Setting boundaries when working in communities

Kat Cosgrove recently had a tweet that hit home:

I haven’t taken any meaningful time off of work in the last 14 months because it feels kinda pointless. I’m just going to be sitting at home thinking about work so I might as well be doing work. Invariably, what I fear is happening while I’m not at work is much worse than what is actually happening. Yay, anxiety!

But also, there’s some guilt when you’re paid to work in a community where a lot of people are volunteering. I don’t feel like I can say “hey, it’s after my work hours” because many in my community only participate outside of their work hours. Add to that the global nature of open source communities and that means that there’s always something to devote my time to.

I think it would be easier to come in as an outsider who is just doing the job for a paycheck. But working in a community where you previously volunteered makes the urge to be around all the time so much stronger. It can be really hard to set boundaries because it feels like you’re devaluing the donated time of others.

It’s a blessing and a curse. I happen to think I’m pretty good at my job (and the fact that I’m anything other than a failure should tell you something) and I know that’s because it’s more than a paycheck to me. But that’s also what makes it so hard to draw boundaries.

My manager (who is very good at reminding me to take care of myself) recently compared it to working for a startup. Everyone pitches in wherever they can, even when it’s not on the job description. That’s incredibly true in open source projects, except there’s no exit. It’s not like you’re working hard now so you’ll get a stupid-large pile of cash when a big company acquires you or you have an IPO. If the project is successful it…keeps being a startup forever.

For now, I’m holding up pretty well. I’m balancing working too much with non-work interests (even if a lot of them look like work to the outside observer). But I wonder how long that can hold. And I wonder how others in a similar position make it work over the long term.

Just write the damn thing

When working in a group, you may sometimes struggle to get the group won over to your way of thinking. It’s a challenge. Sometimes you can’t state your case in a compelling manner. Sometimes your idea is terrible. Sometimes the group just won’t listen. But there’s a shortcut you can use to give your opinion a head start: write it down.

Blank pages are scary. They contain infinite possibility. It turns out that infinity is a really big, daunting concept. People don’t like them. This makes the blank page your opportunity.

Undoubtedly, the team will edit your draft heavily. It may get to the point where nothing remains of your original work. That’s okay. By having your opinion be the starting point, you give it some extra weight. You’re framing the discussion. If you’re particularly sneaky, you can even go a little beyond your actual position so that when it gets edited more toward the “middle”, it lands where you wanted.

This isn’t a fool-proof method by any stretch of the imagination. But you’re giving your idea a little bit of a boost. Even if your position isn’t the one the group settles on, being willing to write that first draft sets you apart. It doesn’t particularly matter if it’s good or not, because it’s going to be revised and revised and revised. So do you yourself a favor and just write the damn thing.

Lessons and perspective from fast food

I started working in fast food when I turned 16 and needed to fund my habit of aimlessly driving around the backroads. I ended up spending five and a half years in the industry (the last few of which were only when I was home from college), advancing from a meat patty thermodynamic technician to crew trainer to floor supervisor. In the end, I was effectively a shift manager. I supervised the store’s training and safety programs.

It’s should be no surprise that I learned a lot about myself and about leadership during that time. Even a decade on, stories from my fast food days come up in job interviews and similar conversations. As a result of my time in fast food, I’ve learned to be very patient and forgiving with those who work in the service sector. I’ve also learned some lessons that are more generally applicable.

Problems are often not the fault of the person you’re talking to. This is a lesson for service customers more than service providers, but most providers are customers to. In fast food, when your order is wrong it’s sometimes the fault of the counter staff putting the wrong sandwich in the bag, but sometimes it’s the fault of the grill staff for making it wrong. In any case, it’s rarely the result of malice or even incompetence. People, especially overworked and under-engaged people, will make mistakes. This holds true for customer service staff at most companies, particularly large ones where the tier 1 staff are temps or outsourced. (That doesn’t imply that actual malice or incompetence should be acceptable.)

Sometimes the best way to deal with a  poor performer is to give them responsibility. One story I’m fond of telling involves a crew member who was, in many ways, the stereotypical teenage fast food worker. He was smart, but lazy, and didn’t much care for authority. The fact that I was only a year older than him made it particularly hard for me to give him orders. He’d been working for a few months and was good at it when he applied himself, so the trick was to get him to do that. After a little bit of fumbling around, I found the trick. I started spending more time away from the grill area and more time up front, and I made it clear that he was in charge of the grill. I gave him some autonomy, but I also held him accountable. Lo and behold, his behavior improved. He also started taking opportunities to teach new employees the tricks of the trade. He could have let the authority go to his head, but instead he acted like an adult because he was being treated like an adult.

Don’t nitpick behavior, but don’t put up with crap. The standing philosophy on my shifts was “don’t make life hard for me and I won’t make life hard for you.” I didn’t like bossing people around (in part because they were either old enough to be my grandmother or because they were 16 and all the bossing in the world wasn’t going to have any effect). If people were doing their jobs well, I put up with some good-natured shenanigans (the exceptions being food safety, physical safety, and customer satisfaction). One time a fellow supervisor had written up a crew member for a really trivial infraction. I went to her file later and tore it up. This person was a good worker and harping on her for minor issues was only going to drive her away. By the same token, I came in from taking the garbage out one night to find two normally good workers having a fight with the sink sprayer. They were both sent home right away (granted one of them was off in 10 minutes anyway).

