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High standards vs toxic environment

Canadians who have been watching the news in recent months learnt that there are allegations that our Governor General (the official Canadian representative of the Queen) has created a toxic climate for her office. While the allegations are still being reviewed, some of her staff defended her saying that the Governor General merely has high standards. I can definitely see that she has a very high standard for herself — after all she’s an astronaut with an engineering degree and speaks six languages….

“Vincent sets incredibly high standards for himself and ambitious goals for the team. “

As some of you know, I received a medal from the Governor General for my academic achievement in 2006. Granted it was a different Governor General then, but the news about our Governor General got me thinking — what constitutes high standards, and what are the things managers need to watch out for to avoid creating a toxic environment?

High standards

First, perhaps we should look at what having high standards in the software industry means.

Setting high standards starts with the manager. According to Andy Grove’s High Output Management, three of the most important activities a manager can do that affect productivity are:

  1. Identifying the limiting step that slows people down
  2. Identifying and addressing issues at the “lowest value stage” (i.e. not after the new feature has already been released) possible
  3. Using leading indicators to measure and predict

Part of having high standards means everyone in the organization participates in these three activities, not just the managers.

Now that we have some ideas what upholding high standards might mean, how then to avoid accidentally generating a toxic culture in the process?

Tolerance for Failure but No Tolerance for Incompetence

HBR published an excellent article on how to nurture innovative cultures. The article describes the need to distinguish between failures and incompetence. There are two kinds of failures — failures that are productive because they generate learnings and the learnings can be applied in the future, and there are failures that are not productive. Failures that are productive should be celebrated, but failures resulting from “poorly thought-out designs, flawed analyses… and bad management” perhaps point to incompetence.

What gets really tricky, as the author of the article also admits, is that the causes of failures are not always clear. Did the project go sideways because a bad decision was made and the design was flawed? Was it due to incompetence or was it because it was a mistake?

I think the key to avoid inadvertently creating a toxic environment is how managers react when failures happen. Managers and team members all should feel “psychologically safe” to candidly discuss what happened. Of course, how to create psychological safety is a big topic, and it takes time to foster such an environment. Managers are typically in the position of evaluating the output and the performance, and how feedback is delivered is crucial.

DEAR method

We learned from CBC that the Governor General has allegedly called other people’s work “sh*t”. Managers wanting to maintain a high standard without creating a toxic environment should probably avoid doing that. I personally prefer applying the DEAR method I learned instead:

  • Describe what was seen or heard
  • Explain the impact on the team or the mission
  • Ask for the perspective from the other side
  • Request a different behavior in the future

What is your experience? What are your ways in creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone holds each other to high standards?

Originally published at September 2020

I'm an engineering leader in a SAS company with more than 15 years of software industry experience.

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