Communication question for managers & execs

I had a bit of an epiphany about myself at work today while in a meeting. I’ve had a pretty good (no job gaps and no job hopping) 30 year career in corporate America. Despite getting consistently excellent performance reviews in all of my jobs, I’ve never, not once, been promoted. I came to realize that there’s just something about me that makes me not “management material” but I’ve never been able to put my finger on what exactly it was. But I might have some idea now.

In the meeting, I was listening while a product owner (PO, management level) and a director of sales (DS) were discussing a new product dashboard that we’re building. The DS asked PO if she envisioned the dashboard as having like a pie chart for revenue and another pie chart for adoption (sales of the product). She went on a very long winded monologue that can be summed up as “yes”. I was sitting there quietly wondering why people like to talk so much about obvious things. They went back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes, basically echoing each other’s thoughts and verbalizing (what seemed to me) obvious thoughts about the topic. Then it hit me.

They’re not wasting time jaw-flapping, they’re aligning each other on a common vision of the task. Sort of coming to consensus with each other. Among management and leadership teams, this is a critical thing to happen. I realize that this is how they work. Having seen it, I recognized it.

My problem is that I don’t think that way. I’m (too) cerebral and just think things instead of speaking my thoughts out loud. Perhaps in Meyers Briggs terms, I’m an INTJ (I don’t know for sure, but it sounds about right.) If I wanted to learn this skill, how would I go about it? How do you teach yourself to do something that it simply doesn’t occur to you to do?

For example, if I had been the PO and the DS asked me that, I would have said something like “yes, that’s likely, but as we use it over time we would tweak and improve it” and the entire conversation would have died there, because I summarized their entire 15 minutes in 3 seconds. If I make an effort to think out loud with people, how do I know they’re not thinking things like “stop stating the obvious” or “just shut up already”?

Reported for forum change.


Thanks, Shodan.

Actually a little more thought about this and I realize that my real fear is that they’ll think I don’t know what I’m doing. I lack the ability to pick up on subtle nuances of social interactions, so I can’t tell if what I’m doing is good or overboard (or underboard).

I’ll mention something you seem to have missed from this discussion (at least, you didn’t mention noticing it). That monologue probably included answers to expected followup questions (e.g. “why didn’t you use a line graph?”, “does this take into account xyz?”) and some explanation of the reasoning/rationale behind that decision (shows your competence and judgement).

As for how to fix it, keep reminding yourself that you probably don’t know the full picture, that there’s information you don’t have access to, things you don’t see (because that’s not part of your job or something you can influence).

There will be some awkwardness as you try to change your basic approach to meeting interactions so mention this to coworkers you trust and maybe ask them to give you a subtle cue if you’re going on too long, or being too short. Also, everybody has a different boredom/interest threshold to adequately explain for most, you’re going to be boring some people (like your former self).

Youtube is a great resource. They have videos and channels about EVERYTHING. Try searching for ‘how to become an extrovert’ then look at whatever related videos seem interesting or catch your eye.

But the questions themselves are never said out loud, not in a bonding discussion that’s either effortless or well-managed.

Example, I had several managers for whom color was super important. Once I know someone I’m working with has that particular issue, I also know that if I mention the key expression “color scheme” they will tell me what kind of look they want; if I don’t mention it myself, they will bring it up but they’ll do it once they’ve had time to worry that OMG Nava isn’t considering the color scheme, which is SO important! It’s important, don’t take me wrong (damn big psychological/sales tool), but when you’re required to use the company’s preset color scheme and templates it does seem to be a bit silly to have to mention it so Boss won’t get their underwear all bunched up.

As to how I learned to do it… I come from a background culture of ahumers (talking over each other is ok so long as you’re re-affirming what the other person said); mix it with a specific culture where bonding arguments can get loud enough and quick enough to scare the shit out of outsiders; and then add a few relatives who didn’t fit the mold: with them, we had to spell things out or use specific triggers.

Right, it was a bonding discussion, rather than actually communicating ideas. At least that was my perception. There were no technical details mentioned, only high level vision statements. The PO described how she saw the dashboard being used without mentioning any technical details (or alternatives like line vs bar chart) while the DS nodded repeatedly and said “uh huh”. When she was done, he described what he thought he heard her saying (active listening, with a little of his own spin on it) while she nodded. They took turns doing this about 3 or 4 times until it was thoroughly clear they were on the same page.

I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m asking. My issue is that I suspect not having the ability to talk like this with another manager makes me inadequate for management and therefore unpromotable. I’m a thinker, as I mentioned, and tend to have a very concise speaking style. I don’t care in this instance if there was information that I didn’t have access to. My question is how can I learn to communicate in this style.

My take-away from what you describe about yourself is that you are describing what I’ve heard referred to as “finish line-ism”. Your mind goes to the finish line, because it’s blindingly obvious to you what that finish line is. The danger in that is that the finish line is a conclusion, and it may not be the correct conclusion.

I find it useful when presented with an issue and hearing someone say “we need to do this!” to point out that that “this” is a conclusion, and we should instead state the goal, understand the requirements, consider the myriad of options to achieve the goal, and only then reach a conclusion. This is where the discussion occurs. The depth of discussion comes in walking through all of those (you don’t need to explicitly state that you walking through all of those, but let the structure guide the discussion). Something to consider. The resulting bonding is a bonus.

On the flipside - if all of those discussions have occurred, no need to have them again. Thrashing an equine corpse, and all that.

Now, to your central point - will these suggestions change your career trajectory? Can’t say. Once someone has been slotted as “not management material” in an environment, it’s really really hard to break that reputation. Usually requires moving on to a different environment.

