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Chris Chen

How to handle toxic culture and conflicts in an engineering team

Technical Leadership, Software Engineering5 min read

note: I use initials as the contacts may not want their names revealed.

I've known DC and MD for quite a while. They have done (or are doing) engineering manager or CTO roles at various organisations including AWS. They are really nice to answer my questions/doubts on technical leadership.

Recently I asked for their take on how to handle two common scenarios in software engineering settings, this is what they said.

Q1: how to deal with toxic culture in your engineering team?

DC: How do you know it's a toxic culture? "toxic culture" is too vague to work with, what specific things are happening that you consider toxic? If you feel toxic culture is a problem, what I would do is first take time to write out exactly what you consider to be toxic behaviour and then involve your team (upstream and downstream) in this document. Call it a manifesto or something. Even better if you can frame it in the opposite, so instead of describing toxic behaviour, describe desirable behaviour and then get buy-in for these as being "table stakes" to work in your team i.e. make sure everyone is aligned on what is expected of them. For docs like these, the more concise the better. 

Once you have this doc (which will evolve over time), and your team has contributed to it, you now have a shared language you can use to address toxic behaviour. When toxic behaviour occurs, you can map it to a specific thing in your document (and if you can't, you need to augment your document). Once you have this in your toolkit, you open the door to much more effective treatment of toxic behaviour.

MD: A toxic culture is a tricky but not an insurmountable problem (great leadership challenge), it's tricky because it is not anyone individual that is the problem.

Workload and burnout are often symptoms, nearly all workplaces will complain at some point about workload and burnout, but doesn't necessarily make them toxic.  Apple and many US tech organisations have heavy workloads but people stay there for 6+ years and they have great outcomes.  It's important that you listen but also challenge people on what the problem is. The workload can become toxic if it is chronic, and people have no ability to improve the way they work to optimise work output. The workload can also become negative if people are not connected or engaged in why they're doing the work.  Following the Apple example, they put in 12 hours a day because they believe in the impact that their work will produce and feel they can be recognised by their efforts.

Now not every organisation is an Apple, we're rarely pushing out work that people wait in line to get, so you need to consider how you inspire and recognise to create an environment for them to be engaged. Consider the vision and mission of the organisation and how this can translate to your team, maybe even create a vision and mission for your own team. Make it meaningful, inspiring but realistic.  Use this to shape the team thinking about where the business and team is going. It becomes the vehicle people attach their ideas and initiatives to, I'm excluding "hopes" as it is passive, you need people to be action-oriented on creating the culture they want to work within.

Not all people may buy-in, some people take longer, some people find it difficult to change. In any case, they need to understand that toxic behaviours do not lead to the outcome we want. 

If you sense that people feel like they lack control over their situation or environment, then an exercise with them on the "circles of concern influence and control" (google it) will help them refocus and start to make an impact.

It won't change overnight, highlight the wins, the bright spots as examples of what you want to grow.  These people get publicly recognised.

For those that fail to change and don't want to change, you put through warnings, performance management and exit.  6-9 months of difficult conversations will pay off with years of positive trajectory.

It's important that the team is realistic, your job is to make it unambiguous about what the opportunity is and what you expect of them. 

Q2: what to do when 2 engineers are not getting along?

DC: Dealing with conflict in a team sucks! But it happens all the time. Similar to the above, I would want to identify/describe how the conflict is manifesting itself in the team. Is it causing ongoing arguments and prolonged decisions? is it bringing down the morale of the whole team? You should be able to document specific instances where the conflict is showing. With this, I would first talk individually with each of them and ask them how they see the conflict, which instances they can additionally see that you can not. Go over the instances you have also noticed. Make sure you and they both agree that what is happening and that it is not desirable. Once you agree that the conflict is in fact happening and agree as to how the conflict is manifesting and agree that it is not desirable, then you can dig deep and ask them why it's happening, and what they can do to help reconcile - and what you can do. Do this with both of them to get a full clear picture of the conflict and make sure everyone is on the same page. Then you need a plan to be accountable to and to hold them accountable to. What is the consequence to them if the conflict can not be resolved? How would you identify if one party is the primary antagonist? Once you figure that out, you discuss options. Transferring a team can be a great solution - if you are sure that individual won't take their conflict and cause more damage. If the individual just causes conflict and doesn't earn the trust of their team and this slows down development etc - you gotta put them on an exit/recovery plan (whatever that plan is in your company)

just my 2cents! very hard to diagnose and treat without all the details, but that's my high-level approach

MD: Get them talking to each other, but brief each individual to make sure they're going in with the right frame of mind.  Is there common ground between them? Can you grow this common ground through an initiative where they work together? Is one of them misaligned with the business and team? if that's the case don't move them around just exit them from the organisation.

Non-regrettable attrition/losses happen, in my team, I've had a number of non-regrettable losses in the first 1-2 years, both terminated and resigned after extensive performance management.  In all cases, the team and organisation are for the better. Just make sure you're keeping the right people.

My takeaways

  • prevention is better than cure - it's important to seek and define (in written format) a "how we work, what we do and do not" manifesto, and get everyone on board. The leader and whoever is involved can talk and react subjectively, because of the common ground we share.

  • In reply, I thanked them for investing their keystrokes on our conversations, because everyone has a finite keystrokes they can type in their life! check yours on