This post belongs to small series of posts. The main post is Heroes.
In this post, I will talk about the hero-bully. This is not the ordinary bully, which may come to mind, i.e. someone that everyone fears, almost nobody likes and who rules by force of intimidation. Rather, what I am talking about here are heroes who are placed on a pedestal by one group and who use the power from their received status to bully those around them that do not follow suit. In this regard, the bully resembles the gunslinger hero. After all, depending on whether you oppose or disagree with them, heroes can become bullies who ‘rule’ by brute force and by the political weight that was given to them. Who would dare to go against the hero of the people?
A hero to some, a bully to others
While they may be feared instead of loved by some or most of their peers, the terrorizing gunslingers may still appear heroes to the people of the town. Their heroes still get the job done and the townspeople (the customers) care about the results. They do not need to collaborate with the gunslingers themselves. Consequently, the bullies remain ‘in power’ by the approval of the townspeople in the one hand, and by intimidating and belittling any potential contenders on the other hand.
Bullies grow in teams
In the software industry, where virtually all development is a team (group) effort, a bully rises just like within any other group of people. Someone tries to dominate the group and force them to do what they want. Especially in large firms where teams are fixed, it is easier for a bully to rise in power and take root because relations have time to grow and become fixed. Bullying takes coaxing and pressuring over time and must build on perceived status. Conversely, when one only needs to work together for a short period of time, it is not so easy to establish a dominant role.
Software developers typically try to establish dominance by demonstrating superior knowledge in some technical field. This could be a framework, an application, a language, a technology… It is of course also possible that bullies are truly experts in their field and do know best. Unfortunately, even if one has not really mastered a topic, one can easily fake it by making a lot of noise, spouting buzzwords and professing that the opposing party is a [insert derogatory term here]. Those without technical knowledge can often mistake decibels for competence.
Those without technical knowledge can often mistake decibels for competence.
Typically, the business has no way to know whether the bully is an expert or simply feigning mastery through excellent verbal skills. The fact that bullies are or appear to be experts and/or get the job done, causes them to place their trust in these individuals, which lies at the basis of the perceived status within the group.
The truth is that most of us have the potential to become bullies to some, so it is something to watch out for.
For example, if one is lauded often enough, as the expert or hero that saved the day, then ones ego might start acting up. One can start to assume that they are always right – which nobody ever is. After all, constant public praise is a form of political power as it is a sign of hierarchy.
This type of power can be given officially by the role that you are assigned to in an organisation. For example, Technical Lead, Bla Bla Architect. (The more adjectives the better ;-) But this ‘power’ can also be obtained unofficially by reputation alone. The latter is difficult because we aren’t always immediately aware of the reputation we have obtained. As such, if you are unaware of the political power that you wield, you may end up unintentionally bullying people.
It is my opinion that the best way to avoid bullying is simply by listening to what others have to say. At least hear them out and see if your ideas can stand up against debated arguments. Do not try to ‘win’ by force. This is not to say that if one truly does know ‘best’, you are not allowed to advocate your point. As a professional, it is your responsibility to give the customer the greatest value for their money so one should definitely speak up. But, a point should be made on sound arguments. Not on insults or decibels.
A point should be made on sound arguments. Not on insults or decibels.
A while back Alberto Brandolini identified a pattern he called the Dungeon master1. In short, a dungeon master is often the author of the original software and knows the software better than anyone else.
Now the Dungeon master is a position every one of us might find themselves in if we stay at a job long enough. It is not a position of malevolence per se, but rather a natural evolution in a certain direction, heavily influenced by circumstances.
The dark secret of the Dungeon Master is that he knows every trap in the existing legacy software because he was the one to leave the traps around. This isn’t intentional or evil. Knowledge, in the form of accidental complexity, starts accumulating in the head of the Dungeon Master, and silently grows.
The Dungeon Master becomes dangerous when they couple their ego’s to their ‘dungeon’. This will cause them to become a force that resists change and improvement. Because when you criticize the dungeon, you criticize them. Furthermore, if a Dungeon Master is granted a local hero status then the DM can become a major obstacle in the never-ending road to improvement. They will harshly attack anyone that criticizes the existing system, i.e. their dungeon, their baby. Armed with the confidence of being the only person with a true knowledge of the complex system, having a hero status, and possibly some minions, they are in a position which allows them easily to block any new ideas. Changes that must be made, bottlenecks that must be fix, software that needs to be replaced… all of these initiatives can be halted by a bully dungeon master.
While the Dungeon Master in itself is not a force of evil, the bully is. A dungeon master might become a bully. However, a bully that goes unobstructed long enough will often evolve into a dungeon master by choice because they are drawn to the power the DM yield through their unique knowledge of all the traps and pitfalls in a complex system. This makes it almost impossible to go against them.
As an employer be beware that those that appear to be heroes to you may very well be bullies to others. Beware that you are not left with a couple self-aggrandizing loudmouths, supported by some meek minions, while the competent, constructive professionals who wanted the best for the company have left you without you even noticing it.
Make sure to hear more than one side of the story and be very careful with whom you grant “special” status.
To my fellow Software engineers, I would ask, again, to let go of your ego. People will respect you so much more do. Achieving something together is so much more rewarding than forcing your will upon others.