Andy McKay

Nov 25, 2016

What people hear

Many years ago when I had just started working in tech properly, I was had a huge amount of imposter syndrome. It felt like I was struggling every day to get my job done and understand the basic things. One day we were in a company meeting and the CEO said:

If that person comes to me and says "I can't do my job", its my job to find a replacement for him.

I was mortified. I just heard:

You cannot come to with any problem because I will think you can't do your job and replace you.

Later on, when I’d stopped caring about working in that company, I brought this up to the CEO. He said it was taken out of context and I could come to him with problems. The truth was, I really couldn’t. That one line had put me in a state of indecision for many months. There were so many better ways to say what he said such as: “it my job to work with that employee to find a way to help them” etc. But the CEO at the time wasn’t that kind of a person.

I’ve taken this to heart because people apply their own context to things you say. The context at work includes things like: your position in the org chart relevant to that person, your experiences in similar situations. For example: if your boss says “you are doing a great job”, is that different from your mother saying “you are doing a great job”?

Of course it does, the context for the person hearing it is applied. This became clear to me quickly as a manager when off the cuff minor technical decision became an issue. A junior person said (paraphrasing) “we should do it this way because Andy said so”. Another person replied (paraphrasing again) “don’t do it because Andy said so, do it because its right”. Both reported to me, but the first person had assumed that because I had said it, it must be the way to go. The other (and more experienced person) correctly pointed out the need to critically think about what I’d said.

As you get higher up the chain of responsibility within an organisation this gets harder and harder. That’s why you often see senior people think before they say anything. What they say will be interpreted by different people differently and lead to mis-interpretation. The more people you have in that organisation and the more diverse it is, the more different contexts will applied.

For that reason I’m trying to stop and think more before responding with something that might be prone to mis-interpretation.