Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poisonous People at Work

If you haven't seen Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick's Google Talk on How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People, it is well worth a look. They do a great job describing the debilitating effects negative people can have on an open source project and how to survive those effects.

Unfortunately, poisonous people don't just live inside the Cat-5 and Fiber networks around the Internet. They also live around us every day. And, worst of all, perhaps, they live with us at work.

Unfortunately, work may be the worst place to have a poisonous person. To be sure, the qualities that make somebody poisonous for an Open Source project may not be the same characteristics of what makes a person poisonous in the workplace, but the effects of the poison are the same: people become disgruntled and leave, projects stumble and fail, milk sours before its due-date.

Maybe a future blog will cover how to survive working with a poisonous person. Today, however, I'm going to focus on identifying the poisonous person. What I'm really hoping for here is that poisonous people will self-identify and work to resolve their venomous ways. However, I'm not kidding myself; the traits that make poisonous people poisonous in the first place are likely to prevent that from happening.

So, I'm not covering how to survive a poisonous person and I don't think I'm going to change any poisonous people. What's the point? First and foremost, it is to help others, trapped by the venom around them, realize that they are not alone. Similar to the group strength of a Twelve Step Program, there is strength to be had just knowing you are not alone.

What are the traits of a poisonous person in the workplace? Poisonous people are not always pricks. I've worked with poisonous people who I enjoyed going out to lunch with, enjoyed getting stomped by at the Foosball table, etc. It also holds true that all pricks are not poisonous. Some people are just unpleasant, but their unpleasantness does not cause the workplace organism to sicken.

In fact, I'd go a step further and say that any one characteristic mentioned here does not make a person poisonous, or, perhaps, the venom is just too weak to matter in a strong workplace organism. It isn't until a person pulls together several of these that they have the ability to sicken the workplace and those in it.

I've identified four adjectives that describe a poisonous person and ranked them from least- to most-venomous. I'm sure that there are more; feel free to add to my list in the comments.

  1. Maverick: Poisonous people tend to be fairly well isolated. Part of this is the effect of the poison, pushing people away. However, part of it is self-imposed. Poisonous people have their way of doing things, and the company can come around to them when it's ready to. In the meantime, the poisonous person will ensure everybody else knows they are wrong.

  2. Confrontational: Communicating with the person is never smooth. In fact, people cringe when they have to talk to him or her because they know it will be painful. People get to where they will either not talk to the poisonous person about anything they should be discussing, or they will stop caring and just let him have his way. The poisonous person considers both of these to be successful outcomes.

  3. Single-Minded: Invariably, the poisonous person will have a single, guiding purpose that is brought into every conversation, design meeting, defect report, etc. Everybody in the office will know what this person values, because every single decision needs to be heavily weighed around his value nexus. This can be anything: security, a belief in a flavor of object oriented design, the customer is always right, Emacs is the holy grail, etc.

  4. Arrogant: The final, and most venomous trait, is arrogance. It takes the preceding traits and amplifies them with an attitude of "I am right, you're wrong; I'm smart, you're dumb; etc."

Of course, just about every engineer fits into these buckets in some ways. I know that I do.

The real issue is the effects that poisonous people have on the companies and projects they work with. Most people, even with varying levels of these traits, are good to work with. On the flip-side, I've seen poisonous people nearly destroy a product release that would have tanked the company. I've seen poisonous people cause project be significantly delayed in getting started. And I've seen poisonous people cause projects to string out indefinitely with their single-minded determination.

Putting my cards on the table, I have to admit that I'm hoping if you are poisonous, you'll use this opportunity to mend your ways and move to a more peaceful co-existence with your fellow employees. I didn't lie about thinking you won't change, but here's to hope. This is my easy, four-step program for detoxing yourself.

First, and foremost, be quiet. Stop trying to prove to everybody how smart you are and just be quiet. Listen. Hear other people. You are going for the "walk a mile" thing here; trying to break down your single-mindedness so you can see how things that are important to other people can and should be valued.

Second, start asking questions instead of talking at people. There is a proverb that states "We have two ears and one mouth, that we may listen the more and talk the less." Believe it and live it. You still should be focusing on hearing other people. Don't ask questions about things that are important to you. Ask questions about things that are important to them.

Third, give input, but let other people "win." You see, outside of the poisonous world, this is called compromise. You don't have to be right about everything to win. Give your input, let others give their input, then let the others have their way. This will drive you nuts, but it is a critical step towards removing the toxins.

Fourth, do it all over again, every time.

As the toxins leave, you'll see that discussions aren't about me versus you or about you winning and getting your way. Instead, they are about how we best accomplish things. Your single-mindedness, originally one of the poisonous traits, will become an asset as you are seen as an expert who understands not just your focus, but also the implications that focus has on other areas and how to deal with the real-world problems those implications bring on. The influence you were trying to force upon others will be requested and appreciated.

In closing, a reminder. Almost every engineer has some of those poisonous traits above. The advice I've given here applies to all of us. Do yourself and your co-workers a favor and try listening more and talking less.

I'll be back with some ideas of how to deal with poisonous people in the future. In the meantime, if you are working in a toxic environment, know that you are not the only one and that we commiserate with you!