Dear Kate – April 2016

Dear Kate,

I’ve realised that I’m not really someone who people seem to want to work with. Although my work is meant to be collaborative and self-initiated, the only collaborations I’ve had in the past were ‘brokered’ by my boss (e.g. my boss getting me involved in other peoples’ projects). I noticed with frustration back then that some of the others had collaborations that arose directly from discussing ideas with each other other, but this never happened for me. Recently, I heard that some of my old colleagues (including people who I was good friends with) have been talking about setting up companies together, for example. I’m jealous that people are initiating things to work together, but don’t seem to want to work with me. I’ve always really wanted to be involved in these sorts of self-initiated projects (e.g. I’ve wanted to try setting up a company for a while now), so it saddens and frustrates me that I am missing out on opportunities that I would be interested in pursuing, with people who I like and would be interested in working with.

When I confided a good friend, she said that I can be quite direct with my opinions a lot of the time, and also that my anxious and self-deprecating personality can make me seem like someone who is unreliable. Upon reflection, I do tend to get carried away with my ideas, and haven’t really learnt how to deliver critical comments diplomatically. The part that I can’t figure out is: how do I change? Or rather, what do I try to change into, how do I become someone who people want to work with? What does the sort of person who people want to work with look like? I feel like I might lack social ability in some ways (this has been a bit of an issue in my personal life too), and if this is holding me back professionally, then it’s something that I think I should try harder to deal with. The problem is, I really really don’t know how. Can you give me advice?

⁃ Want to change but not sure how.

Dear Want to Change,

This is an excellent question. I applaud you for taking a pro-active approach to self-improvement and attaining your goals. There is a lot to unpack, so here goes:

In my experience, collaborations often evolve organically from people who have an easy rapport and common vision. Collaborations for co-founding companies tend to arise when individuals have a complementary skill set (e.g. the scientist and the business person) and both share the leadership skills that investors will be looking for.

You might consider seeking out opportunities to develop and practice your leadership skills, and/or opportunities to develop relationships across different departments or skill-sets. For example, are there opportunities to volunteer as an organizer of the 100K entrepreneurship competition? Are there courses or seminars with “J” in the course number where you could meet students interested in cross-functional collaboration? Are there student-run conferences that you could attend or help run? Are there local professional organizations that are looking to connect with students where you could volunteer in exchange for free admission to events (e.g. MIT Enterprise Forum)?

There is no single leadership style that will be successful for all people in all situations. Certain notable leaders (e.g. Steve Jobs) have been known for their direct and at times abrasive style. That said, they may be the exception rather than the rule.

For the rest of us, an important element of leadership involves self-awareness and the ability to connect with others. Many leaders have developed a physical or spiritual practice that supports their ability to maintain composure through challenge, build connections, and perform at their peak. It is absolutely worth the effort to explore and find if there is something that resonates with you, whether it’s running, walking, swimming, yoga, meditation, or heli-skiing.

Building relationships with supportive health professionals can also be tremendously helpful in overcoming challenges such as anxiety, lower self-esteem, or difficulty with focusing/following through. Many successful professionals have had great success and improvement from working with behavioral health professionals or health coaches. Many students shy away from this due to stigma, lack of time/energy, or perhaps the first attempt was not a match. I encourage you to be open-minded, thoughtful, and persistent in seeking support. See below for further suggestions.

With the help of a professional or on your own, you might experiment with different ways to approach interactions with your peers and your teams. See below for examples of phrases that may come across as more collaborative or diplomatic.

May the force be with you on this challenging yet rewarding journey!

Kate W
(a senior manager)

Developing Your Diplomatic Side

More Direct Statements

  • No. This won’t work.
  • This is incorrect.
  • I disagree.
  • What were you thinking?!
  • Go back and revise the entire project. I need it within 1 hour.

More Diplomatic Statements

  • What if we tried…
  • I wonder what wolid happen if…
  • Have you thought about…
  • Would it be worth looking at…
  • I hear you. And I am also thinking about….

Questions to Ask When Seeking Support

  • How comfortable do I feel in the presence of this person?
  • How will this person’s training and past experience prepare them to assist me?
  • What type of success has this person had with past clients similar to me?
  • How well will this person help me tease apart the difference between difficult
    circumstances and my underlying emotions or brain chemistry?
  • How well will this person pursue a full understanding of my experience, and pick up on contradictory, subtle, or enigmatic statements and behaviors?
  • Is the type of support that will help me best available on or off campus?

Dear Not Sure,

Working with others can be learned. From my experience the first thing you need to do is figure out what excites you that you would want to work on with others. The important thing is not whether you start a company but about what you can contribute. If your boss gets you into something exciting, that’s great, go for it and don’t worry about how you got into it.

The kind of person people want to work with behaves in a way that is calm and confident, not anxious, fearful, or worried that they will not get credit. They listen well, keep their promises, and speak diplomatically. They say what needs to be said, and say it kindly, focusing on the issue without attacking the person. You can learn to do all of these things.

Some tips:

Listen. Everyone has something useful to say. Once you understand what it is they are trying to express (clarifying questions are always good) then you can dovetail your ideas with theirs. Give them credit for what they contribute.

Be reliable. Underpromise and overdeliver, and do it on time. Self-deprecation here, in moderation, is not necessarily bad!

Be diplomatic. A direct comment can be effective, but being overly direct is not good (see, Listen, above). Before speaking, decide whether your comment would be helpful: for example, is it something they have control over? Is it something they can fix? Is it key to project success? If not, let it go.

Join Toastmasters, a great resource not only for improving public speaking skills but also for learning how to work with and lead others. You can use its leadership track to experiment with collaborating on projects in a safe setting. In Toastmasters you get explicit feedback on everything you do, so you can ask how diplomatic you were or how you could be more effective in a particular situation.

Good luck!

Kate Q
(A Manager of many projects and recent Toastmasters@MIT club leader)

Dear Want To,

First, it’s excellent to periodically take a hard look at oneself and improve the self-assessment. Skill building requires understanding both what is needed and what has to be done. In this situation there are two sets of skills that jump out as needing improvement:

First, listening. A really good way to start this process is NOT to offer an opinion until you have listened to, heard, and processed what everyone else has to say on the subject. This takes time and patience, but shows respect for others. Mandatory in this process is to control facial expressions and body language so that you are not radiating disapproval when you should in fact be in gathering information mode, not judging mode. Be the very last person to offer your own views.

Second, empathy. Once you have heard what everyone else is saying, you have to put yourself in their shoes, see the world from their eyes, and ask yourself what led them to have the perspective and opinions that they have. Whether or not you agree with them, their perspectives matter. Ask questions of people to understand why they think what they think – DO NOT OFFER CRITICISMS at this stage. Learn more.

Only after BOTH these steps have been completed is it okay to gently offer your own point of view and ideas for others to consider. Offer up your thoughts as a contribution to a conversation, not as a conclusion.

Finally, you need constant feedback and reinforcement. So if you have a good friend who is wiling to help, tell them what you are trying to do and ask them for feedback on how you are doing. Are you waiting long enough for others to speak first? Are you controlling your body language so that it is solicitous, not critical? Are you offering ideas as suggestions rather than edicts? It takes time to change your approach but it will make you a much better team player.

And by the way, all of the above improves personal relationships as well!

Kate W
(who has had a long career in management)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate W., Kate W., and Kate Q. tributor, Kate W., Kate W., and Kate Q.

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