My name is Nikita Pimoshenko, and I'm the IT Head of the General Development in Quadcode. Today I'll share tips and case studies from practice that will be useful for new team leaders: how to work with a team, get out of the trap of a toxic specialist and not go crazy.
I've been in IT for more than ten years. And I've been working in Quadcode for the last four years: in September 2018 I moved into a developer position, and in April 2019 I became a team leader of the Billing API team, from where I was promoted to IT Head.
In the article I'll mention the Bruce Tuckman model. According to it all teams go through five stages: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.
I'll tell you how my team went through the stages of forming and storming.
In my opinion, the most important things for the team leader are:
- A ton of energy and initiative aimed at the product (if we're talking about product teams). An amorphous team leader is the worst thing that can happen to a team.
- Willingness to be responsible for the results (their own and that of their colleagues).
- Leadership qualities (you can lead people and motivate them).
- The ability to speak, listen, hear and explain your thoughts to others so that they understand you.
When I became a team leader, I wasn't familiar with the Tuckman model and similar tools. I had the experience of forming remote teams for my partners, and that's probably all. But the promotion itself seemed logical to me: for six months I led and launched technical features, approved architectural changes, dragged the team to events and other team buildings.
And one day my boss comes to a standup and says: "Folks, Nikita will be your team leader. His probation period is three months, and if everything's OK for everyone, then he'll stay." Your expectations from the team: hurrah, applause, cheering crowd. Reality: awareness, distrust, thoughts about what will happen next. Because yesterday there was a "Nikita programmer", and today there's already a "Nikita manager". Fears and concerns arise: how should I behave with him, and can I now "kick questions around" with him at lunch, and is it worth inviting him to the bar? Our colleagues' picture of the world has changed dramatically and turned upside down.
The story went something like this: "Nikita, we've all seen that you're proactive, moving your ideas and making an effort to make them become code/documentation/tests; in short, adding value to the product that we all developed and love together. But you're a step higher now, so how should we behave with you?" And I have often heard phrases like: "You aren't hearing me," "I want to tell you this, but you don't understand me," "If you don't listen to me and respect me, I'll quit," and so on.
It didn't fit in with my picture of the world at all. I worked with these guys, I considered them very reasonable and adult people, but some kind of childhood began here. To be honest, this situation reminded me of my friend's son's behavior, and I thought, "Wow, this is so similar to the way Lev was testing his dad’s weakness and strength points." At the time, I felt like the father of a large and capricious family in which children probe the boundaries of what's permissible and are often acting offended.
1. Be in the collective, not above it. For myself, I chose the model "Don't distance yourself from the team." I stayed with my team as much as possible; I didn't build walls between us. I didn't say things like, "I'm the boss, and you're my employees, so we can't have friendly interactions."
On the contrary, I promoted the following idea: "Dudes, we work together; I'm a specialist just like you. Yes, I'm a team leader now, but that's great: you can come to me at any time, and I'll relay your interests. Through me, you can ask our bosses questions that you hesitate to ask in person, and solve problems."
2. Hold 1:1 meetings. This is necessary to clarify expectations and learn about the agreements that were made with the previous team lead. So you'll understand what commitments your predecessors made and how to work with them in the future.
At that time, I didn't fully realize the importance of 1:1 meetings, I just realized that they were needed and started holding them. I tried to find out what concerns the folks have, how they see our cooperation, what they expect from me, what I want from them.
3. Organize informal gatherings and team buildings. According to Tuckman, informal activities work best at the forming stage. We have a tradition in our company—pizza and wine are brought to us at the end of the week, and we stay Friday and hang out. And, I admit, at that time I was really looking forward to those Fridays: in an informal and relaxed atmosphere, the team opened up more and made contact. These get-togethers were even more useful than 1:1 meetings; they allowed us to identify more problems and "blind spots".
4. Don't become a "hostage of fake power". One mistake of new team leaders is to become hostage to information management. When you're a supervisor, you have access to a lot more information than the team. And many novice team leaders believe that it's more correct to somehow hold onto this information, and then use it for their own purposes.
I admit that I also almost fell into this trap, but then I came to my senses and decided to stay in the team—the friend and comrade I was when I worked as a developer. And I began to transparently relay all the information to the team so that people wouldn't feel that I was hiding something from them. They know everything I know. Perhaps they won't find out at the same moment, since I need to work out some information myself first, clarify all the controversial points and understand how I'll answer my team's questions.
In short, hanging onto information and enjoying the feeling "I know more than anyone, here it is—the power of the team leader" is a game and heresy. And it can lead to problems: in large companies, information flows are often uncontrolled, and one way or another the folks will find out the news. And if they realize that you already knew about it and didn't tell them anything, it'll reduce their trust.
5. Agree on new metrics. I felt like a blind kitten on this issue. I didn't understand what metrics developers could have, although I was one myself, and if we talk about QA, then there's generally a backout for former devs. I tried to work with people more impromptu, and approach them with some kind of template. I started from the individuality of the person and tried to work with the personality.