Spread the unpleasant work around, and be willing to do some yourself. Some of the managers and supervisors liked to make the same people do the unpleasant tasks all the time. I hated that approach because it just seemed to reinforce bad behavior. The people who made my life unpleasant certainly came up in the rotation more often, but everyone had to clean restrooms, empty grease traps, etc. Including me. I didn’t try to make a show of it, but I wanted the people who I worked with to see that I wasn’t using my position to avoid doing things I didn’t want to do. And if I’m being completely honest, there was something I enjoyed about emptying the grease traps (except when I’d lose my grip and pour them into my shoe).

Don’t be a jerk. I won’t delude myself into thinking I was universally loved. I know I wasn’t, and I’m okay with that. But for the most part, I think I was pretty well-liked among the crew and management because I wasn’t a jerk. I took my job seriously (perhaps too seriously at times), but I was flexible enough to try to work with people the way they needed to be worked with. I tried to make work fun and cooperative, because working in fast food sucks and anything that can make it less sucky benefits workers and customers alike.


Organizational silos in the 21st century

My friend Joanna shared an interesting Harvard Business Review article yesterday morning entitled “It’s Time to Split HR“. Along with another link article that was shared by someone else a few minutes later, I found myself making a rather lengthy pontification about how organizations treat employees, particularly with respect to pay. Originally, I was going to focus on that, but the more I thought about it, the more I think there are two separate-but-related posts. So in this one, I’ll focus on the HBR article.

Ram Charan lays out an interesting argument for bifurcating the traditional Human Resources department into administration (e.g. compensation, hiring, etc.) and leadership (e.g. personnel development) roles. It’s certainly a proposal worth considering. As commenter Jonathan Magid pointed out, the two roles of HR are essentially to protect the organization from its employees and to develop those same employees. HR effectively has to serve two masters. In most cases where there’s a conflict of interest, HR will side with the organization. That makes sense, since the organization is the one writing the pay checks.

Charan, however, doesn’t really address this. His main concern seems to be the lack of strategic understanding within the ranks of HR leadership. Chief Human Resources Offices (CHROs), he writes, are too specialized in HR functional areas and lack understanding of the larger organization. This is true of all areas, though. Especially those that are not core to the business. Too often, IT leadership is painted (appropriately) with the same brush. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the area needs to go away.

The best employees are familiar with other areas of the business, not just those under their direct purview. This is true of all functional areas and at all levels. In a previous job, we frequently lamented that HR wasn’t as helpful as they could be in vetting resumes because they didn’t understand technology. Go on any forum where technical people gather and eventually you’ll find disparaging remarks and advice to game keywords because that’s all HR will understand. In my experience, the issue isn’t that HR staff are terrible human beings, it’s that they’re just too siloed.

Everyone “knows” that silos are bad. Bureaucratic fiefdoms tend to be self-reenforcing and lead to reactionary, defensive tactics like information hoarding in order to keep justifying their existence. What I find so interesting is that organizations can’t seem to avoid forming silos. Siloization is like an organizational version of entropy: left alone, it will increase over time.

There are certainly benefits to silos. They make the organization easier to understand. They allow for deep specialization. Knowledge transfer is simplified. But they’re a losing prospect in the longer term.

A good friend of mine directs the IT support organization for a large academic unit within a large midwestern university. This group is notable because it provides excellent customer service (according to their internal measures, the opinions of the customers, and their reputation on campus) and actively suppresses silo formation. He told me that silo suppression is “extremely expensive, and very difficult to explain/justify to people.”

Silo suppression is expensive because it’s a long-term investment in the organization. Rotating senior personnel through phone duty is expensive as compared to putting the newest, cheapest hire on that task all day. Requiring all knowledge to be shared among at least one colleague requires a larger staff. Hiring and retaining people who buy into the organizational philosophy is a slower and more expensive process. All of this looks terrible in a short-term view.

Where silo suppression pays off is in the long term. Vacations, illnesses, and employee turnover are less disruptive because the knowledge is retained. Someone else in the organization can pick up dropped issues without a long spin-up time. Employees develop a broader view of their work and can make useful suggestions for areas outside of their main expertise.

There are undoubtedly psychological and sociological reasons that we gravitate toward developing silos. Organizational leaders must be aware of this tendency and actively work to counter it. The problem with HR isn’t that the people or the functions are bad. The problem is that HR is not out “among the people.” Embedding HR representatives within other functional areas of an organization is almost certain to improve HR’s understanding of the larger business. In addition, it may help make HR more approachable and better understood by the rest of the organization, allowing employees to make the best use of the HR resources available.

Organizational silos are interesting. We know that they’re bad, but we always end up reverting to them over time. Maybe just we need better silos. Silos built around projects that can easily be torn down and put up somewhere else may give us the best of both worlds.

Additional management skills

My friend Eric recently wrote a post about critical management skills. I had intended to leave a comment with my thoughts, but instead I’ll build on them here. Eric hit many key points, but what I thought was lacking from his list are visible leadership and setting a vision. Visible leadership requires not just doing the things that Eric suggests, but a bit of showmanship as well. Employees must see evidence of active support from their manager, even if that means the manager has to tilt at the occasional windmill. The nature of the workforce has changed from generations past. Loyalty to the company and a rigid chain of command are no longer the norm. Leaders must recognize when they have good people working for them and must avoid pulling rank.

Setting a vision can be a difficult task. The reality that the vision is based on changes almost as soon as the vision is set. Still, effective leadership requires that such a vision be defined. Visions cannot be specific projects or tasks, they much be more broad, but not so general as to be meaningless. Ideally, the organization will have a strategic plan of some sort. This is normally defined at the highest level. Each level down must identify how its own duties tie into the strategic plan, all the way down to each individual employee. The group’s strategic plan then guides the projects the group will work on, how new and vacated positions will be staffed, and how employee performance will be evaluated.