Lately I’ve been feeling really dumb. I have this advanced degree in Software System Engineering but in some really important areas I feel like I am in first grade. Maybe this is a consequence of having a really good and female boss. I have only had one other female boss in my life, and that was a short-term thing. It didn’t last three months. I was her employee only long enough to find another job. But now I have a really successful female for a boss and her people skills are daunting at times.
First let me say that Susan (my boss) is terrific. She is everyone’s dream boss. She’s funny, she’s cute, she’s snarky and she laughs a lot. Every day is an adventure from her perspective. She loves everyone and everyone loves her. In the five months I’ve worked at USGS no one has said anything that could be remotely interpreted as negative about her. She is also very, very smart. She has brains of a magnitude that are daunting to us lesser mortals. She remembers everything including the tiniest details from years ago. You can’t dislike her. She so very much believes in and honestly appreciates anyone who works for her. She treats everyone as peers. She’s like a big mother hen (although she has no children herself) and she just loves all of us. She will bend the rules and go out of her way to give you what you need to succeed. If you have family problems she will support you 100%.
She is also what I would refer to as an emotional sophisticate. I cannot be disingenuous with her. She sees right through me. I don’t know how I know this but I do. She has me all figured out. She knows just the right combination of buttons to press to inspire me and get me moving in the way she wants me to move. And that makes me feel, well, both empowered and at times inadequate. I don’t know what to call her gift, but “leadership” doesn’t describe it.
Like most of us men I suspect I can be pretty emotionally clueless. I can be sensitive to other people and their feelings but I have to deliberately turn on that part of me. Most of the time I have that side turned off since I am used to having it turned off. But since I have become a supervisor I’ve made it a point to turn on that side of me with my own employees. I ask them regularly how they are feeling and how various members of their family are doing. I try to get to know them as people, to respect who they are and not to be condescending. So far I think I am doing pretty well. At least with my own employees I’m pretty sure I’ve earned their respect, though it may be qualified.
Still I am often clueless on how my behavior may be impacting other people. I will relate an all too typical example that happened recently. I had some concerns that there were multiple groups of people inside my office working on solving essentially the same problem. (If curious the problem was how to present our data in various XML formats.) It didn’t seem that the right people were talking to each other. So as I usually do when I see a problem I tried to bring everyone together to reach consensus. Except of course one of the other unit chiefs had someone who had this issue as one of his areas of responsibility. From his perspective I was stepping on his turf. But he didn’t seem to be talking to someone in this other team because they were both charging forward on separate and redundant paths. And really I wasn’t that aware that his role was as broad as he and his boss envisioned. If it was that broad I figured these problems wouldn’t be happening. Anyhow I was at least a grade above him. I figured this was the sort of problem people at my grade level were supposed to solve.
This would be a typical male left-brain response. But it was the wrong emotional response. Because you see I neglected to consider that someone’s feelings might be hurt. In this case my fellow peer unit chief, also an emotional sophisticate, knew this man had this work and more importantly that he felt he owned the issue. So I was asked to run a conference call where it was on the agenda. I took an action item to set up a meeting and put it on my electronic To Do list. I probably did hear once, maybe even twice, that he and his boss wanted him to take leadership of the issue. But I didn’t retain it. I just saw the action item and started working on it.
So it generated some consternation. Email flew around. People’s feelings were getting hurt. I really didn’t want to manage the issue. I just wanted to make sure it was addressed and that my needs would get considered in the meeting. I saw myself as starting a process that needed to happen. I think I have it straightened out now. It was too late for me to let this guy set up the meeting since I had sent out the invitations. However I did shoot him an email saying I’m glad to let him run it from now on. Case closed I hope. But I had inadvertently or perhaps stupidly caused some minor damage to the effectiveness of the larger team. Bad me!
Granted my boss and my fellow peer unit chief have twenty years or more working in the same office as these people. They know them inside and out. They know their hot spots, what makes them happy and their eccentricities. I am still trying to associate names with faces, let alone names with roles. But that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was I lacked the emotional sophistication (or perhaps the innate patience) to work through these issues so that no feelings were hurt. I was operating as usual at full throttle when I should have thought through the issue and done the necessary networking.
I know how my boss would have worked the issue. She would have stopped by the guy’s cubicle on some pretext but mainly to sound out his feelings on the issue. She’d talk to his boss and get her opinion. Then she’d talk to me and suggest an approach. No nicks. No cuts. No bruises. No hard feelings.
My solution? That approach seemed very time consuming and old fashioned. Email was much faster. Besides I’ve got a million things on my To Do list. It seemed like they are all due immediately. I needed some shortcuts. It’s not clear to me if I choose to ignore the proper way to do things because I am hasty by default, or because I was more concerned about being fast and efficient than with dealing with all the human relations issues. The downside of my approach is now clear: I may be making enemies, or at least be giving the impression to people that I am a bit inconsiderate. Naturally I don’t think of myself that way. But that may be how I am being perceived. That’s not a great long-term strategy. So my boss’s solution is much more logical and would solve the underlying emotional issues.
Anyhow a couple issues like this rear their heads during the course of my workweek. I hope I am the type that can adapt my behavior. But issues like this have dogged my otherwise pretty successful career. It is now past time for me to develop the sophisticated emotional skills that I need. In fact as a result of episodes like this my boss has already suggested I need some training in this area. And it sounds like I may need it sooner rather than later.
I just hope this old dog can learn just one more new trick.