A List Apart


Defeating Workplace Drama with Emotional Intelligence

I was on a client call and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The client contact had discovered that if she resized her desktop browser to mobile size, showed and hid the mobile form, and then resized back to desktop size, the previously-visible desktop form disappeared. “Do we anticipate a lot of people doing that?” I asked. “Well, you never know,” she responded.

Article Continues Below

I muted the phone and sighed heartily. The bottom line was the client contact cared about it and needed it fixed—I knew that. I just didn’t understand why.

Irrationality is one of the most frequent complaints of creatives and devs dealing with clients. “Clients just don’t get it,” I hear frequently. I’ve been there. We all have.

But our coworkers aren’t much better. There’s that project manager who thinks that the only solution for a project behind schedule is more status meetings. There’s that account manager who thinks that even the most mundane detail needs to be clarified and confirmed ad nauseam. There’s that supervisor who feels the need to micromanage your every move. What’s up with those people?

Doesn’t anyone get it? Isn’t irrationality just the worst?

The anxiety problem

A few weeks after the conversation I mentioned above, I was on a call again with the same client, but this time the client’s boss was also on the line. It was a much different conversation. The client’s boss berated all of us, client contact included, for a solid hour. It turns out the client had missed their budget goals for the last two quarters, and the blame fell squarely on the marketing team—whether deserved or not. Our client contact was under a tremendous amount of pressure, so even the slightest mess-up, if noticed, could have disastrous results.

What I realized then was that the problem wasn’t irrationality—in fact, it rarely is. The problem was anxiety.

We’re going to do some math with our emotions. Ready? Good. Here’s the formula:

Anxiety + Time = Drama

That’s right, when anxiety goes up against an approaching deadline, it grows and that results in drama. And when there’s drama on a project, everyone feels it.

I often hear people say, “I don’t do drama.” What this basically means is that they don’t deal with emotional issues in the people around them. Ironically, this results in drama surrounding these people everywhere they go. You wouldn’t hear a developer say, “I don’t do bugs.” You wouldn’t hear a designer say, “I don’t do revisions.” As web professionals, those things are your job. If you work with people, it’s your job to take care of drama, too.

Taking care of drama means learning to recognize and deal with the roots of anxiety. Anxiety comes from a few different places, but it’s at the center of a number of problems in the workplace. Understanding it is the key to defusing a lot of those problems.

Power and responsibility

We’re going to do some more math with our emotions. Here’s a formula for anxiety:

Responsibility − Power = Anxiety

The more pressure someone is under, the greater the responsibility. And our client contacts (as well as our accounts teams and project managers) have very little power to fix these problems. This is a classic recipe for anxiety.

It’s a concept we, as problem-solvers, may not be familiar with in a workplace setting. After all, people come to us to solve their problems. We rarely have to go to others to solve our problems.

Remember those irrational coworkers I mentioned above? In all cases, they suffered workplace anxiety due to responsibility minus power. They were being held responsible for something they didn’t have the power to directly do. They may not state it. They may not even realize it. But anxiety is a way of life for the people you work for.

Clients, too, suffer from this anxiety. In fact, the very act of a client coming to you means that they’ve realized that they can’t solve the problem on their own, even though they’re responsible for the outcome. Every client relationship is fundamentally based on the root of anxiety.

If anxiety is caused by holding responsibility for something without having the power to fix it, we can alleviate it by either taking on some of the responsibility or giving away some of the power to fix it.

“Not my problem” is a problem

Early on in my career at my current agency, I noticed a bit of tension between Dev and Creative over the usage of pre-built creative assets in our front-end framework of choice. Designers were designing elements from scratch, which meant that many of the built-in modules in our front-end framework were wasted. This also meant additional time in dev to build those custom elements, which was bad for both dev and the client. Developers were complaining about it. And designers had no idea this was going on.

Rather than complain some more about it, I created an in-depth presentation showcasing the creative capabilities of our front-end framework for our Creative department. When I showed it to my director, he said, “This is exactly what we need.” The problem had been on the back burner, boiling over, until I took it on myself.

When people complain about something, they’re acknowledging that something should be done, but refusing the undertaking themselves. Essentially, they’re saying, “It’s not my problem.” This isn’t always strictly due to negligence, though.

There was an experiment that placed participants in separate rooms with microphones and had them take turns talking about problems they were having and what they were doing to resolve them. The first participant would be connected with between one and five others, when one of the other participants would start having an epileptic seizure during the experiment. Here’s the catch: there was only one real participant in each round of the experiment. The other voices, whether one or many, were recordings—including the person having the seizure. Want to guess how many of the real participants went to the experimenters to seek help? 100 percent? 75 percent?

