The Dysfunctional Team VII: Epilogue & Conclusion

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

In this concluding part we follow Paul as he has conversations with some of the team members and reflects on the past half year. We close off with a longer reflection on the overall story.

What’s with Max?

Paul tries to call Max several times after the presentation. Jesus, pick up the damn phone. He puts down his coffee on his desk with a thud. The fifth time Max finally picks up. Paul looks down to the floor as he presses the phone to his ear.
“Max?”
“Yes.”
“I wanted to do a brief catch-up after the presentation, but you left early?”
“I did, I needed some time to … reflect.”
Paul takes a breath to calm himself down.
“Okay, we can talk later if that works better for you.”
“No, it’s okay, go ahead.”

“To be honest: I was a bit surprised given our conversation two weeks ago.”
Actually I feel more like I was misled.
“I really thought we could finish it in time.” Max replies.
“So, what happened?”
“I think people became demotivated, and therefore we lost traction.”
Why didn’t you just tell me earlier?
“Look, you have been at this for six months with no real results to show.”

Never give up

“Let me try some things Paul.”
Really? You’ve been trying for months, and now you found the holy grail? Let’s hear it.
“Do you have something concrete in mind?”
“There’s multiple things we could try. I mean getting in more development capacity …”
“We tried that.”
“Yes, but maybe Joseph was just a fluke, you know. And we could, we could …” Max sighs and it goes quiet on the other end of the line.
“What else could we do according to you?”
“I don’t know.” Max sighs again.

“I am not convinced that you should continue to drive this Max.”
“Give me a chance Paul, just give me one more chance to set things right.”
“I appreciate your dedication Max, but …”
“Please Paul, I can do it, I can. Just let me talk with Sally, and … with Tim, I can make it work. This product has so much potential! And, I mean, at this point, who else in the company would touch this? I know I can do it, I know I can, I must.”
Paul remains silent for a moment to let Max calm down.

Deterioration

“Have you thought of yourself Max? How much have you slept?”
“I haven’t slept well over the past weeks.”
The first realistic thing you said so far.
“Look, Max. I have seen you deteriorate over the past months. I remember our first conversations. You walked upright, bantered and made casual jokes. I don’t see any of that anymore.”
Max sighs.
“I know, this has been … hard for me.”
“I can see that, Max.” Paul responds. “Let me take over for a week or two, after that we’ll see where to take it from there.”
Max let’s out a more deep sigh.
“You know, I really want to help and fix it. Make things right.”
“I understand Max, I understand.”

After much insisting, Paul gets Max to take some time off. A week after this call, Max visits the company doctor. Max informs Paul that he is diagnosed with a severe burn-out. It is unclear when he’ll be coming back, if at all.

Sally’s dance

Two weeks later Paul is in his office. He leans back and stares up at the ceiling light.
How to keep this team going? Alice already left and Max is on leave.
Paul looks at his watch, Sally is five minutes late. When she dashes in, he cuts straight to the point as she sits down.
“As you know Max is at home for now, I think this will take a while.”
Sally nods. Paul continues.
“At this point it’s unclear when, but if he does come back we’ll likely have him move elsewhere in the company for his sake.”
“Okay.”
Is she smiling faintly, or am I just imagining it?
“So, I need your help Sally. Would you be willing to take over his role, even if temporarily?”

Sally leans back in her chair, and looks up.
“I really appreciate the offer, I really do. But … well, there is no easy way to say this, Paul.”
He leans forward in his chair.
“Sometime ago I applied for a position at Nudle, and they recently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I am leaving in a couple of weeks.”
Nudle, wow. I should feel happy for her, but I don’t.
“I am sorry to hear you’re leaving us. There’s much more you could have brought to this company.” Paul slumps in his chair. “I wish you would have let me know earlier that you were unhappy here, we could have made changes so you would remain challenged in your job.”
“Have you talked with Tim recently?”
“Yes, I know he’s negotiating to move to a start-up. He told me a couple of weeks ago he was looking at other options.”
Unlike you Sally, unlike you.

My turn

A few hours pass. Paul is alone in his office. He sits backs in his leather armchair, turns around and stares out of the window. Slowly, he stirs his latte macchiato.
What could I have done differently?

Paul feels he had set everything up for success six months ago: two of the most successful people in the company, Sally and Alice, willing to form a team, a decent balance between people at different stages in their career development and a clear thing to focus on: improving the app.

