Should IT Managers Assume Good Intentions When Developers Mess Up?

Wednesday Jun 16th 2010 by Eric Spiegel
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Software developers and other tech professionals will unavoidably make mistakes. How are these situations best handled?

“Where is Steve?”

We had a classroom full of partners excited to learn about our new software product. What we were missing was the instructor – Steve.

Unfortunately, this was not a big surprise. He had a suspect track record having been late a few times in the past. But he was REALLY late this time and the techies in the class were starting to get restless.

I had just asked one of Steve’s buddies if he knew where he was. “Sorry, I’m not his keeper,” was the edgy response. Even his friends on the team were getting a bit frustrated with Steve.

I tried to call Steve again and again. No response.

Finally, one of the other developers offered to teach the class and the crisis was averted. She wasn’t nearly as talented an instructor as Steve was, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

As Steve’s manager, I had a choice to make. Before I delve into that, let me ask: if you were Steve’s manager, what would you have done?

First ask yourself, when someone on your developer team screws up, what is your immediate thought? How much of your first reaction is driven by past performance?

And how much of it is driven by your personal past experiences? How about company culture?

It is normal to consider all those things before you form a response. But if you are really ticked off in the heat of the moment, don’t you just want to scream at the person - something like, “What were you thinking!?!?”

Or worse – “You’re fired!”

Let’s face it. People screw up -- some more than others. Screw ups could be a result of poor choices, bad planning, insufficient skills, unexpected circumstances or simply bad luck.

But should your first reaction be “I’m going to ring their neck?” or should it be “Let’s get the facts?”

For situations like these, a manager of mine taught me something valuable that I believe should be at the core of any company culture. His philosophy: always first assume good intentions.

The problem is, I have found this doesn’t come naturally to people and isn’t inherent in most company cultures. This especially goes for IT departments where the smallest problems can quickly escalate to a larger crisis with lots of finger pointing and raised voices.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the manager to take the expectations of good intentions to heart and work at making it their first reaction when a problem occurs.

But what if there is a history of problems with the person? What if they person doesn’t care how their mistakes impact the team?

In other words, what if the guy is just a jerk?

All fair points, but there are good reasons to maintain composure and always respond consistently to first manage the problem through to a resolution and then follow up with the fact gathering to find out what happened and work to prevent it from happening again.

Start off by asking if the person in question understood the assigned task. Were the instructions clear? Did they understand the priority of the assignment?

I always like to have a team member repeat what is expected of them to ensure there isn’t a miscommunication. Not everyone likes this because they at first feel like their knowledge is being questioned. And guess what – it is! But once they see everyone treated the same and that the context is positive, there usually isn’t a problem.

Another consideration is their training and experience. Did they have the skills and training necessary to accomplish the task?

Of course, a manager should know the skill sets of their team members and assign tasks to those qualified to complete them. However, in some cases there may be discrepancies on resumes (intentional or not).

Or perhaps there is a new version of software they at one time were experienced with, but now their skills are outdated. It’s best to delve a bit deeper into their current capabilities to make sure they are a fit for the job.

Most important, always ask yourself – “Is there anything else I could have done to help them be successful at their job?” Ultimately, it is your responsibility as the manager to put the best team in place who can effectively and efficiently handle their assignments. That means making sure they have the right tools to succeed.

You may be thinking: what is the benefit for the organization’s culture in taking this positive approach? Simply put, an environment will be created where the combination of positive energy, empowerment and taking risks can reap enormous long term benefits for the organization.

First, it saves an enormous amount of psychological energy potentially wasted by questioning the person’s motive, which in turn frees up this energy to go directly toward real project work. You could be thinking about how to improve the situation instead of considering all the insidious motives the person probably didn’t have.

Second, it enables the organization to develop leaders who are empowered to do the right thing and to take appropriate risks without having to worry about covering their rear end at all costs or about anyone questioning their true motives. Yes, that means more mistakes may be made, but also more likely successes and better yet, innovations.

Finally, taking a positive approach breeds positive people who like their jobs. This type of culture creates an environment where people want to come to work and are excited about their jobs. This is because as a result of the prior two points, people genuinely like their jobs and are more likely to stay for the long term, saving the organization money on recruiting and training.

Now, there is a huge difference between assuming good intentions and holding people accountable. This is where we get back to Steve.

The difference here is that Steve had a history of letting his team down. There was a clear pattern of unproductive behavior and this was the last straw. I still maintained a positive outlook as I gathered the facts, but in the end, this was a case of a true lack of accountability.

Here is the key. By treating this situation the same, it set a clear expectation to the rest of the team that good intentions will always be presumed, which will have a positive impact on everyone else’s future actions. And that can only lead to positive results for the entire organization.

ALSO SEE: Are You a Blue Collar or White Collar Developer?

AND: Are Software Developers Naturally Weird?

AND: Why Developers Get Fired

Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.

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