Introduction

We all want to be nice. Well, at least I want to.

I only have respect and esteem for my colleagues at Adimian, and they are all very dear to me personally.

As a manager, I want them to have a happy life, be free from sorrow and stress, so they can focus on their job and produce stellar results.

Toxic paternalism

While it starts with good intentions, this mindset has evolved over the years into what I would now call toxic paternalism: a broken system where people are de-incentivised to grow and give their best.

I’ve spoken before about obsessive performers. Basically how they get better is hitting the wall with your fists until they bleed, then hit it again.

It is definitely a world of stress and sorrow.
But also a great teacher, and when the wall finally breaks under your fists, you get to taste success and joy.

By trying to shield my colleagues from the “bad things”, I’ve also robbed them from their path to success.
In fact, I ended up building a 3 stage pyramid structure which ensures everyone is suffering equally.

The almighty elite

I don’t know where they came from, the legend does not tell how they acquired their magic powers. What I know is that these highly-regarded people are supporting the whole business on their shoulders alone. They can get no breaks, they can get no rest, they have to perform, daily, until one day when they will inevitably catch fire.

The spiral of indifference

They don’t know things. Since they don’t know, we don’t give them anything to do. Imagine them breaking things, it’s safer to let the ones who do know handle the difficult things. You would not let kids play with knives, would you?

The limbo of inexperience

Caught in-between are those who know already something, so we can give them knives, but we’re not sure yet if they are really, really capable, so we’ll give them fool-proof knives, with a round tip.

And since they can do their job with their dumb knives, why would they ever need the pointy ones, huh ?

Toxic paternalism: the lower you are on the pyramid, the less is expected from you

Better parenting

I have two young kids myself, and I noticed I treat my (grown up) employees in a more childish way than I do with my kids.

Doing your part

Do I let my kids play with knives? Certainly not. Are they allowed to use knives and fill/empty the dishwasher? Yeah, sure.

Now did any of them ever get hurt with knives? Yes. They almost stabbed themselves a couple of times, they got injured (nothing serious, don’t worry), they cried a bit and I got pretty vocal about being responsible when operating dangerous kitchenware.

I could also be super-paranoid, confiscate the knives, but parents will tell you that kids can injure themselves with anything. And if they were banned from touching kitchenware ... who would empty my dishwasher?

They’re part of the household, they have to do their part, it involves doing chores, and they’d better do them well.

Individual growth and recognition

Are my kids suffering from this situation? Not at all. They don’t always like to do it, but it also helps them feeling trusted. They do their job, progressively get better at it, and then return playing.

Yes of course sometimes things do go as expected, glasses are dropped, dirty coffee cups are placed inside a clean dishwasher, ...

Then I get to point them their mistake, explain the consequences of their action (missing glasses, ecological waste of running the dishwasher twice, ...), and offer them advice on how not do it again in the future (only one glass per hand, perform visual check before putting stuff in the dishwasher).

The last time I had to do the dishwasher myself? A long time ago. Now it’s just “kids, I need two braves to empty the dishwasher” and it happens.

Better management

We make good software, not good excuses

I’m sure it’s appreciated, but I often feel I’m offloading too much work and responsibilities from people who should know better, or could do better. If you did 60% of the job, the good response from me is “ok, you’re on a good track, now get me the missing 40% and we can call it a day”.

It is not “oh, you really managed to go pretty far with this tiny brain of yours. You have blown away my expectations, now let the grown ups do the hard work”. This is Dr.Who-level of condescending.

Dr.Who is a jerk. Don’t be like Dr.Who.

Struggling is where learning happens

Overwhelmed by the amount of toxic paternalism I have to provide on a daily basis, I keep repeating that I only have so many hours in a day and that I am not able to scale. But I’ve been there, I know these things. I don’t struggle. I could code in my sleep. But I can’t do several people’s job, since I can only time one piece of code at a time.

What they need is not me doing their homework, what they need is struggling, getting better, so they don’t need my help at all in the future. Getting better so they can move upwards and help others, so I don’t need to do that either. Getting better so I can be the one who asks for help.

Leave people enough room to break things and make progress by themselves

Conclusion: don’t be like Dr.Who

First and foremost, I would like to apologize to my team for slowing them down for so long.
I really plan on changing my Dr.Who habits, I count on you for reminding me not to act as a jerk.

If what I’m describing sounds familiar, either as a manager yourself, or working under someone who has the same traits, feel free to refer to this blog post ;-)

Now let’s fix this

What you need to do for it to work:

  • Trust the people who work with you, as they are also fitted with a working brain, same as yours
  • Be clear in your expectations:  write what you want as actionable items and set a clear timeframe on when you expect the work to be done  
  • Hold them accountable for giving you 100% of what you asked, not 95%, not 99%
  • If you were not clear enough and they only managed to get 60% done, fix your demands, and still have them complete the missing 40%. Don’t fall in the guilt trap of taking the hit yourself because it-was eventually-your-fault-for-not-being-clear-why-should-I-fix-your-mistake-it-is-unfair. Sh** happens.
  • If you want to demonstrate something, do a small unrelated example, then delete it. By doing “the first steps” you are robbing them from learning how to put up those first step themselves.
  • Don’t take away the keyboard “because it’s going to get done faster”, but don’t passively assist by watching them type either. Set directions, give hints, and ask them to come back when it’s done.