35

I am a software engineer by trade. I am good at my job. I get universally good reviews.

I have lead two teams (at two different companies). Both were successful - delivering our product on time, with good quality. The teams were happy and productive.

I believe that the foundation of a good team is trust (duh). And that one of the best ways to build that trust is via open and honest communication. The problem is that, well, I am a software engineer at heart - we find inefficiencies and ruthlessly eliminate them. So as a leader, I focus on things my team is doing poorly so we can get better, being a facilitator so the team can work together and on things that burden the team so I can protect them from those things. And in practice, this has worked really well.

The problem comes that my manager or other stakeholders are big proponents of the Power of Positive Thinking. Their management style is to put on a happy, positive face regardless of the situation. And unfortunately, for many of them this core belief is how they define good management. So while I am praised for achieving a great result, there's always the "but" since I didn't get to the result the right way.

And this certainly doesn't seem to be isolated to my situation. I've known quite a few skilled leaders who were more "roll up the sleeves and get to work" sorts who weren't as upwardly mobile as their performance would predict. Likewise, I've known plenty of people with the right demeanor, but were not successful leaders.

So in general, do people need to develop that sort of universally positive demeanor to be promoted, especially now that personality tests are a common part of the HR process?

  • Could it be that the "roll up the sleeves" types aren't as upwardly mobile because they're less focused on office politicking, and more on just getting the job done? – HorusKol Feb 26 '15 at 23:38
36

There is a huge difference between someone that focuses solely on flaws and someone who provides positive reinforcement along with constructive criticism.

If the majority of what comes out of your mouth is "this is wrong because of XYZ" then you're likely doing it wrong. However, if reviewing a bit of code or a process design and you see something that looks good, then point it out. Provide positive feedback about what you see as "right". That makes people feel good and they'll want to do more of it.

At the same time you don't have to be constantly blowing sunshine up their tail pipe. If it's "wrong" - which, as you know, "wrong" is a very fluid thing in this industry - then point it out. Just don't let that be the single type of feedback your team gets. The main thing here is to provide sufficient detail so that the team knows why it's wrong.

Most people want to do good. They want to be accepted by their boss and feel like they know what's expected of them. If you provide good direction and positive feedback when they are doing good then they'll want to keep going. If you only condemn the bad stuff then they will eventually become disinterested and either leave on their own or have to be forced out.

On the flipside, constantly putting on an "Everything is Awesome!" face is just as unhelpful... unless it really is Awesome, at which point you should ask for a huge raise.

  • 1
    Indeed, I've worked on making being better about explicit praise and making sure all criticism is constructive. Still, it is never enough for the positive thinking crowd. – Telastyn Oct 28 '14 at 15:27
  • Damnit @DoubleDouble, that song is stuck in my head now ;) – Ahkam Nihardeen Oct 29 '14 at 6:27
  • While I don't think this really helps me combat people who expect me to put on the everything is awesome face, it does answer the question with what should happen, and the community most supports. – Telastyn Oct 29 '14 at 11:55
  • Was that a Lego Movie reference? So hard to tell.. But that song is now in my head. – Viziionary Oct 29 '14 at 15:46
  • @jt0dd: Yes, yes it was. – NotMe Oct 29 '14 at 21:10
10

Positive demeanor need not mean dealing with only the positive things and ignoring or hiding the negative ones. I second @Chris in that one should keep a more or less healthy balance between focussing on positive and negative things. That is, make sure you do praise positive achievements and in general, reward team members in some way whenever they do something you want them to keep doing. The easiest and most efficient reward is a sincere "thank you, you did a great job!", but if you have a budget, you might even want to consider gamifying your development process more explicitly.

Another important aspect is that even a fault or problem can be pointed out in very different ways. E.g. a team lead may

  • shout in front of the whole team: "Joe, you broke the CI build again! That's already the third time this sprint! From now on, you must pay a fee of $nnn every time you do this!"
  • do the same but in a one-to-one with Joe
  • say in the team retrospective: "the CI build got broken 3 times this sprint - to me that means we failed our sprint!"
  • say in the team retrospective: "the CI build got broken 3 times this sprint - is there a systemic problem behind it? Can we as a team do something to avoid similar problems in the future?"
  • say in the team retrospective: "the CI build got broken 3 times this sprint - that's a slight improvement over last sprint when it was broken 5 times. Does this mean we are really improving, or is it just statistical noise? Can we as a team do better and get closer to zero broken builds?"

