Depersonalize the key questions

by on July 6, 2014 at 3:39 am in Philosophy, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Ilan Mochari reports:

4. Depersonalize the key questions. Yeh suggests approaching your employees by saying something like this: “It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplishing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

Phrasing the question this way enables you to emphasize the mission, rather than the employee himself. It allows the employee to describe what’s wrong with his job, without feeling like he’s critiquing his own performance or ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

Casnocha says he learned a great conversational tactic from Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The idea is another form of depersonalizing questions: Ask an employee what “most people” think of a certain situation. Usually, the employee will tell you what most people think. But in doing so, she will also provide a glimpse of her own personal feelings. Specifically, Casnocha suggests these conversational cues:

How is everyone feeling about what’s going on in the office?
What do you think people are frustrated about here at work?

These questions allow you, as a leader, to follow up on whatever topics arise. But you can do so delicately, without pouncing on the employee who–even in sharing what “most people” think–has just displayed a great deal of vulnerability.

1 ummm July 6, 2014 at 4:21 am

“It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplishing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

the phrasing sounds eerily unhuman

2 Dan Weber July 6, 2014 at 1:02 pm

It activates my bullshit detector. “I am about to be trapped into a bad situation” is all my subconscious gets out of that. It closes doors instead of opening them.

3 prior_approval July 6, 2014 at 4:26 am

‘“It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplishing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

So depersonalized that it uses ‘you’ twice, ‘your’ 1 twice, ‘I’ once, and ‘my’ once in 32 words. Basically meaning a personal pronoun every 5 words.

How would one going about personalizing that citiation, in terms of accomplishing that mission while overcoming potential bottlenecks requiring solutions?

4 Nikki July 6, 2014 at 10:18 am

I suspect “depersonalize the questions” is used in the sense of “take the blame” here. Take “you suck at your job,” depersonalize it into “you are totally awesome, please tell me how literally everybody thinks your failures are my fault.” Not that it will help with the bottlenecks, but you’ll be the delicatest boss around.

5 derek July 6, 2014 at 11:16 am

A friend who runs a large crew doing quite demanding work successfully tells me that he takes responsibility for what happens. If he asks someone to do things and it doesn’t happen the way he expected, he approaches the person and tells them all the ways he failed; didn’t follow up, didn’t ascertain whether it was understood, didn’t check if they had the resources necessary.

A few things happen. Either the person says clearly something like, oh, I forgot it was my fault. Or they learn the expectations and don’t just say yes but next time ask for what they need to do the work. Or they don’t and eventually are encouraged to move on.

He does the same in a proactive way, watching and recognizing situations or instances where some assistance or training is needed.

I keep telling the guys who work for me that the process of mastering a new skill or figuring out some complex thing is deeply personal; you will learn quite alot about yourself, some that you won’t like. A deep intellectual challenge involves the brain rewiring itself, causes anxiety and sometimes physical discomfort. My job is to both get out of the way to let that happen, and to get in the way to make sure it happens.

When someone is doing a job and either needs motivation or incentive to improve, or motivation or incentive to simply show up and do what they know, it is a deeply personal situation. As a manager you don’t want to get into emotional territory; even positive emotions are transient.

6 Mike July 6, 2014 at 11:55 am

Great insight.

I still vividly recall the first time I met a new managing director, who had previously been the CEO of a small publicly-trade REIT. Within in 30 minutes he was complaining how unfair it was that Sarbanes-Oxley held him responsible for what could be fraud perpetrated by an entry-level accounting clerk. Didn’t take long to figure out he was all about covering his ass, not leadership.

7 Brian Donohue July 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm


8 Alexei July 6, 2014 at 5:34 am

First paragraph describes something, but I wouldn’t call it depersonalizion.

9 David Khoo July 6, 2014 at 5:54 am

Surely as an economist, the assumption of rationality would imply that employees would quickly adapt to such tactics and come to understand such phrasings as actually pointed personal questions rather than impersonal queries? The euphemism treadmill has no finish line.

Just be honest. If you think that you can win such conversational games with your employees, you are really thinking that your employees are stupid. Leaving something unsaid does not make the issue go away.

