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I work in somewhat of a DevOps role with a team of professionals that for the most part are highly skilled, competent and easy to get along with. The biggest problem we face as a group is that recent layoffs of needed personnel, promotions of unneeded personnel, slashed funding for mission critical teams and endless money for projects of dubious value and sprinkle that with a complete lack of product ownership and leadership... all of these things have greatly wore onto the team morale to where things are just downright toxic.

Sometimes we get together as a group or go out to lunch together and I just want to have lunch and talk about non-work related things, get my mind clear of my projects and responsibilities and just unwind. The conversations almost always turn into discussions about serious heavy problems that we just aren't in a position to easily address. I try to mention that we should relax and not talk about work and everybody agrees, but then eventually things gradually turn back into discussions about incompetent leadership, lack of project management, lack of product management and political power plays.

I don't believe things are quite as bad as my colleagues perceive and they aren't focusing on the positive things about working here and what we have accomplished despite the systemic problems. When we get together and are motivated we are able to affect small positive changes from the ground up (sometimes). I don't want to stop going to lunch with my group but I find myself and my positive attitude being poisoned. I find myself losing hope and lacking motivation to come up with creative solutions.

Worse still there are a number of people on the team that feel the only long term solution is to not be exceptional at our jobs and stop filling in the gaps that are missing in business analysis, project management and product ownership. Their hope is that if we stop bridging the gap that the people in these roles that are supposed to be performing in these capacities will be seen as ineffective and will be replaced, but I am not sure this is how it would play out. I am almost positive that the blame and backlash would come back on us and we would continue to be punished more and more severely until things reach a breaking point. I don't see there being any winners in this scenario.

What is the best way to try to stay optimistic and positive and encourage optimism and positive attitudes in others on my team? How do I encourage my team members to step up and handle the non-technical messy parts that we are implicitly expected to do to keep the ship afloat? Perhaps I am wrong headed in my belief that we should be saving management and non-technical staff from themselves and that some of my colleagues are right?

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    This article might be something you really enjoy reading. Note there is some strong language but otherwise the message is directly related to what you are asking. – enderland Nov 5 '13 at 13:59
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    This is a broad question, but it's also a very useful question. If people vote to close it, I will vote to reopen it. – Jim G. Nov 5 '13 at 19:01
  • Part of the issue here is, your company has serious, REAL problems, which you easily identify in your question. Positive thinking will do nothing for those problems, which are the real source of the moral issues. As suggested below, band-aids aren't going to help - you have real issues. If you can not do anything about those issues, it may be time to leave - take the whole team with you if you like them. I did that recently and it's the best thing I ever did for my career. Getting out of a toxic situation is sometimes the only answer. – Jasmine Nov 5 '13 at 21:57
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    @Jasmine Well the pay is pretty high for this area. It is also low stress and they give us plenty of time for research, continuing education and just playing around with really neat tech. The problems are deeply entrenched and I feel really smart people get so attached to their work that when they are put in an unwinnable situation or one where credit is stolen from them they take it personally. In the end this doesn't matter because we are still paid well and getting laid off historically is never for failure or incompetence but for being on a politically unpopular team. – maple_shaft Nov 6 '13 at 2:17
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    Actually, research shows that engineering type people are not motivated by money. We do take it personally when others take the credit for our efforts, and we are often emotionally invested in projects. All the money in the world won't counteract that. – Jasmine Nov 7 '13 at 16:28
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Allow me to be blunt.

The biggest problem we face as a group is that recent layoffs of needed personnel, promotions of unneeded personnel, slashed funding for mission critical teams and endless money for projects of dubious value and sprinkle that with a complete lack of product ownership and leadership...

There is a disconnection between what you think is important, and what upper management thinks is important. The personnel that was laid off may not have seemed needed by the management. The unneeded personnel may have been seen as a group of important leaders. The mission critial teams did not seem so critical, etc.

