Flawed Engineer

Don't tolerate bad behavior/practices

March 17, 2020 - 4 min read - Leadership

Disclaimer: The topic of this post can be extended outside of a work environment or fall under the responsibility of HR in certain cases. I am by no means an expert in handling difficult HR situations. Take my examples with a grain a salt as I’m just trying to get a point across. If it helps, you can generalize the bad acting that I mention as simply a behavior that undermines the team ethos / project quality.


Many of the posts I made about leadership relate to positive reinforcement. This time around I wanted to focus on a more difficult habit to build.

Being a leader also means that we need to step up when the situation requires it. Sometimes great leaders are made this way. We shouldn’t be afraid of speaking up and stand up for what we believe in. If you want to set a good example you need to be able to handle the good AND the bad.

There’s a quote from a recent show called Hunters that I’ll adapt here:

Good leaders don’t try to do the right thing, it’s doing the right thing that makes them good leaders.

To better understand the importance of this, let me provide a real scenario.

The High Risks of Staying Still

A leader needs to grow the habit of recognizing bad behaviors and bad actors. This is a very difficult skill to develop, but even harder is being able to do something about it.

What happens if the leader stays still ? Whenever a bad act takes place and nothing is done about it, it starts legitimizing such behavior. It is a great example of slippery slope. You let it happen once, you think it’s ok. You let it happen a few times, everyone thinks it’s ok. At that point you are allowing and legitimizing bad behaviors.

I’ve seen a company where a senior member had the tendency to become severely passive aggressive at teammates. He was driven by high insecurity. Every time someone would take any initiative he felt threatened, then the bad behavior would start. New hires and members of other team would freeze not sure how to react. This happened over and over until everyone thought it was normal.

Now while some people would tend to blame the bad actor, I see this example as poor leadership. The team supervisor was aware of this behavior and did nothing. They let it happen once, then twice, until the bad actor felt legitimized to act up since there would be no repercussions.

While this is an extreme example, it was a good learning lesson. Simpler examples can just be bad practices that are not addressed and become part of a team workflow, loudly pointing fingers, putting people down, … you can probably continue the list yourself.

The High Benefits of Reacting

We would all love to be the “good one”, the “chill” leader. But we have to build that awareness that sometimes not acting can have as strong consequences as acting. Passive leadership can damage the cohesion of the team.

So what do we do ? We don’t stay quite. If a bad action happens, you are responsible to call it out. To give you a quick example I overheard a team member blaming a coworker for a tech decision. The coworker was not present so they could not defend themselves other than the fact that the decision was made in agreement with the whole team. This behavior from the bad actor was again driven by insecurity. Rather than taking responsibility for a decision he was involved in, he’d rather look good and blame it on someone else.

I called it out. This can and should be done in a diplomatic way when possible. In my scenario I simply mentioned that it wasn’t fair to blame them because the decision was taken by the whole team. The bad actor realized his mistake and apologized right away.

This had many benefits:

  • it helped maintain the integrity of the team
  • it highlighted the poor behavior to the bad actor
  • it prevented that behavior from happening again from him/her and any other member

Conclusion

A leader cannot be passive. Letting “bad” things happen under your watch can have severe consequences. I’ve seen people quitting because a bad actor behavior was tolerated. The moment no action is taken, it legitimized the bad actor which has now no incentives to stop (especially if it gets them what they want). You’ll see it on the Metro train as well:

If you see something, say something