We is the key, We are the key

September 06, 2020

Recently I was reminded of an interaction I witnessed many years ago. I’m keeping this vague to protect the identities of those involved, so I apologize in advance for some of the “hand waving”.

The Filibuster Meeting

I was in the midst of a meeting for the purposes of requirements refinement specific to a given epic. This particular epic required a considerable amount of coordination between a number of internal teams. The product manager had scheduled a meeting with team leads for each of the respective areas, to ensure correctness, identify gaps and formally delegate tasks to those teams.

Roughly 30 minutes into the meeting, one of the tasks was delegated to a specific team , This was particularly memorable, because the remaining 30 minutes of the meeting was filibustered by the representative of that team who explained in violent detail how their team wasn’t responsible for that particular task. Everything about the interaction was cringe-worthy. The tone was condescending, the body language was aggressive and affronting, and the silence from the remainder of the room was a void-like cacophony.

I could stop there, and everyone would think this person was just a “bad person”, or that they were a bad employee. We could easily make a sweeping generalization, and I imagine I probably did at the time. I think most people did.

I had worked with the employee quite a bit, and all of my previous direct interactions never foreshadowed that circumstance. In fact, in our direct interactions, I’m quite certain I had probably made similar mistakes, only to be greeted with a warm handoff, or “I’m not sure who does that” type of response. Not once was it ultimately memorable, and I can’t think of a single circumstance where it was ever hostile.

I’ll also admit that being a 20 year veteran of fighting sports as a preferred extra-curricular activity, 40 years of clinical anxiety issues, and the metabolic side-effects of diabetes, I am the last to judge anyone for personality flaws. It takes a concerted effort to exercise maturity. I get better at it as I get older, but I’m not perfect.

A director I worked for once gave me this nugget of advice:

“It’s ok to be mad, but it’s not ok to stay mad.”

The Mushroom Cloud Aftermath

After that instance, the employee was branded with a reputation for creating a hostile workplace. This actually stopped the forward motion of the epic we were working on, because the PM and several other participants of the meeting requested reassignment based on the results of the meeting.

The employee was one of the best engineers (in their respective discipline) that I have ever worked with. That still holds true today. Losing the employee on this epic was unthinkable. The rest of that team combined would have taken twice the time to accomplish the same amount of work.

Two directors managed to talk the participants back from the ledge, and a follow up meeting was scheduled. Walking into the room was very memorable. Tension radiated off of every single person in the room. Facial expressions ran the gamut across the emotional spectrum.

The PM was noted as being a jokester. With a smile on their face, they said “let’s see if we can get through this without any more bipolar incidents”. Naturally, that wouldn’t fly today, but this was quite sometime ago.

The employee who previously had the outburst calmly stood up, walked out of the room, and then yelled quite loudly from the hallway, “go fuck yourself”. The employee went directly to HR and resigned.

Problem 1: “I can’t help you” or “this isn’t my job” is an incomplete statement.

For thirty minutes, this employee performed a super-villain monologue (described as such in their own words retrospectively) about what they and their teammates didn’t do. At no point, was there any explanation about what team/area was responsible for this line item.

It’s ok to say “This isn’t my area”. However, if you know where it does go, offer that information. If you don’t, then offer that as well.

If you’re disrupting meetings or having your responses in emails/ticketing systems quoted in chat channels or other emails, there is a good chance that the tension is unhealthy.

Problem 2: Good engineers don’t always make good leaders.

This has become such a cliche, we shouldn’t have to talk about it anymore. However, it still seems to happen quite often.

This engineer happened to be a principal who had been promoted to team lead. Not all teams had managers, so a team lead would act in lieu of a manager. Of note, the engineer did not want this role. They were completely happy with the existing role, but they were pushed into it based on the unfortunate fallacious assumption that “good engineer == good manager”.

Managers/Team Leads most often take on a “people management” component to their day-to-day work. In addition to this, they also tend to be the person who represents their team in meetings. Another way to look at this is that, in many cases, they are the customer-facing element to the team.

Anyone who has worked in technology for any duration of time has undoubtedly encountered strong personalities that are spectacular for being heads-down for 8 hours to get work done, but are just not cut out for interacting with people.

This becomes even more critical when the particular area of expertise is a high-visibility/high-support team or function (IT, Operations, HR, Product Management, etc.)

Problem 3: The concept of a team is compositional.

Competition is hard.

Unless you are the first to market, or you work in a niche market that has a customer base with a revenue stream set in concrete perpetuity, there is a good chance that you will either be in the business of evolving your business model to ignite new revenue streams as the old ones decay, or you’ll be racing to the acme of feature richness amongst other companies in the same market space.

We might have our specific teams within a company that we work for, but ultimately, there is another team that is critical to the success of the company: the company itself.

How you interact with your peers, reports, or orthogonal members of the company doesn’t just reflect on you, it is a reflection of the overall culture and philosophy of the company.

