reduce anxiety and nerdsniping

A part of my job is asking people things along the lines of „can you look up if XYZ is feasible“ or „what would you need to do XYZ“ or „can you make me a proposal about this?“.

And there are always two things I give them along with the task:

  • how much time I expect them to spend on it at most
  • the level of detail I want for the answer

This is not to set pressure on them, but to take it away: With this information, they will have a better understanding on when the task is done, how much effort they can put into it. Asking things this way is a part of the SMART set of goal criteria. In case this term is new to you, here’s the breakdown of this acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

SMART is a mindset that helps specify goals and tasks in a way that ensures they have a decent chance of being met with success. And it allows the persons you give this task or goal to measure themselves against that yardstick, so they don’t start second guessing themselves. This lowers anxiety, is compatible with Auftragstaktik-style of management (which I highly recommend) and also ensures that your engineers aren’t nerdsniped.

That last thing is a real danger if you’re engineers are any of the following: Competent, inquisitive, enthusiastic, intelligent, willing-to-learn, new to the field, experienced…

This approach is especially important if you work remotely: You want to trust your team to work without close physical supervision (which is a bad idea anyway if you have any kind of knowledge workers). And as you’re working remotely, you’re missing a lot of small cues that you could pick up in an office: Are they nervous? Are they burying themselves in research, as evident by the books and open browser tabs? Is that topic you’ve given out as a backburner research task eating up all their mental cycles, because it is all they talk about when fetching coffee?

The micromanaging approach would be to check in with them often, ask about progress, and so on. Which not only increases anxiety, but also keeps them distracted from the actual work. (And probably pisses them off too — I’ve threatened to quit over micromanaging more than once, with the full intent of following through if it didn’t stop. Thankfully, I had enough standing for that to be effective.)

Instead you need to preempt the nerdsniping and anxiety and communicate clearly what is expected, what is out of bounds, and the time you expect them to spend on the task — as opposed to the deadline where you need the result.

So when I ask someone to research a topic, I say things like this:

I need this in a week, but you really shouldn’t spend more than 4 hours on it, spending more effort on this would not be helpful. If you cannot provide a thorough answer after that time, that is an answer in itself for me!

If you add this task as part of the normal duties, and not on top of them, you take out most, if not all anxiety, you make the result a reliable measure, ensure that the other tasks won’t take a hit, and give the engineer an understanding of what they are looking into.

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