Thinking Out Loud

Collaboration or Interruption

Ellen is a project manager in a small software development firm. She is well organized and enjoys working with people. She has enough of a technical background to connect with her team and excels in her management skills. Her boss, Jeri, is an ideas person, very creative and tireless. Dedicated to the company and the mission, she is the heart of the organization.

Jeri and Ellen recognize their different strengths and genuinely respect one another. The team, however, began complaining to Ellen that Jeri was driving them crazy: She frequently interrupted them by floating ideas, asking seemingly random questions, and suggesting alternative ways of doing things. Individual team members felt put on the spot and often didn’t know how to respond. Was Jeri looking for them to give an opinion or make a decision? And where did Ellen fit into this? Their general perception was that Jeri was indecisive, was undermining Ellen’s authority, and didn’t respect her. Ellen too felt frustrated with Jeri.

Ellen shared her observations with Jeri as best she could, but Jeri was obviously confused by the feedback and Ellen knew she hadn’t used the right approach. Over time she realized that workplace morale was dropping, and although both she and Jeri were working hard to keep their relationship from eroding, making the effort was increasingly difficult. Finally, Ellen suggested getting some outside help. Although Jeri was reluctant, she deferred to Ellen’s judgment.

After talking with team members and assessing Ellen and Jeri’s communication styles, I got a clear picture of what was happening. Jeri truly didn’t understand the negative effect she was having. The informal question and brainstorming sessions she initiated with individual team members helped her clarify her thinking and provided her an important link with the people she worked with. So integral for her work process, she had no idea that they were disruptive to others.

The team members hadn’t seen Jeri’s talk as brainstorming; this function of her discussion wasn’t clear, let alone the focus. Compounding the situation for them was the simple fact that because Jeri is Ellen’s boss, they were confused about the line of authority: Were Jeri’s comments different “orders” from those Ellen had given them?

Once I helped Jeri and Ellen understand their communication styles and purposes, they realized their different needs and how to get them met. As the tension decreased and the collaborative conversations increased, they developed a process to accommodate and support their differences. Jeri and Ellen began meeting daily, first thing, instead of weekly as they had been. These daily meetings were short and allowed Jeri to think out loud with Ellen about product development and to elicit from Ellen who on the team could help her with any specifics she needed. During this daily meeting they could also address other work-flow processes and management or policy issues, then decide how and when to address them.

Clarifying impact, roles, and specific communication structures eased the workplace tension. Jeri and Ellen worked together more closely, drawing on their strengths and establishing clearer boundaries for themselves and the team as they collaborated on decisions.

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