Finding Team Dignity

Finding Team Dignity

Paul Pagel
Paul Pagel

June 30, 2014

In his recent post, Doug Bradbury claims that aiming for gender equality runs the risk of further homogenizing our culture. Instead, he suggests that we should embrace the differences in gender as an opportunity to create diversity within our teams.

Kevin Buchanan follows with a post saying that thinking in terms of individuals is superior to thinking about groups of people. By including every group of people equally, the math says there are more superior individuals.

I think both of these state good priorities:

  • We should embrace differences over teaching sameness.
  • Superior talent comes from individuals, so we want as many individuals as possible.

I want to examine what these lessons might look like in the real world, and flesh out techniques that make both of these statements possible.

Diverse approaches

The software industry has been so homogenous in its history that the approaches to teaching, communicating, managing, and working have all been specialized for the group of people who have always fit in. The original teachers passed down the lessons that resonated for them, which resonated with like-minded learners who went on to become teachers themselves. It led to a lineage of like-minded teachers, and it has worked to insulate the industry’s approach to the craft of software.

I have been guilty of this practice myself. When an apprentice doesn’t meet a deadline, I will use the “tough love” approach to motivate them to do better next time. It was an approach my mentors have used on me. I have had lots of apprentices who responded positively to this message, and used it as a hard lesson to expect more from themselves. But there are others who were discouraged and demoralized. Because they did not respond positively to this technique, they did not grow as students in the same ways.

Every teacher knows that people learn in different ways, and it is difficult to have any group of people learn the same material at the same time. The most challenging part of teaching is not understanding the material for yourself, but understanding how to present the material so that it resonates with the students.

Our approaches need to broaden with the diversity of our industry. How do we teach new material to a diverse audience? How do we inspire individuals to actualize their potential, and how can this fit within a group?

Acknowledging the differences makes us have to use diverse approaches to embrace teaching to those differences.

Team Dignity

More often than not, I’m faced with situations that need guidelines or leadership more than they need a punishment. Punishments draw boundaries to delineate what is inadvisable or bad; they don’t provide a solid understanding of what behavior is advisable or good. The “tough love” approach produces negative feelings like guilt in most everyone, but it does not produce equal and opposite feelings of motivation in everyone. I’m not really leading if I’m only drawing boundaries. I need a way to approach these situations that explains positive outcomes. So instead of creating rules that define maximum limits, let’s try thinking about limits in terms of minimums. What are the minimum thresholds we must meet to ensure that all members are able to maximize their capabilities?

To do this, we can use a type of thinking inspired by Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. She frames human rights by considering which human needs must be met in order to fulfill a person’s dignity, or innate human value. Only when that dignity is fulfilled can we expect a person to actualize their capabilities. While she uses this approach to talk about a broader and more serious set of problems, I want to know what a technology team would look like with guaranteed human dignity.

Let’s start with an example: Does unexpected overtime allow for the dignity of team members who leave?

Everyone has been in a situation in which the project depends on the team putting in extra effort to get it out the door. Employers or teammates treat leaving early like a crime against camaraderie. “Don’t you care about the team?” “Don’t you care about the project?”

We all have to sacrifice at times for work and sacrifice at times for family, but demanding unexpected overtime is reducing the dignity of the team member who has to leave. Being able to leave your work at a planned time creates sustainable pace. As a team, we must strive to create rules that protect this level of dignity. We need rules to protect the environment and create a safe and supportive place to work.

In his post, Doug writes, “A morality based only on fairness runs the severe risk of homogenizing a culture so severely that all creativity disappears.” However, we can protect against these side effects by framing our morality in terms of minimums. Minimums cannot be gamed, nor can they have a negative influence on creativity and innovation. While maximums create a blanket of standards, minimums can actively fulfill dignity and allow people the freedom they need to thrive.

When defining these minimums, I rely on the second formulation of Immanuel Kant’s Categorial Imperative, which states, “Act only according to the maxim where you can, at the same time, will that it should become universal law.”

Would I will that being expected to participate in unplanned overtime become universal behavior? No way! I wouldn’t work somewhere if I couldn’t plan my life. Even high-pressure jobs that require overtime set an expectation so that the uncertainty of required effort doesn’t become debilitating or demoralizing.

But these disparities between what’s expected and what’s right exist throughout our industry. I have to be actively searching for these gaps when I am making decisions. Diversity gaps are rarely evil behavior, but emerge from small, short-term decisions that are intended to work toward a positive end. It is by definition difficult to uncover these biases. It takes serious reflection to isolate and question them.