I was just looking at the schedule for Houston, an amazing 10 tracks for this event on April 21, 2012. I’ll be doing two presentations, one on professional development plans and another on SQL security for developers. This will be my first time at the Houston SQLSaturday and really looking forward to it.
Recently I suffered through a frustrating and contentious meeting, and that was stressful. I needed a walk, a few minutes to sort out why I was stressed, but instead I had to step right into another meeting. It was a follow up meeting to build out an implementation plan for a plan the team had come up with, so I expected a low level detail discussion that wouldn’t be stressful at all.
Instead I walked into a fight of sorts. The plan had been blasted by someone else uphill and now we had lost days and were at zero. I was mad. Why wasn’t I involved in the discussion that led to that decision? Why was I just finding out? Stress is often defined as fight or flight and it was triggering fight, starting with wanting to revisit the decision to cancel a decent plan to solve a time critical problem.
The team was in a uproar of stress because they had lost time and were feeling the pressure, maybe a sense of failure at picking a plan that turned out to be unsupportable.
So I just sat and listened, let them vent, and tried to think. What was important? I wasn’t vested in the plan, why spend time trying to resurrect it? I just needed a plan. They needed time to vent. Then slowly I took control of the meeting, offering no criticism, just saying “let’s come up with a better plan”. Forty five minutes later we had a new plan,they were calm,and I was calm. Strangely even my stress from the earlier meeting was gone.
It would have been easy to start blasting, in the meeting and outside. It would have felt good to drag someone else into it, to force the train back on the track, just to let loose some of that pent up aggression. But it would have taken time, emotion, energy, and no guarantee of getting it done, every guarantee of adding a lot of stress to everyone involved.
I’m not saying to never fight, or never flee bad situations. There are times when it’s necessary – just not that many times. Work the problem with the constraints you have. My approach is this: it doesn’t matter how you got here, what’s the best decision you can make right now? That approach is hugely effective for me.
It’s another example of seeing that stress wave coming at you and deciding whether it will impact you or wash around you. Awareness of stress, factoring that in as you decide the next step, that’s the win.
It’s not fair. I hear it a couple times a day. Sometimes they are right, sometimes not, but it’s how they feel and that is real enough. The first thing I do is listen, because that’s the first thing they need. Once they’ve explained (vented!) then I can tell them what I think:
- I agree, let me work on fixing it
- I agree, but I don’t think I can fix it (and why I can’t, or won’t)
- I don’t agree, and why
I find they have a hard time with anything except the first answer. I get it, it’s human. They get to decide what they think is fair and it just makes it worse when the boss can’t (or won’t) act to fix it. I can’t change how they handle it. I can try to have a good dialog because sometimes it does make a difference.
You might be curious about the “can’t fix/won’t fix”. Often that is based on an understanding of the organization – politics. My job is to have the relationships and understand all the challenges so I can decide which fights to fight. Maybe that other manager who isn’t being helpful is under stress from another source, maybe they are short handed, maybe they just suck. Sometimes I know that I could win, but it would spending juice I’m going to need for other,larger issues. Most people struggle with that too,if it’s wrong it should be fixed, end of discussion. The world just isn’t that simple, but the only way to see that is to grow a larger view than just you, just your team.
That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful for me to listen to the “its not fair” conversations. The tendency is for me to absorb their stress. They work with me, I want to see them treated well and I want them with low stress levels so they can do good work. I’ve had days where afterward I had to go for a walk, or turn around and vent to whoever I was working for. Human, but not productive. My job is to listen, try to have this image of them projecting this cloud of stress that washes over and past me, but doesn’t hurt me and doesn’t stick to me.
There’s plenty of days when I think things aren’t fair either. Some days it makes me mad, but usually being mad doesn’t do much to change things, and it tires me, makes me less effective all around. A better response is to realize that I can fix it or I can’t, and go from there.
This is a hard one to learn.
One thing I’ve learned is that even losing one hour of sleep or just not sleeping well degrades my ability to handle stress. It feels wimpy to say that, I should be able to handle losing an hour of sleep! Maybe I’ll get to a point where it won’t, but I suspect it’s just how I’m wired and so I have the option of acknowledging it, or not.
Losing an hour doesn’t degrade me a lot, maybe 5 or 10%. I can still follow conversations, deal with the routine and even fairly high stresses that come up gracefully. If I’m down more than an hour (or have been sick), it does down from there. On 4 hours sleep I can work but dense topics and decisions require a lot more effort to get done, and I don’t have much patience for anyone that is making life hard for me for what I consider – in my degraded state – trivial reasons, and I’m a lot more likely to push back instead of working through it.
I’ve seen the same in a lot of people on my current project. They are up a lot of nights, and they come in or call in for my daily meeting and they get combative at the drop of a hat, and they lose their ability to do out of the box thing – too tired to work smart.
