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I'm facing a situation that I don't seem to know how to handle.

I work on a software development team, and one of its members, say John, has a particular personality trait. Whenever we talk about a situation where he 'messed up' (like everyone does, because we're humans), he takes a very aggressive defensive stance.

He always says 'This was the way you wanted it', 'You asked me to do this in this way, it's not my fault', and 'You were responsible for that'. He's always more concerned about 'blame' than resolving the issue. In addition, it's very frustrating to have someone say so many things that are not true in front of the entire team.

I'm not a person with a 'weak' personality. I know how to say 'No' and I did, but without good results.

John is not a bad person. Deep inside, he cares about our personal lives, but he seems to change really fast between these type of tense moments to more relaxed ones.

If this situation continues, I should inform a superior. The problem is that even though I have a boss, John is the most senior developer and holds a 'trust' charge in the team.

I tried to use some assertive techniques when these tense moments appear (describe facts, no judge, use 'I..' statements, describe my feelings, etc), but it seems to be misinterpreted as me being 'the victim'.

How do you handle a coworker who is constantly on the defensive to the detriment of the team?

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Sounds like you have the answer - If this situation continues, I should inform a superior. The problem is that even though I have a boss, John is the most senior developer and holds a 'trust' charge in the team –  enderland Jan 24 '13 at 21:30
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@peterRit - If he is being unfair and agressive I do not think you actually have a professional relationship. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 24 '13 at 21:53
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What is your goal in "Handling" the coworker? Do you want him to get you coffee every morning, and bring you slippers at night? You can not change another person. You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. There is not practical question here there is an open ended broad question. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 25 '13 at 14:42
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@Fernando - Take it to The Workplace Meta or The Workplace Chat please. And please take a look at this comment from the SE mods –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 25 '13 at 19:39

7 Answers 7

I can tell you exactly what's going on in John's head, because I am John. Or I have been.

I would be willing to bet that, from John's perspective, he pointed out that the course of action he's been asked to take would cause problems. Now, there are problems (maybe even of the type that he predicted), and he's feeling like he's catching sh* because he did what he was asked to do, over his initial objections, and the result, as he predicted, was bad. I have no idea how you managed to override him if he is the more senior developer, but from what you are quoting him as saying, clearly you did.

The reason he's saying "it's not my fault" is because he wants you to learn from the negative consequences that come from overriding him without properly hearing what he has to say, so it won't happen again. At a more basic level, he feels that he isn't being heard. So the first thing you need to do is to properly understand what he thinks happened. Ask lots of leading questions like "What do you think would have been a better way to handle this?" or "What would your ideal solution have looked like?" Resist any urge to argue or judge.

I suspect that you will learn at least a few things that John might have contributed that may well have made the project run a little better had he been able to get them heard before the fact, rather than after. However, John communicates better with machines than people, and he may not actually know how to turn these nebulous feelings that something's not right into compelling arguments that your team can take on board. Even if you think John is completely wrong and there was nothing you could do differently, the fact that you slowed down and completely heard him for once should go a long way toward cooling him down. I can tell you from experience that if he is saying the things you say he is saying, he is very angry and probably depressed. So go to lunch together or get coffee and put some real effort into this part.

Moving forward, try to be an ally to John to make sure he is fully heard. Again, ask the types of questions I mentioned above. Don't let people talk all over him all the time. Where I was when I was John, the people on my team consistently would ask me a question, let me get three words into the answer, then talk over me. Somehow, I was the one who was rude when, after the third attempt, I'd say "Do you want me to answer or not?"

The point I am making is that there are a lot of things you and your team could be doing to shut John down and not even be aware of it, even if you're not using the tactic my erstwhile team did.

If you can help John be fully heard, you'll have a new best friend. It's possible John has really good instincts and the team would be the better for listening. Even if not, actually fully discussing the ideas until a real decision comes out one way or another should enhance the decision-making process and may help morale for everyone. John may not be the only team member feeling marginalized, just the only one whose style makes you uncomfortable.

