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My workplace has an excessive amount of personal conflict among developers. There are some legitimate technical disagreements involved, but I wish it could be kept to a discussion about issues and not about people. Is there anything I can do about this from my lowly position, being that I don't have any formal leadership role on the team?

17 accepted

You don't have to be in leadership to lead by example.

Don't make the trash-talking a big deal, treat as what it is = completely unproductive and not worth your time. When the trash-talking starts, just walk away. If the trash-talking starts near your desk, just put the headphones on and start working. Don't make a big scene, just treat it with the attention it deserves.

Given the situation, this might not work, but if one co-worker notices and follows your trend the next won't be far behind.

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tl;dr: if you aren't acting to deal with conflict, you are actually part of the problem.

Sadly, this sort of passive aggression is very common. The approach that has worked best for me is to react actively. If there's a problem, whether it's a work situation, a technical issue or just people trouble, I'm willing to listen to the venting for a little while.

At a certain point, however, you have to ask the question: "Okay, I understand the problem but is there something that we should do? Just complaining isn't actually making this situation better. What do you think you should do?"

Because here's the problem: if a person is coming to me to complain about a problem without thinking about a solution, all they're doing is creating a new problem (their attitude). If, however, we can think about any possible solution at all (even if it turns out to be the wrong one) at least we aren't spinning our wheels and wasting our precious minutes on this earth.

Caveat: I'm all for venting within limits. One of my big rules is: you have to make the story funny. If someone was annoying you, tell me the story in a completely overblown way, this was the most annoying person who ever lived, darkness came over the land, cats and dogs sleeping together, whatever. We can all have a laugh and then talk about what we should do.

5

You should start a tradition: Minor gifting tuesday. This is the day where every developer must give a minor gift to some other developer. Perhaps write a quick little program that determines who is gifting to who.

It is often the case that trash talking is based on some kind of frustration or anger. The trash talking is a response to that emotion that further reinforces the emotion- The talking makes the talker think more and more about that thing that annoyed them. The listener's slightest response is taken as vindication that the talker's annoyance is justified.

Psychologists are now discovering through experimentation, that behavior affects thought far more strongly than thought affects behavior. If you are depressed, you can act happy, and for some reason just by ACTING happy, you eventually BECOME happy.

The act of generosity in this case, is uncharacteristic for someone who is supposed to be pissed off at developer x- You know, the one that doesn't fucking comment his code properly, and is always asking questions. ALWAYS WITH THOSE QUESTIONS. When you are finding a gift for someone, you are thinking from their perspective, what sort of things would developer x like. You have to force yourself to think about how they're not such a bad person. Otherwise why would you want to give them something nice?

The generosity is more characteristic of a group that genuinely likes eachother, and likes being around eachother. The receipt of the minor gift may prompt a fondness or loyalty- but it is the act of giving that is far more powerful to the mind of the giver.

Minor gift tuesday- Wind up toys, origami, nerf balls. Bring plenty for everyone.

4

Print the following in 24 point type and hang it in your cube/work area

Intelligent people discuss ideas

Smart people discuss events

Dumb people discuss people

It'll stop a lot of the trash talk because most developers have oversized (and unwarranted) egos and don't want to easily downsize themselves.

3

I can't say what you should do, but I can recommend against putting up large signs in your office...

IS This Good for the COMPANY?

(I presume that anyone reading this site has seen Office Space!)

2

I'd ask yourself a question: does the leadership on said dev team participate in the trashfest?

If so, you could bring it up to them (tactfully), perhaps by starting an "are you aware of anything I could be doing to improve my quality at work?" type of conversation.

If they don't, then you still have grounds to point it out, and to (again, respectfully) raise an issue.

As long as it's only about improving you, making life easier on the team, and retaining people (presuming others on your team have had enough and might be seeking greener pastures), and not about "waaah! Jimmy thinks I suck at obfuscation/whatever!", you should be good to go.

Good luck!

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I often make the mistake of being critical myself. More with processes and code than with people though. I would suggest making constructive feedback at the time. Suggest to the nmanagement that maybe weekly offsite meetings and/or lunches as team building are in order. I'm not talking about bogus retreats.

If the negativity is particularly invasive it takes time to bring things around. Hell, have a nacho day or something to bring people away from their desks. An overall negative environment cannot be corrected by 1-1 action, and often takes getting people together in a semi-social atmosphere. Team/group lunches, special events (nacho/popcorn/movie day in a meeting room) goes a long way.

A lot of times it comes down to overall stress of deadlines slipping, frustration with how certain things are implemented, and a perceived or sometimes real lack of effort. Your first task is to identify the real problem or problems. The second is to come up with some ideas on how to work through them. Third, is to proposed and introduce these ideas to management in a closed meeting, then hopefully followup with a team/group/dept meeting.

