility that they might not be all that. Optimistic, but cautious. That way, if folks turn out to be less than what they perhaps ought to be, the disappointment is easier to manage.
A last note is to remember your place. Being angry or confrontational because you care about your work doesn’t make that behavior appropriate. Consideration of those you work with is paramount. If you’re a manager, you set the tone for your team. If you’re working for someone else, you’re subservient to them. If you’re less experienced then your peers, then you might need to defer to their judgement. Channel that passion and intensity in such a way that folks *enjoy* working with you. Don’t occupy the cubicle no one dares to go near for fear of troubling the beast.