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The harm of emotional response

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer, specializing in developer productivity and code quality
November 3, 2015

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.