Back to Calibrate

Navigating Difficult Conversations

Shivani Sharma
Senior Engineering Manager

High performing engineers are rewarded with opportunities to become managers. Initially many new managers rely more on their technical chops - it's what they're used to, however, it’s the people skills that are essential now. In this talk Shivani will talk about the array of difficult conversations a new manager will encounter, and what she’s learned so that others may fare better.

Hello everyone. So how many of you have had a difficult conversation at work? Raise your hand. Okay. And how many of you would find it uncomfortable and would rather avoid it? Raise your hand. Oh, some less hands. Okay. Well, if you look around you, you're not alone. You're all in this together. And there's kind of two ways to approach this.

There are things that you can do that can avoid unnecessary, difficult conversations, but you will have difficult conversations. It's inevitable. So I'm going to share some resources and tips that I've learned along the way for both of these, but first of all, share how I got here.

I'm Shavani Sharma, and I'm a senior engineering manager at slack. And I currently manage the new user experience team. I actually attended calibrate last year and I was so inspired by the talks and I wanted to make sure these, that this conference continued to happen. So I actually joined Robin Sonya to join to plan the conference this year.

And I'm excited to also be here speaking.

So I've got my Alma mater on here, UCLA. It's relevant. I promise I was pre-med while studying engineering at UCLA, and I actually spent three years working in a neuroscience research lab and I'll touch more on this later. It, it ties into the difficult conversations. So I started my engineering career at Google and I got a taste of working at a big company.

After that I joined a 150 person startup called big. And this startup later got acquired by IBM after five and a half years, post acquisition working at IBM and going from 150 person company to a 400,000 person organization. There was a tremendous amount of change. Engineering had scaled globally, and I was working with IBM, Singapore, Rome, Dublin, the east coast.

And of course my team. And that's where my engineering career, my engineering management career started. And after some time at IBM, I had the itch to go to a smaller company, again, a fast growing company. And that's where I've been for them. The last two years I've been at slack slack too has scaled. I first started, it was 250 people in two offices on the west coast.

And now we are in over seven offices globally and over 800 people. So I have gone through a lot of difficult situations with all of this change. Let's see, talk first about some foundational things that can help you prevent unnecessary difficulties conversations, emotional intelligence. You're a leader.

People, people have emotions. Emotions can be complicated, messy, and unclear.

If you've been told that you need some work in emotional intelligence and some EEQ or you feel like you need some work there, don't worry. You can actually, through, you can actually improve your emotional intelligence through coaching and getting accurate feedback. So this is something that can expand the next thing, which lop also touched on was trust.

So trust and mutual. Trust and mutual respect is super important. It's very important to get to know your team and build that foundation of trust. Why? Well, because we're humans and we trust people that we know over those. We don't, we also assume good intentions and those we know over those, we don't. So get to know people's individual preferences and receiving feedback and recognition.

For instance. Some individuals on my team prefer to receive feedback in writing so that they can process it before our one-on-one other folks who are a little bit more shy, prefer to be recognized for their accomplishments privately or in a small group, just within the,

it's a great blog post that I use as a resource when I'm getting to know new team members. And this is a post by Laura Hogan. She's a VP of engineering at KCC. And there's a link to this blog post. And I run through this every time I have a new member of my team, or if I manage a new team. So this is one of my reasons versus another one resource that's super important is under is this article by Google in the New York times.

And it's a, it's a project called project Aristotle. Some of you may, may have heard of this. So Google slice and dice all this data to understand what made productive. And psychological safety was the conclusion of this and what cyclical psychological safety is, is mutual respect and trust on a team. And lop touched on this as well.

So having that trust builds those high productive teams and the way that you can, the way that's demonstrated is conversational. Turn-taking. So as a manager, you can facilitate. And discussions on your team. You can invite people into the conversation. If you haven't heard any thoughts from certain people on the team, that might be a little bit more shy and also you can structure your meetings and discussions differently.

So that. You can accommodate folks that think very quickly and raise our hand or folks that kind of hang back and need more time to process. So you can also have your team read this article to understand what cycle psychological safety means and teach your team to also facilitate amongst one another so that they can manage, manage those conversations.

Well, just like you and this reduces unnecessary conflict on the team. Another thing you can do is lead by example. How leaders act under pressure is how their team acts under pressure. And there's a really great word for this that I absolutely love equanimity. It is literally exhibiting mental calmness composure, and even a September, especially in a difficult conversation.