Speaking in a substantive way: I didn't count the tasks that each employee completed. Once a quarter, we planned what the team wanted to do: for example, to develop such and such features, conduct research, speak at a conference and share their experience. Progress was tracked at 1:1 meetings (this helps to understand whether there are blockers, whether something needs to be changed), and the final result was at the end of the quarter.
In a word, the metric was binary: we fulfilled the agreements—well done everyone; something didn't work out—we figured out what happened. The system works on independence and responsibility, and the team understands what is expected of them and what needs to be done.
6. Avoid emotional outbursts. The whole story with complaints and misunderstandings in the team that I described above lasted about three months, during my entire probation period. Of course, we came to a consensus, learned to hear each other and built a dialogue—I showed that I'm part of the pack.
But I'm an emotional person, so outbursts have happened. And I've been working on this for a long time, developing emotional intelligence (tracking other people's emotions in myself and determining how they affect me). And even now, four years later, I can still "fly off the handle" from other people's emotions. But I try to keep my temper.
A simple tip: if you want to say something emotionally, be quiet, take a deep breath, count to 10 and think about whether what you want to say is useful and important. Or is it just an emotional thing that you want to "dump" on the person?
7. Understand the importance of praise and gratitude. Never hesitate to praise and thank a person, especially in public. And it's important never to scold a person in public. Of course, there are very emotional situations, and you can flare up. This happened to me once: I'm still ashamed, I apologized for a long time and brought the situation back to normal.
Sometimes a person can lose their cool toward you with their emotions and attacks. It's important to remember that if you give corrective feedback, never do it in public. It should be one-on-one with the person. It's improper to comment on the work of a specialist in front of the team—this is the worst thing a team leader can do.
8. Prepare for difficult cases. Unfortunately, there are a lot of them in the team leader’s work. For example, one day my improper supervisory decision led to the dismissal of a lead QA. And I want to tell you more about one case—the dismissal of a toxic specialist.
When you're a hiring manager, remember that the main thing is for the new person to coincide with the spirit of the team. To do this, you need to formulate team values. The team members themselves will help you with this. Get together and ask them: "Folks, what do you value in our work, what do you think is the coolest, what goal are we pursuing?" The goal can be as simple as possible: for example, we write code for money, this is a high for us. Such a story is a normal position in many outsourcing companies, because projects change quickly.
There's another story: product development (our case). We have a service that we maintain and develop. We love it, nurture and cherish it, do everything to make it great and always stable. We want to write awesome code, and develop a high-quality and transparent architecture so that everything is covered with tests. In short, we love our service. The manager isn't arrogantly unapproachable: if you want to toss a feature, think it over; we'll ask you questions, make suggestions for improvement.
Yes, we also work for money, but the value and quality of our product is at the forefront, not the financial component. We want people to come to us with features that need to be thought through, so that there's a dialogue with us and we come up with an implementation. We want to influence the product and feel the importance of this influence. Of course, we take full responsibility for this position.
We have to understand that if the team is focused on quality, the value of feedback and open communication, then we have to hire someone with similar values.
We've sorted out values, now let's move on to toxicity.
Many people think that toxic means a person who tells everyone to go you know where, etc. But in fact, this may not be considered toxic: if everyone in the team speaks with each other in a rude manner then it's completely normal behavior. Folks will say, "He's ok". And the opposite situation: when a person is very responsible, thinks through everything to the smallest detail, takes a long time to perform tasks, but does it excellently. Such a person can also be toxic, despite all these qualities. They'll be toxic for a team of (Adizes) producers who want to release features quickly. The person will stifle them with their long thought process, and there'll be a clash of values.
An important skill is to learn how to probe motivational factors and values of a person: what's important to them in their work, what drives them, etc. And compare that to the expectations of the team. Interviews are the most effective stage when you can weed out a toxic professional. And this task falls on the shoulders of the hiring manager or recruiter. Not all team leaders are able to probe motivation, so you need to discuss this point with the recruiter; ask them to prepare specific questions and compose a motivational portrait of the candidate.
There are also tricky candidates: they try to understand what kind of specialist you're looking for, and at the interview will say exactly what you want to hear or use socially acceptable answers. However, everything they say often doesn't match the real picture of their values. Mostly these are people who don't care about anything but money.
I had the case described above: the person was well prepared and got through the interview perfectly. I was already thinking about motivational factors then, asking him questions. It was a transfer within the company; at that time recruiters didn't participate in such interviews. The candidate seemed to be very sensible. He said that he likes to think everything through, and he's passionate about the quality of the product. But in the end he turned out to be toxic to my team that shared these values.
For example, we don't always write the User Story from A to Z; our devs have some autonomy in implementing the solution. This colleague literally demanded that all tasks must be written in as much detail as possible, saying that he was not interested in bothering with business logic and solutions: he came to write code according to clear technical requirements. The folks in the team argued with him and said that developers aren't just typewriters for code, they need tasks in which they can explore the product and user behavior in order to offer an interesting and effective solution. These conversations ended up going nowhere, with everyone sticking to their own opinion.