Now I have been in your shoes before, more times than I'd like to remember. Most often a disconnection between what upper management thinks and production thinks is a major sign of problems. It may be that upper management is really disconnected from reality.

I'm speaking out of personal experience. I have survived three companies crashing down and losing business really fast, to the point of going bankrupt. They ignored all warnings the "lower ranks" provided them, took wrong decisions, fired key personnel and kept rewarding people who were better at masquerading the situation to make it look nice, or who would adulate and worship them.

But!

In other two cases, upper management was actually right. I have once quit a job thinking along the same lines you are thinking now. Years later, the useless projects became the company's main business. It's profits are a multiple of what it had originally been. And I got to know better some of the people I once saw as a camarilla serving the director board - they are actually hard working fellas who believed in a project and made their dream come true.

In a situation as the one you are passing through now, the key to being in peace with your job is to try and understand as many of the points of view involved as possible. Why is your group taking the shaft, while other groups you think are less worthy are being rewarded?

I see two possibilities:

  • You are really right, and the company is going to hell. In such a competitive economy we live in, making wrong decisions is very costly and can be the difference between life and death for a business. The bigger the business, the worse it gets, since there is more inertia to overcome in order to get it in the right track again. If you think this is the case, talk to your immediate superiors about this. See if they agree with you. If they do, your cause may end up getting more voice. Be prepared for the case in which they disagree, though.

  • You really missed the larger picture. Management knows what it is doing. In the long run disgruntled people will either quit or be laid off, and the direction the company is taking will lead it to success. If you think this is even slightly possible, talk to your superiors. Just like in the previous case, see what they think about it. If they do agree with what their superiors are doing, then maybe they can explain it to you, and you can be more at peace.

That said, I personally believe that working in an environment where you strongly disagree with what management is doing is bad - both for you and for business. Venting about it is not only ok, but necessary - even a zen monk with a very elevated mind must vent off sometimes. But don't limit yourself to venting, otherwise it becomes gratuitous complaining. Do something about it. Try to find the missing piece, see what the ones being rewarded have that you don't. It may end up being actually rewarding, career-wise. You may either turn a potentially toxic environment into a productive one - or you may find out that there are other, much better places to work. Good luck :)

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    Sure I could be wrong about the bigger picture but we are not predicting, we are witnessing. We are blazing some trails in a new arena much like Amazon in its early days but while they had a string of epic failures, Bezos knew when to admit they made a mistake and when its time to refocus. The politics here are such that nobody ever admits a failure, the only choices are spin it to look like a success, sweep it under the rug/pretend it never happened, and double or nothing. The funny part is that the company is pretty much a regional monopoly so there is no competition to eat our lunch. – maple_shaft Nov 6 '13 at 2:37
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    @maple_shaft - Seems like an opportunity to round up those people who where laid off and start a lunch eating company – IDrinkandIKnowThings Nov 8 '13 at 19:52
  • 'There is a disconnection between what you think is important, and what upper management thinks is important'. Very well explained, thank you @user10483! – EleventhDoctor Jul 22 '15 at 17:55
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What is the best way to try to stay optimistic and positive and encourage optimism and positive attitudes in others on my team?

Donuts.

No seriously, simple things that make people associate work with good things to help counteract the bad things is key. Little things like this can provide just enough of a jumpstart of motivation to help run down the good things or at least not let the bad things be overwhelming.

Perhaps I am wrong headed in my belief that we should be saving management and non-technical staff from themselves and that some of my colleagues are right?

In general, band-aiding a problem is unsustainable. Your colleagues are right that the root problem should be addressed, but you are also likely right that you cannot (effectively/reliably) fix the root problem so the best thing you can do is mitigate the incompetence of others.

