This is a story of how your ego as a leader can hurt your teams and create poor outcomes despite your best intentions. It offers a few ideas on how to avoid them.

(*names changed for privacy)

(**These are just my version of the events as I saw them.)

It was my first week on the project. I was taking over as Tech Lead from another colleague who was leaving. And as part of my onboarding, he was giving a quick run-down on each team member.

When it came to Sally* he said:

Watch out for her. She’s having performance issues. She’s not really engaged at work, and the client thinks she’s not competent.

“Hmm. I will judge for myself,” I thought.

Next week, I had my first one-on-one with Sally.

Me: “How are you? How are things going for you on this project?”

Her: “Fine. I love the team.”

“Hmm. I will judge for myself,” I thought.

Over our next several 1:1 meetings, the pattern repeated. I’d ask how things are going, she’d reiterate how much she was enjoying the project.

During that time, I observed a few of Sally’s work habits that irked me:

  • Waiting to have work assigned to her; not volunteering anything
  • Long lunches; frequent long breaks
  • When pair programming with a senior dev she would frequently zone out on her phone, half a step behind the other dev, who was intently doing the work
  • Some of the other devs had taken to working around her - saying things like “That task might be too complex for Sally, let her take this easier one instead”
  • When her pair programmer wasn’t there, she would make zero forward progress on work by herself. Browsing the web, updating her resume… stuff like that didn’t go unnoticed by the client

This seemed to confirm what the previous tech lead had said. But was she a lost cause?

“Hmm. I will judge for myself,” I thought.

Thinking that maybe she was looking for a different kind of challenge, I offered to pair up with her for a user group presentation. It would involve an interesting technical topic, in-depth reading, and sharing that knowledge with an audience. In short, a way to increase and show off her technical chops.

Her response? “No thanks. I think I’m good at public speaking already.”

Hmm. By now I was forming my own opinion… and it wasn’t good. It matched a lot of what others had said to me.

And all this while, in our 1:1 meetings, she continued to reiterate that she loved the team and the project.

We had worked together for 4 months now, and I was frustrated at the lack of improvement in the situation.

She was about to roll off the project in a month - at which point I’d have to write her official review. Now I have a general rule of thumb about reviews: No Surprises. As in: “Never put anything in the review that the person hasn’t already heard and had a chance to respond to.”

Knowing it was going to be bad, I decided to (finally) be up front about my frustrations in the next 1:1.

Me: “Sally, I have to be direct. You’ve told me repeatedly that you are happy on this project, but your behavior contradicts this. Here are some things I expect but have found missing, that have left me disappointed.” (Goes on to list all the things I felt she was doing wrong.)

Her: (listens silently and calmly)

Me: How do you feel about this?

Her: Yes, I have willingly withdrawn from this project. I do nothing but the bare minimum. Why do you think that is?

What followed was the most open, bare-bones 1:1 conversation I’ve ever been in.

In short: she had decided (long before I arrived) that this was a toxic, sexist workplace for her and that she’d not contribute anything of her own initiative, just follow orders until she managed to roll off - which she hoped would be ASAP.

Of course, I was surprised. “Can you explain that?”

  • On her first day, the client Product Owner said to her “Well I guess we’re not gonna get any work done now that you’re here.” - and just walked away.
  • She had joined the project in December, so most teammates were on vacation and no one had helped her onboard at all. When they returned, nothing changed because they assumed she was already onboarded.
  • In over 6 months, the previous Tech Lead hadn’t had a single 1:1 with her.
  • The client devs (all male) treated her in a sexist manner - “Let’s give her the easy tasks” - like documentation or simple fixes. That left her devastated and questioning her own ability.
  • This was her absolute first client project (she was fresh out of school) and she felt betrayed on all the promises our company had made when joining.

Looked at it from her lens, she had been mistreated, and in response had knowingly withdrawn - “leaned out” if you will.

And now that we were really talking, she also questioned some of my actions:

  • “When 2 devs work on a task, only the male dev gets appreciated in standups. We refer to it as ‘Mike’s card’ even though Mike* and I both did the work. Why is that?”
  • “You took it upon yourself to give me the speaking opportunity to prove myself. Why should I have to accept that?”
  • “When you heard those client devs talk down about me, why didn’t you stand up for me?”
  • “If you had these concerns about my performance, why didn’t you talk to me about them sooner?”

I had no answer except to apologize and empathize with her for all this. I made sure that her performance review was fair - instead of putting an asterisk against her name for the next few years, she’d get a clean slate and a chance to prove herself in another, more supportive project setting. She understood that withdrawing from doing her best work only made the perception of her worse - and led to a downward spiral.

Thinking back on this whole thing, and analyzing what I could have done better, 2 things clearly come to mind:

  1. I had an ego problem - thinking my judgment to be superior, trusting what I saw with my eyes to be The Truth.
  2. By waiting so long to have the difficult conversation with Sally, I had made the problem worse. She never got a chance to share her story, address my concerns, or change her behavior.

There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.
- Robert Evans, 2002

In retrospect, here’s what I’d do differently:

  1. As early as possible, have the crucial conversation. “These are some things I am hearing about your work. What’s your view of this?” This would:
    • make me a dispassionate observer - giving her the chance to make a fresh start and address these concerns forthright
    • Give her time to correct others’ perceptions
    • Give her time to improve her own response. In short: reverse the downward spiral.
  2. Take my own ego out of the equation. Deal with facts instead of my judgments and opinions. Because she did have a number of concrete areas to improve upon; all of which went unaddressed due to the emotional baggage of the final conversation.
  3. Addressed the fact that our 1:1s were ineffective. Her words didn’t match her behaviors. I’d have tried to dig a little harder, get past the initial answer, to find the truth.

It’s funny - as a leader, your successes don’t give you so much joy as your failures give you regret. Learning the lessons as best as possible, and ensuring I don’t repeat the mistakes, is the only thing to do.