Do your team members hate each other?

By Andrew Stellman
November 3, 2009

Last week I wrote a post on Building Better Software called When Team Members Hate Each Other. I started to answer a question that I recently got from the audience at the end of one of my Beautiful Teams talks talks:

What do you do when you're on a team with people who don't get along?

That's a really interesting -- and, not surprisingly, difficult -- question, and I gave it a lot of thought. I've been in that situation more than once, and I'm happy with the answer I gave him. The talk itself is based on the ideas that Jenny and I spent a lot of time studying while we were working on Beautiful Teams. We covered a lot of ground in that book, thanks to our amazing set of contributors, people whose ideas who have been a huge influence on me over the years including Scott Berkun, Steve McConnell, Grady Booch, Scott Ambler, Karl Wiegers, Mike Cohn, Johanna Rothman, and a whole lot more. There's a lot of great material there, so many good ideas from some really smart people, that I wanted to dive into more detail on one aspect of it.

There's so much depth in the question about dealing with team members who hate each other. In my post, I talked about two aspects of the problem: setting goals, and dealing with interpersonal issues. And I want to explore a little more about the interpersonal part, because it really speaks to me, and I really want to share more of it.

I think this quote from one of our contributors, Andy Lester, sums up this issue really well:

I was on a team once where I said, "At the very least, can we just have minimal respect for everyone here?" And I was asked quite seriously by someone else, "Well, what if not everybody on this team is worthy of respect?" And that's baffling to me as a human, but it's also not uncommon. And that minimal amount of respect is something that many just don't get.

-- Andy Lester, Beautiful Teams (chapter 5)

I was rereading that quote, and I really wanted to share more of Andy's wisdom, because I think he does a particularly good job exploring this issue. It was fascinating to talk to him, and the interview Jenny and I did with him is really good.

A lot of what Andy said really spoke to me personally. I think it's because I'm a geek myself, and I had to learn a lot of this stuff the hard way. He talked about the kinds of interactions that happen between geeks and "normal' non-geek people, and while he talked to us I keep thinking over and over again, "That's exactly what happened to me!"

Let me give you an example:

You'll have somebody, for instance, who's able to separate himself--and I say "him" because it's overwhelmingly male--who will be able to logically separate himself from his code, his work. Somebody comes along and says, "Gee, you know, this code totally sucks here because you're doing blah, blah, blah." He's going to logically stand back and say, "OK, I never thought about it that way, I'll do it that way."

Whereas other geeks or, more likely, normal people, will not understand, will take that as an attack, take that as an insult. "You did that wrong" is effectively what the person is saying. And that can be very harsh on the other person. The computer guy will come around and see somebody in another department, for instance, and say, "You're doing your spreadsheet wrong, you should be doing blah, blah, blah." And he is working strictly on a logical point of view: "This work product could be better if this changed." Whereas the person whose work product it is that's not done according to the geek's standard sees it as an attack on the work that he's been doing, and that is something that's very difficult to understand. It's even more difficult to understand when it's a fellow geek who feels like that. That's the really surprising part. Because even if they learn, "OK, I don't go over to the people in accounting and criticize their spreadsheets because they do 'em wrong," they can understand that. But when it's another programmer? That's baffling! "Why does this person feel like that? That's crazy!" And not only that, because that would be almost empathetic, but, "Why are they so sensitive?"

-- Andy Lester, Beautiful Teams (p50)

It took me years to figure that out on my own, but as soon as I did it made a huge difference to the way I was able to work with the people around me. I wish I'd run across something like this really early in my career. I can think of a lot of situations where it would have helped me out a lot!

And that's exactly what I said to him later in our interview. I really like his response, because it highlighted exactly the conflict that I ran into early on.

Andrew: Wow. That's great advice. I wish I'd heard that a lot earlier in my life. But what about Bob in accounting? What's life like from his end, dealing with the geek? Can that have an impact on a team?

Andy: Bob in accounting has a tougher job, because Bob is more normal (and I mean statistically normal). You might have 100 people in the company, and only five of them are geeks, or jerks, or whatever. And he is going to feel very justified in feeling offended, because the social norm around him is, "Yes, that's the way the geeks are, and you just have to kind of put up with it." But Bob would do well to also respect that the geek's way of looking at the world is also OK. The way he looks at it is that he's just trying to improve things for the sake of improving them, because that is what he does. He wants to improve technical things around him for the betterment of the person. Bob needs to understand that as well. He may not feel that way; he may not feel like the geek is trying to improve things, but rather tear him down. But Bob should know that that's all the geek has in his heart. Really, the geek just wants things to be better technically.

-- Andy Lester, Beautiful Teams (p52)

That really gets to the heart of one important aspect of the problem. Why do some team members hate each other? Because the just don't know how to talk to each other, and they just don't understand each other. The interesting thing to me, as a geek, is that I always assumed that since I was the socially awkward one, the more "normal" people were obviously the ones who would have to adapt to me. Once I figured out that I would at least have to meet them partway, just for the sake of getting the project done (and reducing the number of my own headaches), it really smoothed things out for me.

One thing I really like about Andy's advice in the book is that it wasn't just theoretical. He really tied it down to specific, day-to-day stuff. This is advice I would give any boss who's dealing with these problems:

Number one, you as a team leader or manager have to understand that the team has to work together. Those people problems are your number one potential impediment, and anything that gets in the way of people working together is going to crush your project. You have to understand that you may have people on your team who are a net negative as far as productivity goes. If you have somebody who cranks out 100 lines of code a day but drags everyone else's productivity down, whether that's because nobody wants to work with them, whether that's because time that was previously spent coding is now time spent wasted in meetings trying to get everyone to get along, you have to understand that from a managerial point of view.

Given that, you have to realize that the people who are disrupting the team need to modify their behavior immediately. Otherwise, the project will go down the toilet. And if that person cannot understand that the team dynamic is more important than any individual contribution, then that person is the wrong person for your team and you need to help them out. And I mean, help them out of the team, out of the company, whatever it may be.

-- Andy Lester, Beautiful Teams (p54)

I can think of more than a handful of projects I've worked on over the years that ran into serious problems exactly because of that. That's actually one of the goals that I had when Jenny and I were working on Beautiful Teams: to come up with a book that, had I handed it to my boss many years ago and said, "Read this right now!" it would have made a big difference in the way my team worked.

So if you're asking yourself, "Why do my team members hate each other?" -- whether you're a team member, a team lead, a manager, or just someone who wants to make a difference -- I definitely think you give Andy's advice some thought.

You can read more of Andrew's posts at Building Better Software.

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