A co-worker of mine told me of an ongoing contest at my office: a contest centered on me. The winner would be the person who could get me to say “Hello” to one of them. Someone would see me go for some coffee or popcorn, and they’d queue up to go into the break room and try to talk to me.

It wasn’t that I was intentionally unfriendly… I was just… focused. This was back when I was coding every minute of every day, cranking out applications at a rapid rate. My fellow programmers joked that I must type with my feet, too, since I was so fast. That speed was, in part, enabled by my ability to focus. Even necessary activities like restroom breaks or a snack were unwanted intrusions, an opportunity for my attention to drift away from the next line of code, the next bug to resolve.

My concentration was such that I would acknowledge other people, but often only in my mind. I said “Hello”, it was just so low-pitched, and sometimes no-pitched, that it was simply not there. So the only winners in that contest were the ones who happened to catch me at a transition, like finishing a bug sheet or a major part of code.

When I joined the Intuit Innovation Lab in 2002, some of that… lack of social grace… was necessarily overridden by the nature of my new work: I had to visit customers and talk to them. Or at least listen closely and ask the right follow up questions. I talked more to my co-workers, with my co-workers, and I learned how to connect with customers.

But all that change was just an unthoughtful response, not a deliberate difference compared to my “contest” days. It certainly wasn’t enough. I still had a lot of friction with my co-workers, viewed as “smart, fast, creative, and hard to work with”. It came to head when I locked horns with a co-worker, pushing things “my way” and not allowing a different opinion into the room. I didn’t like working that way, and neither did people like working with me when I was that way.

Fortunately, my boss at the time, Tara, suggested and supported me with a plan to change. She hired an executive coach for me. With his insights and help, I transformed how I interact with people – everyone, from my family, to my co-workers, to customers and just to everyone I meet.

I first took a personality test called an Enneagram. There are many such tests out there, and the Enneagram is probably one of the best. It has 3 person types, and 3 sub-types. The three types are Body, Mind and Feeling. I’m a Body type, with a sub-type of 1 – the Reformer. I want to solve problems, to make everything better. At my worst, I’m a perfectionist, plowing ahead with my own solution and pushing everyone else to the side.

The key to my transformation was to take the worst stereotype of a Reformer and apply that to myself. In every situation, I would laugh at that stereotype picture and refuse to fit into it, even as I knew that my normal mode would fit into it! I became a listener, a peacemaker, able to get things done as a team, as part of a team. I could let other ideas join my own without feeling like the solution would be “worse off”.

I can feel the difference, and it usually astonishes me. I’m happier, friendlier. I can connect with almost anyone. I get onto a plane where a flight attendant is greeting people. She didn’t look particularly happy, saying “Hi, welcome aboard.” I said, “Hi, thanks! How are you?” It was amazing – her face brightened, she talked some more, told me thanks for asking. I could hear her behind me greeting others with a smile! That’s why I’m astonished – I really had no idea before that I could personally, individually, brighten someone’s day just by, well, caring about them, to be honest. It’s more than just a “friendly” hello, rather I actually mean it when I ask, “How are you?” I talk to people about their day, their work, their feelings.

Those of you who know how I was “before” will, I believe, be pleasantly surprised at how I interact with you and those people around you. It’s a world full of people out there, and they’ve had all kinds of days: good and bad and indifferent. Open up ye engineers and explore the people around you. We’ll all be happier for it!

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