This is a transcript of episode 242 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel and Jeffrey trade stories about leaders who live in fear of key software developers leaving, and therefore avoid honest feedback and effective reprimands. The ironic result is that this “skilled incompetence” leads to exactly what they’re trying to avoid: the best engineers do leave because of the negative and secretive culture. The way out, of course, is the Accountability Conversation.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: High Squirrel. I was looking through your Twitter feed and I saw a tweet that I want to discuss with you.

Squirrel: Which one?

Jeffrey: You said “You’re too afraid of engineers quitting. Tell your team they’re screwing up and how it makes you feel.” Then you reference the “art of the reprimand.” I’m really curious, what was your inspiration for this and what’s the art of the reprimand?

Squirrel: Well, one client was telling me something I had heard many times from others, and it pushed me over the edge. Not because they were they were doing something terrible, but because they were considering their team’s feelings too much. They would tell me over and over again, “the team is messing up, but I don’t know enough, if I told them too harshly, they might quit. They would be annoyed. They wouldn’t like me.” They tell me lots of things that stop them from saying, “Hey, that was a screw up.” In one particular case that was the inspiration for this tweet, the engineer had taken a week to do a one day task and had gotten distracted and wandered off in all kinds of crazy directions, having just specifically heard the feedback, “you tend to do that, don’t do it again.” And I said, “This is time for a reprimand.” My client kind of curled up, just kind of melted on the screen as I was looking at him, and said, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. He might quit and I’d feel terrible about that. That wouldn’t be good.” And the thing I had him do of course was read The One Minute Manager, which is the classic text on reprimands. I told him what I always tell people, which is get the oldest edition you can, because in more current editions it’s watered down and I think it’s now called something like a redirect rather than a reprimand. The idea of the book is that you get all these things done in one minute. There’s a very nice formula for how to give a reprimand quickly and effectively, and to really clear the air about something that’s bugging you. Reading this will take you only a lunch time. It’s a very, very thin book and simple to read and go forth and implement it, which is what my client is planning to do. So that’s what inspired me. Also, I’m holding one of my Squirrel Squadron events, tech and non-tech people learning together. I was inspired by this and many other examples to hold an event on the art of the reprimand. How can we do reprimands better? Unfortunately, by the time this comes out, it’ll be in the past. But you can get a recording and sketch notes and other things from me. So if people are interested, go to and get in touch.

Jeffrey: I think we’ve talked about reprimands before and One Minute Manager before, and we have that in our book, so that might be familiar for listeners. I agree with everything you said, but the broader kind of context here implied by “you’re too afraid of engineers quitting,” in general you’re too afraid. What really struck me about it is I’ve been dealing a lot recently with how common the fear is, meaning that people won’t share the way they really feel.

Squirrel: Which ironically often leads to engineers saying, “I know something’s wrong here and it doesn’t feel right, but no one will tell me what it is, so I’m leaving.”

Jeffrey: Exactly! We induce the problem we were hoping to avoid. Even if it’s something less than people quitting, it’s sort of like “I don’t want to make that person feel bad.” But of course, people often know there’s something wrong and they also know that you’re not telling them and they feel bad about that. This is a pattern that comes out of the literature, Chris Argyris would call it model one or in other places the unilateral control model. He talks about some of the values of this model, one of which is “protect self and others unilaterally.” The unilateral part here is important because we don’t tell people, “I have this thing that I am unhappy with you about, but I want to protect your feelings, so I’m not going to tell you what that is.” If we did that, it wouldn’t work very well, would it?

Would it?

Listen to this section at 04:48

Squirrel: No.

Jeffrey: People would want to know.

Squirrel: The problem is that it leaks all over the place, and so it becomes evident that there’s something troubling people. And of course, they will tend to invent the worst possible explanation, which is usually much worse than the real one. And it will eat you up and you will have to, for example, as my client did, do the work for the engineer. And when the engineer shows up on Monday, having not done his or her task, you’ll say, “Well, it’s already done. Let’s move on to the next one” while gritting your teeth.

Jeffrey: Building resentment. I love that you added that in because what happens is you get this cycle of people being frustrated with someone else, not expressing it, and then things build up to the point that someone just can’t take it anymore and they lash out. They might say something in a meeting, they might write an email, they might just behind the scenes be commenting to their manager or if they are the manager downgrading them in their review. It just is not a good way to live.

Squirrel: Not to mention it’s not a good way to build an effective team with a great culture that is very successful at building an amazing piece of software.

