Managers: Want Better ROI? Manage Less, Coach More

Whether you read about business trends in HBR, listen to TED talks, or keep current via seminars, you’re probably awash in recommendations for increasing effectiveness. One idea with tremendous staying power is “the manager as coach.” Why does this concept stay evergreen as other trends ebb and flow? Because it serves both manager and employee so well.


What Differentiates Coaching From ...

A couple of things to get out of the way up front: Why coaching .... vs. advising, consulting, mentoring, training, and good old-fashioned managing? Coaching has myriad definitions (as do some of these other terms, of course), but the simplest way to start defining coaching arises from where the focus falls. As this recent Forbes comparison shows: “Managing is all about telling, directing, authority, immediate needs, and a specific outcome. Coaching involves exploring, facilitating, partnership, long-term improvement, and many possible outcomes.”

The focus shift is more than directive to open-ended. Just as the training field evolved from “training” to “learning,” the manager vs. coach nomenclature hints at a similarly changed emphasis. Old-style training focused on the content the trainer wanted to deliver; learning moved the focus to what the “trainees” needed—and wanted—to know. A seemingly minor shift that has had huge ramifications.

(Of course having good coaching yourself is a prerequisite to offering it to your people. it’s hard to evangelize about something you’ve never experienced! In fact, Forbes Coaches Council member, Elle Ingalls, says, “leading by example will change the paradigm of ‘you need assistance, but I'm just fine,’ to ‘I have benefited, and now I want you to experience this.’") 

6 Steps to Start Shifting from Managing to Coaching

But enough about me ... what do YOU think of me?

1. The old joke aside, coaching means focusing on your employee or direct report. The emphasis is on their needs, interests, and issues—rather than your goals as their boss (even if yours are legitimate company product launch goals, say, or your own personal performance metrics). What do they need? What are they worried about? How do they tend to troubleshoot or solve problems?

2. You can best learn the answers to these questions if you ask don’t tell. This is sometimes hard for  engineering managers to grasp. “But my direct reports have to know what I need them to do, ” we hear them say. Fair enough. But surely, there is time to solicit as well as specify information and goals? As Monique Vancour notes in a HBR article, “as a manager, you have a high level of expertise that you’re used to sharing, often in a directive manner. This is fine when you’re clarifying action steps for a project you’re leading or when people come to you asking for advice. But in a coaching conversation, it’s essential to restrain your impulse” to hold forth.

What’s a good way to get started? Bersin & Associates recommend the following open-ended questions:

  • How can I help you? 
  • Walk me through your thought process?
  • What other approaches might you take next time?
  • How are your emotions influencing your perception of the situation?  

(Engineers aren't known for being overly emotional, but try substituting “beliefs,” "expectations," or "assumptions" for the word "emotions." And remember that just because you don't display emotions, doesn't mean you don't have them—or that they can't affect your work.)

3. Practice active listening. Once you’ve asked, get yourself (and your agenda) out of the way so you can truly hear concerns and questions. Monique Vancour stresses that you, “succeed as a coach by helping your team members articulate their goals and challenges and find their own answers. This is how people clarify their priorities and devise strategies that resonate with what they care about most and that they will be committed to putting into action.”

4. Encourage employees to supply their own solutions. As coach and employee learn the ropes, both may default to familiar patterns and roles. But given that the whole point of coaching is to elicit answers from employees, not supply them yourself, Tanya Ezekiel says, “When someone asks you what to do, ask them what they think will work. Ask how they came to that conclusion. ... Show them that you value their input, and empower them to make decisions and be ready to defend them. The Socratic method, with its interactive dialogue of asking questions to prompt solutions, is tailor-made for engineers, who already tend to problem-solve via testing assumptions. And employees are clearly more likely to implement and remain enthusiastic about a solution they’ve arrived at themselves.

5. Build in accountability. The best conversations and conclusions in the world cannot survive a lack of follow-up. However informal your coaching structure—whether a casual ad hoc conversation or a weekly routine—ensure it includes a way for employees to keep their commitments. It may be as simple as a deadline for “homework assignments” or inquiring about previous actions at the beginning of the next coaching session.

6. Enjoy the fact that coaching is “contagious” in the best possible way. Tanya Ezekiel says, “over time, you’ll find that people will begin to bring you solutions instead of problems, and they’ll encourage their teams to do the same.” As employees learn to internalize your queries, and adopt your approach to troubleshooting, they’ll start to ‘run their own diagnostics.’ Once the coaching approach has become second nature, they may help inculcate the coaching process in your organization via an informal ‘each one, teach one’ process.  

Over time, you’ll find that people will begin to bring you solutions instead of problems, and they’ll encourage their teams to do the same.
— Tanya Ezekiel

The Pay-Off

Facilitating employee growth means each employee can develop into his or her best work self, which usually means increased self-awareness and improved problem-solving capabilities, at a minimum. Magda Mook, CEO and ED of the International Coach Federation (ICF), says ICF's research with the Human Capital Institute “has shown that organizations with strong coaching cultures consistently report higher employee engagement and revenue than peer organizations without strong coaching cultures.” Noting that low employee engagement costs companies millions, she adds that the ROI on coaching “is significant and long lasting.”

