Managing Workplace Crusaders

Reference calls Everyone has met a workplace crusader at some point in their career

Tech startups attract passionate people. Large companies pay well and offer a great lifestyle, so the type of personality that wants to work at a startup is often especially ambitious or driven. This can be great, but can also present a number of management challenges. One of the most difficult traits to correctly harness at a growing company is a personality type that is compelled by perfectionism, often driven by a higher sense of righteousness.

I like to call these folks crusaders, as they’re driven by an almost religious passion to snuff out any problem that they see. A crusader is willing to die on any hill. No issue is too small – they attack problems like “the login page doesn’t work 10% of the time” and “Billy keeps writing user stories sloppily” with the same zeal.

This is a bad way to operate because it’s both tiring and (in most cases) unnecessary. Everything can’t be an emergency all the time. If you want to build a startup for the long haul you need to pick the right hills to die on, as you can only fight to the death so many times before you run out of energy.

Working on a team with this sort of person can be especially challenging as the line between an unproductive crusader and a truly high performer can be thin. People who constantly point out problems and find productive ways to fix them are worth their weight in gold at a startup, as there are so many opportunities for them to make a difference. They combine a nose for improvement with proactivity in identifying ways to help. This is exactly what you want to promote.

What to do

The crusader mentality can be a tough trait to manage through, ironically because it’s so useful in small doses. Organizations function best when people with this personality type are reined in slightly, but certainly not muzzled.

The best way that I’ve found to manage this tendency is to force people (or potentially yourself) to step back and brutally prioritize. If you could snap your fingers and solve one problem right now, which would it be? What 3 things could you do today that would actually help your business the most? Most problems are not existential. And sometimes, there’s actually a mismatch and what looks minor to one person is correctly diagnosed as critical by someone else.

Crusaders can exhaust their teams, and they can aggravate others who don’t share their idealism or perfectionism. You should also ask crusader types (or yourself) to let things go from time to time. After a few cases of letting minor issues go, it becomes easier to realize that:

  • Many problems naturally resolve themselves with time
  • Many other problems are not existential
  • If you leave these low severity or self-resolvable problems, you and your team have more energy to tackle the challenges that really matter. This can be surprisingly hard to do for people who are very invested in their work, but when done right it can add much-needed balance.

Crusader to Complainer

One other factor to be aware of – some people with a crusader mentality are often simply too good (or eager) at spotting imperfections. Over time, as they watch problems that they’ve flagged go unsolved (some issues just take a long time to resolve), they can become increasingly frustrated. If left unchecked they can transition into a more harmful place by becoming complainers.

Simply put, if you are at a startup and actively looking for problems to complain about, you will find them. Negativity is contagious, and negativity that comes with a dose of despair (“nothing will ever get better; we’ll always have to deal with this problem; this is [other person]’s fault”) is worse still.

Complainers can add a lot of toxicity to a team, and crusading is a gateway behavior. Watch out for it.

Takeaways

A crusader mentality that wants to attack every problem with equal fervor can be exhausting and counterproductive. But when reined in or harnessed well, it’s one of the more powerful attitudes for getting things done. To get to a happy medium, force prioritization and try out letting some of the little things go.