I was trying to pin down a meeting time with someone to finally knock out an upcoming deliverable. We were both busy and didn’t seem to have much overlap in availability. Their response was “lets just play it by ear.” Not exactly the most helpful response.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing many times over. Upon reflection, I think there are a variety of different reasons why I, and perhaps others, take this stance.
Sometimes the real reason is that we don’t actually want to participate. Our intention is to delay to the point where there isn’t enough time remaining and the project becomes so low-priority that it goes away for good.
Sometimes we opt for this go-with-the-flow response because we’re being lazy. We don’t want to take the time to re-prioritize our tasks and deliverables in ways that allow us to make a logical decision.
And finally, sometimes we play it by ear because there are variables, inputs, or contextual circumstances that might dictate the ability to bring closure to the initiative. This final reason is the only one that is reasonable.
It’s important to get to the bottom of why one wants to “play it by ear.” If circumstantial ambiguity is the cause, that’s fine. But if it’s any other reason, then you are ignoring bigger, underlying issues.
While grabbing a cup of coffee with a mentor, his wife of 50+ years called. He rolled his eyes a few times. A snarky “yes dear” was dropped more than once.
I was engaged to my now wife at the time. When he hung up he asked, “You’re engaged right? Want to know the secret to making it work?” Of course I did.
He went on to explain that there are three characteristics of compatibility.
The first is traits - the way we tend to behave and react, like introversion-extroversion. He explained that those don’t really matter. Every couple will be similar in some ways and different on others, which will inevitably be annoying. “Just deal with it,” he said.
The second is interests - the things we’re interested in that help us enjoy our time on earth. He said these also don’t matter. Hobbies come and go, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they don’t. Work at finding some common hobbies, but don’t let that determine who you choose as a partner.
The third is values - the things that are important to us and define us. These are the only things that really matter. They don’t change much over time and they are the source of all of our decisions, the big and the small, whether we realize it or not.
I think this advice has implications for all of our relationships, including those at work. Everyone is different on traits and interests. Those shouldn’t mean much.
Learn to work around personality differences and celebrate our diverse hobbies. Start connecting with people on things that are meaningful, like values, so that we always have a source of compatibility.
When we picture a team, we typically think of a handful of people working together on a project or our entire department.
Conceptually speaking, yes, these are our teams. But when it comes to improving our team processes this conceptualization is unhelpful.
How many times does your entire team actually sit down together to work on something? Smaller teams might do weekly check-ins, but most departments rarely meet more than monthly or quarterly. These one-hour team sessions don’t define the quality of the team interaction.
Although we typically visualize our team as a large group sitting at a massive conference table (or on a zoom call), this isn’t how work gets done.
Teams are a collection of smaller, dyadic interactions that take place from moment-to-moment. The vast majority of our emails, slack messages, phone calls, and meetings involve two people. It is in these moments were high-quality teams are created.
So if you’re interested in team building, don’t start at the team-level, that’s too abstract. Instead, focus on helping each team member engage in better dyadic interactions.
Before the COVID pandemic, I agreed to participate in a specific project. As things settled, it was time to reevaluate the initiative.
Everyone’s schedules and priorities had changed. For some, the project became more important, but for me, it remained a relatively low priority initiative. I was asked if I’d be interested in taking on a more prominent role. Much to their disappointment, I declined.
I felt bad, but it was also the right thing to do. The change in circumstances was not my fault. I had made it clear upfront what role I was willing to play.
As a people-pleaser, in a prior life, I would have taken on the additional work, resented the project and the relationships, and would have been forced to downgrade the importance of alternative commitments.
It’s okay to say no. And although it doesn’t make it any easier, being polite, honest, and transparent can help maintain the relationship.
How many times have you heard someone say, “let’s set a deadline for this?”
Deadlines are useful. They ensure that everyone involved knows the drop-dead date when the deliverable must be ready to ship. All involved can then plan and sequence tasks to ensure they hit the deadline.
The problem, however, is when the people we work with are unrealistic about their ability to hit deadlines. One of my biggest pet peeves is staying up late or rearranging my calendar to deliver, only to receive a last-minute email from someone stating that they need an extension.
Just because others “work better with a deadline” doesn’t mean you need to accommodate. Instead of sacrificing your own priorities, sometimes it’s better to make others deliver first before you take action.
The goal of appointment scheduling software - Acuity, Calendy, HubSpot, etc. - is a noble one. No more back-and-forth emails trying to pin down a meeting time.
