The harm of emotional response

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
November 3, 2015
Tags: short 50 communication 27

I can't stop notic­ing how emo­tion­al pro­ject man­agers can be, and how much harm could emo­tions cause to their pro­ject.

A week ago, I had my­self an in­ter­est­ing case when my emo­tion­al re­sponse dur­ing a call with a cus­tomer led to a neg­a­tive con­duct on both sides. This cus­tomer has a soft­ware prod­uct which is quite slow. Bad­ly writ­ten code and poor de­ci­sions led to too many CPU cy­cles than need­ed, and so the users are not par­tic­u­lar­ly hap­py about the re­sponse times. Among oth­er tasks, my team is in charge of solv­ing those per­for­mance is­sues.

When pre­vi­ous­ly the cus­tomer—a non-tech­ni­cal per­son—de­scribed the slow­ness, the in­for­ma­tion was rather con­tra­dic­to­ry: one time, the per­son told that all pages of the web ap­pli­ca­tion are slow, and a week lat­er, the same per­son claimed ex­act­ly the op­po­site, telling that the per­for­mance is­sue con­cerns only a giv­en fea­ture of the ap­pli­ca­tion.

Dur­ing a call, the per­son an­nounced an ad­di­tion­al el­e­ment: that the speed de­pends heav­i­ly of the coun­try of the user. I not­ed that it is un­for­tu­nate that this in­for­ma­tion wasn't com­mu­ni­cat­ed be­fore (since it ac­tu­al­ly im­pacts our per­for­mance di­ag­nos­tics) and high­light­ed the fact that the one which is com­mu­ni­cat­ed was con­tra­dic­to­ry. The cus­tomer re­tort­ed in a not par­tic­u­lar­ly po­lite way that I nev­er asked her about the coun­tries, and it's up to me to “ask the right ques­tions”.

Re­act­ing emo­tion­al­ly, I start­ed de­fend­ing my­self, telling that I can't see how could I guess that I have to ask about the coun­tries (in­deed, in the con­text of this pro­ject, I can't). Right, but was she telling what she was ac­tu­al­ly telling?

Let's think about it.

  1. The cus­tomer gives in­com­plete, con­tra­dic­to­ry in­for­ma­tion.

  2. When faced with the fact that the in­for­ma­tion is in­com­plete and con­tra­dic­to­ry, the cus­tomer ex­press­es anger.

Does it mean that the cus­tomer is un­co­op­er­a­tive? Well, prob­a­bly not: it rather means that I was act­ing un­pro­fes­sion­al­ly. The re­ac­tion of the per­son is un­der­stand­able, and it ex­press­es anx­i­ety; not anger per se, but only anx­i­ety. What ac­tu­al­ly hap­pens is that the per­son un­der­stands that she doesn't do things right (in oth­er words, all she could do is to gath­er con­tra­dic­to­ry, some­how mean­ing­less re­sults, and don't know what to do with them), but her ego pre­vents her from ad­mit­ting ei­ther her fail­ure or the fact that she has no tech­ni­cal skills re­quired to gath­er per­for­mance feed­back from the end users. This cre­ates anx­i­ety that she ex­press­es un­der a form of anger.

What should have been my re­ac­tion if I were be­hav­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ly, in­stead of re­act­ing emo­tion­al­ly? I could have re­as­sured her that she did noth­ing wrong, and guid­ed her by ex­plain­ing what in­for­ma­tion do I ex­pect from her and how could we work to­geth­er to gath­er it from the end users. Looks much more con­struc­tive.

Un­for­tu­nate­ly, many man­agers don't even think about the rea­sons why cus­tomers act the way they do. There are sev­er­al rea­sons for that.

  1. The cul­ture pop­u­lar among tech­ni­cal staff is that non-tech­ni­cal per­sons in a form of cus­tomers are mo­rons. One should as­sume that they have no brains at all, that they ask stu­pid things, and act ir­ra­tional­ly and harm them­selves and their pro­ject. Such cul­ture makes it easy to as­sume that cus­tomers are chil­dren with pow­ers, which in turn en­cour­ages the un­ques­tion­able char­ac­ter of emo­tion­al re­sponse.

  2. An­oth­er rea­son is the lack of the cul­ture of ret­ro­spec­tion. The pace of the busi­ness makes it very dif­fi­cult to find time to ac­tu­al­ly think about the way we work and act. Un­less the per­son is trained to ques­tion every­thing and an­a­lyze her own be­hav­ior and the be­hav­ior of oth­ers, it is prac­ti­cal­ly im­pos­si­ble to an­a­lyt­i­cal­ly post-process the sit­u­a­tions where emo­tions were in­volved.

  3. So­cial re­in­force­ment has its ef­fects too. In com­pa­nies where pro­ject man­ag­er ex­changes a lot with a team or with oth­er man­agers, it is not un­usu­al to see the per­son start­ing to blame a cus­tomer. The ob­vi­ous re­sponse of the per­son's col­leagues is to sup­port him, re­in­forc­ing the emo­tion­al thumbprint. It is al­ready very dif­fi­cult to get neu­tral on such sub­jects, and sup­port from fel­low man­agers or from the oth­er mem­bers of the team don't make things eas­i­er.

In all cas­es, pro­ject man­agers should take in ac­count that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the key part of their job, and that let­ting emo­tions in­flu­ence their ac­tions when deal­ing with cus­tomers is un­pro­fes­sion­al. And if emo­tion­al re­sponse took place, the min­i­mum one can do is to do a ret­ro­spec­tion and try to mit­i­gate the ef­fect of the harm al­ready done.