To be clear, I am not in any way implying you are doing it wrong, just giving examples to somewhat demonstrate the gamut of choices. Some of which are - I think we can agree on that - more or less destructive and not efficient in actually solving problems and helping the team bond, while others are more effective and yes, positive in these regards.

One can point out problems to blame persons, or explicitly avoid blaming and focus on solving the problem instead. Problem solving may also be attempted purely by rules and punishment on one end of the scale, or by asking open-ended questions to guide the team towards thinking and acting together, to identify root causes and work towards eliminating these.

Similarly, one can present the same problem towards e.g. higher management in different ways. And it also helps to understand better what their concrete expectations are. It may even be that what you consider technically imperfect is "good enough" for them. In such a case, you may still decide to prove them why it should be improved or fixed, e.g.

  • "module A contains lots of very bad quality spaghetti code, so we should refactor the code and add unit tests to make it cleaner.", or
  • "module A is very hard to maintain and extend, so we should refactor the code and add unit tests. In my estimates, that would cost us about 4 person days in the short term, however in the long term it would slash the implementation time of upcoming features X, Y and Z by 30%, that is 6 person days. This is a net saving of 2 person days within 4 months!"

These two examples talk about the same problem, but the latter one is probably regarded by business people as more convincing and positive. Being positive may simply mean that you are focusing on solving the business' problems and helping them deliver value to their customers, even when talking about a software / process problem.

But (depending on company culture and managers' personality) you may also follow the adage "it's better to ask forgiveness than permission", and plan the needed refactoring into your regular tasks anyway, without bothering business. If the team agrees it's a must, you just do it (maybe in small steps over a longer time period), then present the results afterwards - again, making sure that it is presented in terms they can understand and support. Telling your managers "oh and btw we improved the maintainability of the system and fixed n bugs while developing this release" sounds way more positive than repeated complaints about "the code is hard to maintain and full of bugs".

7

The problem comes that my manager or other stakeholders are big proponents of the Power of Positive Thinking. Their management style is to put on a happy, positive face regardless of the situation. And unfortunately for many of them, this core belief is how they define good management. So while I am praised for achieving a great result, there's always the "but" since I didn't get to the result the right way.

So in general, do people need to develop that sort of universally positive demeanor to be promoted?

While in the general case, the answer might be different, clearly in your company the answer is - Yes, you need to develop the demeanor that your manager and stakeholders require.

There are many ways to achieve success. Not all companies have a culture that requires a "positive, happy face" demeanor. But some companies do. Some managers/companies don't want to hear inconvenient truths, some do.

This is just like the first few school days with a new teacher. You need to reverse-engineer what will make the teacher happy. Observation, experimentation, and a few "will this be on the test?" questions help get you there.

In your company, you have already discerned that your management requires a positive demeanor. It's always important to understand what the people signing your check want from you. So your mission is clear - become that kind of person.

In this situation, a "fake it until you make it" approach may be best. Be positive, suppress the negative (or even the realistic), keep the tough stuff to yourself. Project the kind of "success" that management wants to see. Do this long enough, practice it hard enough, and it might become second nature. If not, this company/environment might no longer fit you.

  • 2
    I've had that advocated often, though (even if I could do it), I feel as though that would strongly undermine what makes me a good leader - open and honest communication. – Telastyn Oct 28 '14 at 15:23
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    I have to disagree that open and honest communication makes you a good leader. There are times to be open and honest and times when you have to keep information confidential (which is a requirement for 100% of all management jobs I have ever seen). There are ways to appropriately be honest and ways that will sink you so fast your head will spin. You can be open and honest and be a horrible leader becasue you make people angry or you tell people they are going to be laid off before the word is offical or you leak the details on the corporate restruturing. – HLGEM Oct 28 '14 at 15:42
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    @HLGEM - sure, I rather hoped that it was assumed that I was not an idiot about being open and honest. – Telastyn Oct 28 '14 at 15:50
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    @Telastyn, I have dealt with many people who self describe as open and honest who are really just unthinkingly and insultingly blunt. I have seen many people who can't keep a secret when they need to. Since I don't know you or the peoplewho will read this later with a simlar problem, it had to be said. Open and honest is not by definitino good leadership. It might be or it might not be depending on how the person approaches it. – HLGEM Oct 28 '14 at 15:54
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    I think you've got your finger on the pulse here, Joe. It's not so much "people need to be positive to be promoted", as "people need to embody a certain company-specific culture to be promoted". And at the OP's company, that seems to be particularly positive one. – Carson63000 Oct 29 '14 at 0:56
4

I've seen people being promoted more often for their interpersonal than for their technical skills, as much as anyone may view that simply as "a** kissing". No one likes criticism, so lots of care must be taken when delivering. For example, in my experience it helps to first point out the good things, give lots of praise and then bring up the aspects that would benefit from more attention, change, etc. Not as the main course, but as the cherry on the cake - you get what you want and make people feel good about themselves.

