You know, for dorks.

On complaining

In a previous post, I wrote that “Complaints about a person without actually talking to them is worse than pointless. It’s damaging.” Let's dig into that a little bit.

The short version is that it’s damaging to the person the complaints are about because they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing wrong or their impact on others. It’s damaging to the team because bad behavior is going unchecked and the result of it spills over onto them. It’s no good for the manager, either, because without addressing the situation, there’s not likely to be any change, and who wants to be in a constant state of frustration?

Caveat time
Now, before we take this too far, I’m not suggesting that anybody should bring up every small annoyance. I’m talking about the big stuff, the stuff that makes you worry about putting people on projects and might ultimately block their growth or hurt their careers if it’s not addressed.

How ‘bout an example?
Let’s make up an engineer. We’ll call her Theodora. She is incredibly talented and has a ton of potential.

In planning meetings, Theodora chews her pen and I can hear her teeth clicking against the hard plastic. It bugs me, but nobody else seems to notice. She also resists giving estimates and seems almost hostile at times when she is pressed to give one. It has gotten to the point where Product Managers and others have started coming to me with questions that they should take straight to Theodora.

First things first: I’m not going to talk to Theodora about chewing her pen. That’s not worth my time unless it’s disrupting the meeting and in this case it’s just my pet peeve. Regarding her hostility about estimates, however, I’m going to have to talk to her. If I don’t say anything,

  • I’m telling Theodora and the rest of the team that it’s either OK to be hostile, or there are special rules for Theodora.
  • I’m robbing Theodora of a chance to grow. It’s likely that she’ll be asked for estimates throughout her career, so she should understand why I’m asking for them. More importantly, she should figure out a better way to handle situations when she doesn’t want to do something or doesn’t agree with its value.
  • I’m allowing communication barriers to form around my team and ensuring that I become a bottleneck for anybody with a question they should take to Theodora.
  • I’ll lose respect as a manager for failing to take action on a problem. Some jerk will probably come along in several years and write a blog post about how I should have talked to Theodora.

Note that it’s up to Theodora to correct her behavior; I can’t do that for her. It’s my job to point out that her actions have an impact she might not be aware of, and to make sure she knows the short- and long-term consequences. This gives her the opportunity to change her behavior and stop negatively impacting her team, her manager, and her own career.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Great article, I've thought about this problem before but I've never been able to express it this well. Great job!