Just how significant can that ROI be? In a MetrixGlobal LLC study, “companies including Booz Allen Hamilton received an average return of $7.90 for every $1 invested in executive coaching.”



A future blog-post will help you learn the organizational steps to transitioning your department or division from a management mentality to a coaching culture, and build the coaching business case for your own upper management.

Prerequisite for Persuasion: What’s Your Leadership Work Reputation (Among Other Engineers)?

You Can’t Influence (Especially Without Authority) Until You Know How You’re Perceived

How do I come across at work?

Secretly, don’t we all want to know?

How do your engineering colleagues see you? (Not as a person but as a leader. Let’s hope they like you just fine as a person.) How they perceive your leadership style has ramifications for how best—or even if—you collaborate well. And in today’s organization, collaboration is a stepping stone to influence and persuasion.

Especially if you have to influence others in your organization without having the “right” title or an official position of authority (yet), you’d better be clear about how your team-mates—and other teams, managers, and your bosses—perceive you. Understanding how you come across—that is, their take on how you lead—is the first step toward being able to collaborate successfully across hierarchies, functions, and departments. And, given that so much of work these days is forging relationships “across the aisle” as historical enemies (Engineering and Marketing, say) have to collaborate, this first step is pretty much a prerequisite for building your powers of persuasion.

Why Would I Want to Influence People, Anyway?  

Selling snakeoil or "influence"?

Selling snakeoil or "influence"?

Though one of the bestselling self-help books of all time is titled How to Win Friends and Influence People, the idea of influence seems to have gotten a bad rap, especially with engineers who may value “facts” over skills they perceive as “soft.” Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about getting people to buy bridges (or snake oil), or Manchurian Candidate-like mind control, just the simple ability to get your job done. Which invariably entails co-workers ... who may not automatically want to do things your way, on your schedule.

Need convincing about how valuable the ability to influence is? Listen to the authors of Influence Without Authority:

Anyone who has ever been charged with coordinating the efforts of many others, knows the importance of influence, and just how maddening it can be to need others to get work done but not be able to move them.   ...

Here are some of the examples authors Allan Cohen and David Bradford supply about how the ability to influence can smooth your way throughout the full 360 degrees of your organizational life:

  • You have been asked to a cross-functional task force and have to get people outside your area committed to the project, but they are not cooperating.

  • You are in product development and need the cooperation of a key person or department in marketing to test out a new product you are developing.

  • You could be far more effective if you could figure out how to get your controlling boss of your back.

  • You have a talented person reporting to you who won’t listen to your advice about difficult colleagues; as a result, he is far less effective than he could be.

Clearly, influence is vital for your relationships and interactions across your organization, whether you’re trying to accomplish a basic task, innovate, or groom talent.

How Do I KNOW How I Come Across?

Here’s where a tool by Hogan comes in. (No, I’m not affiliated with them, but I choose their assessments for my coaching practice because of their huge database. Ping me if you want to hear more about why I like their methodology, which includes having professionals in myriad industries answer such seemingly odd questions as “Would you rather be an opera singer or a rock star?”)

These assessments enable my engineering clients to start becoming more self-aware so they can learn more about their own reputations. I’ve written elsewhere about personality assessments , but this tool offers three modules to provide insight into your potential for leadership, your values, and your challenges. (The latter are defined as triggers that may undermine you if you remain unaware of them). These modules are constructed to get at how you’re seen within your organization across several scales.


Are your values consistent with your role in your current organization? After you’ve completed this assessment you’ll have a snapshot of what motivates you, how well you fit within your organizational culture, what behavior you appreciate and what you dislike, and your unconscious biases—all growing out of questions within these 10 categories:

  1. Recognition
  2. Power
  3. Hedonism
  4. Altruism
  5. Affiliation
  6. Tradition
  7. Security
  8. Commerce
  9. Aesthetics
  10. Science

Better understanding your values can help you determine if you’re in the right role within your organization. Sometimes, the results can even help you figure out if you’re in the right organization; maybe a similar role at a completely different company would be a better fit.

Your Leadership Potential

Hogan names the seven scales of your leadership potential like this:

  1. Adjustment
  2. Ambition
  3. Sociability
  4. Interpersonal Sensitivity
  5. Prudence
  6. Inquisitiveness
  7. Learning Approach

Even if you believe you’re already completely clear about your own preferences, are you sure you know how you come across? That is, do you know what your preferences actually convey to your colleagues?

Take Sociability. Do you love being talkative, the center of attention? Or are you someone who prefers to solve problems on your own, without distractions from colleagues. (Yes, we tech types can skew toward “lone wolf” tendencies, but lots of us are more social than the “engineering stereotype” predicts.)  Either is valid, but knowing your score’s implications for your leadership behavior lets you decide how best to translate your proclivities into action.  

For example, I was surprised to find I had a low reputation for Prudence; in fact, it It was the largest disparity between my self-identity and my reputation. I won’t detail the extensive feedback the Hogan tools provided, but one statement about my score was: “As a leader you prefer to think about outcomes rather than details. However, you should try to understand the details of the work in your area. Doing so will enhance your ability to represent your team to others.”

