A brief problem analysis: the importance of knowing roles

I was frequently feeling a distracting level of frustration when a contract Business Analyst (BA), whom I have been working with for a few months, would ask me questions or want to discuss problems or next steps on the project we are working on. I did not like my tone of voice in replying to him, and I could not determine what was causing me to experience this level of frustration. While it is normal for me to initially experience frustration when talking with someone, I usually figure out the cause and make necessary adjustments for it. I eventually was able to that in this case, also, but it took awhile. 

This BA has been working in the cubicle adjacent to mine for several months. Since there is significant overlap in the work that he and I do, we have been working together a lot.

He is a self-described extravert, and tends to think out loud, but that, to my mind, wouldn’t account for the level of frustration I was experiencing in talking with him.

Attempted methods of resolution:
First, I took a walk with him and explained  my problem: something about our interactions was causing me trouble, and I wasn’t able to identify it. We agreed to work together to improve the effectiveness and ease of our interactions.

My first countermeasure was to ask him, when he would start describing a problem to me, whether he wanted assistance or whether the conversation was just an FYI. This hardly helped because usually he wanted assistance. 

Then I attempted to clarify early in each conversation what kind of assistance he wanted. Did he want me to serve as a sounding board as he talked a problem through? Did he want my advice as a Process Improvement person? Or did he want me to give him some direction as a more senior staff member?

These countermeasures had little effect.

The answer came when I recalled an interview with Noah Yuval Harari, in which he described the important role of titles and rank in human cooperation. We interact in a fictional world of corporations, departments, and job titles. We create stories and live inside of them. While sometimes these stories are overemphasized and the importance of human interaction is underemphasized, the problem can lean the other way. In this case, my problem was not so much with the person, but with an ambiguity in our roles.

Because he is playing an ambiguous role, gathering requirements, identifying problems, proposing solutions, setting meetings, and because he is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in the abstract in many of the problems he is covering, and yet he  is not the designated SME in any of them, my mind was having a very hard time making sense of our conversations.   Additionally, I also play an often ambiguous role.  When he would come to me with problems, my mind was trying to classify his question in the context of its asker (him) and our relationship (per our roles). Normally, I know and assign roles implicitly. My mind simplifies most interactions by asking something like, 
“Is this my area of expertise or responsibility?” If yes, I take the person’s question and take responsibility for it. If not, I ask
B “Can I direct the person to someone else?” If it falls in an unclear domain, I ask,
C “Can I quickly help them analyze the problem so that they can move forward with experimental solutions?”

But in this case, my mind was answering “I don’t know” to A because of the significant overlap in our roles. It was answering  “No” to B because this person was already talking with the SMEs and was often in some degree of disagreement with them. Not being a SME, I did not know what to do in regards to this disagreement. Finally, it was was answering “No-o-o-o-o!” to C because of the frequency of these conversations.

Once I identified the problem (that he and I have ambiguous and shifting roles) then I was able to recognize that we may need to negotiate our functional or contingent roles more frequently so that I can decide the right role to play in any given conversation. For example, am I acting as senior personnel, providing insight not the workings of our department? Am I providing analytical assistance? Am I declining to assist due to time constraints? All of these options felt more available to me once I realized that they are normally unconsciously self-evident due to the relatively fixed nature of organizational rules.

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