Human after all
I’m sure everybody goes through the ‘angry programmer’ phase at some point in their career. I’m sure that some people enter it and never leave. The angry programmer looks at code and wonders what kind of dumbass would write something so stupid. The angry programmer assumes a codebase to be a load of shit by default.
What I’ve just done is create an archetype of a person that reduces them to a few simplistic characteristics that might sound amusing if you relate to it, but can just as easily be used as a label to diminish your opinion of someone.
The internet is full of articles that treat interpersonal dynamics at work like a game of Dungeons and Dragons; and the goal of the campaign is for you and your colleages to seek out and destroy the toxic elements in your team. God forbid you identify The Two-Face1, or The Sociopath2.
You might say that these shouldn’t be taken so seriously, and to an extent you’d be correct. They’re just puff pieces, after all, right? And you can have a self-deprecating chuckle about if you feel like you identify with the archetypes described.
The problem is that it’s so easy to establish a culture of intolerance and bullying once you start seeing the people you work with as a collection of uncharitable traits, and labelling them as such.
Once you give a person a label, you can marginalise them. That’s the path of least resistance because maybe you don’t want to deal with someone you’ve written off as a Drama Queen. Maybe you’d rather they were fired so you can start with a fresh hire and a clean slate, until you find a label for them too. All I’m doing here, really, is describing the difference between prejudice and discrimination and no matter which way you slice it, it’s just not cricket.
Here are some traits of apparently toxic employees: controlling, stubborn, distrusting, aloof, unfocussed, prone to burnout, doesn’t know their limits, unmotivated, learned helplessness.
I don’t know about you but these seem more like symptoms of a toxic environment. Such a culture can easily create a cohort of demotivated, burned out employees who are, through no fault of their own, frequently pushed beyond their limits. This is basically what crunch time in the gaming industry is. It’s what 80+ hour weeks are. It’s what a cut-throat business is. It’s office politics. It’s the fucking standard operating procedure in any country with poor employee rights.
If it’s not the culture itself, then there’s also the mental health consideration. Depression doesn’t automatically mean burnout, and it doesn’t make you a slacker. A distrusting and aloof person can quite reasonably be a victim of severe abuse. Control issues aren’t created in a vacuum and can be a product of anxiety.
Realistically, everyone will have some combination of all those negative traits and it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that they’re a human being. It’s not all a product of a shitty workplace, it’s not all mental illness or trauma. It’s diversity and the varying extents to which we possess these characteristics is what forms our personality.
Whew, better bring this back to the topic I had in mind before I go off on another tangent.
I like compassion. Actually no, I /love/ it. It’s an amazing word that can mean many things to many people, but I like to think it’s what gives this world the soul it has; it’s certainly responsible for a lot of good. The Compassionate Mind3 dedicates over 500 pages and thousands upon thousands of words to this, and this is what the blurb has to say about it:
Not only does compassion help to soothe distressing emotions, it actually increases feelings of contentment and well-being.
To my mind, spending mental energy on identifying and labelling different kinds of toxic people will never bring you contentment and inner-peace. I think you’ll actually end up with more distressing emotions as you figure out how to deal with this knowledge.
What if you’re worried about being toxic yourself? Same thing, you’re just being dominated by it indirectly and defining yourself by what you’re not. Contentment and inner-peace is found in what you /are/, who you are, not the other way around.
The reason I’m saying this is because it works at a cultural level too. If the first thing you tell to a potential hire is that you don’t hire toxic employees, or your culture isn’t toxic, you’re just begging the question. Why the hell is that on your mind and not all the good stuff you could be saying instead? What are you hiding with your preoccupation?
Do I have an overall point to this impassioned rant? I’m not sure, I just think that if you’re worried about how people perform at work then maybe you should stop punching down at them with this toxic employee bullshit and instead offer a helping hand. Put some compassion into it and try and get them where they want.
Of course, it doesn’t work out for everyone. It’s not about protecting people or making excuses for their behaviour. Compassion is complimented incredibly well by self-empowerment, ownership, and accountability. People are still responsible for their own actions.
Just, no reason to be so needlessly unkind to each other. We’re all human, after all.