As I’ve more actively sought out leadership positions, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the concept of core values. I see them actually communicated most often at the organization level, but I believe we have them at a personal level, too. We just don’t codify them. I like documenting things (because I like understanding), and since these are things I’d like to instill in the people I mentor and lead, I figured it’d be good to write them out and start documenting and exploring, and ultimately refining them.
Life is a never-ending series of new things to learn and explore, if you let it. As a developer, this is almost an imperative. Learning gives us new perspectives and new tools, allowing us to do our best, then to do better.
Many people do what they can to avoid failure. Our society says failure is bad. That can’t be farther from the truth. Failure means you’ve pushed your limits, and that’s where the most learning comes from. Humans learn best from mistakes, and it’s when we push ourselves to the point of failure that we grow the most (#LifeLessonsFromWeightlifting).
When failure does happen, we still need to fix it, but we can’t do that if egos are in the way. Instead, we use tools such as “The 5 Whys” and “The Inifinite Hows.” These help us determine potential root causes or contributing factors, which we can address in order to fix the systemic factors of an error, so long as we’re careful to not let it reduce to blaming someone.
Criticism, even the worst kinds of it, shows us ways in which our work can improve and grow, and highlights pain points a person has (even if they can’t articulate them). It gives us new problems to solve and new paths of discovery. Strive to find the opportunities when faced with criticism, and remember that most criticism comes from a desire to see improvement.
There will be times where we’ll need or want to provide feedback to others. When we do, we should always strive to be constructive about it. When giving negative feedback, try to offer solution suggestions, or if we don’t have solution ideas (that’s okay, too), offer to help find some. Stay objective with criticism. Our pain points are others' paths of opportunity, not their personal faults. Additionally, remember to provide positive feedback. It’s at least as important to tell others what they are doing right.
Whether positive or negative, feedback should be given immediately (and yes, this means we should be frequently providing feedback to others). Delaying feedback only serves to weaken positive feedback, and cause confusion, frustration, and anxiety around negative feedback. Providing immediate feedback allows the recipient to adjust accordingly, on the fly. Consider a hot stove – if you touch a hot stove, you immediately feel the heat and the pain. It may hurt, but that immediate feedback saves you from the more severe burns that you would have obtained had that feedback been delayed. Interpersonal feedback works much the same way.
A lot of people have a habit of saying something other than what they mean. This is commonly known as indirect communication, and while it frequently comes from good intentions (not wanting to hurt feelings), it often causes more problems than it solves, because it requires guessing at true meanings. Instead, say what you mean, and when you say something, mean it. No reading between lines. No guessing games.
Note: this is not a free pass to be a jerk in the name of “directness” or “honesty.” It is possible to be a direct communicator and still have tact and show compassion.
In the vast majority of cases, it’s better to give too much information than too little. Joel Gascoigne of Buffer put it quite well: Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork. Transparency also keeps us honest, not just with others, but with ourselves.
When we’re in leadership positions, this may take some practice to balance tranparency and expectation management, but it can be done. This extra balancing reinforces that we need to be mindful of what we say and how we say it in order to get our intended meaning across (this goes hand in hand with the previous value).
What’s “right” in a given situation? Well, that depends on the situation and is informed by the rest of one’s ethics and morals. Likewise, doing what’s right may carry a certain risk with it, making it challenging. Regardless, the right thing per one’s own ethics and morals is still the right thing and is still the best thing to do. Nothing is worth compromising your values over.
Or, as the entrepreneur circles say, “own yo' shit.” In this case, “yo' shit” is not just the negative things (such as owning up to mistakes), but also positive things (such as taking credit for your achievements).
Apologize and take ownership of when you’ve actually done wrong, hurt someone, made a mistake, etc., and only when you’ve done those things. Don’t apologize for things like speaking up about something, raising red flags, protecting others, taking care of yourself, etc. Needlessly apologizing cheapens your apologies and conveys that Doing The Right Thing is somehow wrong. It’s not. You have a right to speak up and be heard. You have a right to raise concerns and offer suggestions. You have a right to take up space. You have the right to set boundaries.
Likewise, make your accomplishments and contributions known. You put in the work, you did the learning, you had the experience. You deserve to own and be recognized for that. Many people don’t like to do this for fear of being branded a braggart. It’s a legitimate concern and requires some practice to balance, but it is possible to make your contributions known and visible without being a braggart (and following the other values mentioned here goes a long way toward doing that), such as not pawning off (all of the) credit for something you did to other people and not minimizing your contribution. You’re part of the team, too. Making your contributions invisible renders you invisible and devalues your worth to the organization.
Many of us have been conditioned to believe that putting ourselves first, ever, is selfish and we avoid doing so like the plague. Stop, and stop feeling guilty for doing something for you once in a while. The problem is that we’ve created a dichotomous way of thinking that the only way to be selfish is to put oneself first and the only way to be selfless is to always put others first.
Being selfish is defined as lacking consideration for others and concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure. A selfish person is only concerned about hirself. That’s the difference. Unfortunately, we have been conditioned such that we often no longer see that difference, and as a result, we end up putting everyone before us to the point that we crash and burn.
You can’t help others if you have no means by which to help them. If you spend all of your energy on others, then you have no more energy to give. In order to help people in the long run (and ultimately, better help more people), you have to take a step back and refill your own reserves. Even the Harvard Business Review was telling us this a decade ago (two, actually, if you consider the book that article references).