Software Creation Mystery -

Dealing with programmers who are different and disagree

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. – Shakespeare, “Hamlet”

Generally, we are very tolerant and understanding. We appreciate to work with other people, listen and accept their ideas. Especially it is easy with people who completely agree with us. As for people who don’t… How could we appreciate people who disagree with your bright ideas, have own opposite opinion and don’t want to happily follow you? We can fight them, lure them and even force them to agree. There are many persuasion techniques, psychological tricks and political games that could make them to convert to your side. But should we always convert them? This post is devoted to the hard and ungrateful job of appreciating people who think, feel and behave differently.

There are three concepts that help me to deal with these people:

  1. Appreciate the difference
  2. Pygmalion Effect
  3. Seeing the Truth

1. Appreciate the difference (or wisdom of diverse groups).

We are uncomfortable with people who are different from us. We have inner resistance to connect to them, understand and accept their ideas.

But most of us are different. Many programmers (especially in Canada) came from different cultures, were raised in different societies and taught differently. And even within the same culture, we, individuals, have different personalities, backgrounds and views. Some programmers are quick problem-solvers who can come with practical solutions for particular problems in no time. Some are abstract thinkers who need the big picture and require concepts and system pieces to fit together. Some are creative innovators capable of producing crazy and beautiful software ideas, some are thorough down-to-earth implementers building reliable and high quality systems. We all have different ideas, concerns and approaches. But when we work together and exchange ideas, we often come up with solutions which are much better than individual suggestions.

Diverse opinions are the strength and blessing for software teams. Diverse groups have broader perspectives, more information and deeper expertise. They make much better decisions and don’t stuck with a single and only way. I feel myself empowered and lucky when I work with strong people who are different and don’t agree with everything. They make my world much more interesting, richer and they are source of most valuable learning.

One more point – if you consider people interests, try to understand them and see the world trough their eyes, many things about them will start making perfect sense, even if you don’t agree with them.

2. The Pygmalion effect (or self-fulfilling prophecy).

George Bernard Shaw wrote a famous play Pygmalion, in which Professor Henry Higgins insists that he can turn a poor flower girl into a lady. He succeeds. But a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, said to Higgins’ friend Pickering:”The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not only how she behaves, dress and speak, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

I learned this effect many years ago when I was a young and hotheaded programmer. I was a team lead for the first time and had one reporting to me programmer. I saw him as a bad programmer. Indeed, he wasn’t able to produce good code – at least in my opinion. His motivation was low and I seriously considered him as a lost case. Soon, I moved to another place and this programmer had to replace me and became responsible for the whole system. I expected disaster. Surprisingly, I received very favorable feedback about him. My substitution programmer continued development and internal users praised his intelligence, responsiveness and quality of work. I’m sure his code wasn’t great, but he was doing his job and kept people happy. I suspect they liked him much more than me. I was puzzled about this radical change until I’ve learned about The Pygmalion Effect.

The Pygmalion Effect means “you get what you expect.”  Consciously or not people will get what we think and expect from them and adjust behavior to match our expectations. If you expect the best from people, they will try to meet expectations and even go beyond, if no… oh well, see consequences.

3. Seeing the Truth (inconvenient, about yourself).

My small daughter sometimes is running into the table or other obstacles that often prevent kids from running as wild as they wish. If she feels pain, she starts to cry: “Bad table, bad table” and kicks it. I’m trying to explain – it is not a table, table doesn’t do anything to you – it is all about you, you should be careful. My words don’t help and she continues crying: “You don’t love me, Dad, and don’t see how bad this table is”.

I was laughing to myself: “she will grow, become wiser and understand that she is the cause, not the table”. But at some point, I realized: “I’ve grown up, but didn’t become wise enough”. If something goes wrong, I often don’t recognize that I’m the cause of the problem. I can find many reasons why this problem happened. Certainly, it is not me, it caused by other people, circumstances, bad luck, Microsoft, irresponsible customers (you can continue the list).

But if I even unconsciously do realize that I’m the problem, I double my effort to shift the blame and lose objective and rational view. I become powerful self white-washing machine. I am not alone. All of us have psychological defensive system inside that protects our ego and self-esteem. It works perfectly. The only problem that it prevents us from seeing the inconvenient truth and learning how to solve our problems.

The bottom line:

Appreciate the difference, expect the best from people and see the truth about yourself.

It is not easy to really listen, understand and even agree with other people. But if I don’t – I will have many nasty fights, can rely on myself only and miss many opportunities to grow and learn. My world will shrink and I will be left alone against winds, waves and problems of this world.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. – Leo Tolstoy

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Great post. I have never heard of the Pygmalion effect until today. I totally experience this with a certain co-worker.

Good read!!

Comment by Ben | August 26, 2008 3:36 pm

nice post, really an eye opener.


Comment by bayuadji | August 27, 2008 6:20 am

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