Make your organization blame-free and productive
By: Jean McLendon and Gerald M. Weinberg
What Is Congruence?
Congruence is a concept that describes the human experience of alignment between the internal and external–what is thought and felt (the internal), and what is said and how it is said (the external).
In order to operate congruently in the world, you need to take into account three general factors: self (the internal world), other (the immediate external world of people), and context (the larger external world of things, structures, processes, laws, and cultures).
* Self: You must consider your own needs and capabilities. Suppose you are a manager who doesn’t trust anyone else’s judgment, so you try to attend every technical meeting. Doing this, you’re likely to overload all your available time, and then be unable to do the managerial job, nor to make real technical contributions in any case.
* Other: You must consider the needs and capabilities of other people. For instance, if you are a programmer who refuses to be bothered to write readable code, then testing and maintenance of your code will be a great burden, if not an impossibility.
* Context: You must consider the reality of the context in which you are operating. For instance, if you are a manager who insists on sticking with an old design that no longer has the capacity to handle the task, your project may be doomed no matter how hard everyone works. Or, if you are a manager in a start-up company and spend money as if the company had a billion-dollar cash balance, your organization may be out of business before its software product is ready for market.
Congruence is integrity at the most basic level and thus has immense value to a project and each individual in it. Without integrity, we cannot build trust; without trust, we don’t feel safe; without safety we have a hard time being congruent. Thus, congruence reinforces congruence in a powerful loop which improves the chances of producing a quality product, on time, and within budget.
On the other hand, the same loop causes incongruence to reinforce incongruence. If a project is allowed to ride such a downward spiral, the integrity of information is destroyed. Soon it becomes impossible for anyone to know what is really happening. Such projects invariably fail, and when they fail, they are invariably found to have been keeping two sets of “books.” Their external picture is not congruent with their internal picture, and they die. Or worse yet, live forever–the living dead.
If congruence is so important for project success, why aren’t all projects congruent? One reason is that congruence is not without a price. Another is that congruence usually involves risk. The level of risk is somewhat contingent on the kind of congruence being demonstrated–mental or emotional.
In the United States, it’s relatively easy to express our thoughts with out too much incrimination–freedom of speech was a foundation upon which the country was built. Even so, there may be a price to pay for “speaking up.” For example, differing with a colleague or someone in authority at the wrong time can put us on a fast track to isolation, reprimands, reduced opportunities, and subtle door closings. Thus, we’ve all learned the importance of being careful about what we say where and to whom. Saying the wrong thing can lead to heated debates, followed by proclamations of who is right or wrong and who is good or bad. At that point, we’ve lost most possibilities for enhanced understanding and effective communication.
In our culture, feelings are reserved for athletic events, celebrations, funerals, near death experiences, deeply felt spiritual experiences, fights, and exchanges between intimate others, the very young and the very old. We even have many feelings about our feelings and some of the strongest have to do with shame and embarrassment over having them. Feelings are personal and lie close to our heart, where we are tender and vulnerable. No wonder we have all become so skilled at denying our feelings–which necessarily makes us incongruent.
Suppose you are a developer who is scared that you won’t be able to deliver a product when you promised. You try to tell your manager about your fear, but he tells you in no uncertain terms what will happen to you if you don’t express more confidence. “Why are you so negative? Aren’t you a team player?” One way to protect yourself from such negative responses is to live in your head. Perhaps you say, –”It’s just an estimate; I’m not attached to it,” meaning you won’t be hurt because you’ve distanced yourself sufficiently to ward off anything that might hint at rejection. But, though you deny your scared feeling to your manager, you still feel it, squashed down inside. You can stand back away from your ideas, but you always remain standing in your feelings. And, of course, you have been incongruent, and deprived your manager of your best information.
When you share your feelings, your heart-self is being presented to the outer world–exposed to the elements. When you’re scared and express your fear while maintaining consideration for the other person (your manager) and the context (the project), you are being congruent. Your critical issue here is, “Can I share my feelings and still be in control?” If the environment of your project is blaming, it threatens to remove your control if you tell the truth–so the temptation to lie about your feelings and your ideas increases. That’s why blaming cultures lead to “double books,” and that’s how they lead to failure.
What is Blaming?
In a congruent organization, your manager asks, “Where does your project stand?” and you answer, “I’m rather scared that I’m not going to make my schedule.” This starts a problem-solving discussion, out of which the two of you make new plans to get the project back on track. In a blaming organization, however, your manager may well tell you that only inferior people lack confidence. In that case, problem-solving will be replaced by blame-avoidance.
