Stockholm Syndrome

July 25, 2012

A regular critique I hear of engineers who are new to projects or codebases is that they provide almost immediate negative feedback about what they see, and are in no position to do so. The feedback tends to be received as being premature, unsolicited, and out of context, and is therefore undesired. To further complicate things, the engineer typically genuinely wants to improve things, and isn’t merely interested in bitching. I’ve personally received this feedback multiple times, and frankly, I’ve had just about enough of it. Rather than meet this constructive criticism with hostility, I’d like to propose a different approach for the receivers of the feedback. I’d also like to offer a peaceful compromise.

For the rest of this article, let’s assume “engineer” is “employee”, because while this is common with engineers, it’s not unique to engineers. Consider an employee who has no context about a company’s past, but evaluates a situation at face value. I would argue that their evaluation is not only extremely useful, but also it could potentially point out problems that veterans at the company may not notice due to countless other distractions. They may even be problems that were at one time obvious, but have since been accepted as the “way things are”, or too difficult for anyone to fix. The veterans who adopt this attitude are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

The employees that are bold enough to point out problems early on in their employment aren’t going to be satisfied with the statement that “this is just the way things are”. That statement will be interpreted as a defeatist attitude, and the employee will have no use for that. It will also seriously undermine the credibility of the person who says it in the employee’s eyes — as well it should. Don’t ever say that to us. Instead, provide context as to why things are the way they are currently, and why no one has successfully changed things yet. Here’s the compromise: we’ll take a softer approach with our feedback, if the veterans will  acknowledge that it’s not okay to merely leave things the way they are. Remember what it was like to have to do whatever fucked up thing we’re critiquing back when you had to do it — maybe this time around we can help propose a better solution.

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John is a serial conversationalist who spends entirely too much time engulfed in problem domains he knows nothing about and has no earthly business trying to learn. He can occasionally be found at your local coffee shop writing algorithms and trying to think deep thoughts.