As far as going to the boss, many managers will be as likely to think you are at fault as John (maybe more so, if you remember how your mother reacted when you came to her telling tales). And I'm hoping that I've laid out enough of what John's perspective might be where you can see that, actually, there's probably some fault on moth sides. Please put in the effort trying to work this out with John. I think you'll be glad you did.

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+1 for just being very insightful. –  Bjarke Freund-Hansen Jan 25 '13 at 6:58
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this seems to be enabling John with his attitude and making him out to be the victim, as this is written from the perspective that John is always right. What if John is always wrong and he is messing up and not taking responsibility? –  squeemish Jan 25 '13 at 12:46
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@squeemish I think maybe you didn't read the orignal post. John is, in fact, SENIOR to the original poster. My point wasn't that John is necessarily right, but that he doesn't feel listened to. Just listening to him might well resolve the problem, whether he is right or not. If he is right, then listening will give you even more than that. –  Amy Blankenship Jan 25 '13 at 18:25
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Can you explain to me what you feel you have to lose by talking to John and finding out how the situation looks from his point of view? I'm not sure what the number of people sharing a point of view has to do with its correctness. At one point, anyone you asked would have told you the earth is flat. It seems to me that you're criticizing John for being unwilling to admit he could be wrong. Do you see that you're doing the same thing? –  Amy Blankenship Jan 26 '13 at 17:41
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@maple_shaft I think the main idea of this answer is helpful no matter if assumptions stay or fail: "make sure he is fully heard" (I would add, have a documented evidence of that). I've been on the both sides of this rope: right or wrong, since the guy is officially more senior, it makes great sense to make sure they were given a chance to state and explain if they don't want to do "this way" and have their concerns evaluated properly. If, as OP assumes, it was "senior's mess", having evidence on this would help a lot –  gnat Jan 26 '13 at 21:30

If I were in your position, I would not go to my boss with a complaint about this individual, but I would go to him and suggest that we spend too much time pointing fingers when there is a problem to be fixed. I would then go on to recommend retrospective meetings, after the problem is resolved, to figure out how it happened and what can be done to stop it happening again.

If his boss is genuinely telling him to do something and proving to be wrong, that needs to come out, but not in an "I told you so" way, at the least convenient possible moment. If it's actually that he's screwing up, time and time again, that also needs to come out.

The perfect way to make sure it all comes out, before the situation repeats itself is to wait til tempers are less frayed and all sit in a room and have an open conversation about it.

Also, it gives everyone room, when someone starts pointing fingers at a less-convenient time, to simply say "Save it for the retrospective. For now, how do we fix it?" Which is good for that person, because it's less frustrating; good for the person complaining, because they know their voice will be heard later and can focus for now (not to mention they'll probably calm down before the retrospective); and good for the business, who get their problem resolved more quickly.

A perfect scenario is regular retrospectives, (even when things go perfectly, discuss what went right and make it happen again), so that they don't become a negative thing.

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Seems you have a company culture where you're constantly trying to find someone to blame, and have decided to pile all blame on a single person, who of course doesn't like it. Maybe change your own thinking and start considering what THE TEAM did wrong, what YOU did wrong, rather than the stereotypical "who can I blame so I don't have to take the fall".

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Since it seems your team has closed ranks against John and at this point is discussing him behind his back, it may well be that the kindest thing is to try to get John fired so that he can go to another team that is less toxic for him. –  Amy Blankenship Jan 30 '13 at 22:13

Are you pointing out these mistakes in a group so others don't repeat it? Why focus on John? Sounds like everyone knows he did it so why bother bringing it up?

Does John repeat mistakes? This is the only benefit to discovering blame. Does his defensiveness increase the length of these meetings? Refuse to discuss the matter in this meeting. Suggest talking about it in private later.

Don't let this be about his personality or reaction to criticism. Document (CYA) requests and instructions. Otherwise, it's your word against his. Inform John you are going to document your take on the contributions everyone makes to the project and he can make his own and let the supervisor decide what to do about John.