Would you believe only 31% of participants went to seek help for the (fake) other participant in distress? What’s more, the more participants the real participant thought were there, the less likely he or she was to do anything. Why is this?

Researchers have studied the behavior of crowds surrounding emergency situations. If you have an emergency in public and you ask the crowd for help, you’re probably not going to get it because of what’s known as the bystander effect. For a variety of reasons (including believing that someone more qualified will jump in, and worrying about the consequences of jumping in), the more strangers are present around an emergency, the less likely any one person is to help. The way to actually get help in a crowded emergency is to pick one individual and ask that person to do something specific, like phone an ambulance or help with first aid.

Bystander apathy is real. Understanding it can help you cope with emergencies, the zombie apocalypse, and even work situations.

People who are complaining probably don’t know whose responsibility it is to fix the problem—they just know it’s not them. This is your opportunity to be a helpful individual rather than an apathetic bystander.

Look for unidentified needs and projects that have been on the back burner so long that they’re boiling over. See about taking them on yourself. A word of caution: there’s a fine, fine line between stepping up and stepping on toes. If you’re going to step up, and the thing you’re taking on is someone’s direct responsibility, get their blessing first—especially if the person in question outranks you. And if stepping up would squash someone’s ego, that’s a good sign that you should focus your efforts elsewhere.

Taking this a step further, take responsibility for the end product, not just your part in it. I work in dev, but I’m known to give creative feedback when it’s appropriate, as well as helping think through any aspect of a client project. I now get called into meetings not just to lend my dev expertise, but also to help other teams think through their problems.

You don’t want to overstep your bounds, but simply caring about the end product and how each step is done is what responsibility-sharing is all about.

The power is yours

I have a kid. When he runs into situations where he has no control, no power, his anxiety builds and he panics. The quickest way to resolve that problem is to give him some choices to make within the bounds of his situation: do you want to go for lunch here or there? Do you want to wear the red shirt or the green one? Which punishment do you want?

Adults are slightly more sophisticated about this, but we never really outgrow the fundamental human need to have some control over our situations. With some degree of power, we remain calm and collected; with a loss of power, we become anxious and irrational.

What’s more, when people lose power in one area of their lives, they compensate by seizing power in other areas. If someone feels a situation is slipping out of their grasp, they will often work harder to exert power wherever they feel they still have some control. Those irrational coworkers at the beginning of this article were all compensating for losing control over the work of the project itself. The client’s extreme caution about site development was in reaction to them not being able to keep their budget in check.

Loss of power can take a lot of different forms. Not knowing what result is required of you can render power meaningless. The client at the beginning of this article was unsure how a minor bug would affect the outcome of the website, so they couldn’t gauge the level of risk in leaving the bug unresolved. Not having the right information is another scenario. This is often why clients come to us in the first place. And, of course, there’s the good, old-fashioned total loss of power due to lack of skills required to solve the problem.

As a problem-solver, you hold a lot of the power that other people depend on for resolving their problems. Sharing that decision-making power is a surefire way to calm down the people involved in a project.

When solving a problem, you make countless decisions: how to solve it, how thorough to be, how to integrate the solution into the existing product, and sometimes whether to solve the problem at all. Giving away power means sharing decision-making with others. The people responsible for the outcome usually appreciate being a part of the process.

When I managed of a team of designers and developers, I frequently encountered this kind of scenario: an account person came to me in a panic, asking for an emergency change to a website based on client feedback. I wasn’t handed a problem, but a solution. With a little reverse engineering we arrived at the problem, which made it a lot easier to see what was being attempted.

A better solution was available in this case. I explained the options to the account person, the pros and cons of each, and we settled on my solution. I typed up an email to aid the account person in explaining the solution to the client. In the end, everyone was happier because I took the time to share some of that decision-making power with the account team and client.

As an architect for a front-end development team, sharing decision-making power often means explaining the options in terms of time and budget. The language is different, but the principle is the same: educate and empower the key stakeholders. You’d be surprised how quickly some seemingly irrational revisions get nixed after the options—and expenses—are discussed.

Getting to the heart of the matter

Anxiety’s causes run deep into human nature, but knowing how to calm it can go a long way in preventing workplace drama. Remember: irrationality is not the issue. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for, and their problems even more so. Dealing with them is complicated—but vital to getting ahead in the workplace.

23 Reader Comments

Load Comments