From a writer’s point of view, congruent interactions aren’t very dramatic; people just act sensibly, are considerate of one another, get their work done, and enjoy what they’re doing. That kind of behavior might not make as good a soap opera scene as your manager throwing a tantrum and you cringing in the corner, but it definitely makes a better project.
Not that a blaming culture conducts every interaction in a dramatic, blaming way. Under ordinary circumstances, congruent coping is the rule, but if circumstances were always ordinary, we wouldn’t need managers. When feelings of self-esteem are low, they are manifest much more dramatically in characteristic incongruent coping styles: blaming, placating, being superreasonable, loving or hating, and acting irrelevant. We can’t deal with all of these in a short article1 , so let’s discuss blaming, perhaps the most common and most directly destructive of the coping styles.
Under stress, people tend to lose their balance, and one or more of these three essential components may be ignored, leading to a characteristic incongruent coping style. For example, when people fail to take other people into account, they fall into a blaming posture. Here is a typical blaming action you may see in software organizations (italicized words are stressed in this style of speaking–because multiple stressed words in a sentence are a linguistic sign of blaming2):
Manager, as programmer arrives late for a meeting: “You’re always late. You never show any consideration for other people.”
Why is this incongruent? If the manager really is feeling and thinking that the programmer is always late and inconsiderate, isn’t she being congruent by saying so? Yes, but that isn’t what this manager said. She didn’t say, “It’s my impression that you’re always late to my meetings.” Instead, she pronounced her impression of lateness as if it were a scientific fact, never offering the possibility that the programmer might have a different impression. She generalized experience in her meetings as if they necessarily applied to all meetings, never allowing for the possibility that her experience might not be the only one that counts.
If the manager really is feeling and thinking that the programmer is always late and inconsiderate, she might say, “I think that you’re always late, and I feel that you’re not being considerate of me and the others. Is this your perception, too?” (And leave out the stressed words.) Even better management style would be to give the programmer a chance to provide a different perception before launching into interpretation. At the very least, that prevents embarrassment in situations such as the following:
Manager, as programmer arrives late for a meeting: “It seems to me that you’re always late. Is this your perception, too?”
Programmer: “Yes, and I feel bad about it. The reason I’m always late is that I have to donate blood for my 9-year-old son, who’s dying of leukemia, and the only time they take donations is just before this meeting.”
Manager: “I’m sorry about your son. I didn’t know about it. Let’s figure out a new meeting schedule so you don’t have to be late.”
More generally, it allows for the possibility that there may be other considerations that count besides those of this one manager. For example, perhaps the programmer is coming from a meeting with customers–a regularly scheduled meeting which overlaps the manager’s meeting.
But what if the programmer really is always late, with no reasonable explanation? Isn’t the manager then entitled to blame the programmer? Not really, because this situation is not about entitlement, but about getting the project done. For that purpose, the problem is most effectively resolved using a non-blaming confrontation with the facts about the unacceptable behavior. By foregoing blaming, the manager keeps the communication clear and open, maximizing the chance that the programmer will receive the intended message. And, of course, receiving the intended message maximizes the chance (though it doesn’t guarantee) that the problem will be solved.
When blaming, problem-solving is less likely because the facts of the case become a minor issue–the major issue in blaming is “who is important and who is insignificant.” When blaming, a person is saying, in effect, “I am everything, you are nothing.” Of course, this stance comes not from really thinking “I am everything,” but just the opposite. Directing the attention at another person–and blaming is often accompanied by a pointed finger–is a self-protective device to distract others from the inadequacy the blamer feels.
Like all incongruent coping, blaming is reinforced by feelings of low self-esteem. When you blame, you attempt to build yourself up by tearing down others because you don’t have the confidence that you can amount to much–or even survive–any other way.
Blaming usually fools people who are unsophisticated, or whose own self-esteem is at a low ebb. The knowledgeable observer, however, sees the amount of blaming as a sure measure of how inadequate the blamer feels. Moreover, if blaming is the preferred project communication style, then it becomes a measure of how far an environment has degenerated–how little communication is being directed at the project’s issues, compared to the amount that is being directed to puffing up the communicator’s weak self-esteem.
In a blaming organization, it’s not merely the managers who blame, as illustrated by these examples:
Programmer, when asked by a manager to volunteer to talk to a job applicant: ‘Why don’t you do it yourself? I’m not going to do your job for you. If you were better organized, you wouldn’t need to ask me such things.”
Customer, when project manager asks about the possibility of revising the requirements: “You never get the requirements right the first time. If I told you once, I told you a thousand times: Do the job right the first time, then you won’t bother me with revisions.”
(To test your understanding of the blaming style of communication, you might try to improve the congruence of these examples.)
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