Exposing the Unknown
By Michael Hedgpeth · September 9, 2016
Exposing the Unknown

When someone starts on my team, regardless of their experience level but especially if they’re new to technology, my first goal is to ensure that we are honest in our communication with each other. This is easier said than done.

From their perspective, you just gave them this job, and they now have to prove things to you. If they don’t understand what you’re saying but think they might be able to google it later, what’s the benefit in getting you to explain it to them? It’s much safer to just try to figure it out and to bend the truth a little bit on whether they are understanding what you’re saying.

In addition, if you’re the senior person who has a handle on this project, to the new person you feel like a magical wizard who is casting spells. Especially if they’re new, they haven’t wrapped their minds around what you work on every day, and so the effortlessness by which you solve problems to them is extremely intimidating.

We humans are hardwired to not be vulnerable when in extremely frightening and scary situations. We’re hardwired to hide and let the danger pass. So it’s no surprise that lack of honesty is a major initial issue to deal with when working with people who are just getting started.

Here’s how I solve it: whenever I start working with someone who is very junior, the first thing I do is find something that I know they don’t know. Then we talk through it and I do the best job I know how of explaining that thing, all the while knowing that it’s probably not sufficient for them to get it because I can’t read their mind. Then I ask them if they get it.

They will almost always say, “Yeah that makes sense.”

This is when I know we have a great opportunity to establish a solid working relationship, because I know that they don’t get it, but they are telling me they do. So then I say, “Great, then please explain it to me.” And usually they can’t.

At this point, I communicate to them that I don’t expect them to know what I’m talking about, even after I explain it to them. Instead, I expect two things from them: (1) that they honestly tell me when they don’t know and (2) that they ask questions that will help them understand.

So our relationship of learning is based on trust now: I trust that they’ll be honest and engage with me, and they trust me that I will accept them for not knowing, or even forgetting something I’ve told them.

I’ve had so much success with helping people grow when I’ve established this level of trust early on. Instead of months of frustration while they go through the wilderness of confusion and dealing with impostor syndrome, we can get to the bottom of what we need to do and make a plan for getting better. It’s so rewarding to see people light up when you say to them, “I know that you’re not where you want to be; here’s a timeline of how to get you there.” We’re working on real problems now and not using fear to hide!

So I encourage you, if you’re working with someone junior to you on your team, have some compassion, understand the fear that is involved, and work hard to create an honest and supportive relationship with them. It will pay dividends for months and years to come.