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Personally I think a manual on working with different personality types and group structures should come as standard training before entering the workforce.

There are few different models on personality types but the most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Based on this model and what you described your co-worker is exhibiting a type one personality.

Type ones tend to thrive on independence. The downside to this is that they can get confrontational if their needs are not met. In this case he clearly believes he is being forced to action what you have laid out.

A better solution would give him the end goal of what you want to achieve and ask him if he can improve/build on. If you just say "Here is what I want you to do" it will illicit a negative response.

If you think an action being taken is wrong and you have given him autonomy, rather then tell him he is wrong, ask him why he is doing it that way. Offer other suggestions as to why would that one be better over them. He may have overlooked a solution.

One point in all this is that there is more then one personality at play here, namely yours. You need to understand your personality type and how it would interact with others.

Recommended reading is "Stop Managing and Lead" by David Rye. Chapter 4 (Safari Books online link).

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Constantly blame-laying individuals can be very detrimental to the success of a collaborative environment.

In my experience people have done it for one of two reasons: they were incompetent and needed to cover it up, or they used it as a tool try and look 'better' and never-at-fault before much more senior management, which doesn't actually know what is going on in the trenches.

In my experience the best way to handle them was to talk in specifics. It's very hard for them to say things like "It's not my fault" when you ask them why the specific functionality of a class does not adhere to the design-spec. The more specific your criticisms of their work, the less wiggle-room they have to make it look like someone else's fault.

Secondly, try to make sure that communication is well documented. If their response to a specific problem is "It's like that because you told me" and you can respond by including an email that proves the contrary, you will very-quickly put them in their place. More importantly, everyone around you will see what is going on.

Finally, if possible, get away from them. This blame-laying thing is cancer to good working teams. In the short term, it shouldn't matter who on the team screwed up what so long as the team gets it's work done. But once the blame-laying starts (and people tend to reciprocate) the team will be more busy covering their butts instead of getting things done. I've seen large teams grind to a halt because people were basically scared of committing code because someone will come after them for breaking something (the safest thing to do was nothing).

I find these sorts of individuals harderst to work with. Good luck.

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Finally, get away from them - In business you do not always have a choice who you work with. If you spend your career running away from people who are difficult to work with you will find that you will never get to where you want to be. You must learn to deal with people you find difficult to work with. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 25 '13 at 14:47
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he is right though, the situation does sound like there's a culture there of seeking someone to blame and they've decided collectively to pick on one guy who probably is an easy target (likely he's rather introvert, doesn't make friends easily, shy, insecure, no direct lines to higher management to go over the team leads' heads and file complaints about what's happening, etc.) in order to make themselves look good when things go wrong ("oh, it's HIM AGAIN, not our fault"). –  jwenting Jan 26 '13 at 5:27

A key test is the soft approach. If you come to them with, "I noticed this problem, can you help me fix it," and they help you, it's a sign that your initial approach is overly confrontational. You've now found the range of 'threat' they need to trigger defensiveness, try to stay under it. If it's too low to be effective, then you'll need to involve management.

If they immediately start assigning blame, then you have the difficult kind of person.

There are a couple of ways of resolving this, but at the core people like this need to be hit back just as hard as they're striking out in order to get through to them. This can actually be done by a peer like you, but it builds a workplace that many (western, American) people find uncomfortably acrimonious. Some offices do work like that, it's a cultural thing.

If you're not willing to engage in shouting matches with him, this is a job for a superior. They have the needed mallet to provide the required whack, and eventually can have difficult people like this removed. It is a hard problem, and as a peer you can only do so much.

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If they immediately start assigning blame, Then you have someone who has worked in a culture where pointing fingers was how they got ahead. If I judged you on your worst attribute how would you fair? And it is a bit hypocritical to make a judgement like this on a single event and start assigning blame back because they assigned blame else where. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 25 '13 at 14:51

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