10 derek July 6, 2014 at 11:40 am

I worked for someone a number of years ago that went for the personal. He would go out of his way to elicit emotional reactions from people, then sit back and enjoy the power.

These techniques are not about stupid employees. They are about stupid managers. A good manager who is smart and effective already does this. No one takes offense when they ask an impersonal question, get an answer and see something done in response that sorts out some issue.

11 Tom West July 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

Economists often assume people are rational for purposes of economic models. It doesn’t mean that they’re stupid and actually believe people are entirely rational.

Presentation matters, and as anyone who has actually interacted with human beings knows, it can matter more than the actual facts themselves.

(And yes, sometimes the best presentation is being entirely straightforward – but more often, it’s something that protects the employee’s while conveying the information.)

12 Tom West July 6, 2014 at 11:54 am

employee’s -> employee’s pride.

13 Rich Berger July 6, 2014 at 6:25 am

TPS reports.

14 Idyll July 6, 2014 at 7:05 am

Really, there’s nothing so revolutionary about the question. Solving problems IS what mangement should be about. It’s the response that the employee receives that will either create trust, or confirm that the question was BS.

15 andrew' July 6, 2014 at 7:38 am

It is not so much BS as it is about furtive collection of metadata.

16 derek July 6, 2014 at 11:18 am

Isn’t that another way of describing listening? Any human relationship requires a furtive collection of metadata; a successful marriage is the result of both furtively collecting metadata and acting upon it.

17 Andrew M July 6, 2014 at 7:33 am

The same technique has been used for opinion polls for decades. For example if you want to gauge levels of racism in society, you can’t ask outright “Are you opposed to mixed-race marriages?”, because people don’t want to appear racist to the surveyor. Instead you ask “Do you think your neighbours/friends are opposed to mixed-race marriages?”

18 Yancey Ward July 6, 2014 at 11:37 am

Or you ask, “Do your neighbors support Obamacare?” If the answer is negative, then they are racists.

19 rayward July 6, 2014 at 8:24 am

Of course, what this is all about is empathy, a word “most people” choose to avoid because it reminds them of sympathy, which it’s not. We spend our lives negotiating, whether with the seller of a business or with a spouse, but few are conscious of how to do it successfully. How do I get my adversary to do what I want her to do even though she doesn’t believe she wants to do it? First figure out what your adversary wants by putting yourself in her place, then figure out how to achieve both what she wants and what you want so that you have a common goal; the two of you become collaborators rather than adversaries. Employer and employee are in many respects adversaries, and the employer in the example is using language to find out what the employee wants so that the employer and employee can become collaborators to achieve a common goal. Commonality is the key to success. I suppose it’s worth noting that commonality may not work in all circumstances, today’s politics for example, which has become zero sum. And it’s worth noting that commonality is missing in academia, the divide between the micros and macros in economics a depressing state of affairs.

20 Edward Burke July 6, 2014 at 9:42 am

Are we being asked to “think” (or to “feel”) that thought and affectivity constitute co-equal epistemic modes or two equivalent modes of cognition?
In emerging usage: does “feeling” signify or cue the speaker’s asserted or perceived sincerity (which makes felt utterances resistant or immune to rational reproach–a circumstance which poses a unique peril when political speech and utterance are in play), or does failure to invoke “thought” signify or cue that the speaker is attempting to exempt his utterance or response from (so-called) rational analysis or objection (which could be construed innocuously as “rank dishonesty”)?
Alternatively: what standards of “analytic affectivity” are being invoked? Is affective utterance or response thought or felt or said to be more, less, or equally susceptible to media manipulations as (so-called) rational response?

21 Eric H July 6, 2014 at 10:40 am

This was called “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA) at least as far back as 20 years ago. The depersonalization is illusory and should not be your ultimate goal. What Would Hayek Say (WWHS? (c) 2014) about the personal observations each person brings?

Also, we are putting cover sheets on those TPS reports. Didn’t you get the memo?

22 TomHynes July 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

You can use it with your significant other. “How can we work on our relationship?” instead of “Why are you such a bitch?”

23 Yancey Ward July 6, 2014 at 11:37 am


24 Carl Milsted July 6, 2014 at 12:43 pm

I feel my hair growing pointy just reading this post!

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