Don’t Praise Me, Bro

I have had the great fortune in the close to 12 years that I’ve been working at NC State of being able to do work that I enjoy, that I’m passionate about and I have had the great honor to have worked with a lot of smart, caring, involved, hard-working people that care about those around them.

Both of which mean that I’ve been, at times, in the right place at the right time to receive praise and recognition of the things I’ve worked on. It’s something I’ve never quite been entirely comfortable with.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enough of an ego that I don’t shirk away from being the center of attention. I have been known a time or two (cough) to take over a meeting, a forum, a discussion with long rambling soliloquies in one form or another. It’s not really a center of attention thing.

I like to think that I do good work. I certainly care very deeply about my work, and want it to be the best it can be, and jokes and sarcasm aside, I care very deeply that others can learn from, make use of, and benefit from that work. I’m sure I’d be lying to you and myself if I said that part of me doesn’t want some recognition of that.

But even given that, when it comes to praise and recognition, I always get a little embarrassed. I don’t really know how to take it. I’ve tried to learn more how to graciously accept it, because when you don’t have that skill, you can appear at best ungrateful, and at worse, you can insult the one providing the recognition, and you might cheapen the praise for others.

But still, I’ve been trying to put my finger on it – and I think it comes down to the old “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” line from American Bandstand I’m composing the metaphorical equivalent to the album, and I guess I’m the artist that wants a little more than “it’s got a good beat” – I’m not necessarily expecting the person hearing to have the faintest idea about how to compose music themselves (because I sure don’t know how – as my flawed metaphor will surely attest) – but to be interested enough in how it sounds to tell me they played it all night – and ask questions about that middle part – and let me tell them that I borrowed that classical part written for the glockenspiel and turned into an electrical guitar solo. Honestly, I’d feel that – or at least I hope that I could – handle the flipside – having someone come up and tell me out of the blue that they really didn’t like it and maybe had I used a part written for the violin instead of the glockenspiel, it would have been better.

Without that, praise and recognition sometimes feels like it’s not far removed from judgment. And maybe uninformed praise and recognition really isn’t that much different than uninformed judgment.

Maybe I really am an educator deep down. I’m not looking for praise or recognition – but for understanding

I really was not expecting that

I started a blog post three days ago that I haven’t made time to finish yet – in fact I hadn’t gotten much beyond a title and a link. The title was:

There might be something here

And the link was to the 2nd Microsoft Gates/Seinfeld commercial (nee, mini-sitcom)

And the funny thing was, after giving them crap the first time around, I thought this one was entertaining. And maybe like all the time I spent in high school and college literature classes, I went hunting in the plotline for some kind of theme, some kind of message, some kind of something And I thought it had that. Whether that was having a conversation about a private bank account, or the value of a bunch of coins, or a firewall to protect from monsters. Gates and Seinfeld seemed, well, human. And better, humans with answers. And their own questions.

I left the second episode, well, wanting more actually. And honestly, I can’t remember a time in recent memory where I wanted more from Microsoft.

I like (well, liked) Microsoft actually. I was an MCSE long ago, not that certification ever means jack squat, but I did my best to run NT 4.0 on laptops, and enjoyed it. I did Win32 programming, and marveled at real developer documentation vs. some horrendous excuse for docs in the form of a man page for printf. Sure I cursed the registry, but at the time it was better than 15 billion different configuration file formats scattered to hell and back on other OSes – but the then 3rd party sysinternals tools made that better. And hell, at some level, there was far better security in the DACL models on the memory and file objects in NT than there was in any other OS (too much actually – sometimes Owner/Group/World RWX is just ‘simpler is better’) I still think Excel can be a nice tool for analysis – and I use it all the time for ad-hoc cross table investigation.

The came Internet Explorer, and I can’t begin to tell you how much of a visceral hatred I have for that particular product. There’s even a not-so-tiny part of me that thinks the people responsible for the monstrosity that is IE 6 should be brought up on whatever trumped up charges can be found and dumped in Federal prison somewhere.

But as bad as IE is there is still something of interest in the company. Sure most of them have completely different philosophical underpinnings than what I believe, but as a group, the people in the company are some of the most open (about most things) than anywhere. Certainly more than Apple (who, despite my fanatical devotion to the product line, represents everything I hate about secrecy and seclusion).

So, you know, I could have rooted for the “common guy” – even if that was two incredibly rich spokespersons in a “moon base over seattle” and another that gets stuck in his own traffic.

But Microsoft, as inexplicably as being inexplicable about the Seinfeld ads, pulled them. With some cockamamie story about it being the “plan all along”. Lying is what they are good at, I suspect, so why not do more?

Maybe John Gruber is right – maybe it just sold on the fact that Microsoft’s brand is not much more than nothing. I’m not so sure, but I do think he’s right about them panicking. Which I don’t quite understand. Maybe it’s corporate philosophy now. Release something that just doesn’t quite cut it yet, and then pull the rug on it with as much spin as you can muster. I don’t know. I just know it’s plain out weird

The Seinfeld ads had people talking, and I think, given a little rope and even more time, would have created a brand connection that none of us would have expected. I think we relate to the crazy old grandmother/mechanic stuck in the house for 12 years – even when it’s parody, than some half-serious group of people cheering some fool on for using Office to create a TPS report. There’s parody and then there’s farce.

