I recently had a new engineer join my team who is severely visually impaired. He is able to use most spreadsheets, docs, and email using screen-reading software, but his impairment yields a number of challenges that I am having trouble sorting out.
Building presentations is challenging and in many cases not doable due to their visual nature. He has given a few presentations, but isn’t able to read body language/understanding of those he is presenting to. This also manifests itself in one-off conversations when asking other engineers for inputs.
I’m struggling with defining boundaries for this individual. On one hand, I recognize the need to enable him to be a strong individual contributor. On the other hand, I find myself feeling like I am micromanaging his presentations and conversations with others (as they start to take a downward turn).
Do you have any advice on how to set boundaries/expectations for him, myself, and my team without overstepping ethical (or even legal) lines?
Emma: Yes, we do! But heads-up: this is not a quick tips sort of situation. You’re in “fundamental recalibration of what you know to be true” territory.
Andy: Which so much of management is about — that’s one of the reasons I find it such a rewarding job. It’s a treasure trove of giant recalibration moments. You’re doing the good and hard work of being human.
Emma: As I think you already can tell, it’s also really uncomfortable work. That’s okay! Discomfort is what tells us that learning is about to happen: We don’t feel right, so we figure out what needs to change. Celebrate that instinct. People who shrink away from their discomfort are the ones who stay sheltered and rigid. This is not you.
Andy: Totally. You’ve recognized that pouncing on any potentially awkward moments with this engineer is inappropriate and unproductive. When we’re that hypervigilant about preventing minor negative outcomes, we’re definitely in the realm of micromanaging. It’s tremendous that this feels off to you. Like Emma said, celebrate that your instincts are spot on here. I want to repeat it because it may not have landed fully the first time.
Emma: One thing that’s very clear: You need to build confidence that you’re not going to mess this whole thing up. I recommend some unconscious bias training.
Andy: Stay with us here! Don’t shrink! We all have biases coded into us — some that we may not be aware of, and some we may even explicitly deny. They might even be biases against ourselves. We unconsciously make decisions using these biases all the time. It’s what makes them so insidious. If you can surface yours and understand what’s happening in your lizard brain, the rest of our advice will have room to slot right in.
5 Ways to Learn More About Your Biases
- Uncover your implicit biases with these Harvard tests
- Watch videos, read the research, and get tools for blocking bias from UCLA and Cornell and Stanford’s VMware Women’s Leadership
- Take Google’s Unconscious bias training
- Enroll in a course, like LinkedIn Learning’s course on Unconscious Bias (your public library may have free access to these course; Los Angeles Public Library does!)
- Talk to your HR team about your company’s resources
Andy: Your next move is to take a deeper look at the “downturns” you’re anticipating — what their source is, and if they actually need to be prevented at all.
Emma: Yes. Spend some time untangling your engineer’s performance from his abilities. Right now, they are conflated: He can’t visually observe when people are confused (ability), therefore he can’t give a successful presentation (performance). That’s baloney. I’ve seen plenty of terrible presentations given by people with excellent eyesight — I can confirm that these two things are not related.
Andy: Since the human stress response means most people are not good at presenting, can your report’s eyesight really be the fundamental issue? There’s something to coach here, but it’s the performance, not the ability.
Imagine doing your swoop-in-and-rescue technique for any other person trying to learn or improve a skill. Let’s use me: I’m quite short. I am not great at basketball. To help me improve my free throws, you hover near me and grab any misses mid-air, then toss them into the hoop. I’m imagining it, and I think the outcomes are: I’m not going to get any better, I’m not really going to like basketball, and I’m going to be pretty annoyed by you. Take off the micromanager hat and put on the coaching one. What do I need to do to start sinking shots?
Emma: Scorecards are going to be a really helpful tool for you right now. You need to get clear on what success is across all your team’s functions and tasks and responsibilities: presentations, work product, interpersonal communication — anything that gives you that flicker of discomfort. As you’re building each scorecard, gut-check that you’re listing results, not prescribing action:
Result: Engages audience
Action: Makes eye contact
This will help keep you ethically and legally in the clear.
Andy: I know, I know — more scorecards. But they’re such powerful tools for combating biases! As the Stanford’s VMware Women’s Leadership toolkits highlight, we’re way more likely to be biased when decision-making criteria is ambiguous, ill-defined, or vague, and when there are narrow definitions of success — for example, if you think assertive communication is the only way to be a powerful leader. A scorecard that’s focused on results addresses both of these elements.
It’s also a straight-up Good Boss practice. By focusing on outcomes, you are creating space for many different routes to success. This is important whether or not you have a person with a disability person on your team. All people are different in a bajillion different ways. Articulate and measure the outcomes and you’ll be much more apt to hit them than if you try to articulate and measure the methods.
Emma: Equal success is the goal, not equal treatment. You aren’t going to manage everyone on your team the same way. If slick, custom animations are necessary for a successful presentation at your company (I hope this is not the case, but bear with me for the example’s sake) maybe you need to engage a freelance designer to build the deck with your visually impaired report.
And remember, you’re allowed to give your report feedback on his performance. While I can appreciate that your liability radar is on high alert, part of me wonders if a lot of anxiety could be solved with a simple, “You’re presenting on a complicated subject matter and people are getting lost. Have you tried inserting time for audience questions every fourth slide?”
Andy: I truly believe you are going to be an excellent manager to this person. Ask HR for help when you need it, and trust your instincts. It sounds like they’re pointing you in all the right directions.