Managing: Is it you or me?

Are you having trouble communicating with someone on your team?  Frustrated that your messages are not getting through?  Read on…

Many years ago I was leading a team of developers at a large bank.  It was a great bunch, but I was having a lot of difficulty with one of the team members.  For the purposes of this post we will call him Fred.

Fred was bright, enthusiastic, technically excellent…and causing me serious headaches because everything had to be repeated to him several times.

I  would explain the task he was to work on and he would agree that he understood everything.  Later he would drop by my desk and ask me a question which showed that he clearly did not understand, and I would then explain in more detail.  He would leave, only to come back later with more questions, and this would continue until the task was complete.

To say that I was getting frustrated was an understatement.  I was actually starting to wonder whether Fred was worth keeping around, since I was spending so much time with him that I could have done the job myself and had less frustration in the process.

Fortunately fate intervened when a friend emailed a program to me with instructions to run it and let me know what I thought.  This was back in the early days of email when programs sent to you could be run with without any fear of viruses.

At first I thought the program was a joke since it asked a whole series of very odd questions.  I can’t remember many of them, but I do remember it showing several pictures of clouds and asking me to say which one was most like my personality.  Huh!?

After answering these dumb questions the program produced a personality profile of me that was disturbingly accurate.  Included in this analysis was a picture of a brain divided into two halves, with a dot indicating whether you were a visual or aural learner.  My dot was just slightly off-center on the aural side.

And that gave me an idea…

I sent the program to Fred and he came over saying “That’s amazing!  That profile is me to a T!”  Looking at his results I noticed his learning style was as far into the visual area as it could be.  I had my answer!

I immediately changed tactics.  I’m no artist, in fact I can barely draw a stick man, but when I went to speak with Fred I would take a blank piece of paper and draw.  Usually it was pictures of computer discs and stick-men with arrows between them.  It didn’t matter.  From that point forward Fred would get what I was saying instantly.  In fact he turned into the star of the team and ended up taking over from me when I moved on to another company.

It wasn’t Fred’s fault that he didn’t understand – it was mine!  I was explaining things in ways that made sense to me, but communication has to be performed in a way understandable to the receiver.  If I deliver a perfect explanation in English, but the recipient is French…who is at fault if the message doesn’t get across?  By not understanding my audience I was the one that was having the communication failure, not Fred.

Figuring out the audience is essential for all communication.  These days I ask myself a few questions before getting started, including:

  • Do they need detail or just an overview?
  • How technical are they ?
  • What type of personality are they – give-me-the-facts-and-get-out or someone who likes to chew the fat a little before getting into work?
  • How much time do they have? Someone that needs to leave to tend to something urgent is unlikely to pay attention to your detailed presentation.

Spending just a little time to find out about your audience can pay huge dividends in making sure that your ideas are not only heard, but also understood.  To this day I draw often.  I love the white-board in my office and use it often – just in case I have another Fred on my hands.

So, the next time you are having trouble getting a message across, ask yourself one question…is it my fault?



Filed under Career, Education, The Human Condition

2 responses to “Managing: Is it you or me?

  1. My youngest daughter is like Fred because of an unnamed learning disability…you think she’s got it, but then find out she doesn’t! It makes homework (especially math) torturous sometimes…

    Sometimes, her teachers aren’t willing to take the extra time to make her understand, which leads to more frustration on everyone’s part!

    I tried to explain to her the other day that everyone has something that they’re good at (her talent is singing)…we try to build her up as much as we can with that!


    • My eldest son has difficulty following instructions. In fact we were just wondering this morning whether pictures would help him.

      We also have the same situation at school, with some teachers being unwilling to spend the extra time. To say it is frustrating is a major understatement.

      But I just helped him to build a robot, with instructions from YoutTube, and he had no problem with that – so it IS possible.

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