Who doesn't want recognition for their hard work and contributions?
Early in my career I wanted to believe if you worked hard, and added value, you would be rewarded. I wanted to believe in the utopian ideal that hard work, discipline, and contributions were the fuel that propelled you up the corporate ladder. Boy, was I wrong.
You see, I started my career as a shy, insecure, but smart, programmer. I worked hard (almost every weekend), I wrote code for fun when I was not working on my work projects (still do, actually), and I was loyal and dedicated to my company.
Once, for six months, I worked on a project with four other peopleand I felt like my contributions in terms of functionality and hours contributed were at the top of the group. So you can imagine my surprise when at our launch party, the GM of the group stood up and recognized "Josh and the other team members for their hard work." I stood there stunned, thinking, What?!? How was it the GM was so out of touch with the team? Didn't our manager look at the check-ins and the problems being resolved? How did Josh, who had probably contributed the second-least amount to the project, end up being the only person singled out from the group? Not me, not the most senior person on the project, but the guy who seemed to spend a lot of time talking to my boss and the other people on the project.
Many of us have been there, though. We work tirelessly, doing our very best to get things done on time, but somehow we get passed overin favor of someone else whom you honestly believe did not contribute nearly as much as you did. What happened to meritocracy and being recognized for your work?
Fast forward to the present day. I work with a team of 18 amazing technologists, and it is my job to judge their performance. Only recently have I realized in many ways it is nearly impossible to do so.
There is no objective, quantifiable way of doing this at scale without resorting to micromanagementwhich is not something you even want to contemplate with a talented team. If this doesn't make sense to you, then let me describe various metrics people have suggested for judging performance (note that some of these are measurable, but others are more subjective):
There are probably 101 more factors that could be used to judge programmers' achievementsincluding the way they present themselves (having a good attitude, for example), how dependable they are, or how often they contribute innovative ideas and solutions. Very few of these are objective, concrete factors that can be totaled up and given a gradeand it is difficult to do so without diving into minute details or micromanaging a project.
If there is no reliable managerial measure of your contributions, how do you get noticed? Really it all comes down to one thing: trust.
Trust is like a currency. When managers give their team members autonomy and independence, they trust them to complete the assigned task, making wise and strategic decisions along the way, while proactively communicating problems long before they become problems. These managers are, in fact, investing their money in the team, and when they see the returns on that investment, they, just like any lucky investor, are quite pleased.
Trust, though, takes time, patience, and consistency. If you cannot build a relationship with your manager, all that work means nothing. For someone to invest in you, you have to show you are, in fact, an investment. Ask yourself these questions:
As a manager, I have been, at various times, very fond of a particular employee, but then noticed this person's peers did not care for him or her, or they held negative impressions of his or her performance. In these cases, given the trust level I have with my entire team, the opinions of the collective can easily outweigh personal preferences. Think of trust as a graph and each arc between the people you interact with as a weightso when it comes to performance, those weights really matter.
Projects, products, performance, and companies are not just judged on their output, but on how they produce the output.
In the example project I recalled at the outset of this article, the one thing Josh did differently was he did not just do the work, but he also made sure managementmy boss and the GMknew what our team was doing. In retrospect, he was the reason our project was singled out in an organization with so many people. At the time, I resented Josh; but now, many years later, I realize his contributions to our team were not just his code, but also his communication skills and the way he did his job.
As an aside, though, certain company cultures may reward Josh's approach more than others. The problem with some people like Josh is that over time they can optimize on "trust" and create a distorted view of their contributions. This is what I mean when I say "office politics"and this is not good, either.
One of my very smart friends told me a story about joining one big company and meeting tons of super-smart, highly functional, and productive people who were all about creating trust with their superiors by being hyper-visible:
"They talked the most at meetings, they interrupted people, they sent extremely verbose emails at 3 A.M. detailing the minutia of a meeting that took place the previous day, they cc'd long lists of seemingly irrelevant but high-ranking people on their emails, etc. And their bosses loved them and they got the best reviews, etc. After meeting these individuals and being both amazed and disgusted by their shtick, it started to become clear to us that the whole culture self-selects to this type of person. It didn't take us long to understand why so much 'work' happens but so little gets done."
As an employee, I want to be judged by my contributions and be part of a team that is a meritocracy. I also want autonomy and the ability to own substantial parts of a project and not have someone looking over my shoulder.
As a manager, I want to give recognition and praise to the people who deserve it, and I do not want to micromanage and spend my days being big brother.
This implies an implicit contract:
I will give you autonomy and independence, but it is your responsibility to share status and information with me.
For example, a team member once told me he had worked so hard and had really given it his best; from my viewpoint, however, his progress was not up to the level of his teammates. When he was leaving the company, he told me all these things he had done, and I asked him, "Why didn't you share this with me before?" With that information I could have advised him to spend his time elsewhere on priorities that were more important to the business. His response: "I thought you would know." Don't make that mistake.
It is also important that as a manager you recognize improvement. This means understanding a person's strengths and weaknesses. If you observe someone's performance and see substantial improvements in one of that person's development areas, then that is definitely worth recognizing. For example, if you have an amazing engineer who is typically a poor communicator, but who then steps up and contributes not just great coding prowess to a project but also keeps other team members abreast of evolving risk factors, those sorts of achievements are worth praise.
Make sure you consider all the factors of a person's involvement in the organization. Take steps to ask good questions and solicit feedback from other members of the organization. Finally, let each person know your expectations around communication and progress.
My conclusion from all of this is: If you want autonomy and the ability to own and control your own domain and projects, then it is your job to push information and build trust with your team members.
In other words, you need to learn and do the following:
In turn, you may be lucky enough to have a good manager who will be able to ask you good questions and take the time to understand your contributions. If that is not your situation, then make sure you are sharing information with those around you, such as your peers, your boss, and other stakeholders.
Good leadership means keeping everyone on the same page. If you want independence, then it is on you to make sure people know what you are contributing.
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