Nevertheless, six months later he is left empty handed. A temporary hire intended to bring more balance to the team, Joseph, walked away after only two months. Alice decided to switch to a different team, because she became disillusioned with the project. Tim is looking to join a start-up again, and Sally just announced her move to Nudle. All of them highly skilled people. How could this have happened?

The end

Paul straightens his suit before he walks into the lush penthouse office. He somehow has to explain what happened to team Phoenix to the CEO and he hasn’t come up with a good explanation just yet.

“Phew, this is a real bummer Paul. I would have expected you to keep a better tab on this and inform me earlier.”
“I understand.” Paul looks down.
“Look, in a couple of weeks you effectively have only one person left in the team. What was his name again?”
“Bob.”
“Ah yes. I think you should move this Bob to a different team. He was a junior right?”
“Right.”
“So, great. I think he can continue to learn at another team.”

“So, you’re saying I should disband the team?”
“For now, I see no other option Paul.”
“What about the app?”
“Well … we can always start a new team, right? A fresh look at the problem might help.”
Oh, great, let’s just step over this entirely and start team Icarus.
“Until you’ve formed that team, we can ask one of the operations teams to keep the app in the air. While not critical it is important, the app. Especially for our longer term company growth.”
“I understand.”
There must be more that we can take away from this, apart from just starting over again.

As Paul went down again with the elevator a little later, the fate of Team Phoenix continued to haunt him. What had actually transpired over the past half year? Why didn’t the team function well? He phoned a friend to reflect. He pointed Paul to series of blog articles that he should read on the topic of so-called dysfunctional teams. Hence, Paul spent the rest of his afternoon going through the seven articles published there one by one.

Reflection

Paul’s laissez-faire policy with regard to his teams gives them a lot of freedom and responsibility. However, we can see that he took so much distance that he actually lost touch with them. On the one hand the team was hiding their failures on purpose which made things hard to see, on the other hand Paul could have done more to dig things up, challenge and coach the team. There were enough early warning signals to warrant a more active involvement.

We have seen in this story that a group of people can spend a tremendous amount of energy not getting off the ground, or really: anywhere at all. This despite their individual skills, their experience level and even their goodwill. Remember that all of the team members just wanted this to work. However, they did not manage to do so. They were all running, but stayed in the same place, or even regressed.

The outcome for Team Phoenix is that people left, either because they became dissatisfied, burned out or found something better. The team literally fell apart. An alternative route might have involved educating the team about their dysfunctions, helping them see and reach each other through counseling, and slowly building things from there. Nevertheless, even the best such interventions usually still end up loosing a sizeable amount of the team’s members. It’s better to prevent than to cure.

The Dysfunctions

In this series we touched upon the five dysfunctions of a team. To summarize these are:

  1. A lack of safety and trust, that manifests as team members …
    • pretending to be invulnerable, not admitting when they don’t know and hiding their failures and true feelings.
    • saving the day repeatedly, and feeling that is the only way they can contribute: the hero complex.
    • working alone on problems almost exclusively.
  2. No productive conflict by team members …
    • pretending everything is fine, while it is not.
    • blandly agreeing publicly, while privately disagreeing.
    • avoiding discussions and people.
  3. Team members not committing to the team’s objectives because they feel …
    • it is unclear what the direction is, and what the priorities are.
    • they need to pretend to buy in, so they can just do their own thing.
    • the need to constantly revisit previous agreements, because the motivation for choices is unclear, and there’s no room for productive discussions.
  4. Avoiding accountability by team members …
    • conforming to low output standards, because that’s what they can both get away with and accept from others.
    • performing mediocre overall, because they no longer really care, and neither do they believe their teammates do.
    • pointing at others and taking their frustration out on them.
  5. Not caring about the results of the team by team members …
    • focusing on their personal success only, over the success of the team.
    • no longer contributing to the learnings of the team.
    • shrugging off missed deadlines.

It is important to realize that these dysfunction build on each other, with safety and trust providing the foundation:

Conclusion

Many people work in a team daily. When teams are at their best they deliver far more than the sum of their parts. A high performance team multiplies the productivity of its members. However, when teams are at their worst they drag down and bring out the worst in every team member. Such teams instead could be said to divide the productivity of its members.