Spot on, given that my boss had commented, “keep an eye on the technical details. A quick way to lose credibility with engineers is to be too detached from the technical bits,” and a peer had said: “good high-level perspective but sometimes seems out of her depth on the lower-level technical details.”

I admit I tend to “get bored with details,” but Google values technical details deeply. In conjunction with what I gleaned from the Values model about “figuring out fit,” I have a choice: Assuming I’m working in the right organization, am I in the right role? If I am in the right role, then I’d better get comfy hunkering down with the details—enough to show colleagues I understand and appreciate their concerns.

Your Challenges (Triggers)

What challenges are in your shadow?

What challenges are in your shadow?

  1. Excitable
  2. Skeptical
  3. Cautious
  4. Reserved
  5. Leisurely
  6. Bold
  7. Mischievous
  8. Colorful
  9. Imaginative
  10. Diligent
  11. Dutiful

How you should score might seem obvious. Wouldn’t most U.S. managers want to score very high on, say, being Bold?

Well, not necessarily. There’s a difference between being an appropriately confident person and having an inflated view of your own competency. Scoring very high on the Bold scale, for instance, might mean you’re perceived as less collaborative and hence unwilling to entertain feedback on a project strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, could your natural modesty cause you to under-estimate your capacities, and thus set goals that don’t stretch you enough? Or do you doubt yourself and seek buy-in from others just a bit more than you should before you tackle a task?

If we posit cooperation as a building block for true collaboration, knowing how you come across—the ways you may trigger your colleagues, but, more important, the ways in which you earn their credibility and trust—is a prerequisite to any authentic exercise of leadership. You can’t start effecting change in your group’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties, without it. And self-knowledge is the fastest pathway.

Tips for Collaborative Leadership

We’ve covered a lot, so I’ll wrap it up with a few tips from coach Carol Kinsey Goman. She listed 8 tips in a recent Forbes feature , but two in particular deserve your attention.

  1. Realize that silos can kill your business.
  2. Build your collaboration strategies around the “human element.”
  3. Use collaboration as an organizational change strategy.
  4. Make visioning a team sport.
  5. Utilize diversity in problem solving.
  6. Help people develop relationships.
  7. Focus on building trust.
  8. Watch your body language.

Tips #1 and #5 tie most strongly to becoming aware of your leadership reputation (to then enable persuasion and smooth collaboration). As Kinsey Goman says, “Collaboration is not a ‘nice to have’ organizational philosophy. It is an essential ingredient for organizational survival and success.”

The silo mindset comprises an unwillingness to share information freely with other groups within the organization. “Silo is a business term that has been passed around and discussed in many boardrooms over the last 30 years. Unlike other trendy management terms this is one issue that has not disappeared. ... Wherever it’s found, a silo mentality becomes synonymous with power struggles, lack of cooperation, and loss of productivity.”

Why is the silo mentality so destructive? “Knowledge hoarding behaviors are wasting the kind of collective brainpower that could save ... organization(s) billions. Or lead to the discovery of a revolutionary new process or product. Or, in the current economic climate, help keep their company afloat when others are sinking!”

Tip #5, utilize diversity in problem solving, is especially important for engineering managers in tech. Numerous studies show that diverse teams out-perform homogenous ones. “Group members who think alike or are trained in similar disciplines with similar bases of knowledge run the risk of becoming insular in their ideas. Diversity causes people to consider perspectives and possibilities that would otherwise be ignored.”

This means risking collaborating with teams dissimilar to yours. It also means being able to influence their priorities because you’re persuasive enough—that is, enough of a leader (no matter what your title)—to lead them through the iterations needed for shared efforts to succeed.

Assessing the Inter-Generational Work-Force

“Know Thyself” and “Do Unto Others”

Who are we? Why do we behave the way we do?

Along with Why are we here? these are the most basic questions humans ask.

Many schemes try to explain how we’re “wired”—that is, our basic “default settings” for behavior and interactions. From reductionist systems like astrology to more complicated frameworks such as psychoanalysis, the ubiquity of these systems shows us just how much we want to understand ourselves—and others.  

Evolved managers use “know thyself” as a precept, and help their teams understand their own—and others’—needs and behaviors better, too. One tool that helps contemporary managers develop and lead an intergenerational workforce began as research on combat teams during the Korean War. And it may make you question one of these precepts.

Most US Companies Use Some Type of Assessment Tool

The work world must ensure different people function well enough together to fulfill a company’s mission, and has often scrambled to find and use systems that can illuminate ‘types’ and predict behavior.

Many assessment tools have been around for decades. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI for short) is used by “89 of the nation's Fortune 100 companies,” according to Jennifer Overbo, director of product strategy for CPP Inc., the MBTI’s publisher.

by AON "Leadership Assessment The Backbone of a Strong Leadership Pipeline" April 2015

Situational Leadership, for instance, as the name implies, is geared specifically toward leadership development. Among myriad other assessments are Disc, 16Types/BigFive, Hexaco, Strengthsfinder, and HoganLead.