How can you demonstrate this? You can talk less and listen more. Listen to the good news and the bad. Ask even tempered questions, curiosity, questions, questions, starting with what and how, how do you think we can move forward? What do you think we can do better next time? And also thank them for sharing that information, whether it's good or bad.

I would rather be that informed manager that knows about the good stuff and the bad stuff, or the most uncomfortable stuff. Then to be that clueless manager.

Multiple perspectives. It is important to understand that the experiences that people have that have brought them to where they are today are different. Every person's journey is different and that journey molds and shapes the lens in which they view the world. There are differences like their training.

So some some software developers are self-taught. Some have gone to boot camps and some have gone to a traditional unit. And all of these things shape how they problem solve and how they approach their work. There are other things like cultural differences. Some folks can be more critical of their work.

Some may be less confident and Joel will actually go more into this in her diversity talk. Those differences are no better or worse than one another. And all those perspectives are valid and everyone's truth is valid and here's a great image demonstrating justice. Take a look at this image. What did you see?

Oops. How many of you saw a young woman in this photo? All right. How many of you saw an older woman in this photo?

Take a look again.

Do you see that? Did you see the other perspective, whether it's an old woman or the young woman that you saw first, you know, it takes some time to see that other perspective and you can, and there's a very practical example.

Okay, I'm just going to talk about this. Let's talk about common scenarios. So imagine you're at a company and there's a hiring burst. And as a high performing engineer on your team, you are, you find yourself now a manager. And in that first month of being a manager, an engineer asks for a out of band one-on-one conversation.

Well, it turns out they're putting in their notice. This happened to me probably in the first three months of me becoming a man. And this might happen to you. How about you've got some uncooperative engineers on your team cause they're, they might be wondering why are you their manager or got two senior engineers on the team that just don't have a very good dynamic.

And they argue all the time, not in a good and healthy way. And the team is really sick and tired of that dynamic. And they're looking for you to do something about it has also happened to me. And how about an engineer? Hasn't had the attention of a manager for six months because we just didn't have enough managers of the company.

And the first thing they asked in the one-on-one is when they can get that raise or when they can get that promotion. And then also lastly, the low performer. So as a new manager, you've come in and you find that there's low performance, a low performer on your team. After some time there's no improvement and you have to fire your first person.

Some of this might sound familiar already. And this, some of this are things that you will encounter soon in your career.

Has this ever happened to you in a meeting you're in a meeting with your manager and colleagues, the meeting adjourns and people are filing out of the conference room and your manager turns to you and he says, can you hang back for a minute? I need to talk to you for a second. What popped into your mind?

How many of you thought you were in trouble. Okay. How many thought you were going to get kudos for that thing you just did?

Well, notice that interpretation happened in a split second. So there's some physiological things that your brain does. So we're conflict averse. Why is that? Well, there are a couple of reasons. We don't want people to feel bad. We don't want others to feel bad. We don't know how that conversation is going to end.

We don't know what the consequences to that conversation will be. And you insert the worst possible scenario in there and all these different conversations are different and those unknowns are scary. So let me talk about a little bit about the physiological background behind this. As I mentioned before, I, I did neuroscience research research for three years when I was an undergrad.

And I actually specifically worked on the hippocampus part of the brain. The reason why that's relevant is that the hippocampus is part of the limbic system, which is, was, was responsible for memories and emotion. And that part of the brain is specifically sensitive to stress. And when you're under stress, That part of the brain intensifies those memories.

And that's why those negative interactions sometimes stick with you and come back to you when you encounter it again. There's a great article on Wikipedia called the effects of stress on memory. If you want to get into the details of what happens with the brain receptors I like to geek out on this stuff, but in the meantime, there is something that you can.

And as a normal, healthy human being, I guarantee you already know how to do this. It's breathing. So one tip slowly and deeply breathing in and out of your abdomen and your diaphragm. It reduces stress in your body. It actually reduces the cortisol that is pulsing through your body under stressful situations.

Those of you that are familiar with yoga and meditation are familiar with this kind of. And one tip that I have from doing yoga is to exhale twice, as long as inhaling to slow it down, otherwise you can kind of hyperventilate. And actually I use this in a really crucial time. About four months ago, I was scuba diving and scuba diving.

Breathing is really important. You're underwater. Here's a photo of me that my, my diet, my diet partner took of me. And I'm a certified open water diver. So it's not like I'm not trained. And I don't know what I'm doing. And four months ago I had a dev experience where I really freaked out and some photos are demonstrating this.

