How to Communicate With Former Peers
21 May, 2021
I have been with the same company for 15 years now; I started off as a developer to become a VP of Engineering a couple of years ago. I climbed ladder after ladder but never felt so disconnected from my former peers as when I was promoted to Director of Engineering. At that time, I also transitioned from leading one team to leading ten teams which made it tremendously hard to maintain the relationship I used to have with my former peers. It didn’t take too long to see that my words will weigh more as a Director of Engineering. But it took much longer to become aware of how that impacted my communication with former peers and what I could do to change that.
Weeks into my new role, I encountered in the hallway a former peer responsible for fixing an issue that troubled one of our customers. Without beating around a bush, I asked when the issue at hand would be fixed. Straightforward, because it was a brief hallway conversation. They murmured, “I don’t know,” and though I was not happy with the answer, I kept walking. Within hours I was told that our brief conversation put them under great pressure to fix the issue being hurried by the Director of Engineering himself. Obviously, my intention was not to stress them out; all I wanted was to speed up the whole thing because the customer was waiting for too long already and to see what I could do to help.
Their team lead went on being very explicit about how I should be more cautious when talking to people, particularly former peers. Frankly, I was not giving that much thought, and not for a second did I think I was doing something wrong. I simply suggested that we should speed things up without having hidden intentions of any sort. I had already heard that our words can have a different impact when our roles change. At that time it hit me, I finally understood that the impact of one’s words changes dramatically after they get promoted into a role that would make it difficult for them to maintain regular communication with former peers. The same words I would use as a peer and fellow developer would land differently when spoken by the Director of Engineering.
This event made me more aware of the impact my words were having. When one starts to climb up the ladder, people will inevitably begin to perceive them differently even though they would be the very same person. I had to acknowledge that change in perception and change my communication style. Living this first-hand allowed me to prepare some first-time, internally promoted managers to what they should expect. In a nutshell, their new role would impact how they would be perceived, defining how their message would land.
In the months to come, I learned to adjust my direct style of communication and made it more roundabout. I also started to ask more open-ended questions and guide people more than instructing them. For example, rather than saying, “When do you think you can fix this?” I would ask, “How can I help you fix this?”. Likewise, if they would come up with a concrete roadblock -- for example, not having access to a customer system -- I would offer to help before asking any further questions.
- Don’t expect that people will perceive you the same way after big promotions. That was a mistake I made. I always had an open and trustful relationship with people I worked with but becoming detached from that daily interaction made it harder for me to maintain relationships.
- The fundamental purpose of your interaction with your teams will change as you climb up the ladder. As a Director of Engineering managing ten teams, you will likely pay them a visit if there is a problem you can help with. With so many things on your plate, you won’t have time for chit-chat and regular status check-ins. Of course, not anyone will manage ten teams at the same time. If you are managing two or three teams, you will likely be able to stay closer to the ground but pay attention.
- Perception shapes how we communicate more than anything else. If we could ever extract some data on something so intangible as human communication, we would be surprised how perception alters -- if not distorts -- the intended meaning. Keep that in mind when stepping into a new role.
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