I was talking to someone about being an “expert” at something, and strangely, I’ve found myself accused of being an “expert” too – which just wigs me out no end. I just don’t think of myself as an expert, but I’ve learned I’m in the minority on that. I mean, I do my job to the best of my ability, people ask me questions, and I do my best to answer them.
The thing is, sometimes they have no idea how close they’ve come to a sheepish look and an “I don’t know.” It is at these times that the ability to think fast and type faster has been a great asset.
Come to think of it, the rather strong reluctance to say “I don’t know” to someone is pretty much part of it, too. If someone asks me a question, I’m going to do my best to get them an answer, in part because it’s my job, in part because it’s who I am…
I remember one place I worked, a fellow in came up to my cubicle with the guiltiest look I’d ever seen – if he’d been a dog, his tail would have been so far between his legs he’d have been able to nibble on it. He’d done something wrong – muffed something up pretty bad, and he needed me to fix it. The reason he came to me was because I was “the expert” and he asked me this question about a problem that I absolutely, positively, honestly, had no idea how to solve.
I’d never heard of it, never seen it, and never thought about it.
In fact, in all the years of my life, I’d devoted precisely zero percent of my brain space to this problem.
But he didn’t know that.
And he wasn’t going to know that.
After listening to him describe what he’d done, I gave him a big sigh, “the look” and swung around in my chair to try to figure out how to fix it.
I called up Books Online (the database reference material I needed) and muttered something about “let me see if I can remember the syntax for this thing…” while I found out precisely how to do what it was he needed to have done.
While I was looking, and typing, I was just constantly flipping him crap about what it was he’d done that he needed me to fix, in essence, gently chastising him for muffing up whatever he’d muffed up, but all the while, doing everything I could do to make sure the problem he came to me with was solved. The thing is, this whole ‘flipping of crap’ stuff – it’s what I do with folks, it’s disarming. They realize I’m joking a bit, but they’re just off balance enough to not be completely sure, until – well, we’ll get back to that…
So while I was flipping him crap, I fixed his problem, and swung back around and looked at him “sternly” and told him, “Now go away or I shall have to taunt you a second time…” (a la Monty Python)
Then, figuring the problem was solved, I turned around and went back to the work he’d interrupted when he walked up.
But I noticed a shadow on my cubicle wall – and realized that while he’d stepped outside my cubicle, he’d stayed there and hadn’t moved.
Now one of the things I’ve always done with folks is just – as I said, flip them crap about anything. Often folks tend to put the DBA’s (Database Administrators) on such a pedestal, with the whole ‘bowing’ thing and the ‘I’m not worthy’ thing (also a la Monty Python). (okay, I made that part up, deal with it… :). Sometimes it drives me just this side of nuts – but I have fun with it… I rarely if ever get angry at folks at work, because I’ve been around long enough to realize I am fully capable of doing something stupid – I mean, I’m human, it comes with the territory. My gosh, having the system administrator’s password or being in an administrator’s group only allows me to apply this human stupidity to more machines, far more efficiently, at any given time than they can – so I’ve learned to be very, very careful. But because of this, I just accept that things happen, help them fix it when they muff things up, and then try to teach them how not to do it again. However, whenever someone does something exquisitely stupid, I tend call them a butthead. I didn’t realize it – but over time, it turned out that being called a butthead by Tom had become a coveted thing, of all things, a badge of honor…
If I called them a butthead, then all was right in the world.
If I didn’t, there was this inequality, this buildup of tension that they couldn’t get past, and they thought I was mad at them, and they literally cowered when they came to me the next time.
It was so weird…
So this time – I just went back to work and forgot about it until I noticed that shadow and the fellow standing outside my cubicle, clearly nervous that he’d done something very, very bad.
Not knowing what was going on, I looked at him… “What?” (said still using my ‘stern’ persona)
“You didn’t call me a butthead…” (said with all the boldness of a whipped puppy)
And he smiled, you could actually see the stress melt off him, and he walked, no, floated away, totally content, his knowledge reinforced that Tom Knew Everything, and that Tom WASN’T mad at him.
And when it comes to communication, either at home or at work – if people, for whatever reason, are only afraid of you – you just won’t be as effective as you can be.
People need to respect you, but they also need to feel comfortable around you. Much to my surprise, Craig’s (yes, Craig, this one’s for you) nervousness when he came up to me showed me how much he respected me, and the way he melted when I called him a butthead showed me that while he was respectful, he was also comfortable enough to ask for help when he needed it
And I’m okay with that.