Monday, June 29, 2009

#0004 The Human Face of CG: personalities and personal needs

What I want to convey in this blog is something that I see nowhere else. Now perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but what I tend to see is about 90% focus on technology and tools and maybe 10% on aesthetics and 0% on the human factor in computer graphics. If we look at all the forums available, (and who has time do do that), I very much doubt any one of them looks at the human side, the management side of producing computer graphics. That's why I've stepped up to the plate.

As a CG supervisor, it is really easy to focus in on the aesthetics and technicalities of shot production and pipeline management. But your job is more than that. In my role as department head of CGFX at Flight 33 Productions, I wore the triple hats of producer, vfx supervisor and cg supervisor. At times I was the IT manager, the Art Director, and every now and then the janitor. But the most challenging aspect of my job was actually dealing with the human issues.

If you think I am talking about human resources, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, advertising, interviewing, hiring, and reviewing staff took a bit of time; sometimes too big a chunk. (If you're in a big shop, the personnel department does a bit of this for you.) But the real challenge is dealing with the two P's: personalities and personal issues.

Unless you're a shot lead or a CG supervisor with only technical responsibilities (and then who decided to give you a supervisor title?), the two P's will challenge your patience and test your ability to think on your feet and excercise clear, mature judgment. Without causing more problems or getting your boss on your back or an attorney on his.

Now, this is not a psych blog, so if you want to get into an analysis of personality types, profiles and the like I encourage you to look elsewhere. The search terms, "personality types in the workplace" popped 298,000 hits on GOOGLE. I particularly found the "7 Basic Styles of Workplace Behavior" interesting, which classifies workers as Commanders, Drifters, Attackers, Pleasers, Performers, Avoiders and Analyticals. This website summarizes the ideas of Francie Dalton.

My experience is that you'll be cruising through your daily routine of reminding people of objectives, answering 10,000 questions (a slow day), troubleshooting issues you'd think the staff would know (after all we are paying these people!), and suddenly someone will pop in your face, usually with a cloudy face that can only mean someone ate their lunch or the world is coming to an end, and ask to talk with you "as soon as possible".

Usually, at this point, now is a good time to talk to the person. If you don't, you'll find you are distracted all day by the image of that face and the ominous tone of doom. If you don't the worker will probably be distracted all day wondering why the hell you don't care enough about them for a five minute chat. If you don't the worker will most likely fester, may grow to resent you, the company and the entire race of supervisors and all we stand for, and will at some point begin to tell everyone who will lesson what a poor boss you are and how they're world is being destroyed by your incompetence. Whatever you do, don't let them go home with this attitude.

So you talk to the person. I suggest you do your very best to listen. While you are listening to the person, I want you to set aside what your doing and listen. But that's not enough, you need to one more thing. You need to listen.

Listening is not absorbing information with your ears and then making a decision and fixing the problem. Listening is listening only. At this point all you should be doing is listening. Now, don't listen in silence and don't be an impassive wall of stone. People have feelings, so listen and reflect to the person you are listening. If you don't know how to listen, take a minute and get on the internet. (If you want to be a better manager, now's a good time to just admit that no matter how good you are, you can be a better listener.) GOOGLE returns over 30 million hits when I give it "the art of listening". So listen up, and make it clear you are listening.

There's a few simple techniques that you can do, if you don't do these automatically: 1) say your listening and mutter things like "go on", "yes" and other encouraging words; 2) let your body relax and be empathetic; 3) when appropriate, ask clarifying questions; 4) don't interrupt; 5) don't react (especially don't get angry or impatient); 6) repeat what was said and ask if you got it right. Listen until there's nothing more.

When the person finishes talking, sometimes they will expect an immediate response or solution. Most of the time they will expect you to respond right away. Please resist the temptation. Unless it is something simple, like "I have a doctor's appointment because my cat died and it upset my grandmother's dog who ate my goldfish and the stress is giving me hives," you need time to consider your response. At this point, even if you have a response I suggest you wait a bit and give it some more thought.

Suppose the person is asking for vacation time in six months and wants to buy tickets now to get the best rates, or needs to book reservations now because it's a popular spot. Get the details about the issue that you need to know --when, how long. And get the details about what is important for you to make a humane decision --when is a decision needed by? Then take your time and consider what is good for the company, good for the team, good for your sanity, good for morale and good for your employee. It may be good for the employee to let them make a reservation six months in the future, but can you even guess what you will need then? And how will other employees feel if they learn you gave someone a vacation pass so far in advance?

Whatever it is, consider your answer well. Eventually it comes down to the human level --in this example, giving the employee the time off can be managed, you just need to find some vacation relief or get others to cover the work.

Not all issues will be this easy. Sometimes, too often, it will involve something petty or some backbiting or even worse, a personal conflict between workers on your staff. But before you act, think. Remember, your job is to get the job done, and, if practical, keep the team together for the next one.