A Multi-Generational Workplace Adds Complexity

Even with relatively homogenous work-forces, assessment tools have been popular for decades, but the rise of the multi-generational workplace has ratcheted up the need for clarity about differing attitudes and priorities.

In fact, as the following graphics make clear, from academia to think tanks to LinkedIn, much effort is being dedicated to analyzing and documenting generational differences—so each faction can be communicated with, motivated, and acknowledged appropriately.

by UNC Executive Development "Managing the Multigenerational Workplace- UNC Executive Development" Dec 2, 2014

by UNC Executive Development "Managing the Multigenerational Workplace- UNC Executive Development" Dec 2, 2014

By: Karen Colligan "Recognizing the Value Millennials Bring to the Workplace" Nov 12, 2013

By: Karen Colligan "Recognizing the Value Millennials Bring to the Workplace" Nov 12, 2013

Source: Posted by Merry Selk (Strategic Communications / Content Strategy) citing Jennifer Patterson (Mobile Solutions Professional @ T-Mobile) citing Georgia Tech (GIT) President G. P. (“Bud”) Peterson’s content #FF2016

Source: Posted by Merry Selk (Strategic Communications / Content Strategy) citing Jennifer Patterson (Mobile Solutions Professional @ T-Mobile) citing Georgia Tech (GIT) President G. P. (“Bud”) Peterson’s content #FF2016

Personality vs. Behavior

Given how many companies want to manage their workers productively, chances are you’ve taken some sort of “personality test” at work. (They’re formally called “assessment tools,” but earlier iterations of instruments tried to describe overall personality, hence the popular term.)

I’ve taken many assessments myself, and, as a coach who administers these tools, am familiar with many more. I appreciate that newer tools go beyond such traditional emphases as whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert to focus more on how your needs affect your communication style and behaviors at work. This narrowed focus doesn’t try to map out complete personality types but instead lasers in on specific aspects of how you operate within groups.

An assessment tool that works well with today’s multi-generational workplace is the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation).


Developed by psychologist Will Schutz, the FIRO-B framework evolved at the American Naval Research Laboratory. (Schutz’s colleagues included Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, and he eventually worked at Esalen and wrote several books on group dynamics.) Selected by the Navy for his research reputation in group dynamics, Schutz was asked to model how teams would perform in combat.

Though I hope your workplace isn’t a war-zone, FIRO-B (FIRO rhymes with Cairo) offers teams a way to explore motivations, conflict, and mixed messages. “It also reveals ways of improving relationships by showing individuals how they are seen by others, and how this external view may differ from how they see themselves.”  Because it emphasizes group dynamics, and differing needs, it offers the inter-generational workplace “an efficient way to encourage self knowledge and improved team-work.”

The FIRO-B assumes that behavior arises from an individual’s differing levels of need for involvement, influence, and connection, which then play out—often messily—in groups.

The latest version of FIRO-B emphasizes B for “business” (the original “B” stood for “behavior”).  It measures preferences within two modes: “expressed” behavior (i.e., when you initiate action) and “wanted” behavior (i.e., when others initiate action) for your needs for involvement, influence, and connection.

“expressed” behavior (i.e., when you initiate action)    “wanted” behavior (i.e., when others initiate action)

“expressed” behavior (i.e., when you initiate action)

“wanted” behavior (i.e., when others initiate action)

Expressed Behavior

  • How much do you prefer to initiate the behavior?

  • How do you actually behave with respect to the 3 fundamental interpersonal needs?

  • What is your comfort level engaging in the behaviors associated with the 3 needs?

Wanted Behavior

  • How much do you prefer others to initiate the behavior?

  • How much do you want to be on the receiving end of those behaviors?

  • What is your comfort level when others direct their behaviors associated with the 3 needs to you?

What motivates our behavior regarding how much interaction we want with others? It can get a little confusing. The video below shows how knowing about intrapersonal needs can give us a better sense of why we avoid—or seek out—certain situations, and how we come across to others. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation™ (FIRO®) instruments help people understand their interpersonal needs and how those needs influence their communication style and behavior-and in the process improve their personal relationships and professional performance. These tools have helped individuals, teams, and organizations around the world grow and succeed by serving as a catalyst for positive behavioral change.

I like the FIRO-B because it addresses the need for “inclusion” (involvement) and “control” (influence) directly, and thus helps answer what kind of work cultures you’ll function well in—and in which you won’t.

When you take the assessment, you may be surprised at your different numerical ratings for the three needs on the “wanted” and “expressed” grid. For instance, who wants to be called a “control freak? But, those who claim Janet Jackson’s “Control” as their anthem are plentiful in the workplace. But when you move beyond the basics, things get more interesting.

You may score high on how much control you want when you initiate a project, for instance, and low when someone else initiates a project. The devil’s in the details. Learning the difference between what you can control, and what you can’t—and when it matters and when it doesn’t—is a must, not just in your personal life, but in the workplace.

