Your co-workers are your partners. If you don’t have their support and trust, you will have more trouble getting your own work done and will, most likely, be less happy while making the attempt.

I posit that understanding and empathy are cornerstones of a healthy organization. Not a bold theory but one to keep in mind as I discuss the broad classification of personalities.

Identifying Archetypes

Everyone is unique. But there are definitely some traits that seem to pervade every company I’ve been in. Understanding those personalities is an important part of communication.

It is important to note that these personalities are never so easily categorized. Most people have aspects that overlap more than one. But in most cases, there’s one that is more evident than others.

Finally, these traits are not good or bad. They just are. Each has its place and can be both beneficial or harmful depending on a wide variety of variables. Also, this doesn’t speak to how willing a person is to see another point of view. That is dictated by a whole range of other personality traits that I’m not qualified (at all) to discuss.

The Preservationist

This person is more likely to maintain the status quo than take risks on new approaches. This person is the anchor that helps the group think twice before entering uncharted territory.

Priority: Risk-avoidance

The Producer

Frustrated with inaction, the producer archetype will tend to identify solutions quickly and drive toward completion voraciously. While impatience is typically a characteristic, it is usually in the service of productivity. Productivity is prioritized above all else.

Priority: Output

The Organizer

The organizer is consumed with ensuring that all aspects of their current focus is well defined and categorized. The organizer can quickly tell you the status of any aspect of the project. The organizer tends to get frustrated with those things that are out if his or her control and will seek to find ways to bring order to it.

Priority: Order

Empathising with Archetypes

The important part of communication is not to figure out how to impose your ideas on other people. The goal, as I see it, is to understand others’ thoughts. It is very rare that someone who holds a different opinion than me about a subject is wrong. It is more often the case that one of three things is true:

  1. They do not have all the information that I have and, based on the information they do have, their opinion on the matter is, in fact, the reasonable conclusion.
  2. I do not have all the information that they have. Again, my conclusion may be reasonable given the facts I did have. Now that I have more information, I should regroup and re-assess.
  3. We both have the same facts but have come up with different conclusions because our archetypes are different — meaning our priorities are different.

As an example, the Producer and the Preservationist are usually at odds given the same information. Where one wants to spend less time considering all options and making an informed decision (producer) the other wants to spend as much time as needed to consider all options and is okay with a conclusion that yields no action.

In this case, the two are trying to decide whether to move forward with a feature that does not have a lot of data behind it that would indicate it will be a winning feature. That is to say, it’s somewhat of a risk to spend resources to implement given the uncertainty.

The Preservationist sees the opportunity cost. Why would you work on this feature without knowing if it will work? The Producer would say why wouldn’t you work on this feature without knowing if it will work.

The Producer might be thinking about how long it will take her to get this done by while the Preservationist is thinking in abstract terms about spending resources without the guarantee of any return. The goal here is to align their thinking a little better.

Here’s what can be agreed on:

  • A business cannot sustain itself without some return on investment
  • Feature development requires some investment

Here’s where the conversation breaks down:

  • Producer: How can we ever know for sure if the investment will be worth it without trying
  • Preservationist: Do we have any proof this work will be worth the effort?

It turns out that each has information in their heads that the other is not aware of and they didn’t think to mention:

  • Producer: It will take 1 sprint to get an MVP out
  • Preservationist: There are stakeholders clambering for three other projects

Once this information is on the table, now we can make some progress. Those other three projects: are they all large-sized efforts? How much will one sprint really get us and how are we going to determine if the feature is worth continuing with if we take the time to create an MVP?

It turns out that there two large projects and one relatively small one. The producer suggests that we work on the small project at the same time as the feature in question. It’s a modest enough MVP that only one person is needed to create a prototype. We don’t even need to put it into production to get feedback. The rest of the team can work on the stakeholder project.

As far as measuring success goes, we can put in some analytics but we will have to rely more on user testing and internal demos to get a feel of whether we should continue. The preservationist agrees to that given the small spend on engineering time and also knowing that the decision to continue with the project is not just in the hands of two people but user testers and other stakeholders.

For me, this is a realistic situation that has realistic outcomes. If we don’t get to a solution it’s because either the Preservationist or the Producer (or both) are unwilling to accept the facts that the other is providing or one of them is not providing that extra information. In the first case, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of trust and in the second case it’s because each one or the other is not taking the time to make their case thoughtfully (and in many cases, it’s the Producer because they tend to be more impatient).

It Takes Two…

This brings up a point that is worth noting here. Having one reasonable person in a conversation is not going to work. All decision-makers must be ready to use reason to come to a decision.

The best way to remove reason from a conversation is to put people on the defensive. Once they are on the defensive, trust is now a distant memory and every word spoken is seen as manipulation.

So don’t let that happen or, if it’s already happened, make it stop.

Different people have different sensitivities. Some people are remarkably cool-headed and are able to see past the possible underhanded criticisms or manipulations and try to get at what’s behind them. Some people are a raw nerve that will strike at every suspected criticism (whether it was one or not). But most people are somewhere in between.

What makes people most defensive are those things that they believe to be true but don’t want anyone to bring up in conversation. Someone who is impatient will often react negatively to someone accusing them of impatience. Someone who likes to control situations will bristle at the slightest hint of them being too controlling.

The important thing to remember here is that you shouldn’t open with a comment that you’re pretty sure will be taken poorly. But the next most important thing is that if there is a taboo topic in a relationship — and that topic is relevant to the relationship — trust will likely never take hold if it’s not broached at some point.

I have often found it disarming to casually bring up my own weaknesses in conversation in a subtle way. “I tend to be impatient, so the way I’m thinking about it is….” or “I really don’t like taking risks which is why I think we should…”.

By broaching a topic that way, you are revealing your motivations and telling people a little bit about yourself at the same time. Although it’s hard to know for sure, I think that this helps to de-escalate tense situations or establish some level of trust early on before it has an opportunity to escalate.

Strength

I can’t end this without mentioning that everything said so far is antithetical to the approach of exclusively exhibiting strength to get what you want. I have never been a fan of that approach mostly because I personally don’t react well to it (unless it’s strength + reason).

That said, there are times when you need to reach conclusion quickly and assuaging people’s concerns and establishing trust may not be a good short-term strategy. At this point, the leader of the dissenting individuals must step in and make a decision using the facts that have been made available to him or her at the time.

Ideally, this happens rarely. If it’s a frequent occurrence, steps should be taken to work on organizational trust and morale. But that’s another essay entirely.

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