Management: Talking About Talking

Until AI eats the world, companies will continue to center around the contribution of people. And as a result, whether you run a large company, small startup or venture capital fund you’re going to have to manage humans. Getting a handle on interpersonal dynamics remains critical for every manager.

While all of us spend our entire lives interacting with other people, management tends to be vexing to many folks. For those who are puzzled, the good news is that while the context might vary from company to company, the human dynamics seem to follow predictable patterns. The bad news is that there are a litany of these patterns; too many to master in a lifetime.

Manager: “I’ve got some things I wanted to run by you.”
Teammate: [after immediately tensing up] “What are you cooking up this time.”
Repeat.
Manager: “C’mon let’s get fired up for this week.”
Teammate: [after immediately tensing up] “I can’t get excited. I’m too stressed and am juggling too much.”
Repeat.
Manager: “I think these new projects will be easy, let me know if you need help.”
Teammate: [after immediately tensing up] thinks to themselves “I can’t ask for help because my manager thinks a monkey can do this work.”
Repeat.

If you step out of your own skin and watch your interactions with folks on your team, they probably seem like a series of broken records — predictable exchanges between two folks happening on repeat for eternity.

I think we develop patterns because they help us function. Meaning groups of people can operate more productively with more predictable interactions. But not all interactions are positive and as time wears on so does people’s tolerance of exchanges that irk them. Eventually, even functional interactions can reach breaking points and need to be reset.

To me the hack is to simply understand that the system of interpersonal interactions trends towards patterns. We develop subtle routines. Equipped with this knowledge, you can see these issues as they emerge and learn how to side step them.

From my perspective, the key to handling these dynamics is to:

  1. Acknowledge that you’re drowning in patterns. If you open your eyes you’ll see them everywhere.
  2. Be aware that some of these patterns need to be broken and new patterns need to be created.
  3. The best way to reset patterns is to either radically change your behavior or to talk about talking.

Talking about talking is my preferred solution.

When a pattern needs to be broken I do something socially awkward. I try to step out of our normal exchanges. I drop the day-to-day topics. I focus on how we speak to each other. If I have the chance I diagram our pattern of conversation.

“I do this because I feel that…”
“Then you do this because you’re worried I think this…”

And so on…

Then I talk about the motivations behind each interaction. Then I ask how we can change it.

There are two potential benefits to this approach:

  1. First, the other person might start to see the pattern. Just being aware tends to break these cycles.
  2. Second, in some cases both parties can agree on an action plan — a new set of interactions that create a new, healthier pattern. It’s a social contract of sorts that allows people to hold each other accountable to in future cycles.

I’m far from mastering being a manager. But I believe that simply being able to see the cycles can help everyone improve.