If You Can’t Go Through the Door, Break the Wall

Today I had one of the toughest chats I can remember, trying to get through to an engineer in my team.

One of the challenges a new PM faces is building rapport with the engineers. This might be a bigger challenge if those engineers didn’t worked with a PM before, or  did, but got burned by following bad product decisions, or building failed products.

I’m not sure what’s the situation I’ve entered, but I do need to build trust. I’m not worried, though. I’ve been in that situation many times before; I’ll be OK. I’m also a CS graduate, and can talk the talk if needed. However, with this guy things are a bit different.

He’s quite, uninterested, avoiding communication and gives off bad vibe. But, he’s not someone you can dismiss. He’s experienced, built a lot of the current product, and has a lot of respect. In fact he was offered the tech lead role, and refused.

I need to get through to him. Not only because I want to good communication within the team, but because I think he can, and should, take instrumental role in what we’re building.

And so I took it as this week’s project. At first, I scheduled time with him, to pique his brain on one of the products we’re planning to build. As the most experienced person, I wanted to get his opinion. I thought that consulting with him, and involving him during the ideation phase will get him exited, and open him. I was wrong. He was very brief in his remarks, and didn’t share any independent thought.

I tried to have a follow-up session, but he invited the rest of the team. He’s not the “tap on the shoulder” kind of guy, and through the entire week I tried different means of communication. Non worked. Short slack messages don’t seem like a long-term strategy to develop trust.

Today I decided to take a bolder move. I saw him taking a solitary coffee break, and invited myself to sit next to him.

Again I shared what we’re planning to build. This time, though, I didn’t share my vision. Instead, I asked that he will define one, and take the lead on driving it; I will help were needed. He said he already refused to take any leadership role. 30 minutes later, and many more failed attempts to engage with him, I took a step back and asked: “what will make you excited?” – his answer, I didn’t expect – “Nothing. I’m not doing work to be happy. I’m committed, and will complete all my tasks, but I want to do the boring stuff. I want to help my team build faster. I don’t want to be acknowledged, and I don’t want to present and demo stuff.”

How do I deal with that answer…?

I felt my ammunition depleted. I couldn’t find an API to him. And so with no other options, I turned to the one that’s the hardest, but that, which can’t fail – the truth.

And here’s the essence of what I then said:

“Fine, don’t take a leadership role; don’t take more responsibility; don’t build the fun stuff; for all it worth, don’t even be happy. But, we’re at the same team, and we must communicate. Right now we don’t. I can’t tell if it’s personal – I think it’s not – but I can’t find a way to work together. I’m very uncomfortable, and can’t see how this situation is sustainable. There’s no option for us but to figure things out.”

That wasn’t fun. I was stressed, and emotionally drained after that. Not because I said uneasy things, but because throughout the entire time he didn’t make a single node. Nor did he react. Nor did a single muscle in his face moved. I had no clue if what I’ve said affected him. Did he listen? did he care? was he mad? annoyed? It felt like flying in the dark, with no instruments to guide me.

Eventually he did respond. But his response had nothing to do with what I’ve just said. He simply shared a positive progress on a feature he’ve been working on. To me, though, what he said sounded more like “gotcha, let me digest what you’ve just said.” I was encouraged.

And now I need to wait. I don’t know if that tactic will work, but at least I’m at peace – I was transparent and honest, and didn’t let awkwardness and uncomfortableness control me.