There are few teams constantly at their best, and even those tend to go through performance peak and regression cycles. All teams are confronted with problems. However, how those problems are handled separates a good team from a bad one. If in that process a team makes its members miserable, like we have seen for team Phoenix, we can speak of a real dysfunctional team. It is important to realize that this has nothing to do with the output of a team. A dysfunctional team can actually deliver, though it is less likely to do so, as we have learned in this story.

Recognizing when a team is dysfunctional is not easy, especially not when you are actually in one. My hope is that this series has been useful for you to help you develop a better sense of what dysfunctions are, how they emerge over time, how they can hamper a team and how they can lead to a team’s demise.

I hope you’ll use this knowledge to improve situations in teams that you are part of now, or in the future. The key is learning to recognize and reflect on your own behavior and that of your fellow team members keeping the dysfunctions in mind. Doing this structurally will prevent your team from spiraling into the abyss, and lay the foundations for the emergence of a true high performing team.

References

  1. Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
  2. Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization.
  3. Gregg, B. (2017). Brilliant Jerks in Engineering.

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The Dysfunctional Team VI: Results

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

A month after Joseph walked out on the team, there is still that deadline …

A raise

That painting on the wall looks expensive. It probably is. Even though he is not an art connoisseur, it would not surprise Tim if this colorful thing was a very exclusive piece. He looks back at Paul and takes a deep breath.
“Look, things haven’t been great for me.” he says. “I have been here for nearly half a year now, but this is not what I expected.”
“What did you expect?” Paul responds.
“A team that I could support and learn from. Really what I’ve gotten used to in other places I worked for the past couple of years.”

Paul taps his fingers on his desk.
“Okay, I realize things haven’t been great in this team. However, I’ll ask you the same thing as I do to all your teammates: what do you think should happen and what can you contribute to make that a reality?”
What? Really? I worked my ass off for the past couple of months.
“I think you misunderstand Paul. It is not my place in this team to decide what should happen, if that is what you want then that really is a different conversation.”

Tim takes a breath and continues.
“Keeping things running and being valued for that is what I am talking about. Seriously, I have already put in an enormous amount of effort, and am continuing to do that on a daily basis. To be perfectly honest: I really think I deserve a raise for that.”
Paul leans back in his chair and crosses his arms.
“A raise of at least ten percent.” Tim adds.
I have been working nine plus hour days the past few months, so it’s more like fair compensation for overtime than an actual raise.
“You deserve a raise? So explain to me: how does that rhyme with the team not performing well currently?”
I am putting in way more effort than anyone else, how can you not see that?

My worth

The painting is actually quite ugly. Who would hang such a monstrosity in his office? Tim’s muscles tense and he leans forward, trying to ban the painting from his mind.
“That’s the point I was trying to make: I am doing the best I can.”
“So are your colleagues, Tim. Help me understand what you’re asking.”
Do I need to actually spell it out for you?
“Let me put it this way: without me the old version would have literally collapsed under the load within days, none of the production issues would have been fixed as fast as they have, and there would not be a proper cloud setup for the newly revised app.”

Paul taps his cheek.
“Look, Tim. You have spent several years at start-ups, right?”
“Yes.”
“So, you have been on the other side of the table right. I mean: as an employer.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Paul leans over the table.
“Do you really think you’re worth a ten percent raise?”
Tim’s jaw drops as he tries to process what Paul just said.
How dare you even ask this after all the work I put in? Tim swallows that thought.
“Uhm … well, sure. We’ve made more than enough money with the app already over the past couple of months, despite the stability issues, to cover my costs.”
“Look Tim, I hear you. Let’s continue this conversation some other time. We should head for the meeting room, there’s the team’s weekly stakeholder update, and I am hoping to hear good news.”
Don’t get your hopes up, Paul.

The update

Tim enters the meeting room with Paul. He makes eye contact with Sally who raises her eyebrows in a quick “how did it go?” way. Tim shrugs and mimes a sad face. Max and Alice stand at the front of the room and seem to have a presentation prepared.
“Right, so the short story is …”, Max inhales deeply, “that we won’t make next Tuesday’s deadline.”
Tim feels a shiver run down his spine. Paul winces and presses his lips.