I love it when people let me see their availability and pick the day and time that works best for me. But I rarely use this software for my own meeting invitations.
If time is money, then pinning down a meeting time is a negotiation. If someone lets me pick my ideal time, I win, because I get to pick the time that perfectly aligns with my productivity cadence.
I have a few standing meetings that appear every week or two. My goal is to only schedule ad-hoc meetings that are immediately before or after those regularly scheduled meetings. In effect, what I’m creating is a window of time where I’m in “talking mode” over the course of several meetings.
Having random meetings across the day is distracting, it leads to energy depletion, and it makes it harder to get into a state of flow. I take this to the extreme and try and create talking days for teaching and meetings, and non-talking days for deep thinking tasks like writing and analyzing data.
Scheduling software is amazing, but to my knowledge, none of them are smart enough to accommodate the level of customization necessary to ensure that my days are scheduled the way I want them to be scheduled.
I’m fine with a few back-and-forth emails. The cost of those few minutes pails in comparison to the cost of distractions.
The advice, “be authentic,” is widespread. In particular, there is a wide body of research illustrating the benefits of authentic leadership.
Many, however, have dismissed the idea of authenticity, saying that it’s unrealistic. One argument is that it’s unwise to only be what you want to be. It might not align with what your superiors or customers expect.
Another argument is that it’s unwise to speak your mind at all times. You’d get the unfortunate reputation of being antagonistic.
These critiques are missing the point. Being authentic doesn’t mean you have a license to skip being empathetic and do as you please. It’s a mindset that guides how you influence others.
Authenticity means first being in tune with who you are and what you believe (self-awareness). Then, you are forthcoming about your beliefs and why you believe them (relational transparency). The key is open-mindedness, ensuring that the other party knows that you are genuinely interested in learning more and exploring alternative rationales (balanced processing).
Authenticity shouldn’t lead to people being selfish. It should lead to people having transparent conversations where everyone respects each other’s perspectives.
"Can You Take The Lead On This?”
If you are my boss and you ask respectfully, then yes, I’m happy to do the work that you are assigning me.
But if you are my peer, this question is problematic.
What this typically means is “I don’t want to do the work on this, so it’d be awesome If you’d do the work instead.”
A better framing would be to ask, “what part of this project would you like to lead?”
The assumption that one of you will lead and the other will follow is also flawed. That’s not how teams succeed.
The best teams are those that repeatedly grant and claim team leadership roles as the situation dictates.
I know that sometimes it might feel “leader-like” to ask someone to take the lead on something. It’s not. That’s something a manager says.
I’ve worked on several projects in my career where the other party dropped the ball. It drives me nuts.
Typically it’s because they either changed their mind and re-prioritized or they took on more than they could manage.
Maybe it is what it is. Sometimes things just don’t come together.
However, you do have some degree of control and can limit the likelihood that it will happen in your relationships.
To prevent ball dropping, spend more time upfront talking about expectations. Make it clear that you don’t want to start the project unless X, Y, or Z is the final outcome. Then put it in writing - an informal email summarizing the initiative will suffice.
Still didn’t prevent the other party from going missing in action? Never, ever, work with them again.
There are too many people out there doing great things to get stuck on one relationship. If you don’t have that luxury, perhaps because they have been assigned to your team, do your best to not co-own responsibilities.
Ball dropping might be an unavoidable part of work. But it doesn’t mean you can’t proactively manage the probabilities that it will happen to you.
Every so often I find myself stuck in a conversation with someone that I wish would end.
Sometimes I’m in productivity overdrive where every minute counts, and I just don’t have time for small talk with acquaintances. Other times it’s someone I know well and care about, but I’m in the middle of something.
This is especially problematic for those of us in “deep thinking” jobs. Losing your train of thought can mean a major loss of momentum.
I’ve tried body language. They don’t notice. I’ve also tried to be polite by going with the flow, keeping it short, and steering the conversation towards a close. It doesn’t work.
I think the solution is two-fold:
(1) Respond with purpose. Make it clear that you genuinely don’t have time or need to finish something. The context should dictate how much you explain.
(2) Respond Immediately. The chances of stopping a conversation after one back-and-forth are slim to none.
Although it might feel cold while in the moment, it’s actually more disrespectful to pretend you are interested or only be partially engaged.
Be prepared for your next encounter. The chatterbox always tends to appear when you are in the middle of something.
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