And the latter is what they end up with. Trading nothing that might have been something, for well…

Just Nothing.

Operator, can you help me place this call

I’ve always been pretty fascinated by the allegory within the Genesis story the Tower of Babel, particularly the confusion/division of human language.

I think it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by the human challenge of communication – and why something so seemingly simple and so core to the human experience, seem so incredibly difficult. Especially in the workplace.

I have never researched or studied much in the way of what scholars have to say about the subject – or business experts, I’ve just observed, contemplated, praised, opined, complained about the nature of communication of groups and larger organizations that I’ve been in.

Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of had what everyone terms a “communication problem” of some kind. Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of has had a situation where they acknowledge the problems/challenges/opportunities – and they’ll talk about working on it, doubling efforts, forming focus groups, task forces, tiger teams, etc. to study the problem, make recommendations, write reports whatever. And sometimes it changes, but normally it doesn’t. It’s just an endemic thing that happens with groups and communication.

I’d like to tell you I know how to solve communication problems in organizations. That I know some fundamental secrets to getting information flowing. I’d like to tell you, but I can’t – because honestly I haven’t the faintest clue how you solve problems with two different people walking away from a conversation with two completely different interpretations of what just was said. I don’t have the faintest clue about how you solve the “signal degradation” as the report of a conversation goes from person to person to person. Or the problem of custom vocabularies between teams and the use of the same words that mean different things. Or issues of pride and fear, where people will just stay quiet on unclear points to avoid looking like they don’t know things. Or any of the dozens of other communication challenges between folks. I know how it happens, I usually recognize it. But I can’t solve it, or tell you how. (and frankly the people that tell you they can are delusional at best, liars at worst). At best, there are mitigation strategies, but there’s not much in the way of solutions. It’s a human thing. It’s why every culture has some variant of a “Tower of Babel.”

I can tell you though, that if you can’t even get to those problems, you can’t get through those problems. If you aren’t talking in the first place, you can’t even begin to have all those vocabulary and interpretation issues.

I do have one secret. One management-consulting-like little mantra that gets to the heart of at least one of the fundamental problems. Of course it’s an over simplification of a complex problem. But that’s how we roll in the workplace.

Here’s the personal form:

Ask Questions, Give Answers

Here’s one for you leaders:

Expect Questions, Expect Answers

Here’s really what it boils down to:

Never leave a question unanswered.

Here’s an expanded version of the above:

Never, ever, ever, ever leave a question unanswered. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t give a flying damn how stupid the question is. I don’t care how many times it has been asked. I don’t care how many times it has been asked by the same person. I don’t care how much it ticks you off that you are being questioned. Go ahead and send the missive around to your peers that “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT QUESTION WAS ASKED AGAIN” Just answer the damn question. Period. End of Story. (p.s. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. “Because I said so” is not. Unless the questioner is 5 years old and only if they are asking why they can’t go to chuck-e-cheese for dinner for the 4th night in a row.)

Pretty much every successful communication exchange is about a question and an answer. But it’s not going to be successful if the question isn’t asked. And it’s sure not going to be successful if the answer isn’t given. I have seen over and over and over again that the questions don’t get asked. Or when they do, the questions are ignored. And worse, the questioner is treated like a pariah, and the flipside, the answer isn’t heard, or respected.

If your first response to all this is that I’m over-simplifying the issue – you’re right. And if you know me, I’m sure you can point out multiple times with me where I get annoyed as hell about being asked, or I give some gruff response about looking it up yourself. “Black” said the pot to the kettle.

But I do hope that you’ll have to look pretty hard for a time when I was responsible for being the person that gave the answer, that I didn’t give an answer (and in the process answered 50 other questions that you never had) And if I didn’t, or didn’t for a long time, where I didn’t apologize profusely for not doing so. It’s just something that’s pretty important to me, and it’s something I’ve found to be successful for making sure information is out there.

There’s a lot of other things you might be thinking. One I’ve run into a lot with leaders is that you might be thinking to yourself about that guy that you have in the group over in the corner, that you are completely afraid of your boss’s boss’s boss walking in because he’s going to ask some embarrassing question about some little minute detail that you think is too trivial to be asked. In that case you have a problem. No, not in your group. You have a problem. Your boss’s boss’s boss should know how to deal. And if they have a clue – they’ll say “I don’t know. But that’s a good question, I’ll get back to you on that, or make sure that someone does”

I’m not going to say that that you won’t have someone that does that. Especially if you are encouraging questions in your team. And you yourself are giving answers and asking questions. That’s life. There are ways to deal with that. But ignoring it isn’t one of them. When the answers stop, the questions stop, and when both stop, communication stops. And that’s the problem.

I’m not going to say that this isn’t a hard and time consuming thing to do. Answering some of the questions will take a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sometimes it’s hard, mainly because the questions themselves can require us to think and deal with things that we’d rather not.

But what things in life that are worth doing are easy or simple? Not many.

Ask Questions. Give Answers

You’ll be amazed how much the communication in your organization, your group, your team, maybe even your life improves.