In the 1965 novel Dune, Frank Herbert showed his hero using a meditation that would keep fear at bay in order to think clearly. It began, “Fear is the mind-killer.” When reading the book, I thought it was an odd skill for a person who was a natural leader: a future duke who would command the population of a planet. I would have wished for a better super-power. It was not until I needed to work to the limit of my gifts that I realized how much the concerns of being an adult can be a mind-killer. As a technical and managerial leader, what can I do to minimize perceived fear within the IT workplace?
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room first. The most frequent cause of stress comes from the dreaded deadline. Perhaps not the deadline itself, but the many things to do by that deadline: the murky requirements, the creeping scope, the new tech, and the lack of days until a delivery. We address project challenges by adding resources, slimming scope, negotiating an extension -- all good responses to project-induced high blood pressure.
As a leader, what additional step should I take? Strangely, I was able to name the technique while walking in Mumbai. When it was time to cross a bustling intersection, I followed the crowd of folks while clutching my St. Christopher medal. Miraculously, all traffic halted. My local guide said, “They can’t hit all of us. It would dent their car.” The name for my project anti-fear approach is now called, “They can’t fire all of us.”
First, I take personal responsibility for team progress on the project. I do this visibly and deflect criticism of the team. I make it clear within the team that only the complete team can succeed. As a group, we will work to balance the assignments so no one person feels like the single point of failure. To our sponsors of the project, I am clear about our status and needs from senior leadership. Knowing that we are all on the same journey keeps the team together.
Eventually, all businesses run into budget problems. IT spending is a necessary evil because businesses leverage mission-critical applications. But the fear within the employees is that people may not seem as necessary. The threat of possible downsizing casts an enormous shadow and can be debilitating in concentrating on complex mental work. How do I keep our focus amidst layoff rumors? My communication stresses our value. I ask the team to show our company that we are going to continue to strive for excellence. I pose this to my team: “Let’s continue to do great things. Will the company value us more if we slip on quality, complain about our situation, or spread layoff rumors? Or, will we make the most of each moment and the tools we have? Will we show how valuable our team is?”
During one tough financial spot, an outside firm reviewed my team’s work and told senior leadership, “Chuck’s team is succeeding by making a bridge out of toothpicks. When IT can afford it, we should give them some wood.” Encouragement to keep our high-performance standard is best for the company and a good way to help everyone get through tough times. If the company must resort to belt-tightening, I point to the value that my team has provided. It demonstrates what IT would lose without us.
No doubt, 2020+ has been the year of the pandemic. The word pandemic itself carries fear for each of us as well as worry for our family and friends. The “home office” is a term that should be considered an oxymoron equivalent to “government help.” Our homes are where we escape the stress of the workplace, and the pandemic has brought all of that to our dining room table or easy chair. I believe that my key contribution has been added flexibility in the work schedule. When a family need arises just take care of that first. Employees have been so grateful to have the flexibility that they make up the time (and then some). The last thing I want a person to do is to build complex code while distracted by worry.
A colleague challenged me once about my attention to eliminating fear. IT people are not first responders, surgeons, or air traffic controllers. If our automation fails, we get a Mulligan to try it again until it works. Among all careers, IT has relatively low-stress jobs. My answer to the challenge is this. You get your team and I will bring mine. I will remove as many fears as I can from their workday, and your team can hear about constant budget, schedule, job security, and health problems that surround them. I would bet the farm on my team every time.
Charles Weindorf is a retired IT Director and Chief Engineer with nearly 40 years of experience in software engineering. At Erie Insurance, he served in every possible technical and supervisory role, where he encouraged software engineers to understand their responsibilities, see their value, adopt change, and focus on future direction. With stories, humor, and recollections of his roots as a young engineer, he influenced the next generation of software engineers to excel in their craft. In his upcoming book, Leaders & Software Engineers, Charles provides the Rosetta Stone for communicating to engineers with stories, analogies, and humor to encourage excellence in your team. Learn more at www.leadingsoftwareengineers.com.