Sorry, I didn’t explain very well (I tend to be long-winded and sometimes overcompensate). For me, thinking in terms of a ‘knowledge pool’* compels me to explain more (so if/when I’m wrong somebody can spot and explain the flaw in reasoning that led to the wrong answer), and to seek feedback and input from others.

But, yeah, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to communication or getting promoted.

On a sidenote, expect this thread to abound in more unintentional irony.

  • I know a bit, you know another bit, she knows a third thing, so between us we know all that matters.

If this is really true, maybe you don’t want to become a manager, since this is what a lot of managing is. But I bet it isn’t.

Asking about a hole in the logic of the speaker (even if you think they have an answer) or an alternative to make it better. People like questions they have answers for.
If you say nothing, people assume you have nothing to say, not that you have gone to the finish line.
The best way to go is to get yourself appointed a team leader. That is good practice, and we usually promoted people doing the job already.

Moderator Action

Off to IMHO (from GQ).

One of the biggest discoveries of my life was that people are linear planners, and most are very bad at it. Turns out that many items that I’d see MIA in a plan and think “the person who prepared it must have considered that possibility and discarded it” were actually a case of “the person who prepared it never thought about it”.

A lot of conclussions and choices which are obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to everybody. OK; so let’s say the other person asks “are you going to use pie charts?” and your instinct is to say “yes.”

“Yes, that’s the idea,” already is less… terminal.

“Yes, although we also considered bar charts. We thought the pies would be easier to read” invites further conversation. Add a “what do you think?” at the end, even more.

Oh, and watch body language and positioning. Bonding discussion, people pointing more or less in the same direction (for example, people around a table looking at the screen and only occasionally giving the group a look to make sure everybody is awake); being directly across from and directly facing each other is more for discussions with actual controversy.

Nava, you seem very intuitive about this kind of thing. Thank you, your replies are very helpful! The body language hadn’t occurred to me, for example.

The biggest attention grabbers are laptops, tablets and phones. Since the offenders are often the execs in the meeting, there is not much you can do, exact maybe ask a direct question to them.
If you are speaking, try to make direct eye contact with at least a few people in the audience.
Many of us geeks, especially of the male pursuasion, don’t read body language very well.

Heh, no, I’m just old (gonna buy me a nice lawn any day now). If I’d known back in school what I know now about communication, my grades would easily have been 20% higher. Some of it I was taught, some comes from bolts of insight, some from analyzing my own reactions to people who in theory were being nice (their mouths said one thing, their bodies another) and some from analyzing people I couldn’t understand as “logical systems” - applying to them the same kind of analysis I would apply to “why the bloody fuck are we getting a 6 in this printout where we expected a 3?” The program doesn’t invent numbers, it’s just programmed along a logic which isn’t the one I expected: same with a lot of people.
“The screen” in that part quoted by Voyager meant the common one (projector), sorry if that wasn’t clear. If people are answering their emails yeah, as he says, you just aren’t allowed to take the cellphones away even though sometimes the temptation is certainly there.

I’ve had another epiphany on this topic, although from a slightly different angle. I often sense that someone I’m talking to is uncomfortable with something I said but can’t figure out why. I think I was never taught (or figured out for myself) that there are some things you just don’t bring up in “polite society”, specifically applied among the management ranks rather than social life. For example, if I figure out that a manager (let’s say not mine, just one that I work with on occasion) is lacking in some way, but I’m not sure if my perception is accurate, I may want to ask someone I trust in private if they think the same thing. A peer will engage in the discussion with me. But if the person is another manager, they hesitate, maybe say some platitude, and try to change the topic.

It’s like the rule “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all”. I don’t go around slagging people or gossiping, so this is something more nuanced than that. I’m noticing this now that I report to one manager but have a dotted-line to another one and the dotted-line manager has offered to mentor me (I took her up on that offer). The “solid line” manager and team is actually dysfunctional and completely ineffective, but the “dotted line” manager is very good, politically astute and in favor, and runs a very effective team. I am just now getting the sense that everybody in the management team knows about the dysfunctional manager and team, but they are working very gently and slowly and quietly to reorganize it into other different teams and then no longer need that manager. But the vibe I’m getting seems like it should not be talked about, I should just be patient and work within the current difficult construct until things are resolved.

My issue is that if you can’t check your thinking against someone else, how do you find out what’s going on? Also, if there is a problem they aren’t aware of, how do you bring it to someone’s attention if you can’t talk about it? It seems like this inability to know what I can and can’t talk about, even in private, may make me unpromotable into management. It’s not that I have that goal, I just sometimes ponder how some young people rocket into the ranks of management and others take longer or never do. They do say it’s all about soft skills. What I’m thinking is that it requires skills with very nuanced soft skills. By this metric, I must be seen as pretty clumsy.

You shouldn’t talk about other managers except with your direct boss.

Managers should not talk about other managers with subordinates. That’s why they hesitate when you started doing it.

It took me a long time to learn that the “obvious” answer is often not the best answer. Once I did, however, solutions became much better and more efficient. This does have to be balanced against “paralysis by analysis”, most of the time decisions are made on less than complete information.

Also, “getting on the same page” is critical and worth spending a significant amount of time. If you’ve ever played the telephone game you know the pitfalls of when person A says one thing but person B hears another - even if the words themselves are all understood, the interpretation can be vastly different.

And managers don’t talk about employees with other employees. I’ve had people come up to me saying “how is that clown still employed?” The only answer is we understand, since the wheels of doing something about it turn very slowly.

Got it. When I’m giving a talk, especially to top managers, I want them to look at the damn screen. Talks to my old VP always went long because somewhat peripheral discussions would sprout up. I was old enough to get snarky with them, but junior people didn’t feel they had the power, and were then told they should take control of the meeting.

Yes, this too.