Control and Inclusion: Boomers/Gen X vs Millennials

Think about the generational lists above. Sure, they’re generalizations. But different generations, in aggregate, do tend to have different values, overall.  Nobody confuses hippies, yuppies, or techies. Differing degrees of how much we express vs. want control and inclusion significantly affect interactions in the multi-generational workplace.

What kind of needs for control go along with "do not micro-manage" (Millennials). How about independent Gen X-ers? What kind of control do you think they exert (vs. what amounts of control do they want exerted over them)? Personal and generational preferences can combine bewilderingly.

When Boomers or Gen X-ers manage Millennials, for instance, a frequent complaint is how entitled they seem, or that they pick friends (connection) over work. At the other end of the continuum, Millennials managed by more experienced staff often bemoan hierarchies, and overly-directive styles, especially if they’ve not been privy to decision-making. “Why didn’t he ask me for my opinion before organizing that project?” a Millennial team-member mutters about his Boomer boss. “I probably know more about it than he does. Why am I never in the loop?”

It may help older managers to remember that Millennials grew up being included in family decision-making. The parenting style in fashion as they came of age (in the US, at least) meant their input was solicited during family interactions. In fact, the Millennial default setting is participation and involvement, so a more distant, formal management style may feel disrespectful of their skills and preferences.

Those with differing preferences within each generation for both expressed and wanted behavior would do well to assess themselves and then explore the differing needs for inclusion/influence and control/involvement in their direct reports, team-mates, and bosses.

Are You in the Right Place?

Let’s imagine inclusion/involvement and control/influence on a continuum.

At a large company, launching even a small project usually entails consulting one’s boss. An engineer who wants to initiate a small new feature probably has to sell a product manager internally before presenting it to her engineering peers. For a larger project, the buy-in list may include a boss, that boss’s boss, HR, other teams, etc.

Fed up with work? Analyze why it is frustrating...

Fed up with work? Analyze why it is frustrating...

This can be frustrating for someone who needs a lot of control and has few needs for inclusion. She may be better off as, say, a consultant working from a home office, since she’d be able to control what type of work she accepts, and structure her own work-day and tasks.

Conversely, someone with low control needs but very high inclusion needs might thrive at a large company where he may not have too much say over how projects are initiated and completed, but would enjoy a high level of participation via near-constant team interaction.

If you like a lot of control, ideally you’re in an environment with lots of processes. Someone who feels control is “inflicted” on them might instead thrive in the “chaos” of a start-up, where you’re launching product according to what customers need every month (vs. what engineering needs).


If you’re a manager using FIRO-B to coach your team, try asking questions like these:

  1. Where are areas in your work where a high “wanted” control number reflects the work-place reality? How about a low “wanted” control number?

  2. How about areas where your “expressed” control number is useful? Give an example of someone on your team.

  3. What’s an example of your “wanted” level of inclusion? (i.e., Do you want to be asked to come to lunch?) What about project inclusion?

  4. Who has the highest” expressed” inclusion numbers in the room? Why? Is it true? What are examples of “expressed” inclusion?

“Do Unto Others”... Sometimes

As we develop ourselves and help others develop as leaders, keep reflecting on how generational values affects individual character. Don’t over-generalize, but realize that the common zeitgeist can heavily influence the assumptions and expectations of people who came of age within a generation.

FIRO-B can encourage team-members to discover their own preferences and behaviors, and those of their colleagues, especially when they’re not necessarily intuitive. Realize that how people act toward others is not necessarily what they want reflected back to them. Never assume, and always discuss (which is a good strategy for life beyond work, as well.) Clarifying how best team-members best get their needs met isn’t just good for them, it reduces troublesome dynamics, and enables discernment about the right fit for the individual, the group, and the organization.

It turns out that “do unto others” isn’t always applicable, but “know thyself” is.


How to Save Your Next Engineering Project Before You Start It

No, not  that  bart

No, not that bart

How are your interactions at work? Chaotic and conflict-filled? Tediously unproductive? The BART system offers an analytical tool to solve stalled interactions—and clarify all sorts of organizational snafus. (And just to get it out of the way up front, no, we’re not talking trains.)

BART parses some of the arcane organizational dynamics lurking in the workplace. Even a bit of background on Boundaries, Authority, Roles, and Tasks will help you loosen log-jams during team encounters.  Knowing what lurks below allows you to cut through the confusion—and decipher what’s really going on within your group’s hive-mind.  

Boundary Skirmishes

Let’s first take a look at the idea of boundaries. Bad boundaries are the stuff of pop-culture memes, but the ramifications at work are invariably less amusing. Zachary Gabriel Green and Rene J. Molencamp’s BART theory says work boundaries comprise time, territory, and task. These translate roughly into “when, “ “where,” and “what?”


Time is easy to grasp. “In everyday life we have deadlines, due dates, and departure times and the like to which we must adhere. Failure to attend to these time boundaries carries consequences, depending on the rigidity of the boundary.” A plane or train leaves when it leaves; if you miss that time boundary, you don’t travel. Consequences can range from very minor (annoyance at having to wait for the next one) to catastrophic: you’re fired for missing a presentation you were supposed to deliver. Less dramatic but more ubiquitous: do meetings start and end on time?