I can’t always get the right amount of sleep or avoid being sick, but I know when I walk into work whether I’m at 100% or not. If I’m not it’s ok,but I mentally remind myself that it will change my behavior unless I actively manage it. That’s more energy needed when I have less! It’s not that much though,and having that awareness – and sometimes announcing it (“I’m tired today”) – has saved me from a lot of mistakes that involve people conversations. Technical work is easier, I can spend extra time reviewing and thinking, it’s less volatile. Conversations can go south in a hurry with one or two bad sentences.
If I had to tell you that one thing I’ve gotten better at in the past 5 years it would be having a much higher awareness of when and how things stress me. I’ve made a lot of progress in handling stress, but you can only do that if you can see and feel the stress and admit that it’s there.
Admitting it isn’t easy, it means you’re admitting to fear, worry, insecurity, imperfection, impatience, sometimes anger. Why shouldn’t you or I have those things? Who wouldn’t worry about impending layoffs, or be worried about how the new manager or CIO will change things, or whether we picked an approach that now looks like the wrong one?
I may not tell you that I’m stressed, but I’m willing to tell me. That’s the start of a change that opens you up to some pretty incredible possibilities.
Take a look at your network right now and while it probably has some diversity, I bet it’s tied pretty closely to what you do right now. That make sense, right? You meet people that are in the same line of work because those are the blogs you read, the events you attend.
It’s smart, but it’s only good until things change. Probably you don’t know yet what the “next” thing will be, but maybe you at least have an idea or two. Maybe it’s about location and you need to focus more on meeting people in Orlando or Dallas or Phoenix. Maybe it’s to leave the comforts and confines of being an employee to be a consultant so you start networking with consultants and following consulting companies.
It’s harder I think, and the return is even less sure than the leap of faith effort that your current networking takes. It’s never going to be a loss though. At worst you’ve grown your network and that’s always worth doing.
A few weeks ago I started clearing space for a small garden. Tedious work due to the area of the yard I picked, tons of some ugly vine that took hours to remove. I built four mini raised beds by using some 1x4” fence pickets and a small block of 2x4” at each corner. Not a lot of planting area, but enough for my daughters to plant a few different things and work on learning that food doesn’t magically appear at the grocery store. We planted one of just about everything; corn, tomatoes, green peppers, squash, broccoli, peppermint, egg plant, probably a few more.
I don’t know what made me think about it, but I realized that a good garden should have a scarecrow. Never made one, seemed like a good family thing,so added to the list. Kids definitely excited about it.
We built the first one using a 2x4” and a couple scraps of 1x4” for shoulders and waist. The clothes,if you can’t tell, are dockers and a button down shirt out of my closet (I wear long sleeves about once every 3 years). The head is a pillow case stuffed with Styrofoam from a a recent tool purchase, and the hat is a good panama straw hat that had suffered from being chewed on by one of our dogs. I was all set to stuff the clothes, add shoes and gloves, but they declared it good enough, finishing it off by drawing – hard to see – eyes a a mouth. It’s all just stapled together.
I had only planned to make one, but I have two children, so we had to have two. Same basic construction, but this time my oldest insisted that this one wear a dress. Have to say I was taken aback, just didn’t have a picture in my head of female scarecrows, but why not? It’s another long sleeve shirt with a pillow case for the skirt.
Here you can see the scale, one standing guard at each end. Not sure how scary they are, but also not sure the birds know the difference. I know when I park in the driveway on the other side of the fence I’ll catch the heads out of the corner of my eye and for a second think there is someone in the yard!
Fun project, didn’t take long, and didn’t cost much – hard to beat.
Something fun for Friday, this was a gift from the client I work with to lighten things up and do some stress relief – punch it and it comes right back up. It sits on a table in the corner when I’m in the room, but I’ve taken to putting it my chair when I’m out and about, probably good for more than one double take as people go by!
Want one? $20 at Amazon.
One of the things I hear a lot relating to work big and small is that it is “almost done”, with a close relative “basically done”, often spoken as they reach for the marker to cross of an item on the task list. I can appreciate that it’s useful to indicate progress in a simpler way than saying its 97% complete, but it’s in no way the same as done.
Done is a binary state, it either is, or it is not. That final work, that last 1 or 2 percent, can often take a lot longer than we think, and it’s harder to stay engaged when something is marked as done and now we still have work to do (or supposed to do).
It’s also fun to say because it’s not far from Yoda.
Here’s a story from a recent meeting. We were discussing some problems and the team was talking through some options that were very interesting, technically good, just not ones that could get done for a variety of reasons. It’s frustrating to be in that position, seeing at least a “better” solution on the good/better/best range and having to go with a hack solution due to constraints imposed by others.
I get that frustration, and I see it as part of my role to listen to it, in part because letting them vent is useful, and in part because sometimes amid the frustration is an idea that might get us closer to good than hack. Listening isn’t always easy when you know that you’re going to have to take the ugly option and you’re just spending time wishing how the world could be.
We’re going through that discussion and after a while one of the attendees realizes that no matter how well he explains all the reasons that the hack is bad and all the reasons that the other solution is better, we’re stuck with the hack (he’s not going to change my mind). This is the point when he says to me “you’re doing it again, using Jedi mind tricks”.
Thought I’d fall out of the chair laughing.
You think this post is funny. You want to go back up your databases.