Handling disagreements as a team

Following my code review post, I added some more thoughts regarding code reviews, but there was one comment that I wanted to come back to later:

“Social aspect: How do we handle disagreements? As a team.” – peitor

There are a number of aspects to successfully dealing with disagreements, some of which are about mitigation and avoiding the problem in advance, and others about how you deal with the problem once the disagreement has started to grow, after all, it’s hard to avoid the vim vs emacs, “that’s not RESTful”, brace placement, or other developer arguments.

Collective Ownership

The first key to avoiding unnecessary disagreements is to leave your ego at the door, because teams full of egos will fight each other to be seen. As Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams so elegantly describes, any situation that asks developers to compete against each other, whether under performance review,or by dividing functional teams geographically, will inevitably lead to conflict and a blame culture. If you are all on the same team, with the same goal, it’s in everyone’s interest to resolve disagreements before they become conflicts.

Constructive Criticism

One of my colleagues has been writing a series on becoming a technical lead, it’s all worth a read, but his latest post, about constructive criticism, is particularly relevant to this discussion.

Constructive Criticism is a reality of doing code reviews, it’s arguably the whole point of doing them, but make sure that you are able to articulate clearly what you expected in a friendly manner, a Blame Culture is bad.

This doesn’t just apply to code reviews, but that’s an important example of where code is judged. Firstly, constructive criticism should be about the behaviour or the outcome, rather than the person (although even at that level, it’s wise to avoid abusive language if you want to avoid alienating your team, just ask Linux Torvalds), and secondly it should offer practical, achievable improvements, so that the person receiving them can use them as an opportunity to improve.

Lone Wolf

There are 2 main categories for individuals who have a detrimental effect on the team. One is the black hole who needs additional support or encouragement and sucks time away from the rest of the team, and any work they produce is marginal. They might be just a poor team player, or a square peg in a round hole (maybe they’d be great in another job on the team or in the company), but they breed resentment in the rest of the team having to compensate.

As a leader, you either need to find a way to help the person to improve and fit into the role they are doing, via mentoring, training or other means; or you need to find a role they are better suited to, by looking at other tasks that need doing.

If you can’t do either of these things, you will need to make the tough decision to get that person off your team so that the rest of the team become more productive and do not degenerate into dysfunction.

Rockstar

The other key individual threat to team coherence is the rockstar developer. The one who plays by their own rules, and always knows best. Unlike the black hole, they get the job done, but they often do so at the expense of the team.

Key traits of Rockstar code is code that doesn’t fit the rest of the team, code that is too clever for its own good, and therefore much harder to test and debug.

Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you’re as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?

Just like the black hole, the rockstar developer causes addition work for the rest of the team, but often leaves behind code that the rest of the team don’t understand in order to be able to refactor it. This resentment can be seen by the rockstar developer as jealousy, as their non-stick ego prevents them from taking responsibility for dysfunctions in the team, and it is clear, particularly to those outside the team, that the individual is achieving results (indeed, the rockstar often makes it very clear).

A rockstar does have many of the qualities needed to be a good developer, so long as they can be convinced to simplify and work with the team rather than steamrolling past. Unlike black holes, they are probably doing the right tasks, but need help to understand their impact on the rest of the team and any problems that result from their code, as they may have trouble accepting it.

Duelling banjos

Sometimes, there are individuals that work well with the rest of the team but not each other. Sometimes this can be caused by jealousy or resentment, particularly if one was recently promoted or given extra responsibility when they were previously equal, or one of them is more likely to have their ideas accepted by the team.

The slighted individual in this scenario needs support from the other individual and the rest of the team to accept the situation, and build resilience so they can move on, and, where appropriate, a clear explanation for why the differential occurs.

Hopefully these disagreements are on the ideas rather than the individuals, because when things get personal, it gets a lot harder for people to back away from a disagreement. However, the technology world is notorious for bug fights over little things.

Which text editor do you use? (whichever one you like, so long as you can set the format to the project coding standards)

Where do you put the opening braces? (for Javascript, always use K&R style, on the same line, for everything else, whatever the project says)

If you’re fighting over something that doesn’t really matter, ask yourself why, and if you can just agree to disagree, and accept that you’re not going to convert everyone to Dvorak.

If you see others on your team fighting, look out for Logical Fallacies that can drag the argument down into personal attacks, or unproductive sniping rather than a stimulating argument on improving the code. Be prepared to step in and separate the individuals. Give them a chance to cool down and reset, or space to think, talk and reflect.

Red eyed monster

The tired, stressed team are far more likely to argue and those arguments are more likely to get personal. Don’t overwork. Find your work-life balance.

You

You are a member of the team. Exhibit the behaviour you want to see.

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