The machine has strong opinions

I’ve worked in plenty of large enterprisy organisations and one of the most painful recurring themes is employee detachment.

We don’t talk about it that often, but in an industry that’s rife with command-and-control-style management, the bottom of the pyramid is often very sceptical of the top. There is a natural gap between the teams that build the products and the layer of management above. If that gap is large, dark humour is the coping mechanism. There’s a reason Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss was created by an engineer.

I’ve found the level of work floor cynicism to be a great barometer of company health. When your developers crack sarcastic jokes at the expense of their manager, something is going on. I’ve encountered my fair share of bitter teams and they turn out to be a good indicator of where the project is headed.

If you’re a team lead or manager, you should pay attention.

Teams bond together in difficult times. When the pressure is high, we lean on our comrades. But when the divide between management and productive teams is huge, that bonding has a side effect: they might not consider you part of the team.

Engaged teams push back. They give you feedback whether you like it or not. Detached teams have given up on that. They are silent.

Engaged teams communicate. They’ll involve stakeholders and partners. Their problems and progress are transparently shared with all. Detached teams form closed in-crowds.

Engaged teams improve. They fix problems that benefit the company. Detached teams protect. They find workarounds to shield themselves from what they consider bad ideas.

It’s easy to dismiss these teams as difficult whiny nerds. And that might be true if it’s one guy. If it’s an entire team, you better be paying attention to the root cause.

And that root cause is almost always bad management.

I’ve witnessed this on multiple occasions. A product owner that’s never available. A project manager who’s too occupied with JIRA to listen to her team. Top management that only descends from Walhalla to give vague pep talks, but isn’t open to feedback from the floor.

Most managers are trained in ways that come straight out of 19th-century factories. They consider their teams to be cogs in a machine that execute whatever vision they throw at them. The machine doesn’t get to have an opinion.

That’s not how people collaborate. People take up ownership of problems and come up with solutions on their own. The reason your customers get follow-up mails is most likely not because some manager mandated that. It’s because someone in Customer Support felt that was the best way to capture feedback.

Managers that have the factory mentality don’t see the problem with redesigning the follow-up top-down. To them, the machine has no opinion. They don’t acknowledge that the ownership was taken up by someone else. They risk breaking a system and alienating engaged team members.

Remember: Nobody takes up ownership a second time.

Managers have to listen to their people. They have to recognize the natural gap and keep it in mind. They have to understand that an engaged machine has a very strong opinion and that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

If you’re in a new organisation, use those first months to gauge the level of cynicism. Use that wisely to figure out the root cause. Often you will find good people wanting to do good work being stopped by inept management systems.

Team leads and project managers have the responsibility to vocalize the pains of their teams. Middle manager’s entire job is to create an environment where teams can shine.

Keeping people engaged is a difficult job. The more team members you get in your care, the more time you’ll have to spend listening.

Nobody claimed management was easy.