Paul Glen: The 'Low Affect' Effect

Paul Glen: The 'Low Affect' Effect

Nongeeks don't recognise hard work as an expression of enthusiasm

In my exploration of the differences between technical and business people, nothing surprised me more than this: Business people tend to think that we don't care about anything. One of their biggest complaints is that we don't share their passion for the business. When-ever I hear this, I have an immediate, visceral reaction of outrage: "How could you possibly think I don't care about anything? I work like a dog to try to turn your visions into reality!"

But my recent work has given me a deeper understanding of how business people think , and I've noticed that the cues that tell them what someone cares about are completely different from ours.

As geeks, we can tell what someone cares about by looking at what they're working on and paying attention to. Anyone working like a dog must be enthusiastic about their project . Someone intensely focused on a particular piece of code probably cares about how well it works or how elegantly it's designed. Someone spending a lot of time with a piece of hardware is probably committed to squeezing every bit of performance out of that investment. Someone who spends a night scrubbing a requirements document is probably excited about the idea of solving the real business problem at hand.

But nongeeks don't recognize hard work as an expression of enthusiasm. If there are no verbal or emotional signs of excitement from us, they can't feel our shared commitment to a project. They want more than signs that we understand what they want. They want signs that tell them that we feel the same way at the same time about the same thing. It won't matter if you immediately immerse yourself in the project and spend hours doing research or coding. If you haven't given the business people anything that they interpret as commitment, they will not be able to sense that their passion resonates with you.

And for business people, a sense of shared enthusiasm is a prerequisite to collaboration. It's how they know that we are all on the same team and headed in the right direction. Without it, they don't trust us. And without trust, we have little hope of working together effectively.

Unfortunately, geeks as a group tend to present a rather low affect. We don't express our enthusiasm with the outward show that many business people would recognize, and to a certain extent, we're suspicious of those who are openly emotional at work. We prefer Spock-like commitment to Kirk-like gusto and hyperbole.

But if we want to collaborate with nongeeks, we've got to find a way to express our enthusiasm for what we're doing together.

That doesn't mean we have to pretend to be someone other than who we are; inauthenticity would undermine trust. But we do need to be able to express our enthusiasm in ways that nongeeks can recognize. Perhaps the easiest, most reliable approach is to use words. We can say things that explicitly point out our feelings. Here are a few examples:

"I can see that you are passionate about this, and I'm excited about it, too."

"I'm committed to meeting these objectives."

"I really believe that this is the best direction."

"I want to make this the best it can be."

"I'm eager to see this take shape."

These are things that they'll understand. We don't need to jump out of our seats, throw our arms in the air and shout hallelujah, but we do need to communicate to them that we are committed to the same things that they are and that we feel very strongly about our work. Expressing these feelings opens the door to mutual trust and collaboration.

Paul Glen is the CEO of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to unlocking the value of technical people. You can contact him at .

Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.

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