Jeffrey: Exactly. I mean, if the basis of your relationship is dishonesty, that doesn’t seem like a very good relationship. You and I encounter this all the time when we’re coaching people, I’ll often ask “how’s the relationship with the boss?” And they’ll say, “Oh, it’s really good. We chat about things, we get coffee together or go out for beers or whatever.” And I say, “that sounds like a really comfortable relationship.”

Squirrel: But one not a good one.

Jeffrey: Yeah. A good one is one that’s honest and productive. It’s not about whether you like the person or not. That’s kind of separate. But often people say that they have these comfortable relationships, and that’s really what people are doing here. They’re unwilling to explore and express the discomfort, and it really fundamentally undermines the relationship. There’s this irony here which goes back to your point, which is the fear that we’ll have a bad relationship ensures that you have a bad relationship, that your fear of the engineers quitting creates an environment where your best engineers quit, because they’re not able to be effective because the whole thing is built on a certain level of dishonesty and lack of real feedback, lack of dealing with reality. This is so often the root of dysfunctions in teams, and good people don’t want to be in dysfunctional environments. Even the people who suffer through are suffering needlessly. Stop the suffering for both yourself and others. Learn how to be honest. This will require developing some skills, and we cover this in our book, like how to have the accountability conversation. So the skills are out there to be to be developed. It’s possible. Make the investment because there’s this fantastic thing on the other side which is actually expressing the things that you’re uncomfortable with, the places you’re disappointed. Being honest actually builds trust and respect between people. It has exactly the opposite result that people are afraid of. It improves the relationship, rather than damage it.

Feeling the Squeeze

Listen to this section at 08:24

Squirrel: Something that makes me particularly sad is that everything we’ve just said applies to pretty much anyone in an organization. It’s not specific to engineers, but why I started the tweet with “You’re too afraid the engineers are going to quit” is engineers are a scarce resource. There are other types of roles that are also scarce resources, high-powered sales people, star athletes, those are rare commodities. So people who run organizations or who lead teams with those rare specialists in them have a tendency to do this even more, which is actually even more destructive. It’s a sort of a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing error because they look at the situation, they say, “man, it was so hard to hire Jeffrey. I know there aren’t very many Jeffreys out there. So the fact that Jeffrey is being a jerk and not getting his work done is something maybe I’ll have to live with, because I don’t know where I’ll find another Jeffrey.” That’s a very unfortunate place to be for all the reasons we just listed, but it gets worse when you’re in this kind of hiring crunch.

Jeffrey: That’s right. You’re describing a scarcity mindset as opposed to an abundance mindset. That that kind of scarcity mindset tends to make our behavior even less effective than it would be otherwise.

Squirrel: It’s unfortunate because the fear is based on reality. It is actually true that there are very few Jeffreys out there in the world. Jeffrey, if you worked for me, I would be thanking my lucky stars and thinking, “gosh, you know, it would be hard to find another Jeffrey.” In fact, you did work with me at one point, and I had exactly that feeling. But what I didn’t do was then shield you from concerns that I had. I know you didn’t shield me from concerns that you had. You could have it the other way, too, that the employee might not share their concerns because they think about “it’s hard to find a job. There’s a recession, I’ll just keep my head down and do my work.” That’s just as damaging.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think the takeaway here is you really want to have an environment where you’re able to be honest, and the fear that you have is worth examining and learning how to develop the courage and the skills to effectively express those those frustrations that you that you have, and that’s the path towards fixing those frustrations and developing better working relationships.

Squirrel: It could also include addressing the fear. “Jeffrey, one reason I haven’t brought this to you sooner is I’m concerned that it would be hard to hire another Jeffrey, and that’s a fear that I have.” That’s a level of vulnerability that could be difficult to achieve. But if you’re able to discuss it openly, you’re going to create a much better culture and a much more honest and effective team.

Jeffrey: Exactly right. I give people exactly that coaching when we talk about it, of being transparent in that way, “as I say this, I have a lot of concerns.” As you say, it really does build trust when you share your mindset. It helps people see you as human and it helps people have empathy for your position when you share that, as opposed to just not disclosing it, withholding what you’re actually going through.

Squirrel: If you see this symptom, if you’re encountering this fear of engineers leaving, go forth and summon the courage to have the conversation. There are some skills in actually having it, which you can listen to the other episode for or read Agile Conversations. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.