Notes on enginering leadership and software development.

The Us vs Them Trap

I loved the chapter in Sarah Dresner's Engineering Management for the Rest of Us about the “Us vs Them” trap. I kept thinking about it, and it comes up in conversations with my engineers and peers a lot.

Here's the TLDR:

“Us vs Them” is the easiest lie people will tell themselves and everyone around them to rally a group against another group, based on arbitrary boundaries, instead of actually taking responsibility (for a situation) and having a difficult discussion about a problem.

In a workplace, it's common to refer to other teams or company leadership as "they". Sometimes that's fine. Sometimes, if you're a manager, that's toxic and stupid, and sometimes that's just a disenchanted member of a team who does not have context and clarity on a situation. Most of the time it's middle managers who fucked up.

It's middle managers' job to manage context and bring extreme clarity to contributors (why did we make certain decisions? why do we follow certain strategy?) and leadership (so that they can make good decisions, and so that the teams can actually provide input into those decisions).

Manager of managers run the business. They have the right visibility, knowing what happens in different teams, and they must pass the right context and clarity around.

As any lie, "us vs them" is intoxicating and addictive

Short-term, the first time you use this trick, "they decided that we don't get a backfill" may make the team feel that you're on their side, but leadership cut the headcount. But they will realize that it's your job to make the case for headcount, and you failed them.

Or maybe the additional headcount is indeed not needed, and then you failed to explain to them why that is the case and the decision is the right one, for the company and for them.

Either way, being honest and taking responsibility would would make the picture clear for people, and that's better than numb confusion.

Reflect on how you channel information to your team. If you realize you're saying "they did xyz" a lot, is it because you didn't realize what's going on, and that was intuitive? (bad). Or are you knowingly dodging responsibility?

You're the intersection

In a Venn diagram of your team and the leadership team, you represent your team to leadership. And you represent leadership to your team. You (hopefully) wouldn't say "they didn't ship" about your own team in a meeting with your peers — obviously, you're part of that team.

To your team, you represent the leadership crew. You're in the room with them when they make decisions. If you dodge responsibility for a decision you don't like, is it because you could not navigate your way around a discussion with other managers? Or did you agree with a decision? Or was it made without you?

Have some integrity. Get your team to follow through on what's right for the company. Quit if you realize that your leadership is toxic and you can't align with them.

If you find your leadership making decisions that make you blush with embarrassment when you explain them to your team — it can be tough to figure out if the leadership is a toxic mess, or if you lack the knowledge, context, and experience to understand why the decisions are actually the right ones. That's pretty much what mentors are for.

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Originally published on Dec 30th 2023.