“Everyone tried and did their best.” Max sighs deeply, looks around the room, and swallows uncomfortably. “Despite our very best joint effort we haven’t managed to make a new version suitable for production usage.”
How disingenuous is that? I put in a boatload of effort, as did Sally, but the rest … I mean what did Max ever contribute, besides talking with people? Me and Sally have been mostly taking over the past weeks as he was absent half the time.
Tim puts his chest out and raises his hand.
“Does this mean I’ll have to continue to keep the old version in the air for now?”
Max nods. He doesn’t seem half the man he was at the start. He looks pale, lifeless and shorter.

A recap

“Let me get this straight.” Paul says. “You have been working on the new version for the past couple of months. Max, you said initially that we could expect a first version after three months.”
Max looks down and away, Paul continues.
“You now had more than a full month extra, and are still unable to make the deadline and deliver something. Is that right?”
Tim sees hesitant nods around the room.
“It seems to me you are stagnant. What happened and more importantly: what’s holding you back?” Paul asks openly.
An awkward silence follows.

“Look, I finished all my tasks, I did all the work I was assigned.” Sally says.
Yeah, and me too.
“But there is no functional end product Sally.”
Sally opens her mouth, but then closes it again, and wrings her hands. Paul slowly looks around the room, waiting for anyone to speak up. When he finds his gaze is met with silence, he sighs and returns to Max.
“When could there be an actually working version?”

Max looks up and starts to stammer.
“Ehm … at this point it is hard to tell. I … I really think we first need to revise our plans.”
Yes, Max. Let’s have more meetings, make more plans, put them up on more boards and do six stand-ups a day. Dear lord.
“I am not happy with this. I mean, things can happen, but until recently, I had no idea we were going to miss the deadline.” Paul looks at Max.
“We did not intend to miss it.” Max responds.
“I understand, but I would have liked to have known this earlier.”

Upset

Then Bob, standing next to Tim, bursts out.
“Why do we keep talking about deadlines and stupid plans? Why does no one say a single word about Joseph!”
Paul turns around and looks surprised. Bob continues.
“He left because we failed him, we failed him as a team. But we never even talk about it. The moment he left the office everyone just pretended it was great working with him. One big happy goodbye party. It was the most awkward moment I ever experienced and we never even talked about it.”

“What is there to say? He just didn’t live up to the job. I doubt his presence would have made a difference for the end result today.” Sally responds bluntly.
“Shut up, just shut up!”
Bob walks out of the room. Alice and Tim make brief eye contact. You or me? Alice remains fixed, Tim walks after Bob.

Outside

Tim follows Bob outside. He sits down on a bench in front of the office building.
“Hey man, are you okay?”
“No.”

“I liked him, I really liked Joseph. He helped me all the time.”
“I understand.”
“We chased him away. You know what’s even worse?”
“No.”
“When I talk to other juniors in the company, they all seem to pity me.”
“Why?”
“Because when they hear I am at team Phoenix, they all give me the ‘poor you’ look.”

“And, I don’t like Sally.” Bob continues. “I don’t like the way she treats me.”
“So, why don’t you tell her when she does something you don’t like?”
“I did, in the beginning, I did. But nothing changed, and no else did it either. I thought maybe she’s just like that, you know. Everyone else accepted it.”
Tim sighs.
“I feel a bit guilty to be honest, maybe I should have stepped in more.”

Emergency

At this point, Alice comes rushing outside.
“Tim, we need you, the app is down.”
Tim and Bob follow Alice back into the building. They walk back up the stairwell.
“You seen Max?” Alice asks Tim.
“No.”
“He left right after the meeting.” Alice says.
“Okay, strange. I’ll give him a call later.” Tim replies.

“Bob, how are you feeling?” Alice asks.
“A bit better.”
“Okay, since you were outside with Tim, you probably just missed the announcement.”
“What announcement?”
Alice looks at Tim.
“I am leaving for another team in the company.” Alice says.
“What? You too? Why?” Bob responds.
“I really need a change.”
Alice avoids eye contact with both of them and turns away.
“Okay.” Bob looks visibly disappointed.
Tim taps his shoulder.
“It’s going to be okay, dude.”

Fixed it

After spending some time fixing the production issues, Tim tries to call Max, but there’s no answer. Right as he wants to put down his phone, there is an incoming call.
“Tim?”
“Andrew?”
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“I am good. You’re still rocking at GasDown?”
“Definitely rocking it, but no longer at GasDown. That’s actually the reason I called. Can I have a moment to tell you about an awesome new business I’ve been working on?”
“Sure man. You had my interest, now you have my attention.”
“Hah, still into the movie quotes I see.”
Andrew then spends several minutes explaining his idea.

