To get anything done in a reasonably-sized engineering organization, we must be able to influence and work with people.
The ability to communicate, advocate, and build relationships with folks from other teams, departments, and even sometimes other companies is an essential part of our roles.
First-time managers and tech leads often struggle with this because they’re used to executing rather than thinking of themselves as diplomats for their team. If this sounds familiar, check out these lessons in diplomacy that will help you grow your influence across your team boundaries:
1. Focus on relationships over tasks
I remember working in one company and with one engineering leader in particular. I knew that whenever they sent a meeting invite or an email, they wanted something from me, or would create more work for me. Over time my trust in them degraded because I felt like an extension of their team, rather than a peer. Be aware of this trap, especially if you know you default to task orientation versus relationship orientation.
Diplomats know that having heated conversations around a tough topic is a lot easier if you already have a strong relationship. To channel this, deliberately build relationships before you have to ask for a favor or request something from someone else. Invite folks for coffee or lunch to learn more about them. Build deeper relationships by understanding what might motivate them and see what you can do to help their work before you need something from them.
When diplomats do need to ask someone for help with a task or for information, they also think about how they approach the task so that it deepens their relationship. They avoid sending emails or messages like, ‘I need the status on your team’s API that we use by the end of the week,’ as it appears rude, demanding, and inconsiderate of what circumstances the recipient may be facing.
Diplomats communicate their needs but invite the other party to support them in a way that best suits them. One way we might write our previous message is to provide more context, such as, ‘My team is on the critical path for our launch to South America and will start some work next week that relies on your team’s API for user details. I’d really appreciate an update before the end of the week to know if we will be ready to start that work or not so I can update management.’ Providing more context takes time, but it helps others decide how best they can help you.
2. Act as a bridge, not as a shield
Many managers learn the mantra that they need to act as a shield for their team. While this is well-intentioned, many take it too far. For some, it can become a reason for behaving and communicating aggressively with people outside of their team.
I remember an engineering leadership meeting where one manager antagonistically criticized the work of another manager because it created more work for their own team. They had a valid point, but a diplomat would recognize their behavior wouldn’t change the situation but would reduce the likelihood that other engineering leaders who would willingly reach out to them in the future. I even remember one leader whispering to me, ‘Who would want to be on the receiving end of that verbal abuse?’
A much more helpful approach that diplomats use all the time is to act as a bridge. In real life, diplomats don’t often have a say in policies and decisions but they do their best to share their own context and explore others’ needs to find a solution that works for both sides. They explore how they can help instead of simply defending their own needs.
Acting as a bridge means sometimes giving something valuable to earn the trust of others and not simply hoarding resources. In most tech organizations today, this means sharing useful information, context, and offering support instead of always protecting your own interests.
3. Don’t let your personal emotions interfere
The final lesson we can learn from great diplomats is that they know they’re not just representing themselves. They’re representing a much greater cause and collective. In heated situations or discussions, it’s natural for people to react with strong emotions but diplomats know they can’t let their own feelings or opinions get in the way.
If you feel like your emotions are getting the best of you in a discussion, ask for a small break. Go for a walk. Vent your stress or worries with a trusted third party like a coach or mentor. Learn the triggers (we all have them) that get your emotions riled up and recognize when they’re driving you towards task orientation or putting you on the defensive.
Diplomats know that saying or taking one wrong action can destroy large amounts of trust instantly. Keep this in mind, draw on tools like non-violent communication or radical candor to express your needs, and be direct but always in a diplomatic way.
The great thing about influence and diplomacy is that they’re both skills that can be learned and refined. All people are diplomats – good or bad – whether or not they want to be. A person leaves an impression of their team when they share a message in a company-wide slack channel or share information in a department-wide meeting. Every interaction is an opportunity to represent your team in a positive light. If you want to be more effective build and draw on the art of diplomacy to grow your impact.