Now if there isn't anything good that you can find to point out, and you have any say on the employment of such person(s) - fire them. You have no use for people than can't contribute.

  • 5
    The fact is, being a leader requires more interpersonal than technical skills (although the latter obviously helps if you are leading tech people). I personally don't equate using one's interpersonal skills with "a** kissing". Although this may be the case in certain organizations, which is the fault of that organization, not of social skills in general. – Péter Török Oct 28 '14 at 15:16
  • 1
    In my workplace, during the past 4 years I have not seen a single person promoted that was not a "positive person". Regardless of actual deliverables and results. In fact, one of the tenets of getting a promotion is to increase your (positive) visibility within the company. – Juha Untinen Oct 28 '14 at 21:34
1

It appears to me that the problem is you need to learn a more effective communication technique for this particular set of managers.

First, that means, they want to hear about solutions and not problems. So fix anything you can fix before you tell them about it. Do not mention every single problem only the ones that might come back to bite them. This does not have to change how you deal with problems with subordinates. Basically, it means that they want you to fix things and not bother them.

Now there are going to be times when they have to be told of a problem. It is after all better to let someone know of a client issue before the client is screaming at them. IN this case, you tell them the problem and suggest the plan of action for dealing with it. Either you ask them for permission to do the things in the plan (if there are things you don't have the authority to do) or you tell them that you have started these things and are notifying them so they will be aware of what is going on if the client asks. With this crowd do this only for things they will consider important (basically anything the client might get upset about). They won't care so much that the dev server is down (unless they need to buy new equipment) but they should know the prod server is down and how soon you expect it back up.

Next in communications with these types of managers be sure to give credit to people for what they have done. You don't have to lie, just emphasize the great work John did in solving this problem as opposed to describing the problem in excruciating detail.

0

Are you sure you are "leading" the team and not micro-managing the team? There's a subtle difference that makes a WORLD of difference.

Micro-managers are often EXTREMELY successful being in charge of relatively small projects. First off, they tend to be really ambitious and driven. Second, they can do it because it's small enough for them to grasp most aspects of the project which allows them ensure things are done exactly how they think it should be done.

The downside of micro-managers is that people hate working for them. Team morale suffers, innovation is stifled and people become afraid to take initiative to do what needs to be done and the team becomes complacent. The only people that don't get away from working for micro-managers are the passive ones who have little initiative and prefer to only do what they are told. IOW, not the highly desirable and innovative people. Everyone else does whatever it takes to get away from the ruling king/queen.

In other words, your situation might have nothing to do with a positive attitude or positive thinking, but instead it has everything to do with people feeling like they are not able to be all they can be and this lowers their morale. Management picks up on the low morale and thinks it is because of "lack of compliments" when it is really lack of freedom that is lowering morale.

Face it, compliments don't go very far for most software people. Bringing their ideas to life is what makes them most satisfied with their job. Bringing someone else's ideas to life is just work, nothing more.

The big reason that micro-managers "stall" on the career path is because progression means leading bigger projects with more people. At some point the micro-manager can't even begin to grasp it all and the micro-manager style turns into a complete and utter failure on these types of projects. If management isn't afraid to give you small projects but very reluctant to give you bigger ones which would obviously lead to better management positions then I would really look into this being a case of micro-manager issues and not positive thinking.

Getting people to want to follow your vision is being a leader, getting people to do what they are told simply because they were told is not being a leader in the slightest.