“Again, if you’re happy where you are that’s good, but if you’re looking for a change, you’d be welcome to join us. I’d love to work with you again.”
“Thanks, I’ll consider it.”
As Tim hangs up the phone he feels a jolt of excitement. Perhaps it’s time for a change. Before he can think it over, Paul calls everyone in the meeting room again.

Long live the captain

“I have an announcement,” Paul says. “As you may have noticed, Max has been here a bit less often over the past weeks. After today’s update, I have decided to temporarily take over his role, I will talk with all of you individually in the upcoming days.”
What is this? Is the captain jumping ship in the heat of the battle?
Some people gasp.

Tim walks out of the meeting room conflicted.
Should I stay, or should I go? Perhaps it’s best to jump ship too.

Reflection

Tim believes he is entitled to a raise. He wants to be compensated for the extra effort he put in. The lack of ‘team feel’ makes everyone, Tim included, retreat onto their own territory. Since there are no results to show, the focus shifts to individual contributions and further dodging of accountability. We see this also in Sally’s response.

Max indicates they can’t give an estimate about when they will be able to deliver a final stable version of the app that can be widely released. The fact they missed a deadline is something that can happen, though as Paul points out, keeping it under the rug is not the best way to deal with this. However, what is worse is that the team is stagnant, there is no improvement in their process and thus also not in their product.

It is not surprising then that Bob has a bit of a breakdown. He is still dealing with the loss of Joseph, something not openly discussed in the team. Hence again we see this coming out explosively due to a lack of safety. Not only is Bob upset about Joseph leaving, he also feels ashamed about being in a pitied team. Tim manages to comfort him somewhat, although Alice than gives him another blow by announcing her departure.

After fixing a critical production issue (again), Tim is phoned by an old friend who makes him a good offer. Like Alice, and Joseph, Tim is also oriented on delivering results. He can’t do that in this environment, so leaving for something different becomes an attractive option. Especially now that the team seems to be falling apart.

Conclusion

We see that avoiding accountability leads to inattention to results. While individuals care about the part they contributed, they don’t care for the success of the team. The result is a focus on their own status and ego: personal success over team success. This is the last straw that individuals grasp in a truly dysfunctional environment.

Teams like this not only miss deadlines, they also do not have the mechanisms in place to learn. The result is that they never get out of their predicament and continue to run in circles. Deadlines and deliverables continuously shift. In the rare instance they are met, it is even played down as a fluke if the team is sufficiently demotivated.

The first people to leave such teams are the ones focused on results. They are the first to feel deprived when deadlines constantly slip, and thus to seek the reward they need elsewhere.

They key dysfunctions with respect to inattention to results are:

  1. A focus on ego: personal success over team success.
  2. Stagnation, no (more) continuous improvement.
  3. Missed deadlines and deliverables.

What could the team do differently?

  1. An atmosphere were everyone ‘just does his best’, sets them up for failure. The team as a whole should publicly commit to achieving specific milestones instead, learn from their failures and share them to improve themselves and other teams within the company.
  2. Leaders should set the tone for a focus on achieving objective results in a selfless manner. They should recognize and reward those that make real contributions to the achievement of team goals.
  3. Leaders should tie rewards to specific outcomes up front. This can be done in the form of raises, bonuses or other variable reward components that preferably apply to the entire team for achieving joint goals.

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The Dysfunctional Team V: Accountability

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation (on the right) to jump between the various chapters of the story.

After the outburst between Max and Sally, another four weeks pass. The new contractor, Joseph, is on his journey to become part of team Phoenix.

A Chance Encounter

Joseph slowly drives into the parking lot and glides his car smoothly into the first free spot. Then he gets out and grabs his bag from the backseat. Slowly he walks towards the entrance. On his way there he runs into Paul who greets him with a big smile.
“How are you?”
“I am fine, thanks,” Joseph answers.

Paul continues walking energetically towards the door. Joseph has to kick up his pace to follow.
“For how long have you been here now? Was it two months already?”
“Almost two months indeed,” Joseph nods.
“How do you like it so far?”
Joseph hesitates before answering. What to say?
“It’s a challenging environment.”
Paul raises his eyebrow.
“You mean in a technical sense?”
“Definitely technically, but also in say … a social sense.”
Paul stops walking and so Joseph does too.

