Saturday, August 31, 2019

Asking for a private discussion

Two years ago, I had trouble with a colleague. I was a tester, they were a developer, and I was unhappy with how seemingly carelessly they would push in changes, and leave no room for others to catch up and test any of that stuff.

Like often happens, I did not tell them. I tried making them change the way, arguing over the time, but I never went to the person and told them in their face how their actions made me feel.

Instead, I told my manager.

We work in this office with team rooms, so whatever I would say to anyone would always be a thing I would say to 10 people. Unless I asked them to step out into a private room.

My manager listened, and told me to talk to the person. Two weeks later, he asked if I had taken care of my problem. I said the problem was gone. But I never talked to the person. It felt too difficult.

In an open space, even the "can we talk - in private" is something everyone hears. I see people applying tons of ways around saying those words out loud - sending a message, putting a small meeting in calendar. And yet, when two people get up the same time, people notice.

It is hard when it is not in the culture.

A year ago, I became a manager. I had no other choice but to talk to people in private. And I found my way of doing it. I don't do scheduled 1:1's because that is people's choice. But I make sure we talk stuff in public that needs talking, and I always ask for that private discussion. It's in the role, it happens.

Yet, I still remember the first time in happened in the new role. I asked another manager, who happens to not be a woman as I am the only woman, to speak with me on a difficult situation I was facing as a new manager. The jokes on two genders in one small room were overwhelming, and while I walked away, I was toying between punching someone and never asking again.

I believe offices are better if private discussions are normal and natural. They often are that for the more senior members of staff, who easily go pick up someone relevant and talk over a cup of coffee. To get there, here's my thoughts on creating a place that encourages them:

  • Tell people that this is expected, especially the  new and junior people
  • Give them tips on how to ask for a private discussion (calendar seems to be the normalized way around where I work)
  • Do something with the overall atmosphere where noticing who talks is relevant by talking generally more openly
  • Hold the jokes of men and women working 1:1 - they are  harmful beyond your immediate understanding