This article is part of our Stories of Tech Leadership series where we explore challenges, thoughts, and struggles of courageous leaders in technology.

People are complex, irrational, adaptive systems

People are complex, irrational, adaptive systems

Hal Taylor

Head of Technology, Digital Publishing @ Tamedia

When I first started at my previous job, I took over management of a number of software engineers. One of the first things I heard was “We have this one guy that you’ll have to manage out”. People thought this engineer, let’s call him Alex, wasn’t working out and no one believed that he’d have a future in the company.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, I first wanted to investigate the situation myself, to get a deeper understanding of what was going on. There was a negative perception of Alex in the organization and a lack of trust for him. I started meeting with Alex to explore his perspective on things. He was clearly smart and ambitious - he wanted to change the world - and he was very confident in his own perceptions and abilities, generally assuming that if the world didn’t agree with him, he was right, and the world must be wrong. His fundamental outlook was extremely binary and he lacked an understanding of nuances or grey areas - the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in many real-world scenarios. Even in technology, Alex was pretty black and white and tended to believe that there was one right way to do things.

So I could see that there was a problem here. But it was also clear that Alex believed he was right, and didn’t see the issue that other people saw with him. I couldn’t just walk in and say “you have a problem and we’re going to fix it”, especially as I was both “the new guy”, and even worse, a “manager.” I had not yet built up a trust relationship, and Alex’s natural engineering skepticism was an immune system that would fight off my input like invading pathogens. But we would clearly not make any progress, unless Alex recognized the problem himself.

So my first objective was to earn his trust - I did that by asking questions and listening. I knew that I had to genuinely try to find a good outcome for Alex and be consistent in showing that I had a sincere interest in doing what was right for him. It took a while, but my consistency paid off, and he ultimately began to see that I was on his side. This was the beginning of trust.

My next step was to get him to understand that there actually was a problem. Thoughtful and experienced engineers will know that there are generally multiple approaches on how to solve any problem, each with its own trade offs and compromises - sometimes, I can use this to help them acknowledge different perspectives. Alex wasn’t really at that point even in his thinking about technology, so I couldn’t use this as a metaphor for organizational dynamics.

There’s an axiom that “sometimes, perception is reality” - in the end, there isn’t any single, objective “right” and even if there were, it wouldn’t really matter. If you look at this pragmatically, if someone thinks what you’re doing isn’t working, trying to ascribe correctness to one side or the other simply will not lead to an effective solution. The only useful response is to figure out what’s not working and how to get it to work better. I tried to explain that to Alex, but he initially completely rejected the entire premise.

I used 360° feedback as a concrete indicator of where he stood. I was lucky in that the organization had an open culture, where people were willing to provide honest and direct feedback. Processing the feedback isn’t always easy. There’s a model called SARAH that describes it - from the initial shock, through anger, rejection, acceptance and then finally willingness to address the issue. We worked through all those stages together.

After giving things time to soak in, I reminded Alex that in modern software organizations, you can’t get very far as a lone cowboy. The code base, the objectives, and the complexity all reach a certain scale where you just have to work with other people to accomplish anything. And that means caring about how you’re perceived.

Working with software is pretty straight forward - the software does what you tell it to do, and as long as you’re adequately precise, it will do that exactly, it will do it repeatedly, it won’t ask why, it won’t argue with you, and it won’t have a bad day. People, on the other hand, are complex, irrational, adaptive systems and require a different approach. And in order to expand your contribution and grow, you need to learn how to be effective within this messy, complex, adaptive system of interpersonal social dynamics.

I had to help Alex see that, in the end, it didn’t matter who was right - this poor perception was ultimately limiting how much responsibility people were willing to give him, and thus limiting his opportunities. It took him a while to come to terms with this. I patiently coached him, stayed with him and held my commitment that I’m there to look for his success. He was eventually able to parse and process the feedback constructively.

My father, a psychologist, has always said that recognizing the problem is half of the solution. Once we had gotten to the point where Alex was willing to recognize and accept there was an issue, he could start to apply his problem-solving skills to this different kind of domain of interpersonal relations.

I also worked in the background to coach some of Alex’ colleagues to be prepared to revisit their assumptions and judgements. I explained that Alex was making a conscious effort to improve his collaboration, essentially priming the environment to be receptive. I was able to do that because of the trust-based relationships relationships that I had been building up with other people, in parallel.

Over time, with the increased self-awareness and conscious focus, Alex was able to rebuild his relationships and improve collaboration to the point that allowed his core technical skills, which were quite strong, to speak for themselves. People who previously wanted to see him exit the company started to trust him more, and give him more opportunities to shine. Ultimately, Alex was offered a team lead role in which he did well. This was a full 180 degrees from the initial “We have to manage him out”. I was proud to have had the opportunity to help a smart and motivated technologist take his next steps in self-development, and succeed against the odds. He has gone on to achieve bigger, more influential roles since, and continues to both succeed and grow.

Sometimes you have those talented people who have initiative and want to change the world, but they seem stubborn, unpleasant, or perhaps arrogant. Sometimes all they need is some help to learn how to be effective within the messy, complex system that working with other people always is.

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