Isn’t it funny how this study on Happiness and the Productivity of Software Engineers showed the main cause of unhappiness has nothing to do with software?
The causes of unhappiness that are controllable by managers and team leaders are mentioned four times as often as those being personal and therefore beyond direct managerial control. We also expected the majority of the causes to be related to human aspects and relationships.
Our happiness depends on how we collaborate with other humans.
How does one critically think about collaboration with colleagues? Is the relationship good or bad? What does it even mean to improve?
We are all trying to solve problems at work, but how we collaborate with others on it takes many forms. I find that these forms of collaboration fall on a passive to active spectrum.
This spectrum shows Alice in her collaborations with Bob and Fred to solve problems. This blog post will follow her journey to becoming a leader. As you read this, put yourself in Alice’s shoes and look for similar relationships you currently have with others.
There is no ideal form for all situations, but hopefully, this will allow you to understand which form you are currently in and shift towards a more productive one.
Scenario: Bob is mad at Alice for not implementing production monitor metrics for the new feature she just released. Alice is annoyed at Bob for blindsiding her for such an irrelevant issue, the feature works perfectly. Alice is PUSHED by Bob to solve the problem.
This is an unstable form that is caused by unmet expectations. Bob thinks Alice should be solving the problem which Alice didn’t know about or believe needed to be solved. Staying too long in this form will lead to a breakdown in the relationship and the extreme will see Alice being fired for not solving the problem.
The solution is to align around the problem and expectations. What is the impact/time cost/dollar cost of the problem? Does the problem need to be solved now? Is it even a problem? What is expected of you as an acceptable solution to this problem? With a common understanding of the problem, we can either shift towards a more productive collaboration form or drop the non-problem.
Bob and Alice finally start talking to each other and they discover Alice was missing onboarding training which explained the importance of production monitoring metrics, which Bob is accountable for. Alice now understands this wasn’t a trivial issue and in fact, is one of the pillars on which the business as a whole relies.
Alice agrees to get the production monitoring in place right away, but Bob remains wary.
Scenario: Alice is implementing production monitor metrics for the very first time. Bob, having the most experience in this area, jumps in to help. Alice is annoyed at Bob breaking up her flow and generally getting in the way of getting things done. Bob is frustrated that Alice is resisting his help. Doesn’t she know he knows best? Alice is PULLED by Bob along with the problem.
This form is caused by Bob’s perception of Alice's lack of ability. Bob believes Alice is incapable of solving the problem without his help and has inserted himself into the situation to help Alice when she didn’t need it. Being stuck in this toxic form will lead to a breakdown in trust and has reduced efficiency with too many cooks in the kitchen.
To avoid the toxic form, resolve the misalignment in perceived abilities.
While annoying, Alice realizes Bob is only trying to help. But Alice knows what she is doing and reassures Bob she has control of the problem. Alice shows Bob her technical design and Bob realizes he has misjudged the situation.
Alice and Bob discuss further and come to an agreement that they should still work together on this problem. Alice needs Bob’s help to meet the timeline. They have shifted from the toxic form of collaboration to productive teamwork.
In an alternative universe, Alice doesn’t know how to implement production monitor metrics. She needs to rectify this situation quickly by asking Bob how production monitor metrics are typically implemented. Bob further recommends Alice ask for training resources on the broader topic. If Alice fails to address this real gap in her abilities, the organization will evaluate her performance as low and she may see herself let go.
Back in the prime universe, Alice and Bob successfully ship the missing production monitor metrics on time.
Scenario: Alice has tentatively formed a working relationship with Bob. She is starting to understand Bob’s area of expertise. Alice’s next feature requires heavy modification to existing infrastructure. She reaches out to Bob for guidance. Bob happily gives Alice an overview of the architecture. Bob takes the time to explain why the feature is important to implement now and makes a few suggestions on how best to implement it.
Bob sees a problem Alice will run into with a certain legacy system and he schedules a task for himself to decommission that system. Now Alice won’t have to bother with that legacy system to be feature complete. Alice is FOLLOWING Bob to solve the problem.
This is one of the most stable and desired forms. Alice solved a problem with Bob’s leadership. Bob is clearing the way of barriers that would impede Alice from solving the problem. Through Bob’s leadership, Alice can solve more problems than if she went at this alone.
Scenario: Fred is a new hire and is implementing his first feature which saves a lot of data. During the review process, Alice can’t make sense of Fred’s proposed usage of the database. She can’t see how this maps back to the feature. Alice asks Fred for summarization of all the database transactions and the proposed schema. Alice is PUSHING Fred to solve the problem.
This situation is familiar to Alice. She has been on the other side of this form of collaboration with Bob. Alice has unmet expectations of Fred. Fred should know how to design database schemas.
Not wanting to repeat Bob’s mistake, Alice realizes this is a more productive way of doing things. Alice sits down with Fred to discuss the database usage.
Scenario: Fred is unfamiliar with the database. He is more used to NoSQL databases. Alice has noticed and asks Fred how she can best help implement the feature. At first, Fred thinks Alice should cover the database parts, as she’ll be able to do this the quickest. But Alice counters and suggests Fred work on the database parts so he can gain the experience. The fastest way to learn is by doing. Alice will implement the rest of the feature as this will also give Alice full context and will be able to give feedback on Fred’s database work. Alice is PULLING Fred along with the problem.
Alice has dodged the toxic collaboration forms Bob fell into. She has helped address Fred’s lack of ability through experience and mentorship, instead of covering for it at the cost of Fred. Working together as a team, Alice and Fred ship the feature with ease.
Scenario: With the positive experience of good teamwork, Alice continued to train Fred with more advanced database techniques. Over time Alice noticed she can let Fred hand more of the database stuff on his own. It has gotten to the point where Alice just needs to point Fred in the general direction of possible solutions and Fred can figure the rest of the details. Alice is LEADING Fred to solve the problem.
To some, this is the ultimate and most desired form of collaboration. Alice is are maximizing her utility by using her knowledge and experience to lead others to solve their own problems. This helps scale up the organization as Alice becomes a force multiplier. This could also result in Alice gaining time to solve even more important/complex problems.
Alice’s expertise in databases soon diffuses through the organization. She often meets new people for the first time by referral to get Alice’s opinion on a proposed database schema. She reluctantly takes a leadership role.
Through her shaky experience with Bob, Alice avoids bad the toxic forms of PUSHED/PUSHING and PULLED/PULLING and becomes an effective leader through Extreme Ownership. She understands as a leader, it's her job to serve them; not the other way around. During the annual review, Alice is rated with high performance and is recognized for her leadership.
Leadership is an active role and not just a title. People can sniff out leaders in title only. They are usurped by shadow hierarchies because people just want to get things done.
As Software Developers, we are privileged. We are in demand and have the luxury of being pickier with which company we work for. We can work for companies with exciting missions. Let’s not ruin everything with poor collaboration.
Strive for excellence by improving your collaboration with everybody you work with every single day. This is the hard work we must do to achieve the best culture and happiness for all.
Do you want to practise your collaboration skills by building esports? You’re in luck, Battlefy is hiring.