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How well do you really know your colleagues?

By Geoff Norman,

Assuming you've been in your job long enough to see your probationary period out, you'll no doubt have fairly quickly picked up on what your work colleagues are like. You'll probably have at least a basic idea of their likes and dislikes, their overall competence, their natural strengths and weaknesses and their morality. In short, you probably know who you can rely on.

At least, under ordinary circumstances, that is. But do you know what they'll be like under extraordinary circumstances? Have you ever found out what you'll be like yourself under extraordinary circumstances? It doesn't take much to change a routine day into one that's suddenly hugely exciting for all the wrong reasons, and when that happens, unusual demands come thick and fast. Everyone is suddenly under a lot of pressure and people's reactions in that situation are as varied as the people themselves. Certainly, prior planning can mitigate the problems and therefore reduce the pressure, but there are always unforeseeable circumstances so sooner or later you and your colleagues will find yourselves having to improvise. And, if the Foul-Up Fairy comes visiting your office, how good an idea do you have of which of your colleagues you can really count on?

Perhaps a couple of illustrations might be in order at this point, and since not all crises are IT related, nor is my first example. A while ago, I was called upon as a First Aider to deal with an incident in which someone collapsed in a meeting. Understandably quite a dramatic situation to deal with, I certainly learnt a fair bit about myself, but equally illuminating were the reactions I saw from those who had been present in the meeting and witnessed the event. More people than I expected had kept their heads, but a few did not, and a couple of the panicky bystanders were people I knew to have shown very cool heads in commercial emergencies. Yet, faced with an unfamiliar crisis (in this case, a medical one), here they were flapping without direction; obviously I didn't know them as well as I thought.

The second example is a far more familiar scenario; that of a classic IT disaster recovery situation. In this case, an unfortunate coincidence of several hardware failures left us needing to restore data from tape. None of us involved were too concerned, since we perform successful test restores reasonably regularly, so we were well rehearsed in what was necessary. However, with the discovery of an arcane bug in our backup software, we were no longer dealing with standard procedures, and everyone was suddenly outside their comfort zone. I knew how some of my colleagues would react, having gone through similar experiences with them before, but some others were unknown quantities. Amongst those, one particular colleague who I'd suspected of being a little ineffectual suddenly came to the fore and demonstrated a calm, composed professionalism under intense pressure that would still have been impressive in someone with twice their experience - it's nice to be proven wrong sometimes.

It's a well-quoted truism that you never really know how good your systems are until they're tested, but that holds true for people too. Dealing with an emergency is almost always a team effort, and how well or badly that team works together under those circumstances depends greatly on the individuals' strengths and weaknesses, yet during that emergency isn't the best time for surprising revelations. Yet how can we find out how our colleagues might react or perform? Obviously, we can't arbitrarily throw them into a world of pain at a moment's notice, then turn round later and tell them it was just a test.

Well, I'd suggest many of the clues are already there if only we look for them; indeed they're often blatantly obvious with 20:20 hindsight. What we need is to develop the knack of spotting them in advance. There's no magic formula for achieving this, but taking the effort to mentally appraise each of your colleagues within the "disaster recovery" context is still an exercise well worth carrying out.

So back to the original question; how well do you really know your colleagues?

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