Approachable? Sometimes.

Deservedly so, I got called out for a bit of attitude I displayed in a recent blog post: Time for a Quick Rant. Steve Hood took the general attitude of “Do this or I will beat you” to task in his blog post The Approachable DBA.

Granted, my little rant was primarily done tongue wedged immovably in cheek. But I was reflecting an attitude that the gods know I’m guilty of and that I think way too many DBAs are guilty of. Actually, I think developers are just as guilty. And sysadmins, san admins, support desk people, QA, the report writing team, those people supporting the data warehouse certainly, the SharePoint team, and that poor lady who got stuck being the Deployment manager.

That attitude? I don’t think you heard me the first couple of (eight thousand) times I said this, so I’ll say it a little louder… with emphasis… at length… weapon in hand (figuratively, of course).

I have never, ever, put my hands on someone in anger in the workplace. I don’t threaten people in the workplace either (there was that one time, but that guy had it coming). But I am guilty of the extended and repeated rant. While it might actually be cathartic for me, it doesn’t help anyone else at work. More importantly, it doesn’t help you with your leadership position at work.

Leadership? Most of you just held up a sign to ward off evil. “I don’t want to move into management.” No. That’s not what I mean. I mean leadership, not management. Why do we go off on these rants and tears? Speaking for everyone (’cause I can, my blog, my rules), we want to be able to positively influence the decisions made within our company and we’re right (most of the time, or, well, often enough), so when we have to deal with concerns like, “Hey, that restore you ran left off a row” we launch into what is practically a canned recording of “Restores are a bit-by-bit copy of the database at a given moment in time. I can’t possibly have missed a row. How many times do I have to tell you? Look, here’s how it works…” And we’re off.

Where was I? Oh yeah, leadership. It’s not about management. It’s about having influence, setting direction, getting things going the right way. In order to really do this, you can’t just bark at people and figuratively shove them around. You must be approachable. In order for them to hear you, they must listen to you. If all you are is shouts and threats and rants, you will not be able to lead.

I think Steve is right. There has to be a level of approachability that we have in order to establish the trust we need to put ourselves in the place we need to be to make a positive impact. Just don’t ask for access to production again, or I’m getting the hose out.

20 thoughts on “Approachable? Sometimes.

  • You’re right that everyone’s guilty of it. We tend to take a hard and fast approach of protecting our own interests. The SAN admin wants to make sure you aren’t using disk space, so their first answer is almost always no. The DBA…first answer…, the developer…first answer…

    What IT is really hurting with are people who can skip the “first answer” and get into really hearing the other person’s logic. Then, after really listening to them, teach them how your processes work and why you’re giving the answer you’re giving.

    For the teaching purposes, take the canned recording of “Restores are a bit-by-bit copy of the database at a given moment in time. I can’t possibly have missed a row. How many times do I have to tell you? Look, here’s how it works…” for instance. Skip the middle section that stops the other person from listening to you and you get: “Restores are a bit-by-bit copy of the database at a given moment in time. Look, here’s how it works…”

    Once the other side stops listening, you were better off not talking anymore. Also, once you make one statement that puts them on the defensive they’re looking for ways to defend themselves instead of listening. In their eyes, you never got to “Look, here’s how it works”, and you’ll have the same conversation next time due to the side effects of not being approachable.

  • I’ve read both of your blog posts, and hereby volunteer to stamp the word GUILTY across my forehead. “Us vs them” has reached critical levels in my company, with offenders on both sides of the fence. I’m working VERY hard this year to put a stop to it, as much as I can. If you don’t mind a bit of shameless self-promotion, I’ve written a couple of posts about the topic myself. Here’s one:

  • I don’t speak for Grant, obviously, but I don’t consider that shameless self-promotion. When people in IT lose their jobs it’s usually because of soft skills more than anything else, be it willingness to listen to explanations or ability to explain things effectively. I’m personally very happy that you not only wrote that post, but that you also added it here.

  • Yo! Steve. Quit trying to manage my blog. I get to say if shameless self-promotion is allowed here. So back off!

    Hey, Tracy, sure. Feel free to share stuff that’s related.

    Ha! Kidding Steve. Don’t hit me.

  • Grant, that’s a perfect example! You start by being negative, then I stopped listening at that point. This had the unintended side-effect that I never heard you say “Don’t hit me.”

  • David Moutray

    I think this is a very interesting post, because I think this issue comes up quite often. However, I completely disagree with everything that everyone has said on this.

    As a DBA, what I desire of my colleagues is that they answer questions that I ask with honesty and clarity; that they admit when they make a mistake; and that they put their best effort toward fulfilling our common goals. In return, I commit that I will do the same every day. Politeness is not a requirement. Although I have never insulted anyone that asked me for help, I am happy to be insulted by someone else if the insultor will teach me something I didn’t know before.

    I think this is just more political correctness run amok. When someone says to me that, in effect, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” my immediate thought is, “no, it’s what I said.” When a manager trots out a series of rubbed and polished, touchy-feely sentences, my immediate thought is that they are trying to say something that they think I will find unpleasant, and I wonder what that might be, and I wish that they would just say it.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  • David!

    Man, I love you to death.

    I wouldn’t say that my… reticence(?) here is around insults. I’m quite proud of the fact that I made a data modeler cry because I said the design was one of the stupidest I’d ever seen. It was. It’s more the yelling & screaming, the rants that some of us (hand raised) have done in the past. It’s yelling & screaming & threats I think should be sidelined.

