The Role of Context

Posted: April 9, 2007 at 11:09 pm in management, people

Today’s topic on Scott Berkun’s mailing list for project managers was surprisingly divisive. The story: the project manager has a star programmer who is utterly pessimistic. The programmer does his job well but infects the rest of the team with his cynicism, leaving the project manager having to improve morale.

The first several responses all said “Fire him”. These responses all claimed that this person clearly was a cynical negative person, and that he was dragging down the performance of the team. No matter how good a programmer he was, he was a net negative contributor to the team. As a former cynical programmer (my cubicle was dubbed the nexus of the “Corner of Negativity” at one company), I immediately sympathized with the programmer, so I was shocked at the vehemence of these responses.

It also got me thinking about why the programmer might be so negative. Maybe he is seeing problems that the management team is ignoring (that was certainly a factor in my negativity at that company, which went bankrupt a year later). It’s possible that the programmer really is a hopeless pessimist who will think that the sky is falling no matter what, but I felt that it was extreme to jump to that conclusion.

Another interesting story crossed my bitstream today. A Washington Post staff writer convinced Joshua Bell, one of the world’s premier violinists, to act as a busker in the Washington Metro one morning during rush hour. He stood there, playing virtuosic violin pieces on his Stradivarius for 45 minutes, and got completely ignored by 95% of the passersby.

Why are these two situations linked? Because they both demonstrate the importance of context when evaluating something or someone. The Metro riders saw and heard a busker. Sure, he was good, but without anything to place him, they just hurried on by. Joshua Bell can command sellout crowds at concert halls, but without a marquee and wearing a baseball cap, he was just another violinist.

I believe in the power of context to reinforce behavior. When we’re in a Metro station commuting to work during rush hour, we behave in a certain way, regardless of what other elements are introduced, even if they’re utterly fantastic. We perform the same sequence of events each morning, we walk to and from work by the same paths, we eat lunch at the same places, etc. It’s only when we are ripped from our accustomed environments that we even examine our own behavior.

Which gets us back to that pessimistic programmer. By placing all the blame on the programmer for being “passive-aggressive” and “cynical” and “flawed”, I feel that the managers who were calling for the programmer’s head are ignoring the corporate environment. I mention this tendency in a post viewing art as a web where I dubbed it the object-oriented perspective, where we try to place “all of the properties of an object into the object itself rather than the network of relationships surrounding the object”. In other words, I think that it’s over-simplifying to blame the programmer without examining the environment as well.

Maybe the programmer really is beyond hope. Or maybe they’ve just seen things go wrong at other companies, and had their observations been consistently quashed by management, leaving them in a state of learned helplessness where they feel incapable of doing anything about the situation but be cynical. But I would think their experience is a resource that should be leveraged rather than dismissed.

My suggestion was that the programmer’s concerns should be addressed openly and publicly, and turned around on the programmer for ways to deal with those concerns. It would have helped me back when I was that programmer if somebody had said “Okay, genius, if things are going to go wrong, how are you going to help us fix them?” Instead it took me several years and a few different companies (contexts) to figure that out. Hopefully, if/when I become a manager, I’ll be able to figure out how to create the right context to make my employees productive and happy. We’ll see.

P.S. I felt compelled to post just because I love observing cross-connections like these. How many other people would see a connection between the Joshua Bell story and a project management issue?


just another violinist: When I first read the story, I thought I would probably have just walked on by like the rest of the commuters, but when I watched the embedded videos, I realized that I wouldn’t have. He’s _good_. I mean, like, wow. I played the violin for over ten years as a kid, and I could only dream of playing even one of the lines in the Chaconne as well as he was playing both simultaneously.

Interestingly, many of the people who stopped to listen to Bell turned out to be classically trained musicians, including several violinists. Perhaps it takes a certain level of skill to appreciate the difference between good and great, because only somebody who has attempted something knows the difficulty involved. I often feel that way in other areas where I don’t have the same sort of experience, such as art or jazz.

I’ve mentioned this before, but this story illustrates yet again that art does not exist in isolation. Art is a connection between the artist and the audience. In this case, without the surroundings of a concert hall and without an appreciative audience, Joshua Bell really was just another violinist.

2 Responses to “The Role of Context”

  1. Michelle Says:

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || The Glory of Bach || June || 2007 Says:

    [...] mentioned the Washington Post story where they got Joshua Bell to busk in the Metro. It prompted a blog post about the importance of context, but it also made me realize I miss having music in my life. I actually started listening to the [...]

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