(People on) Nice Teams Finish Last

One of the most common management mistakes is not providing clarity when people are wrong on important, invested efforts.

For example, say you’re an IC engineer and you want to propose moving our Critical Service from python to Go for speed improvements. When you get to architecture review, you get feedback that we can’t do that because Critical Service doesn’t need to be super fast and porting it isn’t a priority - the risk incurred is not worth the return on investment.

In short, you are wrong. Your proposal is not good. And, in good organizations, that’s ok. In fact, as you get more senior, you’ll only make bigger mistakes. The bigger the stakes, the bigger the mistakes. Your goal should be to limit big mistakes and learn from them when they do happen.

However, in that architecture review, many companies will not clearly tell you that you were wrong. Instead they’ll do one of the following:

  • Find a way for you to save face. Maybe they ask you to do more research and then later quietly deter you from pursuing the project further.
  • Soften feedback. The proposal won’t move forward, but people don’t make clear how poorly you’ve miscalculated the ROI here.
  • In the worst cases, feedback will almost sound like an apology and blame others - “I wish we could, but we just have so many features to build.”

The problem with this ambiguity is that people walk away from meetings like that not understanding they were wrong. And if there’s any ambiguity, people will decide that they were right, and the organization is messed up: “we’re just not innovative”, “our managers are bozos”, “this place is just a feature mill.”

In trying not to hurt your feelings, your team gave you enough rope to emotionally hang yourself. As a result, you not only didn’t learn something, but you also think your team is problematic. This is a recipe for a downward spiral of morale and impact. It is this same downward spiral that often, paradoxically, leads to people being both a low performer on a team while also believing everyone else is the problem.

So remember, much like many other management problems, trying to be “nice” where you should be clear is one of the worst things you can do. Make sure there’s no ambiguity when someone is wrong on a big thing. Be empathetic, be polite, but be clear.

Note: you shouldn’t tell people they’re wrong every time they make a little mistake. However, the bigger investment of time - i.e. the bigger the mistake - the more clear you need to be.