The dysfunctional engineer leadership

Great businesses depend on people, ideas, communication, and vision to drive consistently desirable outcomes. Built on the back of hard work, clear objectives and determination success can be within the reach of any organization. Of course all of these things must be coupled by a leadership team that knows how to get the best from their teams each and every day. But what about when this doesn’t happen? What about when the management team doesn’t drive performance, or worse they create dysfunction?

There may be no faster death of a great idea or business than a dysfunctional management team. But do you know the signs to watch for? If you catch them early then perhaps you can do something to improve the situation, but once more than a few of them have struck there may be no turning back.

There are several really good lists of common traits seen in well-functioning engineering organizations. Most recently, there’s Pamela Fox’s list of What to look for in a software engineering culture. More famous, but somewhat dated at this point, is Joel Spolsky’s Joel Test. Today instead I want to focus on some common traits of a dysfunctional engineer leadership. Lookout for this signs, and try to challenge them, before is too late.

Because I Said So: If the only reason that you are given to complete a task is that it was because management said so then you are in a bad situation. This behavior is an iteration of fear based leadership which is never going to drive high level performance and can often yield to employee paralysis as they become afraid to act due to the potential for repercussion. In Engineering this attitude may affect the majority of the company wide initiatives.
Instead of a top down approach a general consensus should be seek within every team that is affected by the decision.
If this is not possible because of the amount of people that the process would involve, a good leader should sample representatives from each team before taking the decision. This process should be transparent. A general awareness should be palpable, driving whoever is in possession of good arguments to stand up and voice their opinions.

Passive-Aggressive: Whether it is showing up late to meetings, forgetting to share important details, or consistent excuses for not getting things done. These behavior are damaging in all cases. For instance, the late arrival to a meeting once can be an accident. Regularly showing up late is a sign of indifference and can likely be a sign that the person doesn’t care about or for what the meeting is about. In strong cultures this is nipped in the bud, but in a dysfunctional environment this can be seen throughout the workplace. Postponing time crucial decision have the same impact.
Especially in the fast pace world of engineering, having a proactive approach is fundamental to success.

Narcissistic: When management (individual or as a whole) is obsessed with their individual success, it is a huge red flag. To lead, management must serve those on the front line. Upon driving performance, management will get their due recognition. However, when the sole purpose is to feed the ego and support the growth of management you can count on rampant dysfunction and less then desirable results.
This is usually visible when an engineering organization has a bias for product managers. A strong engineer leadership knows where to focus on early wins as key product features, and when to step back to prioritize less attractive, but nevertheless important, technical task with low product impact.

Non-Committal: Strategy of the week, the day or the hour? It is a terrible feeling for an employee to feel like their direction is changing faster than the weather in London. While change can be adapted more rapidly in a stronger culture, in a weak or dysfunctional culture the fragile nature of the employees can be broken by even positive change. Is important to understand how to execute strategic decision, and overall hold on a long term vision.
One of the most common mistakes committed by new engineer leaders is to systematically tear down everything that was done before. Because the leadership changed doesn’t necessarily mean that everything that was done before needs to be thrown away. An engineer leader should know how to assess the current situation, and which battles is worth fighting.

Turn-Over: Are you seeing a revolving door of people coming and going? This is a really bad sign and something that needs to be quickly rectified. If employees are leaving, whether by choice or not, then you can be fairly certain that management is dysfunctional. Hiring is never an exact science and the elimination of low performers is important. However, companies with high turn-over are often seeing this due to weak culture and poor leadership.
In big companies the turnover of the engineer department swings between 10% to 20% a year. In startups can go up to 40%.
If your company has a higher turnaround you should start questioning your leadership, especially when the people leaving are across the board.
It’s easy to understand that, with those rates, a company can completely change within 2 or 3 years. This can drastically affect the engineer culture, usually established and consolidated in not less than 5-6 years.

Division: When members of the management team intentionally or even unintentionally drive division between members of teams or functions you are staring dysfunction in the eye. Even though companies are generally divided into cross functions to cover the various areas of operations, synergy is still the great whole rather than the sum of its parts. Creating division within teams is often done with negative intent and may be used to cover up larger problems and to protect agendas which never yields improved performance. Pay attention to the main synthom of division, which is difficulties in identify stakeholders and overall friction in communication. A good engineer leadership identify dependencies and conflicts by grouping and rearranging instead of creating division.

Politics: Interoffice politics are like the plague for businesses. I refer to this sign as “exponentially dysfunctional management.” A management team or individual driven by political gain which can be a promotion, visibility or other may be the absolute worst. When it becomes obvious that management is acting on an agenda that isn’t in the best interest of meeting its goals/mission then you have a big problem. Setting clear metrics to evaluate success of an initiative, and agree upon those metrics, can help avoiding this dysfunctional behavior.

(Mis)Communication or Lack thereof: If the respective leaders of the organization do not know what is going on, you can be certain that the dysfunction has spread to the core of the operation. When the leadership team stops speaking and communicating to one another or they are trying to collect information from the rank and file it is time to worry. Strong leadership teams communicate early and often. They understand important messaging and they know what and when to share. When leadership teams become out of sync due to dysfunction you will see massive breakdowns in communication that start at the top and radiate to the bones of the company.

Addressing The Issue

For business owners and employers: If you are seeing these behaviors throughout your organization then you need to quickly grab a hold of the problem and address it heads on. These problems will almost never rectify themselves, and as I mentioned they will tend to spread like disease until they kill the business either literally or metaphorically.
One guaranteed way not to improve the situation is to think it will take care of itself.

Every business deals with small cultural challenges from time to time. These can be brought on by a plethora of reasons. However, allowing them to proliferate within the company is highly problematic.

While the biggest culprits of these transgressions are probably not reading this and certainly not doing anything about their organizational problems, there are always those in high places that seek to be the agent of change. To change dysfunction you must seek it out, address it, and eliminate it. Sometimes that means hard decisions like eliminating managers who have perpetuated this even if they were once very effective.

For employees, these should serve as warning signs that your position and organization is in bad shape. Great companies rarely have great dysfunction. While changing positions is not always an option, I do highly recommend an attempt to address the problem with leadership (if possible) and to otherwise have a backup plan. Working within a dysfunctional environment is a surefire way to stunt your professional development and limit your opportunities moving forward.

Copyright © 2015– Nicola Bortignon