Challenges

“Can you elaborate on that?”
Perhaps it is best to just be honest.
“I feel quite some tension. Max and Sally had a bit of a falling out a couple of weeks ago for example, and things have been icy between them ever since.”
Paul looks at Joseph with a friendly and reassuring face.
“Ah, I see. Indeed, there were some problems initially. Don’t worry I am fully aware of that. However, it is my understanding that this has recently taken a turn for the better.”
“I don’t want to rain on your parade, but …”
“Go ahead, tell it like it is Joseph.”
“I am not convinced it has changed all that much.”

Paul nods.
“I recently spoke with Max. He indicated that he came to a mutual understanding with Sally. Also: it’s important to not forget that Sally is woven into the fabric of this company. Honestly, all I’ve heard from others about her technical skills is praise.” He pauses and taps his finger on his cheek.
“But, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps my radar is off.” Paul adds.
“Have you talked with others as well? Getting more perspectives might help.”
“I have something scheduled with Alice soon, but I realize now that I should check in more often.”
“If I can make a suggestion: take your laptop and sit near us, that may give you a better impression of what’s going on.”
“Good one, I’ll take it into consideration.”

Tackle the Beast

After his conversation with Paul, Joseph enters the office work floor via the stairwell. He attempts to suppress a cough. Unsuccessfully. Once he regains control of his breath he walks into the pantry to get a coffee. As the machine starts grinding the coffee beans, he thinks back to this conversation with Paul. Was I too honest?

Back at his desk Joseph opens up his laptop. What was I working on again? Yesterday he was at a different customer. Joseph then connects the screen, mouse and keyboard. As a result he suddenly remembers what he was actually doing for team Phoenix two days ago in the evening. He was halfway through a large code change! Let’s tackle that beast.

After several minutes Joseph’s hands move across the keyboard, eyes along the screen and his breathing stabilized in a regular rhythm. He reached deep focus and steadily works towards completion.

Stand-up

Joseph is jerked out of his concentration when Alice gets up. She walks to the large screen and connects her laptop. Shit. He gleans the time from the corner of his screen. Three minutes past stand-up time!

Joseph quickly gets up from his chair and joins Alice. No one else is there yet besides them.
“Heard anything from the others?” Joseph asks.
“Nope, I know that Max won’t join, he has a meeting.”
That moment Bob rushes in, still chewing and holding the last portion of his lunch.
“Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Alice replies.
“Have you heard something from Sally?” Joseph asks.
“No, I think she went for a walk with Tim a while ago,” Bob replies.
“Let me text her.” Alice whips out here phone.

“How was your weekend?” Alice asks Joseph.
“Well, you’d never guess. We actually double booked.”
“Really? Seems like the two of you have problems managing your calendar.”
“Hah. We managed to resolve it: Jill took our youngest to a play date with the kids of some friends, and I went to the movies with our oldest: Bart. He’d been looking forward to that for over a week.”
“Great!”
Joseph peeks at his watch, another five minutes passed.
“Talking about time management. Has Sally messaged you back yet?”
Alice checks her phone.
“No,” she sighs. “I guess we’ll just have to wait.”

Late

Seven minutes later Tim and Sally come in, they are still chatting.
“Sorry, we’re late.” Tim says.
“Oh, I see now you texted.” Sally says. “Look, I have to go to the toilet first. Sorry, I’ll be quick.”
Alice nods. Some red spots appear in her neck.

Joseph checks his watch again when Sally is back: the stand-up starts a full fifteen minutes later than planned. Joseph then tells the team he is putting the finishing touches on a larger change. After that it’s Sally’s turn to talk about the two tasks assigned to her. She looks down at her phone.
“Sally?” Alice prompts her.
“Yeah, sorry I did not get to them yet.” she says. “Other priorities.”
Alice raises an eyebrow.
“I thought this was the place were all the team’s task are?” Joseph asks. “If you are working on other things shouldn’t they be on the board?”
Sally still does not look up from her phone.
“Yeah, I’ll add them after the stand-up.”
Right.

Then it’s Tim’s turn.
“I completely lost track of what I did yesterday, but let me dig into my logs, I’ll find out and properly update the board after the stand-up.”
Wow, is everyone here running their own show? This is supposed to be a team.

Frustrations

“Everyone knows that we have a deadline coming up in four weeks, right?” Alice says. Her last words come out high pitched and her neck turned completely red.
Some people nod apprehensively. Then, to Joseph’s surprise, Bob speaks up.
“It’s not our fault that we are slipping, right? I mean some of the designs were really late.”

