Thursday, September 9, 2010

Architecture would be easy if it weren't for the people

I was making small talk with one of the partners at the firm at which I work recently when he apologized for yawning so much. “A client called me late last night,” he said. “I was awake because I was working on a proposal for a project that we’re so close to landing, and then there’s that client on my cell phone. I hardly got any sleep.” This client also called him at midnight the previous Saturday…a Saturday? At midnight?! What kind of crazy client does that sort of thing?

“A lot of them,” was the partner’s reply. “You’ll find that a lot of really high-ranking people in each of your clients’ organizations has some kind of personality disorder or mental illness.” He wasn’t kidding; I myself have worked with some really strange people as the decision-makers or points-of-contact for my clients. Sometimes, my point-of-contact is perfectly normal and easy to work with, but those who make decisions above his/her head have a thought process usually only attributed to ferrets on meth. Sometimes the client is great, but they hire someone to manage the project and work with you who is stark raving mad. (And every now and then, I’m the crazy one. That’s the scariest part.)

Communication and conflict resolution aren’t really taught in schools, but psychology is. If I ran the world, I would make at least two psychology classes mandatory for architecture students—Basic Psychology and Abnormal Psychology—and I’d follow them up with a required class on good written and verbal communication, conflict resolution, and understanding nonverbal communication. Since most of you reading this are likely already out of school, though, I recommend paying a great deal of attention to how your team members—architects, consultants, clients, and contractors—communicate over the phone and in person. Observe your first impressions about them, and then make a note that this is your first impression only; what are they like the next time you meet them? And the next time? And the next? Are they better over the phone or in person? How do they sit (arms crossed, leaning towards or away from you)? Do they speak kindly or harshly to you, only certain people on the team, or to everyone? How do they react when they’re asked for their opinion or are asked to accept something that’s less than ideal (an extended or rushed deadline, the second-best product, etc.)?

Communication is one thing, but mental illness is definitely another. Remember that everyone you come in contact with on a project is human, terribly and gloriously human. And some of those humans have been scarred by life—heckled in junior high and high school, told they weren’t good enough by their parents, left wounded by one or more sad or traumatic events. Some of them were torque in the head the moment they showed up on earth; there is no set/agreed-upon cause for a narcissistic personality disorder, and there is most definitely not a cure for it either. I remind everyone about how important psychology is in your day-to-day dealings because everyone’s bringing their mental illness to work every day, and they’re bringing it to your OACs and site walks and user group meetings. It’s important—for your own sanity—that you don’t take other people’s behavior personally. You can take it seriously, just don’t take it personally. If you’re working with someone who seems like they’re a flaming maniac, it’s good to check your observations with others’ to see if perhaps you’re inadvertently rubbing someone the wrong way, or if indeed they’re just out of their minds.

Architecture is a team sport, and each team has to function exceptionally well together to pull off a decent project. Knowing how to deal with everyone firmly but assertively—and acknowledging their humanity—can make that process a little (or a lot) smoother.

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