When the golden rule goes wrong

The Philosopher Developer

July 24, 2018

One of my friends from Philadelphia1 once told me about a time he went on a trip—I think it was a bachelor party or something—with mostly guys he didn't know. Most members of the group were from the midwest or maybe the south2. At first everything was fine, but as the trip went on, he started to feel uneasy. Eventually he realized that it was making him uncomfortable how nice everyone was being to each other.

For my friend and his regular social group, normal behavior was just constantly tearing each other to pieces. They would make fun of each other, mocking just about everything anyone said or did that was remotely genuine, at every opportunity. I'm sure this sounds unpleasant to most people, but for my friend and his group it's what put everybody at ease. No one was exempt, which meant that no one was singled out.

This is why my friend wasn't comfortable in this new group of polite strangers. He was suspicious of their kindness and kept bracing for the sarcasm. He had trouble letting his guard down.

At Atlassian there is a company culture of giving "kudos", which is a material way of recognizing a coworker for going above and beyond by giving them a gift card or donating to a charity on their behalf. It's a way to reinforce positivity throughout the company, empowering employees to reward each other's hard work.

Here's my problem: I completely relate to the way my friend felt on that trip with the polite crowd. When someone gives me a compliment, my natural knee-jerk reaction is to deflect it somehow. I may consciously understand that the compliment is sincere, but I still unconsciously brace for a sucker punch. This is especially true in situations where I don't personally feel that what I did was anything noteworthy or special.

So for me, the idea of receiving a kudos actually makes me a little uncomfortable, just as my friend was uncomfortable in a group of friends being nice to each other. Those who have given me compliments over the years may have noticed this. I often respond dismissively in an attempt to be self-deprecating, e.g. "Yeah, I'm pretty much a hero."

We're all familiar with the so-called Golden Rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated.

This rule makes a ton of sense. But as a manager, and as someone with a proclivity for being cynical, it poses a problem. One of the biggest ways that I have let my team down over the past few years is by not making enough of a point to recognize great work as often as I should. This applies to giving kudos3, but it manifests in a hundred other little missed opportunities as well: from writing more blog posts about my team's wins, to praising team members publicly for good work, to simply giving someone a high five or pulling them aside to say, "Hey, great job."

On reflection, I've realized that I have unconsciously projected my own discomfort with receiving praise onto my team in an unfortunate distortion of the golden rule. Because I feel awkward with praise, I have been stingy in giving out praise to others. This has certainly not been deliberate—I have always had the intention of providing lots of positive feedback—but that hasn't made it any less true.

I call this a distortion of the golden rule because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the golden rule isn't about saddling others with your own weird hangups. It's also not "Treat others the way that would make you feel the least awkward." The rule is to treat others the way you would want to be treated.

And If I'm honest with myself, I do want to receive praise. Not to stoke my ego (though that's always nice), but because I want to grow. And growing requires for me to be challenged, and to know when I've met those challenges.

I think we all want positive feedback in some form, whether it's verbal praise, a solid performance review, or an audible clicking sound. I may feel uncomfortable with it, but I still want and even need it, for the same reasons that I want and need to be challenged. They are both part of my own personal growth.

And so for me as a manager, applying the golden rule doesn't mean avoiding anything that could make my team feel awkward4. It certainly doesn't mean withholding praise. It means challenging them, and letting them and everyone else know when they've met those challenges, whether they like it or not.

When I first interviewed for the job on Bitbucket, the GM for the Developer Tools division at the time described Atlassian to me as a company of "humble over-achievers". It is a description that has stuck with me. The team is mostly different people today, but I feel it still captures the spirit of what makes Atlassian as a whole and Bitbucket in particular special. My job is to make the over-achievers a little bit less humble.

So yeah, basically... I'm going to start giving more kudos.

  1. This may seem like an irrelevant detail, but I don't think it is. This is the town where football fans booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus. It really shouldn't be called the City of Brotherly Love. 

  2. It doesn't really matter. They just definitely weren't from Philadelphia. 

  3. I even sometimes joke with one of the other team leads on Bitbucket about giving out "Doing your job" stickers instead of kudos. We should probably stop making that joke. 

  4. And trust me, there are plenty of devs on my team who do the same thing I do and deflect compliments and downplay their own accomplishments.