Also straightforward is the territory aspect of boundaries (which animals-with-no-boundaries illustrate so nicely on the interwebs). Most political skirmishes include the high-stakes version of territorial boundary disputes; the Middle East is an obvious example. A common work version? Some of your team-members are in Bangalore; some are in Mountain View. How do you coordinate ... sans duplication and inconvenience?



Undefined Task boundaries cause confusion and delays. Does your group claim a particular project, or is it the other group’s? Everyone has been in a work-related “turf war” (whether as instigator, cannon fodder, or hostage). In groups with bad boundaries, territory and task issues combine with frustrating results. For example, does everyone do releases or is there a release engineer? If everyone does releases, whose task is it to ensure the release doesn't break?


Formal and Informal Authority and Roles

Getting “meta” with authority and roles is where big pay-offs are possible. Within the BART system, formal and informal (or explicit and implicit) versions of authority and roles always exist. So, solving organizational conflicts is often a matter of teasing out the tensions between the two levels.

Ever met a program manager or engineer who everyone on the team listens to ... though they’re not the designated lead? If a team doesn’t authorize the designated leader to lead, the leader—and, thus, the team—will be ineffective. Even if the organization has delegated formal authority by, say, bestowing a title, teams often make bottom-up decisions to follow someone whose vision they trust. That’s how informal authority usurps formal authority every time: trust always trumps a title. Despite workers believing that managers have all the power, it’s actually a two-way street, because a rogue team can negate all a manager’s efforts. Cultivating informal leaders—and their influence—is one way to acknowledge workplace realpolitik.

Consider all the different roles that comprise a well-functioning team. Explicit roles are engineer, QA tester, and product or program manager. But informal roles are where organizational dynamics are powerfully at play. What if your program manager (explicit role) doesn't take up the task master role (implicit)? Or what if your tech lead is so busy writing code she isn't directing the team? Class clowns grow into comedians at work, defusing tensions via a sort of court jester loophole. Who’s the social coordinator? Who’s the unofficial “jerk” or “devil’s advocate” (where ideas go to die)? (Maybe you’re the informal leader?)

(People get stuck in unofficial roles, too. Does the “giving” type at your office always end up with grungy clean-up tasks or with serving as morale-booster? How long before that person burns out, if their unofficial role is draining—as well as unacknowledged?)


Official tasks are pretty much what you’d expect: write code, test code, launch products, etc. If you’re schooled in organizational dynamics, you’ll see plenty of unofficial tasks, too. Temporary groups, convened for a finite purpose or task, are sometimes subject to a counter-intuitive dynamic: survival!

The team wants to survive as a team, the start-up wants to survive as a start-up. Group-members start thinking (subconsciously), “I’m important because I’m in this group ... so I’d better ensure the group persists.” They become preoccupied with the group’s longevity and health (so their important role as group-member will persist), rather than with whatever putative task they’re supposed to accomplish. When this task takes over, unintended consequences arise ... such as the engineer who polishes the same section of code over and over, instead of moving on. Once you know the concept of unofficial tasks, they’re a lot easier to spot.

Dysfunctional Dynamics: A Case Study

Watching for unofficial roles (vs. going by titles) can help you parse  puzzling dynamics.

Watching for unofficial roles (vs. going by titles) can help you parse  puzzling dynamics.

SCENARIO.  Let’s see how this plays out via an IRL example. A senior leader in a large tech company convened a team, thus formally authorizing those selected to participate in the project. The group members were peers (they all reported to this senior leader) as well as experienced managers (they each individually managed their own organizations)  but they didn’t understand how to function in a group that needed consensus. They were used to top-down deciding and directing not collaborating as peers. (Do you see how authority might be an issue here?)

The group’s task was to set next year’s annual goals, meaning they would make decisions on behalf of the senior leader’s overall constituency—which included their own individual orgs. But this group didn’t formally take up the authority they had been given to stay on-task. Some angled for power. Others showed up to meetings but in between those meetings didn’t execute the actions they’d agreed upon.

Step back from group conflict to note unofficial roles .

Step back from group conflict to note unofficial roles .

Disagreements arose at several phases, and unofficial roles evolved quickly. One person became the nay-sayer, shooting down every idea. Another tried to grab the crown: I’ll do everything, just let me have it! The group specifically de-authorized the program manager by not taking up his agendas and talking about him behind his back. Another leader became a rationalizer (unofficial role) for the status quo, defending existing decisions and thwarting any evolving visions. The senior leader himself hovered electronically, fretting that the group wasn’t taking more initiative—while group members jockeyed for his approval, rather than getting on with their task.

SOLUTION. Once you activate your “double-vision”—the ability to view both levels of role simultaneously— you can diagnose problems early. An immediate scope question should have been, Let’s define the group’s real task. Yes, we need to develop and disseminate the division’s new annual goals.  But where were the task’s exact boundaries? Did that mean “just” creating the goals? (Strategy.) Did it include how to get there? (Tactics.) Should they assign specific tasks and responsibilities—back within their own organizations? (Implementation/Management.)