    Rudeness… hey, improve your designs.

  • The end result is what I care about, and there’s really three goals rolled together there.

    1. The current problem is fixed (you both do excellent here)

    2. Future problems are resolved, preferably without future interaction (as long as interaction isn’t required, you’ll be fine)

    3. Everyone leaves being better at their jobs and enjoying what they do (which way will they go with a harsh approach? Some will be receptive, others will be job searching)

    I admit, my way of doing things puts me in a situation where I have to repeat myself more often. A softer approach doesn’t get down to a person’s core in one day. However, when it does make it there, it does so with someone who’ll work there longer and want to learn more from me.

    Perhaps you do want some of these people to move on to other jobs. I know I would suck at guiding them to the door, but I’m not too upset about that.

    Grant, how long did you work with that data modeler after that incident, and did they talk to you much afterwards to incorporate your image of proper design into their future work?

  • David Moutray

    As I wrote this, I was thinking of the TV show, House. The doctors who work with House put up with his incredible misbehavior because he is the best, and they want to be the best, too. The people who are endlessly offended by House are – to be frank – mediocrities who are quite satisfied to be mediocre, but don’t appreciate being called out on it.

    Grant, if I had been that data modeler, I hope that I would have responded, “Wow! The very stupidest … like, ever? That makes me sort of proud.” 🙂

    Sarcasm isn’t just a weapon. It’s an almost impenetrable armor, too.

  • David, is House the show where people want to work with someone who is absolutely brilliant and they want to learn off of him? However, there are a lot of issues because of his disregard for others. Time and attention is taken away from the learning opportunity by the other doctors worrying about how he’ll react or because they’re off smoothing over the problems that were caused by the brilliant doctor being overly harsh. This gets to the point that doctors and patients second guess working with him, the hospital administrator only keeps him employed because she feels guilty for past actions, and he’s constantly one lawsuit away from never working in that field again?

    If I’m thinking of the right show, then, yes, the brilliance of the man does make people want to work with him.

  • Jim

    I have worked as dba for 5 years, with software developers for over 15 and in IT for over 20. Every Grant Fritchey I have ever come across is the same. Being pompous is somehow comforting to them. Many times they don’t even consider they are wrong because almost no one challenges them or can prove they might be full of it. Do I get frustrated by a mediocre IT person I think is just lazy? Of course. But as a mature adult I understand that being holier than though when proving ones technical brilliance is just as lazy. I cannot begin to explain the wasted time and energy involved in trying to work side-by-side with a “scary dba” or “brilliant developer”. Give me an average IT person, which a great majority of us are, willing to work their ass off any day.

  • David Moutray

    I would like to respond to Steve’s last comment. Yes, that is the show I am thinking of. My point is not that people should act like Dr. Greg House. He clearly suffers from some mental disorder. (Sociopathy? Asperger’s Syndrome? A combination of the two? I don’t know, but it is clearly serious, and clearly awful.) The other people on the show who work closely with House do not behave the way he does, and it is very clear that they only tolerate House because he is very, very good at his work. Moreover, House’s personal life is a total disaster. Who would want to live that way?

    No, I wanted to point out the behavior of his associates. They do not allow themselves to be offended by his clearly over-the-top and very offensive behavior, because he is usually correct in his work. When no one else can solve the riddle, House will solve it. If you are going to be offended by House, then you simply won’t be able to work with him. In the long run, that will hurt you more than it hurts House.

    Dr. Greg House is an extreme example. The basic point is this, don’t be so sensitive. If I make a proposal at work, by all means, attack it. If I attack your proposal, by all means, fight back. Never, never say or imply, however, “I don’t have to listen to you, because you offended me.” Keep everything focused on the prime objective. (Yes, that applies to everyone in the discussion, but if someone else strays over the line and says something personal, be an adult and ignore it.)

    There is a GREAT article on the Harvard Business Review website called, “It’s Up to You to Start a Great Fight.” The article starts off with this gem: “In the most effective teams in organizations, people fight with each other.” You can read the whole article here:

    Anyone who really cares about the success of a project is going to have passionate opinions about it. When those opinions come into conflict, the people behind them will come into conflict, too. The best course of action can ONLY emerge from conflict.

  • I couldn’t have imagined a better response to my comment. Thank you.

    There are a couple things I want to point out. First, I agree completely that we need to fight for things to be done right. That’s our job, and we can’t forget it. I realized I may appear that I’m arguing against starting the fight, and because of a communication issue I struggle with at times.

    However, in your earlier comment you discounted the phrase “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” This is where I disagree. Fighting and saying what needs to be said it the first part, and having a constructive outcome is the second.

    In the article you mentioned it is said that success “depended on constant and constructive battles,” with the key word being constructive. If it’s said wrong then you won’t be fostering the “conditions where people feel safe to fight,” and you’ll lose more than you gained in the fight.

    A good fight should really end with people thinking about the whole picture, inspired to do better, and looking forward to the next confrontation that will create more of the same. To quote another Harvard Business Review article, if what’s said in that fight is said wrong it could lead to a situation where “team members trust you less, withdraw from the discussion, and withhold relevant information that the team needs to make good decisions.” This is specifically speaking of rhetorical questions, which take a lot of practice (for me at least) to take out of your arguments.

    Here’s the full article on that one:

    Personally, I think the title of that article says it all. “Increase Your Team’s Curiosity”

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