11

It would be hard to talk about non-work-related topics at an extended group lunch of only workmates even if everything was going well. If you want to single-handedly try to improve morale, look for things:

  • that are cheap enough to do often. Donuts is a great example
  • that don't last long, so that they don't get to the part where people start complaining about work
  • that give people something to talk about

It's hard to have good morale in a totally poisonous environment. Are you going to invite the people you think should have been laid off? Or is this just for the people you think are needed? Either way, it's a problem. Your best bet is to be cheerful yourself, to change the subject when people start to complain, and to have a steady stream of little cheerer-uppers that you inject into the office as a whole, for people to participate in or not as they wish.

Specific examples beyond donuts:

  • decorations for secular events (super bowl weekend, thanksgiving, first snow expected this week, ...)
  • celebrations of milestones (100th work item completed, % complete is above % budget spent, customer accepted a specific deliverable, 10 sales, 100 sales, whatever makes sense for your group)
  • shaming (really!) for minor sins such as breaking the build or crashing the server. These should be "shared humour" punishments such as having a rubber duck on their desk, nothing genuinely shaming or upsetting
  • leagues and ladders for things not work-related at all, such as a squash ladder or chess tournaments at lunch time
  • informal get togethers like "walk through lunch on Wednesdays" that you remind with emails or posters - people bring something they can eat while walking and a group of people spend the whole hour walking the neighbourhood, talking or not, reacting to what you bump into or not, no pressure but a break from work
  • charity activities together evenings and weekends - very low key, not asking to be pledged or sponsored - "I'm doing the park cleanup on Sunday, does anyone want to come too?" kind of thing

Ideally these things would make you happier right in the moment they happened, and it wouldn't matter if they had a long term impact or not. But they might. And certainly when you see more people joining in on these things it's a sign life is getting better in the group.

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    Great answer way to think in terms of something a company looking to keep costs down can actually consider. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Nov 5 '13 at 20:59
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When there's a morale problem caused by factors beyond the control of the affected people, I've found that there are two types of responses: mitigation and venting (not just verbal). Any particular situation may call for either or both.

I've been in a group that, after an acquisition, was floundering because of things like this -- the parent company had very different ideas about direction, the recognition model was whacked, benefits we'd had forever were being cancelled, and so on. It was a pretty demoralizing time, and the retention bonus if we'd just stick around for a year only went so far.

As Telastyn said, donuts -- and other small things to improve your little corner of the universe -- is a useful mitigation strategy. We also had (and in some cases still have) pot-luck lunches, puzzle contests, wiki fluff, neighborhood decorating contests, monthly birthday celebrations (cake!), and the like. Sometimes chores can have this effect too; the way-too-infrequent fridge purge and cleaning tends to generate a lot of entertainment ("look what I found!"). And it's ok if there's a little bit of snark; we have contests around significant bug numbers (in advance) -- who can predict the filer, component, date, and most important resolution date of bug number 50000, for instance?

The common thread here is that even if you might be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, if you're enjoying any of that time it might not be wasted effort. You may all quit in six months, but mmm, home-made cookies today!

The other approach is channeled venting. I will deny all personal knowledge of this (cough), but an outing to an archery range (or rifle range) where you can put anything you want on the target faces can be remarkably cathartic. But more "constructively", outside-the-workplace activities can help burn off steam, whether it's a local volleyball league, or a trip to the arcade for Battletech or DDR, or some other (usually physical) activity. There's something about hitting things, throwing things, or getting sweaty that just helps sometimes -- at least for today.

6

Reality Check

Here are some fundamental facts.

  1. People like to complain
  2. It's much easier to complain and do nothing than be positive and do something
  3. Complaining is a problem which compounds upon itself when left unchecked

I'm going to write this assuming it's possible to change your company culture somewhat. It very well may be some of your coworkers are never going to change.

Specifics

What is the best way to try to stay optimistic and positive and encourage optimism and positive attitudes in others on my team?

Start introducing optimism. It doesn't have to be huge. It can be small efforts at first.

How do I encourage my team members to step up and handle the non-technical messy parts that we are implicitly expected to do to keep the ship afloat?