Once the group said “this—and only this—is our task” things fell into place. One person finally said, “I’m going to be the leader!” Everyone agreed (thus authorizing him informally.) And the group quashed the person who kept saying, “But to accomplish this, we first have to decide A, B, and C.” (No, the group’s task was solely the goals.) They also needed someone to say “we’re going off-task” and herd them back toward productivity: another unofficial but vital role.

Cat-herder is one of the most important unofficial roles on a team.

Cat-herder is one of the most important unofficial roles on a team.


A BART Checklist—Refactor or Better API?

When you see a group unable to accomplish what it has set out to do (i.e., get results!), or people on a team being scapegoated or even being pushed out, step back for a moment. Do you need to refactor? Or do you need to better define the API for the team? Use BART to analyze what’s going on below the surface at workthe unexamined scenarios that control more of our work-life than we recognize.

Here’s a quick checklist to help you begin to analyze problematic dynamics.

  1. Boundaries

    1. Does the team have a deadline it is trying to meet? How does the team respect meeting boundaries?

    2. Are there boundaries that get in the way?

    3. Is the task truly clear? (Can each team-member define its boundaries?)

  2. Authority

    1. Who are the named / official leaders on the team?

    2. Has the team authorized the leadership of tech lead, program manager, or manager? Is there an unofficial leader that people seem to be following?

    3. Is there a discrepancy between the official and unofficial leader?

  3. Roles

    1. What are the official roles on the team?

    2. What unofficial roles do you notice? (Class clown, slacker, nay-sayer, pollyanna, social coordinator ... )

    3. How do unofficial roles interrupt productivity?

  4. Task

    1. What is the explicit task of the group?

    2. What are some implicit tasks?  (i.e. in prior EQ article, can you spot the team who had an implicit task of protect its bad leader?)

    3. Are team-members more concerned with staying on-task ... or perpetuating the group itself (survival)?

After you’ve done the analysis, what’s next? How can you point issues out?

More on this later (in another post), but a quick model for giving feedback is “SBI.”

Situation — What did you observe? (stick to the facts)

Behavior — What was the behavior you saw?

Impact — What was the impact? (on you)

For example, I want to talk to the Tech Lead about being late to our team meetings. I say, “At our last meeting, you showed up 15 minutes late, and the impact was that the team and I weren’t able to really get started without you.” This touches on time boundaries and that the team doesn’t feel authorized to work without the tech lead ((1a and b, respectively, in the above checklist). This can be a lead-in to tell the TL about his impact and also a way to kick off a discussion about how to fix problems.

If you start using BART or SBI to analyze your workplace dynamics, let us know how it goes. Capriole Consulting collects real-life anecdotes to use in our coaching of technical leaders.

Engineering Leaders: Don’t Sabotage Your Own Team

We’ve all worked with that super-smart colleague or manager who makes our life miserable. The clueless co-worker is a trusty cultural meme — from Dilbert to myriad sit-coms to the avalanche of “self-help” books guaranteed to help us survive the crazy in the next cubicle — showing again and again what we know intuitively: smart doesn’t necessarily mean successful. In fact, EQ rather than IQ predicts success at work.

Yes, I Used the ‘E’ Word

The idea of Emotional Intelligence has been around for a generation. (I know… I said the ‘E’ word, but hear me out.) Popularized by Daniel Goleman, EQ (emotional quotient) is now acknowledged to usefully gauge qualities that have proven more reliable than IQ to correlate to success. A high EQ means you combine self-awareness and social awareness to interact successfully with others, by staying aware of your — and their — emotions and motives, and managing your behavior and relationships accordingly.

Especially in environments where traditional high IQ is a given, such as engineering teams, EQ is the differentiator among average, successful, and stellar performers. TalentSmart, for example, tested EQ “alongside 33 other important workplace skills, and found that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance, explaining a full 58% of success in all types of jobs.”

Engineers Don’t Need No Stinking EQ

To those protesting that “hard” skills are everything, here’s a reminder from a post titled, “The Emotionally Brilliant Engineer”: “Technical skills are definitely critical … [but] … engineers have to work with others. They have to pitch ideas and defend them. They have to work with people outside their field. Communication is absolutely critical for engineers. Having a strong ability to read the emotions of others and being aware of your own emotions is key to your success.”

But what if your engineering team leader (um, you?) is an emotional dullard? The good news is that EQ — unlike IQ — can be changed. Learning how to raise your EQ pays off personally (people with high EQ average almost $30K more per year than their non-high-EQ peers). It also helps with what Google says is the #1 key to a successful team: psychological safety.

After over 12 years as an engineering manager, and now specializing in coaching and mentoring, I offer my peers a caveat: don’t let your own low EQ damage your team’s psychological safety — and hence success. If you can’t self-regulate your response to your emotions well, you compromise your ability to stay aware of those emotions. This affects your flexibility in re-directing your behavior. And that puts not just you but your whole team at risk.

Low-EQ leaders who derail what might have very successful outcomes? I’ve seen it countless times. One colleague described a manager of another team as an “alcoholic father.” Everyone in the team covered for the manager, ensuring he looked good: they said things were good and that they liked working for him. But the observation from the outside? The manager was abusive not only to his staff but to his peers. Only after folks stopped working for him on that team did they notice how much less stressful life was.

