Candor, Bluntness, Impedance Matching

Roy Rapoport
Sep 23 · 5 min read

It’s silly to describe communication styles as being on a one-dimensional range, so let’s do that.

Any group of people will natively operate in some part of this range. A company could be said to operate in some part of this range, though fractally parts of the company will operate in different parts of the range. Individuals also end up operating in some part of this range.

This became something I had to think about when I dealt with a quandary at work, a quandary I could describe much better once I visualized the range above:

The company in which I operate is on some part of this range. I’m going to, for the moment, not address where on the total range the company is (because it’s not important for this conversation). So wherever the range is, the company’s range is …

I have my own range, which is somewhat to the right of the company (on the scale above), so now we have

But wait, there’s more! All the teams under me have their own particular character and style, and I had a sense that one of them in particular had this relationship to the above entities (company and me):

And the challenge we were facing was that one of the people in that team was operating in a way that the team was allergic to — because he was operating outside of the team’s norms, but he was well within not just my norms, but also the company’s norms. At the time, I was pursuing this as a quandary as to how to balance my desire to give managers the autonomy to create their own team culture with my commitment to have my organization (and the company in general) move to the right over time.

Put this quandary aside — it’s my problem, not yours. Let’s talk a little about what conversations we can have based on this model. Let’s go back to the whole range and place a hypothetical organization on it

Wherever you place your org, is this where you want your org to be? Do you want it to move to the right? To the left?

Width

Then there’s the width issue. I’ve had probably more than twenty conversations with various people in my company (mostly in my org) asking them to put various entities (the company, their team, themselves, me) on this spectrum. One of them used this description:

What we see here is a team that is pretty wide on that spectrum. Some people in the team deal well with feedback (give and receive); some are much less good at this. The context of the conversation I had with this engineer was the fact he had recently been promoted to Staff and was asking for feedback or suggestions from me. Having drawn this on the board, I charged him not so much with moving the box to the right, but rather to just move the left edge of the box to the right — make the team’s communication spectrum more consistent and feedback-positive.

Impedance Mismatch

What about you, though? You’re on that range too. Imagine this:

I’m not placing this in the context of the whole scale because where the organization is or where I am doesn’t matter so much other than as we relate to each other. And at that distance, my organization and I will simply not be able to communicate. The organization will have an allergic reaction to me. If I’m too far to the right of the organization, I’m a toxic, aggressive, asshole. If I’m too far to the left of the organization, I’m too passive and nice and probably don’t care enough about performance. This is impedance mismatch. Technically, either party — either the organization or the person — could choose to bridge the gap. The organization never will (and even if it wanted to, could not move nearly as quickly as the individual). It’s on you to bridge that gap, or accept the costs of that gap, or find another environment in which the gap is more appropriate.

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the gap could involve you moving closer to the organization. But just as organizations have width on this spectrum, so do you, and you might instead consider where you have opportunities to increase your “width”. And you can work to adjust your width. One of the most positive pieces of feedback I got in this process was when I asked a bunch of ICs in my org where on this range I was. Most of them didn’t work directly with me, and so they only saw me basically in what you might think of as the organizational grandparent role, so they put me firmly in the range of “nice” within the company. But the one senior IC who reports directly to me drew it like this:

(the company is represented by the blurred green range; he represented himself as tightly straddling the middle of the range)

The way he said it, “you’re capable of a ton of empathy when dealing with ICs, which is why you go all the way to the left, there, and within norms for us, but I’ve also seen you be willing to engage in direct candid conflict way more than me when necessary.” It felt good.

So What Now?

Those are a lot of thoughts. Consider these questions (and consider having other people you work with answer these questions so you can get better calibrated)

  1. Where is your org on this scale? Does it know it’s there? Is that where it wants to be?
  2. Where are you on the scale? How close are you to your org? Is this where you want to be in relation to your org?
  3. How ‘wide’ is your org? How ‘wide’ are you? Could you be ‘wider’?

Good luck. And if you want to let me know how this went for you, I’d love to hear. I’m @royrapoport on the Rands Leadership Slack.

Thanks to Jenna Quindica

Roy Rapoport

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