Some examples:

  • When people are complaining about problems, start suggesting possibilities to resolve them. Things like:
    • "Man, our boss sucks at communication." "Yeah, you're right - maybe I will talk with him and see if we can work something out"
    • This goes a long way in helping people see potential for improvement. It's not a guarantee, some people will just never want to fix problems and dwell in negativity
  • Take an attitude of, "I will not be in a discussion where we only complain without suggesting potential fixes." This can change YOUR attitude even more than those you are around. It's really easy to get into conversations where people, ourselves included, just complain. Start trying to discuss potential alternatives. It's so much better to shoot down suggestions which might work than just complain about a problem

Worse still there are a number of people on the team that feel the only long term solution is to not be exceptional at our jobs and stop filling in the gaps that are missing in business analysis, project management and product ownership

See the above. Start suggesting discussions with some of these folks. If they are dropping the ball, generally people don't like this and so generally will be willing to try to resolve issues. Communication problems often cause frustration on both sides and it's incredible what some small discussions can do.

Take an approach of humility, not accusations, and you can make great strides even with difficult to work with people.

  • "Hey business analysts, it seems we have a huge communication problem here. As the developers we aren't really providing you the information you need and it doesn't seem you are getting us our requirements. Can we get together and figure out a strategy to fix this going forward so we can all be successful?"

The conversations almost always turn into discussions about serious heavy problems that we just aren't in a position to easily address

See the above. Also, keep in mind that your entire company all work together to some degree. Some people will be @#%@#%s and not even care about others but generally people in a company have some interest in working together towards a common goal and not just screwing over others. Definitely some who won't care, but if you start finding others who are disgruntled with the entire process you'd be surprised how effective you can be in starting change (even outside your area of "positional responsibility").

Most people don't want their job to suck. Most people don't want their projects to fail.


Closing thoughts.

I guarantee you that you individually will be considerably more positive towards the entire process too if you start trying to fix it.

Also keep in mind, most people don't adopt the attitude of, "you know you suggested this as a potential solution to this problem but I want this problem to stick around so you suck and your idea is awful get out of here." You'll get some of those types absolutely but most people, even serial complainers, at least have SOME interest in fixing problems (however small this is! there is generally some hope).

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    Writing down the complaints on a white board helps the meeting move on. People "complain forever" when they don't think they are being heard - writing down the complaint makes them sure they have been heard. – Jasmine Nov 5 '13 at 22:03
  • I agree many people complain and do nothing about it, but I don't think that's the same as deciding not to continuously cover for poor performers. – user8365 Nov 12 '13 at 16:51
2

Executive Summary

I see three potential solutions to your problem:

  1. Focus on yourself and not the group
  2. Focus on individuals in the group
  3. Focus on understanding the group's position

Focus on Yourself

Why does pessimism bother you? You acknowledge that the situation is awful. You acknowledge that the system is broken and that there is a limit to how much you can fix bottom-up. So rather than asking, "What is the best way to try to stay optimistic" maybe you should be asking, "How can I stay motivated to work toward change when I know it is unlikely?" Changing your own attitude to allow you to work through pessimism is a valuable skill that will solve the current problem and give you the ability to cope with the next time you are faced with a similar issue.

Focus on Individuals

The group is a whole seems to all want to talk about work, and be pessimistic. So maybe trying to change the group as a whole is a bit unrealistic of an approach. Instead of focusing on a wholesale change of the group, what if you focused on getting a few individuals motivated instead? Maybe they are pessimistic as a group, but have some optimism at individuals that goes out the window when everyone around them is being negative.

You could try taking them out to lunch as individuals, and hear their individual concerns, and find ways that you can effect positive change for that person's concerns. If they don't like doing business analysis, you can offer to help them out with that part so they can eliminate one frustration. It is much easier to solve the problems of one person, than the shifting complaints of a group engaged in a whinging session.

