I'm a mid-level developer on a small team of 5 software developers. I've really noticed that the culture of our team is very negative and mean. For example, a developer had overlooked an issue in their code. The developer admited the mistake, and said they'd resolve it before marking the task as done. Team members then went on to poke fun at the bug, and in general make very mean and sarcastic remarks about their coding abilities and ideas. Words such as crazy, stupid, and other negative terms are used daily when discussing each other's code.

I've noticed that it rubs off on me as well, and I feel that I've become significantly more negative in my attitude towards our code base. I typically try to remain objective, trying to shed light on why a code block may have been done in a specific way, but then I feel I'm attacked for doing so.

I've been trying to become more positive and optimistic around my team and feel that our team culture of negativity and rudeness is overwhelming. I've been in environments that do have a negative vibe to them, but the severity of this team is causing developers become afraid to ask for help, try new things, and speak their opinions.

How can I help improve my culture to have more humility, respect and trust?

  • 1
    This is such a good question. I have faced this exact problem (though not on a code-base) - remaining optimistic and, well, happy in my work is difficult because of this! – enderland Feb 28 '13 at 19:58
  • 2
    Are they truly being mean, or is it more sarcastic ribbing? Sometimes it's what they say, but sometimes it's how you interpret what they are saying. – DA. Feb 28 '13 at 20:19
  • 1
    This may boil down to the fact that your team is staffed by generally salty characters. Before attempting to fix it, try to make an assessment of their individual personalities and be sure that there isn't a more fundamental issue with the individual personalities that make up the team. Scumbag people will make scumbag coworkers, I don't think there's fixing that. You may try to stay above the fray by yourself – kolossus Feb 28 '13 at 20:24
  • If it is deemed unacceptable, then if a person mocks some code it could result in said person immediately inheriting the maintenance of that code. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 6 '13 at 9:00
  • Sarcastic ribbing is mean. It is also inappropriate in the workplace. Save that garbage for your friends outside of work hours. – HLGEM Jan 5 '18 at 14:43

Team members then went on to poke fun at the bug, and in general make very mean and sarcastic remarks about their coding abilities and ideas.

Are you sure they were being negative? I have been on a few teams where this sort of playful ribbing was a sign of comradarie and general good spirits while still pushing the offending team member to not make the mistake in the first place. This might be misunderstood by a newcomer to the group, or even someone who was untrusted (or someone without a sense of humor).

Pushing against this behavior is likely to get negative reactions at first, and likely to harm the team even if successful. That sort of comradarie and team identity is the very thing that managers work long and hard to cultivate. At least in the teams I knew, trying to stop it would've been disasterous to morale and productivity.

  • 3
    Fully agree with the above comment. Before acting on anything else, make sure that you aren't misreading the culture of the team, and seeing negativity/criticism where there isn't any. Are the people on the receiving end of the remarks visibly hurt by them? Are the comments one-sided (or is anyone open to jabs when they muck up)? Do the employees in question get along well despite the comments? The last thing you want to do is bring up an issue that isn't really an issue. That would be awkward. – jmac Mar 1 '13 at 0:12
  • Perfect answer. My team of 3 is like a locker room. Anyone walking into our area would probably wonder if HR needed to get involved due to the stuff we say to each other, but all of us know it's just good-natured ribbing and any serious problem is identified as "not a joke" – squeemish Mar 1 '13 at 12:24
  • 2
    Sorry can''t agree with this. The mean beahvior obviously bothers him, so it isn't all in good fun or boys will be boys. People often try to excuse their poor behavior by saying it was just a joke, but it really isn't – HLGEM Mar 1 '13 at 15:18

I think that you should first check to see if any of the other individuals on your team share your perception. Your example developer might be a good person to start with.

If others view that there's a cultural issue, then you have allies in trying to shift the culture. Remember that making a cultural shift is something that takes a very long time, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort on the part of you and your allies to make this change. If your team grows, that's an excellent opportunity for you to help that cultural shift along: when you interview candidates, you can work to understand their interaction style with their fellow developers and whether their interaction style fits into the culture that you are trying to engender.

If no-one else views that there's a cultural issue, then you need to decide whether this is a culture that you want to be a part of. It's totally valid for you to choose to not be a part of a culture that you find toxic, and learning about this kind of thing is great for you to understand. When you're looking for future positions, you can try to learn about the interaction style of the development team has the type of respectful culture that you're looking for.


Caveat - depending on the personalities of the people involved, you may not be able to fix this.

I think your best bet is to call the team together and discuss the issue openly. Tell them why the negativity bothers you and ask the others if it is bothering them and why. As a group, decide what if anything you need to do about to improve the atmosphere.

You might try to get some allies lined up before the conversation (the guy in your example is a good person to start with), so it isn't just you who says that it is bothering them. Likely, people have felt intimidated about speaking up since everyone appears to accept the bad behavior.

It is possible that you only have one or two people who like this type of frat boy, unprofessional atmosphere and once people as a group say they don't like it, then the others can be pressured into stopping the behavior or moving on. You won't know if change is possible until you speak up. Expect to be ridiculed at this meeting by the adolecents who never grew up. You want to change to a work place that isn't as much fun to them (and that they find threatening), but hey I don't want to work with people who think this sort of behavior is fun.

Once your group has agreed that this type of behavor has got to go, then you need to confront it every time it happens. You could havea jar where people throw ina quarter every time they are caught dissing someone else or you could simply tell people "Cut it out, that is over the line." when it happens.

If the others don't see a problem, then the chances of affecting any meaningful change in their behavior is low. But you won't know until you try. You could in this case, try telling them when they are behaving badly, but likely they will just start to make fun of you for being wussy. You could also discuss it with HR as it would constitute harassment and they might be willing to punish and possibly fire those who won't come into line. But you will destroy your relationship with the people you work with if you go that route and no one else is offended or upset.

  • I'm sad this answer doesn't have more upvotes. A culture that's not inclusive is not a culture I'd want to be a part of. – scorpiodawg Jan 5 '18 at 4:48
  • I think that the most important thing you can do is engage management. A manager can set expectations and tie compensation to those expectations. A simple goal of improving teamwork for the next performance review could be a big help. Managers also have the authority to talk to every individual separately and engage them in solving the problem.

  • Set an example. Don't engage in negative behavior and don't encourage it in others. Be a positive voice and try to be the first and loudest voice when you see things heading south. If you can't get ahead of it then feel free to make use of the ol' stink eye to let them know at least one person doesn't like it.

  • Engage their inner code monkey. Most programmers I know love to problem solve, and even if that's not the case here, they at least like to show off. If you can directly pose this poor culture as something that needs to be solved then you can shift everyone's point of view and that may be all that is needed. If that's not something you can do you can at least try to kill individual snark sessions by trying to turn them into problem solving sessions, like "I've made that same mistake too, I wonder if there is a test we could introduce that would automatically catch that..." or "I can see myself making that same mistake, I wonder if we could alter X to make Y more intuitive"

The more prone to being a leader you are, the easier this will be to change from the inside, but this is really your manager's responsibility and that should be your first move (unless the manager is straight out of a Dilbert cartoon).

  • Don't underestimate the power of the ol' stink eye... – DKnight Mar 1 '13 at 4:45

Whatever you do, phrase it as a difficulty that you are having (as you said "I've noticed that it rubs off on me as well"), and that's not how you want to be. Try to avoid blaming or attacking people. That way it's easeir for others to hear you.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.