Sally looks up and puts her phone away in her pocket.
“Yes, and what does finished even mean?” she adds. “Will it be how many features we hacked, the performance of the app, or the performance of us as a team? No clarity about that.”
It’d better not be that last thing. Joseph swallows that thought.
Alice looks everyone in the eye from left to right: silence.
“So, it’s still unclear to everyone what we need to do?”
“I know I may be starting to sound like a broken record, but for me its more about the ‘why’, not about the ‘what'” Sally responds.
Wow, what a thing to raise so close to a project milestone.
“I am doing the best I can, but I just don’t want to be held accountable amidst this lack of clarity.” Sally adds.

Not that vague

“Really? It’s clear to me what needs to be done.” Joseph says.
“You’re new here.” Sally responds dismissively. “You don’t understand.”
Joseph raises his right eyebrow, takes a shallow breath and opens his mouth to respond. However, Sally just continues talking.
“We really need more clarity. Can’t we arrange this with Paul?”
“Let me first talk to Max again,” Alice says. “We really need to have something demonstrable in four weeks guys.”
My god, she looks like she’s on the verge of a breakdown.
“I am sure it’ll be fine Alice.” Tim adds. “I can put in some extra hours as well over the weekend.”
You’re missing the point Tim. Completely missing the point.

The stand-up ends. Alice quickly walks towards the stairwell, her head hanging, she slams the door as she walks out. Tim shrugs, others look annoyed or slightly puzzled before returning to their desks.
Could I have done more, should I go and talk to her?

Refactoring

Fifteen minutes later Joseph reopens the code he worked on. His eyes dart across his screen as he double checks and runs some final tests. Everything looks good.

Joseph writes a log message describing his changes. For an instance he considers just using a single non-descriptive line like Tim usually does, but then changes his mind. I have to set the right example. He spends nearly half an hour to describe all his changes in detail, submits his code and assigns Sally for review.

Sally sits across from Joseph hidden behind two large screens. While Joseph can’t see her, he knows she’s looking at his code. And indeed, five minutes later, his changes are rejected with one written comment by Sally: “I expect better. Naming is unclear and does not conform to our conventions. Code looks messy overall. Try again.”

Joseph clenches his fist and pounds it silently on his desk. He resists his first impulse: to rip out the cords from his laptop, pick up the device, and slam the machine onto Sally’s head. Instead, he furiously starts typing a comment back.

“Who do you think you are ….”
His cursor hovers over the submit button. Wait. He erases it and restarts.
“I don’t appreciate this type of comment. It is general, unspecific and lacks helpful suggestions. I am just trying to fit in, it’s not my fault the existing code is messy …”
Wait. Again.
“As you can probably see, I have a good reason for naming …”
Wait. He breathes deeply and removes the text for the third time.
“Could you be more specific about what you think should be improved?”
He thinks once more and adds:
“Let’s discuss this in person.”
Joseph then clicks the submit button.
Okay, first a cup of coffee and some time to calm down.

Your fault, my fault

When Joseph returns he sees Sally hovers over Bob’s desk.

“Bob, why did you change this function three days ago?” She points at the screen. “There was no reason for doing this. Now the whole back-end is broken. You don’t even oversee the consequences of what you’re changing.”
Sally gives Bob no chance to respond, and makes a dramatic gesture.
“My god. Is everyone around here stupid? Lóók at what you’ve written here. Just roll back your changes, I’ll fix it.”
When she pauses to take a breath, Bob cautiously responds.
“I … I think this was not my change, look.” He points to the log.
“Oh, great it was Joseph, our new ‘hero'”, Sally responds.
“Yes, it was me.” Joseph’s voice booms from behind them.
Sally turns around startled. Got you there.

The Real Beast

“Oh, ehm, good you are here.” Sally responds. “So you made this change? Not a surprise. It’s a bit like the code you just submitted for review.”
“Look, Sally. I know you have high standards, but what you are doing really is not helping. You want to review all the code? I am fine with that, but I need helpful and specific suggestions so I can improve. You can’t just shoot down my work like that.”
Sally looks at him with a blank stare. “Helpful suggestions? I don’t get it, Joseph. I thought you were the most senior developer, and now you need help? How do you expect us to deliver with this quality? Enlighten me, what’s your plan? To take what you need and then leave contractor style? You earn twice what I get. For that money: I have seen seniors a lot more senior than you.”