Hopefully things can turn around for you. I do not suggest sticking your head in the sand though.

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My wife's work has been having this problem recently, or at least trying to combat it. She works at a Jewish school, and there's actually quite a bit in the Torah about trash talking. The Hebrew for the law against gossip is called Lashon Hara (wikipedia). They deal with the problem through a series of incredibly sanctimonious meetings where they try to get people not to do it by finger wagging and the like. The tactics don't work quickly, but they eventually sink in, but only because it's a top-down approach.

For my side, I think it has to do a lot with respect. Not just respect for your fellow coworkers, but respect for the job that you're doing. I'd bet that you can find one or two people who really are the center of it, who can't seem to shake the habit of trash talking. If people see one person getting away with it, then they're likely to follow suit. It usually doesn't go the other way, because frankly, it's a lot more fun to talk trash (in the short term) than it is to get any work done. And since no work is getting done, it's a lot easier to continue to trash talk, because everyone's respect for the job being done (or not done) is decreasing.

If the habit persists from the top, leave. I've worked at a company where the CEO was an excessive trash talker, and I left a year ago-- they've since gone completely down the tubes, because nothing ever gets done but interpersonal sniping. If it's someone further down, you may be able to have some kind of intervention.

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Leaders are those people who inspire and motivate others to follow their lead. Don't wait to be appointed. Lead by believing in yourself and your causes. Appointments and recognition will eventually follow, but those are not the true measure of a leader.

There are lots of styles of leadership. Pick what's comfortable and effective for you. If you're outgoing and are already highly respected within your team, you may be able to directly address the problem by telling your fellow developers how you feel about this behavior and why you believe it needs to change.

If you're not the vocal leader sort or are new to the team, you can still lead by example. Don't trash talk. Make it a point to complement others when they do something well. Encourage your co-workers. Take time to get to know everyone on a personal level. Bring snacks to meetings (don't underestimate this gesture :D ). It may take time, but a slow and steady approach will eventually work if you're consistent and patient.

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We've had a turbulent development work group, but managed to work it out. Several things had to happen in our group:

  • Making the management/leader(s) aware of that this really is a problem
  • Learing how to give positive/negative feedback
  • Learing how to take positive/negative feedback
  • Sitting down all together discussing different approaches to solve the problem (i.e. getting all on the same train) while behaving as professionals (not as easy as it may seem)
  • Having a third party moderator in all meetings regaring these issues
  • Realising that this is going to take time
  • Realising that for every time a new person is added to the group, you need to start all over again.
  • Last resort, exchange people in group with other groups.

People are different, not all people mix. Sadly for us, we had to change some people in our group for it to work without hassle.

Personally, for your problem I would start by making sure management understood the problem and the effect of the problem, then try to lead by example. We are all leaders in one way or another.

:)

//W

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Raise it with your line manager. Either arrange a 1 off meeting or in your regular 1-2-1 meeting.

Hope this helps :-)

1

You answered the question yourself - focus on topics, not on the people.

They may hate each other, but make sure you give them no reason to hate you. Continue to remain impartial and objective. You should be able to earn their trust when they realise you do not talk behind people's backs. In fact, do your best to say whatever you need in front of their face (without the hostilities).

How to Win Friends and Influence People

If all else fails,

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

1

Thomas Kilman Conflict Resolution Grid may be helpful in identifying which type of resolutions suit your personality if there is an actual conflict being shown rather than what you are hearing and seeing in the trash talk.

This may not be popular, but do the people doing the trash talking seem to be more productive before or after such discussions? My reason for asking this is that for some people, putting down others is the way that they psyche themselves up and be more productive. While I wouldn't condone the practice, I can understand how in some areas this can be used effectively to bring some people up and if what is being trashed doesn't hear any of it, then where is the harm? For example, if one is fond of politics or sports there may be trash talking of various leaders or teams where I don't think one would want to have to confront the object of their dislike. To give an example in the US, what would happen if Rush Limbaugh had to have Barack Obama in the room when talking about him? For a sports one, consider the teams in the Super Bowl where I think it may be easier to trash either team rather than focus on the strengths they have. So for example, the Arizona Cardinals may be put down by either fans of the AFC Champion or by those Philidelphia Eagle fans whose team lost to Arizona in the NFC Champion game.

I have been in a few places where someone would be put down but this may not have been meant to be taken literally. The idea was to vent some steam and frustration by getting some things out rather than keeping them bottled up which can help ease tensions in the workplace.

Edit:

David Logan on Tribal Leadership is a TED Talk that may have some ideas of how to move your tribe from one stage to another. I found it to be interesting in looking at group dynamics in some ways.

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Buy them all a copy of Stephen Covey's 7 habits. Don't let them return until they read it.