Understand the Group

If you want to change the group as a whole, you need to understand them.

You are focusing on you. You want to be positive so you don't lose motivation. You want the group not to discuss work at lunch because you don't want to hear their complaints. If you focus on what you want, and not what the group is saying, is there any surprise that they aren't willing to follow their lead?

There seems to be a large disconnect between what you and the group want to do about the current situation. You seem to be of the "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" perspective, while they seem to be of the "When life gives you lemons, hurl lemons at life" perspective1.

1: This may not be an actual saying.

If these people are pessimistic because they believe their concerns are being ignored, or they aren't being listened to, removing yourself as someone they can address their concerns to will definitely not succeed in changing the group. And for an optimist, you seem particularly pessimistic about their approach.

If you want to change their attitude and work toward a solution, you have to be willing to work with them toward a solution. That means understanding what their solution is, and being willing to go along with the group if that is the only way they will be motivated to work toward a solution.

  • I want to be open to all ideas but their ideas are passive aggressive and frankly self destructive and that comes from a place of powerlessness. I suppose however if that if you look dispassionately at the situation like a long game of chess where you are behind several pieces, there are few good moves left and perhaps the long shot while risky could in fact open their King to being checked. – maple_shaft Nov 6 '13 at 2:48
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    @maple_shaft, no offense intended, but it doesn't sound like you're open to all ideas when you dismiss them off-hand as "passive aggressive" or "self destructive". If you want to change things as a group, you need to act as a group, and if you are unwilling to engage the group without dismissing them, then you aren't going to succeed. You concede the situation is bad and you are mostly powerless, why is bringing attention to that fact any worse than ignoring it and acting as if it isn't true as you seem to want to do? – jmac Nov 6 '13 at 2:56
1

Successful companies usually have a solid understanding of the way things are. There are flaws in both directions with communication within your company:

  1. Why is project A more important to management than project B?
  2. What is the criteria for advancement and how are people evaluated? Employees don't agree with management.
  3. Throw out the job titles - what are people really doing on a day to day basis?

If there is a project manager who is suppose to be prompting people from another department for feedback, but the programming staff is having to do it to keep projects moving, the programmer's boss needs to know about it. Not talking about a once in a while thing. Your boss may be happy that your team picks up the torch and runs with it, but he needs to know you can't keep it up forever without sacrificing something else.

Management may think that programmers are only interested in "flipping bits" so they don't bother sharing the marketing goals and trends. You can't prevent people from being defensive, but try to ask what's going on in as non-confrontational way as possible. Don't pick certain projects, but just ask your manager to find out which projects are the most important and why. You'd like to know. You're curious and care about the company. It's the break rocks or building cathedral attitude.

Corporate cultures are a hard thing to figure-out. Your team is made up of smart people who should know how to solve problems. Push the issue during your lunches and don't let them get away with saying, "There's nothing we can do." If so, STFU and let me eat my sandwich.

  • Answers to 1,2 and 3 are respectively that analysts, PM's, SME's, product managers, directors sit in a lot of meetings all day doing a lot of politics and compromising on which projects need to be the primary focus until the battles rage again and our priorities are refocused. Criteria for advancement is basically not being a technical resource, being seen a lot by managers and attaching your name to a project that by luck happens to be a success. The only direction technical resources get is doing POCs and fighting for requirements until some executive demands "something" be pushed (cont)... – maple_shaft Nov 13 '13 at 0:43
  • ... (cont) to production within the next couple weeks so that they don't look like charlatans and fools. The production app is then little more than a patched up proof of concept that is unmaintainable, so everybody blames in house development and states that this is why they need to become a 100% vendor solution shop even though that only gives them half of what they want for twice as much money. The consultants still don't get it right either because they face the same obstacles. That felt good to vent. I am failing miserably at this optimism thing. It is just so hard... – maple_shaft Nov 13 '13 at 0:49

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