Sally goes on for a few more minutes about how seniors should be able to do their own work and about the poor quality of his code. When she stops talking, Joseph looks her straight in the face, puts down his coffee and walks away.

I’m out

Five minutes later Joseph knocks on Paul’s office door.
“Yes?”
“I know we already talked this morning, could you spare me five more minutes?”
“Sure, thanks again for the suggestions. I was still in the process of deciding on what days to join the team. Have a seat.”
“I prefer to stand.”
“Okay.”

“Paul, I want you to cancel my contract.”
Paul looks puzzled and sits up. “What? Really? Why?”
“I don’t have the feeling my contribution is valued here.”
“What do you mean? You can’t leave. There’s a deadline coming up in four weeks.”
“I don’t think this team will succeed, with or without me. There’s just so much …”
Paul’s interrupts him. The vains on his forehead protrude. “Honestly, I am a bit angry now. Who was it that prompted you to leave this abruptly. Sally?”
“It doesn’t matter. Really, it’s the culture, not a specific person.”
“Is there anything I can do to change your mind? I mean think of your family, you have kids, right? Shouldn’t you think this over for a night?”
“Look, I am working elsewhere for two days a week already. I can scale up that assignment. But, thanks for the concern. I am really sure I want to leave.”

Paul rubs his face with his hands. Half a minute passes in silence.
“Well, I am not happy with it, but I respect your decision.”
“Good.”
“As a request could you come in tomorrow morning still so we can announce it to the team?”
“Will do.”

As Joseph leaves Paul’s office he feels a burden lift off his shoulders. He walks straight up, finds he can easily take a deep breath and confidently steps into his future.

Reflection

When Joseph meets Paul in the parking lot, he becomes alarmed. Because Paul seems to not really grasp what is going on, which is not entirely his fault. Since the team wants him to believe the illusion that everything is alright, Max included. Joseph could have spoken out about this more clearly.

During the stand-up it becomes clear that some team members are not really putting in an effort. The underlying cause is that the team is not committed to a set of clear goals and lacks a real feeling of togetherness. Missing safety, trust, productive conflict and commitment has led to a situation where low professional standards are accepted. Things like being late, not finishing tasks and being unclear about what is being worked on, are not rebutted. As a contractor, Joseph is in a unique position where he could actually speak up about this, but he does not.

Sally is a talented software engineer, dedicated to delivering quality, and cares about the company. However, she manages to make the people she works with feel bad about themselves. She is a brilliant jerk. Paul is aware of Sally’s excellent technical reputation, and has a fear of letting her go, because of her knowledge, skill and centrality to the company. However, Joseph actually has to work with her. Hence, he chooses to leave after he can’t tolerate Sally’s treatment any more. He also does not believe the team can achieve its goals and dislikes the culture. Thus, for him, leaving is really the right decision.

Conclusion

In teams that are not committed to clear goals, the members start to dodge accountability. Since no one wants to be held responsible for unclear goals. This puts a lot of stress on leading roles in such teams, as they are thrust into a position where they become the source of discipline for the team, like Alice.

Furthermore, the quality of the solutions suffer, as everyone loses motivation. This creates resentment among team members. Instead of an environment where everyone tries to excel and move beyond themselves to achieve joint goals, the entire team regresses to mediocrity.

This also further enlarges the differences in skill among team members. It gives rise to brilliant jerks: those that are good technically, but have a poorly developed social radar. They target people that are in some way less powerful and humiliate, berate and oppress them. Entire teams can be build around these bullies, with everyone tiptoeing around them.

They key characteristics of avoiding accountability:

  1. Low standards (Tim, Sally, Joseph is tempted).
  2. Fosters mediocrity (Tim, Sally, even Bob now).
  3. Enables brilliant jerks (Sally).

What can the team do to improve?

  1. The team should resolve any ambiguity by defining clearly what they need to achieve and communicating this publicly, meaning: also to other parts of the company.
  2. There should be regular progress reviews and communication about how the team members feel they are doing against the objectives they set and the standards they agreed to, like a retrospective.
  3. Leaders should encourage the team itself to serve as accountability mechanism and not become the source of discipline themselves. They should step in only when needed, and when things are going well reward the performance of the team, not of specific individuals.

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