The guy showed toxicity not only in relation to his team, but also to other colleagues. As an example, not proper and unpolite statements about their salaries when the colleagues discussed promotions among themselves.
Sometimes toxic people may not show their toxicity in dealing with their supervisor, but they will definitely demonstrate it in relation to the team. And this is where 1:1 meetings and informal get togethers are very helpful: it's where you can ask the team how the person is behaving, how they work together in general, and how they communicate and what their impressions are. Of course, in the most critical situations, you'll find out everything without it: the team may organize a real front of resistance and come to you with an intervention in the middle of the day.
For me it was my first experience of working with a toxic person. I fell into the "Mother Teresa trap" (as I called it): I thought I could talk to him, work out the issues (I'm the supervisor, after all) and achieve an acceptable level of interaction between him and the team. He wrote quite decent code; he didn't have many comments on the code review. In short, he was a great fit for the Middle+ Developer position; he was a good developer, but he was like a bone in the throat for the team.
I had thoughts like: "I don't seem to be a fool, and he's a person who hears and listens. I'll try to explain our point of view to him, perhaps he'll meet me halfway." The story dragged on for six months: the guy came, and two months later the team began to complain about his toxicity. I heard them, held a meeting with the guy: we worked out the issues of values, discussed communication in the team. A few more months passed, and there were no improvements. After that, I wanted to say that we should part ways, but he beat me to it and resigned himself.
So about the "Mother Teresa trap". Its essence is that a novice team leader is trying hard to find a compromise in a situation where the employee deliberately refuses to make contact with the team. There's a certain sense of sacrifice and belief that things will get better. At the same time, you close your eyes to obvious inconsistencies and try (as it seems to you) to "draw the person out" to the very end.
Another important point: if you're a team leader, you share the values of the team. That is, this guy demotivates you as well as the team. But you try to stay as neutral as possible and remove it all. At the same time, all your attempts to identify and articulate team values may not be successful: a toxic person will most often understand your values, but will refuse to accept them. This position confuses novice supervisors, as it seems to many that understanding and acceptance are related things. So the following is needed:
- At the meeting, identify your own and the team's position as concretely as possible, say what the problem is, and stick to the facts.
- Listen to the person's opinion in order to understand how they see the current situation.
- Ask if they're ready to work with it.
- Work through their words, bring them to the surface and make sure you understand each other: "I heard you, I understand this and that, tell me, is that right?"
- If the person is willing to work on it, then agree on a deadline. Usually one month is enough.
- After that, look at the results: if nothing changes, you need to part ways.
In some situations, everything ends at the third stage—when you ask if the person is ready to work towards the acceptance of team values. Because toxicity in the team is precisely the rejection of the values of the team; toxic colleagues show it directly, which makes the team members push them away, and adds pressure to the team atmosphere. Here there's psychological pressure, and an unwillingness to build a constructive dialogue with others, and fundamental disagreement with your position. Sometimes it's important for them to demonstratively broadcast their point of view. And there's a lot of personality in toxicity; it's not just a work dispute that can be resolved painlessly.
According to Tuckman, the appearance of a new member in the team (including a toxic one) is a forming stage that quickly turns into storming (in general, any newcomer returns the team to the forming stage); this is where the clash of values occurs. At this stage it's better not to linger for a long time: if the team has been storming for more than six months, the situation can get critical. It will take a long time to get out of it, and after a prolonged storming, the team members are often apathetic, sluggish, and closed for changes.
If you're an emotional person, then you need some kind of emotional release in addition to work. Sports and simple introspection techniques (for example, keeping a diary) can help. Of course, proper nutrition. During the case described above, I was on a strict diet, and lost 15 kg in a month and a half. And it was hard, one thing overlapped with the other.
One of the simplest and surest solutions is to discuss problems (including emotional ones) with your managers. They are able to support you, dispel your worries, and together you can make a plan for further actions. Remember that even the most experienced specialist almost always becomes a novice manager upon a promotion. Don't be afraid to learn from your supervisors. This won't be a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it'll show your desire for development and purposefulness.
If you have experts in the field of coaching and psychology in your company (we have a HR Business Partners team at Quadcode), then you can work out difficult cases with them.
It may be worth spending more time with friends and family, unless there's a high emotional intensity in communication with them. If you feel that you're not coping yourself, then don't hesitate to contact a psychoanalyst; this is completely normal.
And praise and pamper yourself more often, but exclude coffee, energy drinks and everything else that agitates your nervous system (it will get it enough of that without stimulants).
If you're a less emotional person, then most likely everything will go smoothly for you. But there's another point here: you need to pay more attention to the team, monitor its emotional background, try to stand up for people, understand and support them. Without this work, there's a great risk of losing teammates. In management, it's people first.
That's it, I'll be happy to answer questions in the comments.