Expressing Your Authority May Be Working Against You

It doesn’t matter whether you are a senior engineer, a team lead, or an IT manager – eventually you will encounter the situation.  A meeting or discussion that becomes slightly more animated than usual.  Opinions are strong, and it is clear that consensus will not be found on this particular contentious issue today.   As a senior engineer, team lead, or manager, it is fair and understood that sometimes you will have to make a call one way or the other.   This article is not about whether or not you should make that call.  This article is about how to make that call.

Lets say for example that you are in a meeting with many of your direct reports, and these direct reports may be working on different aspects of the same project – or – they may be on different teams, still working toward the successful completion of a specific project.  There is a contentious concern, perhaps on the complexity around a specific problem where dead-lines need to be set.  Opinions are being vocalized, and the volumes of those voices are getting louder.  There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to reason out the differences of opinion at the moment. People are being blamed, fingers are being pointed.  You are the team lead/manager.  What do you do?

Well, lets look at what you should not do, with some suggestions on how you might handle these situations differently:

  1. Do Not Swear
    • It may seem to you that swearing at a meeting to get the attention of your team is either hip, cool, contemporary, or resonant with authority, but you would be dead wrong.
    • Anyone who really wants to succeed, and wants their teams and their company to succeed, will always want to bring positivity to the table.  By swearing (and I mean anything that is obviously vulgar, saying something like “what the fuck”), you are tarnishing the respect that your direct reports may have had for you.
    • With you being in a senior position, your direct reports look up to you, and will often try to mimic your mannerisms and the method by which you work (without full context of course), and they will replicate these mannerisms upon interactions with other teams and team members.
    • If you are swearing because you are highly frustrated, and simply lost control, then that is another matter that you need to address, immediately.
    • Apologize – If you do swear, communicate to your team that you are indeed frustrated, and did not mean to offend anyone.  Apologize sincerely to the whole team, and this will immediately re-gain any respect you may have lost, since you are showing the team that you are responsible for your actions, and are willing to concede when you’ve made a mistake.  This takes courage, and is a great example to set for your team.
  2. Do Not Raise Your Voice
    • There are many situations where raising your voice might be appropriate, for example to get everyone’s attention so that a meeting can begin.  Context is very important.
    • However, raising your voice for the sake of making a point (or to invalidate a point being made by someone else), or to express your authority will only back-fire, as you will lose the respect of those to whom you are trying to make your point.
    • Silence is golden – if you need to visibly show your disappointment or disagreement with an individual or a decision being made at a meeting, then the best thing to do is to be quiet.  Stand up, and hold your hand out as if you are pushing something away from you (think Neo in the Matrix).  Make it visible that you have something to say, or that you disagree, or would like to take the discussion off-line.  Your teams will respect you even more if you are able to command the attention of a room with silence.  Any fool can get attention by being loud and abrasive.
    • Again, by raising your voice, you are setting an example for others to do the same as well.  Your team members will take your queue and start to build a paradigm around how they see you acting and reacting, and they will do the same – believing either that this is what it takes to be successful, or that this is how YOU would rather interact.  They may even raise their voice against you in the very same meeting, with the misguided belief that you would see this as a positive characteristic in them.  Do not perpetuate this line of thinking.  If you are able to command a room with silence, then everyone else will follow suit and become silent, at which point a real and valuable conversation can once again be had.
  3. Do Not Perpetuate Fact-less Finger-pointing
    • Just because someone on your team makes a claim against another, doesn’t mean it is true.  If one team member claims that they are in a bad situation, or that they “are blocked” by another team or individual, do not simply jump on that finger-pointing train.  This is the equivalent of joining a pitch-fork mob against a monster which you didn’t know existed only a few minutes ago.  As a leader, you should be critical of all information coming your way, especially the hearsay that tends to happen when a second party is criticising a third.  It is a purely reactive method of dealing with people and situations, and it does more harm than good.
    • Ask questions – but from the perspective of information-gathering, not finger pointing.  What this means is that you are taking ‘people’ out of the picture, and instead are looking at ‘facts’ (current status and configuration, time-stamps, and corroborating evidence).  Instead of just taking those who claim that the ‘sky is falling’ at their word.
    • If you are going to address someone who is to be the defendant of a particular criticism, don’t ask them “Did you do (or not do) x?”.  Instead of being open about the obstacles which have prevented them from completing a certain task, this puts people on the defensive.  Try instead to be on their side.  If you are sincerely interested in achieving success for all teams, and for the entire company, and not just for yourself or your team, then show this by being helpful.  Instead, make statements like “What can I do to help move x along?”, or “Can we spend a few moments to break down this objective into smaller tasks?  Perhaps I or someone from my team can assist with moving this along?”.  This kind questioning puts the person being criticised in a position to ask for, and accept help if they need it.  If it is simply a matter of prioritization, something the person hadn’t gotten around to just yet, or if they simply lost sight of the tasks – they will once again be aware that the task needs attention.  They may even be embarrassed that you are offering to assist them with such a simple task that they will openly concede that they’ve simply lost sight of it, and would likely resolve the situation right away to avoid further embarrassment.
    • Bring people together.  Be an example to the person raising the issue or making the criticism by bringing together the parties involved so that there can be a quick and constructive dialogue about current obstacles or perceived road-blocks.  Show people how to solve problems without escalation, so that they can perpetuate a positive methodology around people-handling, and so that they themselves can become positive role-models that others can aspire to.
    • If you instead believe that perpetuating unfounded criticism and finger-pointing is a good thing, and that is all you believe you can or should do; then all you will end up doing is to make people feel alienated.  Those who are being criticised will go on the defensive, and they will likely want to avoid interacting with you (or anyone else on the finger-pointing bandwagon) going forward.  This does nothing to improve collaboration within or between teams.  Your organization and your company will suffer because of it.

Getting upset at your direct reports, raising your voice in order to re-claim a conversation, or simply ignoring input from specific people is a sure-fire way to diminish your reputation and earned respect across your entire team.  For the most part, private sector IT including software development, systems administration, and project management, is all thought-work.  It is important to be aware of and to understand how much psychology plays a part in the success of a team or organization.  Positivity breeds positivity, and the inverse is true as well.

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