At the first day of QCon New York, I attended several talks and open-spaces that had some relation with culture, be it about improving the efficiency of developers, handling disagreement in respectful way, and creating an environment that embraces the learning experience.

For instance, one of the questions the attendees asked is how to convert low performers to high performers. As you can expect, nobody has that magic formula, but several ideas came up. Peer reviews and pair programming are the obvious example. Giving homework or assignment are others. But while discussing, the question came up what motivates people. The agreement was that being able to make a difference is a success factor here, so working on something you don’t value is obviously not helping. Somebody used the analogy of a journalist working on a story that you’re not interested in; you need to finish it, and there’s a deadline. One little side-track dealt with the insecurity some potentially talented developers suffer from. They may be afraid to ask questions to the most knowledgeable people within the organization, thereby holding them back from obtaining a deeper understanding of the code they are working on. They may try to fall back on trying to find solutions on the internet or coming up with an idea themselves, thereby completing missing the alignment with the architectural vision. So having some people around that are actively approachable is extremely important for them. In a way you can conclude that fear can seriously hamper the growth of a high potential. Which brings me to the next point.

During that same Open Space, somebody explained the situation in which the CTO likes to be challenged by professionals in that company by publicly arguing about topics. His way of working involves cheesy values such as “Fight fairly, but argue to win”. I don’t have to explain you how bad that is for the motivation of the people in that company. Even if you’re a strong communicator and feel very secure, you might attempt to talk with this guy a couple of times. But eventually you’ll just stop. Now imagine the same for the more introvert or insecure people. Healthy arguments are..well..healthy, but where do you draw the boundary?

Sonali Sridhar, who gave a talk on this same topic, explained how her no-profit organization, Recurse Center, used a set of simple social rules to stimulate healthy and respectful conversations. For instance, you’re not allowed to feign surprise when somebody asks you a question that you expect them to know already. It’s condescending and will cause people to avoid asking questions in the future. Another one is to rule out the use of the phrase “Well actually”. It is often used by people to emphasize an error in some argument that is totally irrelevant. It derails the original argument and moves the focus from the person that was speaking to the person that used that phrase. She also mentioned the “no subtle -isms” rule, which she used to reference subtle inquiries that might have an origin in sexism, racism, etc. And finally, she stated the simplest rule of all: treat people as adults. The longer I think about this, the more it makes sense to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve feigned surprise here and there…

So what do you think? Do you agree that these thinks can help build a working environment where failure as way to learn is a good thing? And what do you think about those social rules? Love to hear your thoughts by commenting below. Oh, and follow me at @ddoomen to get regular updates on my everlasting quest for better solutions.