If people are afraid to talk to you because you aren’t approachable, or because you aren’t receptive, then you’re narrowing possibilities unnecessarily. This becomes a very virulent subculture that wats away at the efficacy and productivity of employees.

Yes, we all work for teams that do specific things, but we are also all part of a bigger team. That machine needs to work efficiently for us to collectively succeed.

Problem 4: Tension is normal, but you can’t put off action when it becomes unhealthy.

Many teams have different tasks or goals. Sometimes the over-arching mission of a company is the balanced result of compromises achieved through two or more teams that provide competing or conflicting goals. The ops vs. dev debate goes back almost half a century now, but it has yielded some of the most innovative and impressive results across many industries, provided it can be managed collaboratively.

There is always going to be healthy tension between teams that exist to achieve at cross-purposes. There is also a psychological element to this that has to be considered. If we tell all of the members of conflicting teams that the goal is compromise, maybe they give in too easily, and we get NO tension. This might result in poor quality, late delivery or other problems. However, if we don’t tell them at all, we enable those who don’t compromise well to dig their heels in and potentially never relinquish their position.

Strategically, if you view this as a game of tug of war, the best approach is to put the best negotiators closest to the part of the rope that is near the other team, while placing the worst negotiators furthest from the other team.

This keeps tension balanced, until someone refuses to quit. This prevents us from resetting the rope and playing the next game.

Technology companies are often defined by the efficacy of their approach to the software development life cycle. Cadence is critical, because it is how we work together to improve quality and velocity.

Unhealthy tension disrupts this cadence, slowing down the life cycle, decreasing quality, and potentially even stopping or moving it backwards.

So why did the employee blow up? That’s the question, right?

It turns out there was a long standing tension with the PM. This wasn’t even the first outburst.

Apparently, there were a number of outbursts going back a year in smaller forums, with less visibility. Based on conversations with the employee, they admitted that most of their outbursts were at other employees not involved in challenging interactions. This kind of displacement isn’t uncommon. We manage to hold our tongue to the person frustrating us, only to blow up at the next person we talk to. Over time, frustration grows more and more irrational. Those who bottle it up, are more likely to expel it destructively, violently and irrationally. This might even be followed with embarrassment or a lack of self-awareness that refuels the frustration and anger.

As I mentioned, the PM was a jokester, who often liked to use terms like “mental, crazy, postal, bipolar, et al.” to describe tense or challenging circumstances.

It also turns out that the employee was in fact bipolar.

They had discussed this with the PM and HR several times, but there was no recourse. Ultimately, the failure to force the PM to make a change was a poor decision. This enabled the PM to continue creating an uncomfortable situation for the employee.

The employee cited their disorder as a reason not to be made team lead. Despite the fact that the employee was prone to outbursts, failure to remove them from the situation enabled them to continue delivering unhealthy tension to other parties.

Outcome

The short term result was fairly catastrophic for all involved. The epic we were working on suffered greatly without the employee. The impact to the epic had a sizable impact in terms of reputation and revenue for the company. (It goes without saying that redundancy is very important).

The PM was not an evil person. Reality is never that black and white. To be honest, despite the unintentional ignorance-driven insensitivity, the PM was actually a pretty decent human being. I don’t know if there was backlash in terms of the circumstances, but it was clear that the overall incident had a lasting impact. I never heard another joke of that nature out of their mouth. They left the company not too long after the other employee, possibly for a fresh start.

The “hostile” employee is actually someone I still talk to. Having struggled with similar circumstances (in terms of anxiety), we’ve often “sponsored” each other in terms of venting. They are likewise not an evil person. They actually dropped out of the map, travelled all over the world and then settled down with a family on the other side of the planet.

Solution

I wouldn’t have written this if it didn’t have a Disney-like ending. While fear is a great motivator, life gives us that for free. I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to write about.

So how do you fix this? How do you prevent it? I don’t know that you always can. Sometimes things are just broken. However, I know this:

We is the key, we are the key.

By this I mean that “teams are compositional”. If we lose sight of what makes us, as a company, a single engine of production, we’ll never be quite right. The only way to accomplish that is for all of us to participate in getting to that point.

We have to look at ourselves as a part-whole hierarchy, and avoid the “us vs them” toxicity that is all too easy to fall into. We have to remember that even though our roles and job functions might be defined at cross-purposes with respect to some of our peers, that our roles and job functions don’t define us as people. The tension isn’t personal, but entirely functional. That person on the other end of the tug of war rope isn’t your enemy or some evil monster to be slain. It’s just some other person trying to eke out a living, put a roof over their head and food on the table.

Successful navigation of these issues is knowing when tension is unhealthy, when fear has become a stronger motivator than collaboration and passion, when good employees are placed in bad positions, or in situations where they are set up to fail.

Once you know, then act.


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Written by Ed Mangini
A Technology Blog about useful stuff.