Saturday, April 09, 2005


Negotiation and Cooperation

I was raised in a home where politeness and cooperation were stressed. My parents were patient and generous. They didn't criticize me. They never raised their voices unless something very bad was happening. When they asked me to do something, I knew I was expected to do it, and in return when I made a reasonable request from them, it was granted. Of course, I didn't appreciate all of this at the time, believing as all children do that my parents were unreasonable tyrants who didn't want me to ever have any fun, but as I look back and as I hear stories from other people about how they were raised, I know I had things pretty good.

However, this pleasant upbringing caused me some problems when I struck out on my own. It took me a very long time (over a decade) to figure out that many people have very different assumptions about the right way to interact with others. Some people raise their voices when they are not upset. Some people will argue with you even when they know you're right. Some people ask you do do things that they know you can't do or shouldn't do. Sometimes people refuse reasonable requests. Some people won't listen at all. Some people will fight you just to see how hard you fight back. Some people will say bad things about you even though they respect and admire you. I used to think that people who did these things were horrible, evil people, but I've been learning how to deal with them.

When I was a young programmer, I would ask co-workers and managers for things, and they would say "No." To me, that was that. I assumed that "No" meant "Sorry, I've considered the consequences but it is not possible do that. This decision is final." This left me frustrated until I learned that "No" often means "You haven't convinced me yet," and it is acceptable to restate the case.

Another frustration as a young programmer was the continuous pressure to work harder and faster. If I told the manager a task would take two weeks, the manager would say, "No, it has to be done by the end of the week." I worked a lot of very long hours trying to meet the managers' demands, thinking that if I couldn't get things done by their deadlines, the problem must be with me. After all, they wouldn't ask me for superhuman performance, would they? Well, yes, they do! With some seasoning, I now have a different approach to such conflicts. Managers' requests are not "orders" that must be carried out no matter the cost; they are the opening of a negotiation. When a manager says "I absolutely must have this by the end of the week", I interpret it as "Can you do this in a week?" and respond accordingly. When I say a task will take two weeks, I don't let anyone talk me down. If I don't feel like working a few 80-hour weeks to meet the commitments the manager made, I don't do it. If managers suggest that I must not be very good at my job if it takes me as long as I say it will take, then I simply agree with them.

While I've figured out how to negotiate with managers, negotiating with co-workers is something I'm still working on. With my first couple of employers, there was a lot of cooperation among staff members. If someone asked me for help, I'd help them, and when I asked for help, I got it. I assumed all organizations worked this way, but now I've found a counter-example. In my current organization, requests are almost always answered with "Sorry, I don't have time." Often the only way to get someone's help is to make a request to their manager, which I don't like to do because it feels like I'm exerting unwanted pressure or complaining that they aren't doing their jobs. I'm not sure why the organization's culture works like this, but I think it is because everyone really does have too much to do, and saying "No" whenever possible is the only way to get anything done.

The problem is that I really do need their help. I don't ask for help just to make my job easier; I absolutely must have their assistance. While they say they don't have time, the reality is that we'd all get our jobs done faster if we worked together instead of separately. Why can't we all just get along?

I help whenever I'm asked. I go to every meeting I'm asked to attend. I accept whatever assignments I'm given. I don't take pride in these things; I just never thought of them as being optional. But in this organization, maybe my cultural assumptions really are wrong, and I need to learn the ways of the natives.

Oh, the joy of learning the 'real' corporate culture...

I'm a civil servant who used to work in the private sector. I generally had a good reputation from my supervisors because I would generally perform like a private sector consultant: work hard, hit deadlines, emphasize quality.

This has some repercussions: I tend to get more plum jobs (because they need it done right), but I also get a lot of shit job (because nobody else wants to do it).

Recently, a supervisor tried to treat me like a doormat by giving me two shit jobs in a row. Instead of saying "Sure, I'll do it", I said "I have plenty to do". And guess what?!? He moved down the cube farm and stuck it to the next person in line.

I've got to be diligent about doing this. I can see how it would be easy to become one of those "retired-in-place", totally dis-engaged government workers. The kind of worker I want to shake and say "You woudn't last 15 minutes in the private sector, you should bless your lucky stars you're making $80,000/year to read the newspaper and play Freecell".

/end rant
Like they say, if you need something done, ask a busy person.

I'm trying my best to not be busy anymore, but I have a feeling I won't be any more diligent than you will be.
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