I didn't take photos while I was actually freaked out. So here's some photos from other dive trips that I had that demonstrate the atmosphere that I was in at the time time. So it's a new environment. Murky water. So low visibility and yes, that is a photo of a shark. Also 57 degrees water. That is how cold the San Francisco bay area is in the wintertime.

So it is very, very cold water and it kind of shocks your system when you get in the water. And then also going very deep. So being very deep, cold water, low visibility, I was starting to panic. I had the urge to shoot up to the surface. And that is the absolute, last thing you're supposed to do as a scuba diver, there are serious injuries involved.

They're like ruptured, eardrums, collapsed lung decompression sickness. I had to follow the protocol. And when I started to feel my body freak out, I had to mentally just think about the slow, deep breathing that I had to do. And in order to stop thinking about all the things I was scared about at that moment, I also like to count backwards from that.

So then my brain is kind of focusing on something else. Well, I made it, I made it out without injury, so I made it through that dive. I've been apprehensive to go diving since I did go diving last month and it took a lot of courage for me because like the stress enhancing those memories, I had to overcome that.

Thankfully, my last experience was a good one. And so I think I will continue scuba diving. So whether it's diving or management, Even in the same location, even with the same people, it's never going to be the same exact experience. The current changes in the oceans, even if he goes same place all the time, it's not going to be the same.

And the conversations would be have with the same people on your team. They're not going to be the same and you can't just fail. You can't just shoot to the surface.

So let's talk about what you have to do when you can't bail. When you actually have to have those difficult conversations,

this is something that you can use and that you can also equip your team with as well. First thing, prepare, understand. I will literally just write this out. What is the purpose of having the difficult conversation? There's a, there's a behavior or something that you wanted to change. And want to improve.

Right? So stating what happened, what was the effect of that thing? Because you want some other effect probably. And what is the outcome that you would have wanted ideally, and also it's good to think about what's the worst case scenario. So kind of thinking about those other, other perspectives that might be out there, literally just going through these questions.

This is what I do. The second, second thing is to. Practice in groups of three peer managers with a group of peer managers, which is a safe space, safe space. So I think Sonya mentioned to network and start to build your network of peer managers. I really like to run through scenarios that I have going on with my team, with folks outside the company so I can get some fresh perspective.

So one person plays a manager, one person plays the employee and you have a third person. That's a silent observer. And the silent observer is going to give both of you feedback on how you're responding to that conversation. So it's good to role play. Some of those things. The next thing is to actually deliver that message or have that conversation.

And as a person, person, as a manager, it's important for you to raise the issue because people aren't mind readers. It's important to understand other people's perspectives. You already had the time to prepare. He ran through those cases. So now it's time to walk through those questions, but to understand the other person's personal, you know, walk with them about what happened from their perspective, what effect of those events have from their perspective and what was the outcome they wanted or expected they might have and say exactly what you were thinking and you, and then you have a commonality about, Hey, well actually we wanted that product to be successful and ship on that date.

That didn't happen. And so sometimes you don't even have to. Say the hard thing because they know it themselves too. So after you is understand their perspective, share yours and align that communication and also avoid the sandwich tech sandwich feedback. So that's sometimes people call it the shit sandwich.

So that's when you give the compliment, give them the feedback or have that difficult conversation and then end on a good note and another compliment. It just really takes away from that message that you're giving and it comes off as ingenuine.

All right. Those are the questions that I run through with the other people. And then you problem solve. So after you've aligned that communication problem solved together, figure out what are the next step

and retrospective. It's always important to look back at what you did well and what you did not think of ways to improve. And you can even have a meta discussion with, with your team or with a certain individual about how you think that actual conversation went. I've definitely done that a few times and it kind of takes away the being personally feeling personally attacked or feeling personally emotional about something and kind of abstracts it away to talk about like, cool, how can we, how can we have this kind of a conversation that our next time there's a really great book that I use as a resource it's called default conversation.

I've recommended it to my team as well. And I recommend it to all of you. This is one of those tools in my well, no.

So I've talked about the brain under stress, and that is a fact, you learned ways to reduce unnecessary, difficult conversations, but when you do have a difficult conversation, you now have the tools and the resources, so you can come back to them and remember you're not underwater underwater. Thank you.

About Calibrate—

Founded in 2015, Calibrate is a yearly conference for new engineering managers hosted by seasoned engineering managers. The experience level of the speakers ranges from newcomers all the way through senior engineering leaders with over twenty years of experience in the field. Each speaker is greatly concerned about the craft of engineering management. Organized and hosted by Sharethrough, it was conducted yearly in September, from 2015-2019 in San Francisco, California.