  • A good point. I am reasonably certain that I'm not micro-managing the teams based on feedback, and since the second team was too large and I was in too many meetings. – Telastyn Oct 28 '14 at 15:57
  • It was just a thought that nobody mentioned yet which turned into being way too long for a comment. It seems to me that you should ask some of the people that worked for you to get their opinion. Somehow management has the impression of a negative attitude coming from somewhere. If you don't know the specific problem it's hard to come up with specific solutions. When you see a problem do you give the solution or let the team come up with a solution of their own? I know it can be really hard to stay quiet when someone is doing something in an inferior way than you would do it, but if it works. – Dunk Oct 28 '14 at 16:05
  • I generally explain the problem and let the team go at it, eventually suggesting improvements or alternatives if I think I have a better idea (as I would if I were not leading the team). – Telastyn Oct 28 '14 at 16:09
  • @Telastyn, you'll not get reliable feedback from team members about your style if you just try to ask them directly. I think you can be fairly sure that feedback about you was provided to other management (not necessarily for micro-management, but other stuff). – teego1967 Oct 28 '14 at 16:17
  • @teego:I'm sure I am not unique in that I tend to develop a "friendly" relationship with at least 1 (if not more) people on any team that I'm leading. That's who I would talk with. They may not have any complaints themselves but they might be able to tell me what they've heard through the grapevine. – Dunk Oct 28 '14 at 16:23
0

Not sure what the power of positive thinking can do for you when your top preoccupation is dodging bullets with your initials carved on them. The farther you are from personal contact with the enemy, the stronger your positive thinking. Your managers may reproach your failure to act and think like them or shall we say, your failure to drink the Kool-Aid, but you are the one who is directly responsible for the successful execution of the project not them, and you are the ones who is most acutely aware that things can wrong and what consequences will ensue when which things go wrong.

I am not always happy dealing with reality because reality is not always a happy camper. But I do achieve a measure of happiness that I keep my team together, even if in a somewhat grumbling state, and that I dealt successfully with enough of reality that reality neither ripped my face off nor tore out with its teeth a huge piece of my butt like so much raw meat. And that when I tell management that I will get something done, it will get done come hell or high water, unless they give me a new set of orders. Or I tell them that circumstances have changed and I am requesting a new set of orders.

I don't begrudge management from living in their own bubble. Happy are they who think it's easy because they are not the ones who have to make it happen - ah, the sweet blessings of ignorance! :)

Do people need to be positive to be promoted?

Probably. No one in management likes bad news. And they like even less the bearer of bad news. Management mistakenly conflates happiness with things going right and unhappiness with things going wrong. If you are positive, you'll be more likely to be more promoted than not because happy faces are more popular than unhappy faces. Happiness to me is taking care of my team and making sure that we come through every time we are asked to come through. But I am not sure that this is the kind of happiness that's universally viewed as promotable. I was never promoted because I was liked or because I was happy but because I was needed. And I was needed because nobody wanted the job.

0

I would suggest observing how your bosses go about interacting with others. How are they handling giving you this criticism of not being "positive" enough?

This is how you find out what they're really after because positive thinking can be interpreted all kinds of ways.

Don't consider it as completely undermining your core personality and changing who you really are. It's not about being fake. I habitually say please and thank you, but I don't consider myself to be well-mannered or excessively courteous; it usually gets me what I want. You're tweaking your behavior a little bit. My guess is they'll be happy if you're a little more positive. They'll be more comfortable around you (Pay attention to people's reactions when you're direct/blunt/honest/open or whatever you call it.).

Good leaders/managers are able to adapt. Show you're willing to make an effort be positive. There may be some individual employees that if you're working one on one, you can just get to the point because that's what they prefer. Maybe in meetings with other managers and people outside your team, you need a different approach.

  • I perhaps misphrased the common desire. This isn't exactly a new thing. Being "a little more positive" is insufficient, as their style is effectively "never be (publically) critical". Which (to me) is a giant hindrance to communication and working effectively. – Telastyn Oct 29 '14 at 11:48
  • @Telastyn - What do they consider public? I think there are some other managers who are intimidated by you. You may just need to consider the audience. – user8365 Oct 29 '14 at 12:56
  • One manager felt that public was anything which was not a one on one setting. Even raising potential problems in a proposed solution in a meeting was out of bounds. Though that one was the worst in this regard. – Telastyn Oct 29 '14 at 13:34
0

On more angle: If you listen to/read any forums where people discuss the issues with lack of women in software engineering, one thing that women nearly universally bring up is that they aren't happy with frank, honest style of communication, because they perceive it as too aggressive.

So, in the modern PC world where you're assessed just as much on how many women you have on your team as on how well you deliver (reference: HR telling us that), having a less-sunny leadership style is a major downside for you in terms of how HR and higher management evaluates your ability for hiring and retaining women - at least according to those people who publicly discuss the topic and are considered go-to experts (personally, I'm skeptical based on opinions of female programmers I personally know, including 3 members of immediate family, but who's asking my opinion? Not HR).

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