The Cardinal Sin

There are lots of ways to fail. There are plenty of ways to annoy and frustrate your coworkers. And I’m not saying that these are small change, but there’s one sin that’s usually pretty easy to spot and almost always an indication of future failure. And yet, we sometimes let these people onto our teams anyway. We’re trying to give them a chance. We don’t trust what our gut is telling us. It just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. There are “more important” considerations. But this failing will poison the air around the person, destroy morale, and ultimately have a toxic effect on the entire team.

I’m talking about defensiveness. Yes, of course, murderous rage and malignant narcissism are also pretty bad, but let’s stick to stuff you won’t find in the DSM-IV. Now, we’re all guilty of this in some ways and to a certain degree, but there are some people who take it to an unpleasant extreme. They can’t distinguish between criticism of an idea and a personal attack; can’t admit to being wrong; can’t learn because they can’t admit to not knowing something. Someone who’s pathologically defensive is always afraid of being “found out”, rebuffs help, and can’t take mentoring or direction. I’m not talking about the occasional defensiveness we all experience (e.g., when’s the last time you got annoyed at a back seat driver?), but rather the more pernicious type that bleeds through into almost every interaction.

Defensive engineers will come up with bad designs and fight against any changes. They’ll write flawed code and not just disagree with, but attack code review comments. Defensive PMs will come up with bad projects and appeal to authority or pull rank when questioned. Defensive people attack the people around them, because it’s what they imagine is happening to themselves, and they don’t know other ways to critique ideas. This has a corrosive effect on everyone around them, in particular a team that needs to be able to disagree, challenge ideas, perform code reviews, discuss different potential designs, and push back on projects that have unnecessary pieces. Most people are conflict-averse, and the common pattern is that people on the team will stop giving feedback, resulting in less trust, a worse product, and lower overall happiness and satisfaction for everyone.

It’s possible that, with time, patience, and a significant amount of coaching (both for the candidate and for you, since you’re going to have to develop the appropriate kihon), you could turn this employee around. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would raise the overall level of stress on the team – including among your top performers – but it’s *possible* it could be done. Or, you could focus on finding someone who’s going to save you time, and positively impact the team dynamic. If you can determine up front that a candidate will both cost rather than save you time, and damage the team, there are very few situations which would justify making the hire. If you can’t avoid the person (if, for example, you’re inheriting a team, or the person is being assigned to your team without your consent), then, I suppose, you have an excellent opportunity to start working on that kihon.

The Opposite of Defensiveness

One of the things I tell all of my team members is that “bad news can’t wait.” This is almost a mantra to me. Bad news can’t wait. The sooner you can communicate a problem, even if it’s your fault – especially if it’s your fault – the more options there will be to mitigate the issue, and the more positively your role in the crisis will be viewed. If something’s already gone wrong and tempers are high, sandbagging is only going to make a bad situation worse.

The expert version of “bad news can’t wait” is to preempt a negative feedback session. If you know you’ve made a mistake or underperformed, do the following before your manager comes to you:

  • Write up a strictly factual description of what happened
  • Accept responsibility – don’t make excuses, as that will completely undermine any positive effect you’re trying to achieve
  • Think through and describe some ways you could avoid the problem in the future
  • Seek out your boss to discuss the matter in person before she comes to find you

It’s very hard to get angry at someone who’s already accepted and internalized responsibility for a problem. At this point, your boss typically skips the whole negative feedback part of the conversation, and goes directly to a mentoring/coaching session, in which you discuss different strategies for avoiding the problem. You also get brownie points for professionalism and maturity. This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, but you’ve come out of the situation about as well as you could have.

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