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Posted on: Saturday, 16 January 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Jack has been going around in circles. He is asking me about how I designed that logger in a project that I worked on two years ago. His team is working on a logger and he seems to need some advice. The programmer in me is alive, jumping at the whiteboard and drawing lines with wild vigor explaining the design that was used a couple of years ago and did wonders for us. After listening for sometime Jack breaks the news.

The design I am explaining on the whiteboard is pretty similar to what Jack already had in mind.

But then, there seems to be a problem.

His manager, is going a different route. An approach that Jack knows will not work. Things are bad. The team has already started working using the manager's approach. Jack, is not seeking the programmer in me for help, he is seeking the bullshit buster in me to chime in and talk to his manager. Jack is seeking my help to stop the entire team from moving in the wrong direction.

What started as a discussion around angular brackets of XML has turned into a discussion of confronting the issue and saying 'no' to things that you do not agree to.

My advice to Jack is simple. Instead of talking to his manager, I gently nudge Jack to have that conversation. I nudge Jack to tell his manager that his manager's decision is not correct.

The advice is supposed to have to good effects.

First thing it is supposed to do is help Jack develop a stronger spine and become an individual who is not just capable of having an opinion but standing by it too.

The other really important thing that the advice is supposed to do, is to help Jack's manager from, as Michael Lopp, in his book, Managing Humans, would say, 'Losing it'.  Michael  uses his book to explain:

Losing It.

Managers don’t lose it simply because the pixies showed up with the top hat, they lose it because those they work with forget to look at the back of the hat.

Remember:
Front: I'm the boss.
Back: ... For now.

Management is a myth, just like the top hat. We, as employees, believe it’s there, so we treat these management types differently. We operate under the assumption that they are the ones who can make decisions.

When the team is stuck on a hard problem, we gather in our manager’s office, present our case, and then the manager nods and says, “Go that way!” More often than not, we’re so happy to be past the hard problem, we don’t even question whether it’s the right decision or not. “He’s got the top hat, so he must be right!”

No no no no. Also? No.

Managers lose it when they are no longer questioned in their decisions. When the team stops questioning authority, the manager slowly starts to believe that his decisions are always good, and while it feels great to be right all the time, it’s statistically impossible.

The most experienced managers in the world make horribly bad decisions all the time. The good ones have learned how to recover from their decisions with dignity, but more importantly, with
help from the team.

Saying no forces an idea to defend itself with facts. It forces a manager under the influence of his top hat to stop and think. Yes, I know that top hat can be intimidating, and yeah, he’s the guy who signs the checks, but each time you allow your manager to charge forward with unchecked blind enthusiasm, you only reinforce his perception that he’s never wrong. That’s a ticket straight to Crazy Town.

If you are a young and budding engineer reading this and if there is one advice I can give you today, it is that you develop a strong spine to constantly ask - why -  and question authority. Even if that means questioning decisions your manager might be taking.

If you believe your manager is taking a wrong decision, go take him for a cup of coffee and ask him to explain his rationale behind his decision.

If his explanations do not make sense, have the spine to say 'no'.

I wrap this post up, dear reader, with an answer to the question Jack asks me when I give him the advice of directly talking to his manager instead of routing it through me. 'What if he feels bad about me questioning him?' - Jack asks.

My answer to the question, dear reader, is a rather simple and direct response- 'That is his problem, not yours'.

What I want you to do dear reader, is look around you. Do you see something wrong? Something that you are doing just because someone higher up in the pecking order or your manager asked you to do it and doing it does not make any sense to you?

Maybe it is time to question authority - not just for your own sake but even for the sake of helping your manager from 'losing it'.

Now give up your mitigated speech and go have that direct discussion that you were so scared to have. Go and gently remind your manager that you think he is taking a wrong decision, and do not stop nudging him gently till either you are convinced he is right or till he changes his decision.

I wish you good luck.