Unintended messaging

Meme Image of tired Ed Norton from Fightclub
Taking business advice from Fight Club? It was a good movie but…

A Chief Growth Office recently tweeted a meme implying that if a programmer was not tired, they were not doing it right - that somehow to be a real programmer you had to skew your work life balance so far you end up looking like a zombie. The Internet unleashed a range of comments addressing how wrong this comment was from a number of different angles. The comments did not address the fact the tweet was made from a place of influence and power. People underestimate the effect this can have on the recipient.

In the United States banking institutions have a bad rap for being open only a portion of the day. This has gotten better over the years, but the image remains. To illustrate, let’s pretend you roll into the office in a few minutes late in the morning from time to time. You get this comment “Hey, working bankers hours eh?”.

Picture your reaction if that comment comes from the guy at the desk next to you. Chances are you blow it off pretty quick. Now picture your CIO making the same quip. Even if both started with a smile and followed by a good natured laugh they will affect you differently. You probably don’t care if your neighbor is busting your chops, but if the CIO is doing it you are making a mental note that he is a stickler for being on time, or that she is keeping an eye on you.

Back to this ill advised tweet - the comment was hopefully made in jest, and most people scoffed and moved on - no harm to others done. However, there are two vulnerable segments of the this persons following that took some damage.

First, those that work at this company can, even subconsciously, take it as a sign leadership expects them to burn themselves out. That in their eyes, if you do not look like one of the walking dead you are not a real programmer. If you are not a real programmer, what chance for advancement do you have?

Second, those that follow this person as the voice of the industry or a leader in their field, see this as advice from the top. Aspiring to work in this area? Prepare for long hours and perpetually being overworked. Want to work at our company? Here is how we view programming.

These may not even register on the conscious level, but if messages like this are being sent publicly to a large Twitter following, the day to day messages may not be much better.

Everyone of us is guilty of making this mistake - it is remarkably easy to do. It is not enough to say “I need to be more careful” because we are walking streams of consciousness - when we talk our words have very little conscious oversight. Our best approach is to form habits and build systems that will prevent poor messaging.

“Not I!” you say? How about this - A very common, and very innocuous, bad message is contacting your employees outside of work hours either by voice, text message, or email. On one level you are (unintentionally) sending the message that you expect after hours availability from your employees. On another level you are giving the impression that if they seek advancement, they need to be putting in long hours. Both may actually be true in certain organizations, but in almost all cases the message is unintentional.

A system to address this could be a short checklist you review before reaching out to someone: (1) Do I need it right now? (2) Can I get it without bothering anyone? If you decide it can wait and you choose to email instead, set the delivery for the next morning.

If you are inclined, at the end of each of the next three days think about the small communications you had with people. Look for patterns in your behavior that need adjusting. What were the unintended messages that could be implied? Can you build systems or habits that prevent that behavior?

Composed on December 10, 2017

Bill is a voracious learner who believes every process or methodology has something worth stealing. Over three decades of IT experience, and his own Fortune 100 development department, provide the confidence to experiment and push the boundaries of how we think about development, developers, and methodologies. The mantra is to improve even a little every day, but have the five year vision in mind. Learn more about Bill by clicking here.

Unintended messaging - December 10, 2017 - William B. Chmura