I’ve also witnessed engineering leaders so brutal that folks quit approaching them for feedback. The engineers I know tend to see things in black and white. If transparency and feedback are the espoused value of the organization, so their reasoning goes, isn’t brutal honesty the most efficient tool? No, because even frank feedback must be delivered in a way the receiver can absorb. If brutal honesty triggers arguments, with feedback recipients defending their solutions because they feel attacked, everyone loses. The leader’s sub-par EQ tanks the engineer’s benefiting from the feedback — and solutions to the actual project at hand are lost.

If you don’t know yourself  — foibles, prejudices, triggers and all (as well as how you come across to the different personalities around you) — how can you manage your own behavior to ensure not only competent but inspiring leadership? You can’t. So raising your own EQ and ensuring psychological safety for your team go hand in hand.

Raise Your Own EQ

To get started, I suggest an EQ assessment by Hay Group, MHS, or TalentSmart. An EQ assessment scores your different EQ factors so you know where to start shoring up. It helps you work on your self-awareness to ensure you realize what’s happening while it happens. Do you get overly competitive when people on your team ask you questions? When you get competitive, or are challenged, can you self-regulate? Or do you start lashing out?

Do you have enough empathy or social awareness to understand the impact of your behavior? Perhaps you do, but how do you know? You depend on other people to tell you. And that doesn’t normally happen in the moment — it happens as feedback … later. But when I get vague feedback months later (e.g., “be more collaborative”), I have no idea when, where, and with which people. Just like a good parent or dog trainer, leaders must offer feedback at the right moment, and it must be specific and actionable. If someone knew I was working on self-regulation, for instance, that person could say right after a meeting, “Hey, you took over in that meeting, and I saw people shutting down. Did you notice?”

Learning how to receive feedback is vital to developing your EQ. In the book, Thanks for the Feedback, the authors Stone and Heen show that feedback receivers are often in the wrong state of mind. But if they can get put themselves into the correct emotional state to receive the feedback as it’s intended, they can actually learn and change.

Once you start increasing your own EQ, and inculcating the practice among the teams you lead, you’re on the path to enabling a psychologically safe team.

Ensuring A Psychologically Safe Team

Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, says, “Psychological safety promotes the attitudes, skills, and behaviors needed to team.” Without it, we “rob ourselves of small moments of learning — and we don’t innovate.”

Edmondson, whose landmark book, Teaming, solidified the importance of teams in the annals of organizational behavior, defines safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up when there are ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

In her TED talk, “How to Build Psychological Safety,” she notes that we’re often held hostage by “impression management” or the need to appear in certain ways in front of others.

In fact, we mis-equate how to look good with behavior that’s lethal to creative problem-solving — all in an effort to avoid shame and other negative consequences. That is, to avoid the characteristic below on the left, we often adopt the attitude on the right:

  • Ignorant = Don’t ask questions
  • Incompetent = Don’t admit weakness or mistakes
  • Intrusive = Don’t offer ideas
  • Negative = Don’t critique the status quo

Understandably, most of us don’t want to seem ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. But what exactly does that mean for our behavior in teams? Unfortunately, trying always to look smart, competent, inconspicuous, and positive means we forego behavior that’s vital to healthy team-work.

Obviously, few teams can survive, much less thrive, without the fruits of these “risky” behaviors: questions, mistakes, and ideas should be par for the course in just about any human endeavor, much less high-performing engineering teams. And of course “don’t question the status quo” transmogrifies into “don’t innovate!”

Edmondson notes three simple ways to build psychological safety:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. (This creates a rationale for speaking up.)
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. (“I may miss something so I need to hear from you.”)
  3. Model curiosity. (Ask a lot of questions.)

How This Works in the Real World: High-EQ Leaders Enable Innovative Teams

From my own experience, here’s how EQ and psychological safety work together:

I still work on noticing when I get quiet and tune out of conversations — with the goal of self-managing my response to conflict. I figured out my forehead tingles when I’m zoning out in a certain way. When people argue with each other and it isn’t going anywhere, or it’s about to get really loud, my heart rate goes up a bit, too. As I became aware of it, I could manage it.

Now, I ask myself, “What’s going on here?” or an even more touchy–feely question: “How do I feel right now?” Instead of leaping in to protect the engineer who’s being ‘picked on’ by the ‘big bad other engineer,’ I usually ask a question of the group. There are usually sighs of relief — sometimes even from the engineer inciting the conflict! Oh, yeah! We were lost in some weird conversational loop that wasn’t actually that important.

Noticing the data around you — especially when that data has to do with your body and your instinctive responses  — lets you figure out and practice self-regulation. Managing your own reactions ensures your team stays safe enough to ask questions and challenge the status quo. That’s the springboard for your team to truly innovate.

Originally published on

Disclosure: at the time of this writing, I am a Google employee; however this article represents only my own views as principal of Capriole Consulting. Nothing above should be construed as being indicative of Google’s organizational philosophy or practices.