We talk about psychological safety a lot in the workplace now, and for good reason – you’re more likely to do a better job, surface issues faster, and offer solutions to problems if you feel like you’ll be taken seriously and treated fairly.
In a psychologically safe environment, everyone would feel free to offer pushback when decisions at any level don’t make sense. They’d ask if this is the correct move for the strategy that has been decided on. They’d even feel safe enough to bring forward ideas to improve the product and process or possibly even surface things that could lead to new revenue streams.
In short, psychologically safe environments are probably the best way to improve not just a product, but a team and even a company. Unfortunately, in my experience, they’re also fairly rare…
In cases where you don’t have psychological safety outside of your immediate team, that team is probably going to need what I’ve come to refer to as a Designated Jerk. The Designated Jerk isn’t someone who acts like what you typically think of as being a jerk – they’re the one who stands up for the team, asks the uncomfortable questions, and gives (hopefully tactful) pushback to levels above them as well as to the side when necessary. In short, they’re someone who helps shield a team from abuse and bad management so they can have safety within the group even if they don’t have it outside.
Ideally you wouldn’t need one, but if you do, it generally takes one of a couple of forms – technical or managerial.
The technical Designated Jerk is probably going to be one of the most experienced techs on your team. They may be the tech lead (and if you’re lucky they are because that usually gives them at least a little official authority), but sometimes they’re just someone who really knows their stuff and leads by example. These folks are usually the ones that will help push back when architectural decisions handed down from above are going to cause problems.
They may also push hard for feature work to be stopped or reduced until a system is stable so on-call becomes less onerous, the cycle time between committing code and it being deployed is reduced so value can be delivered faster, or any number of other tech related issues. They’ll also probably be keeping a finger on the pulse of the team, watching for signs of burnout and pushing back on those above them when needed.
If you’re really unlucky, this person may also be fighting to keep your team from working ridiculous amounts of overtime or to break the Permanent Crunch mentality.
The managerial Designated Jerk is hopefully going to be a manager, but may also be a BA, scrum master, or similar. The reason I say it will hopefully be a manager is that they will, theoretically, have more authority to push back and get breathing room and safety for their team.
If you have a managerial Designated Jerk, they should be working with the team to surface issues that need to be addressed and to formulate arguments and alternatives in order to keep life for the team sane. With this kind of Designated Jerk, you may not necessarily need a technical Designated Jerk to go along with them, but you’re still going to need someone well versed in making technical arguments to help the managerial Designated Jerk be more effective in bringing about change.
One thing both types of Designated Jerk are going to have in common is that they will, at a bare minimum, be able to form their arguments in the form of business cases to show the people above them in the org chart how this will impact the company either short or long term. They will probably have some understanding of how to roughly calculate Return on Investment, Opportunity Cost, how reputational damage can affect sales or hiring, etc.
In cases where you have both a technical and managerial Designated Jerk who work well together, the results can be honestly amazing. Together, they can not only provide cover and psychological safety to their team, they may be able to extend that bubble to other teams that they interact with frequently.
The downside is that being a Designated Jerk can be absolutely exhausting at times – especially when the pushback they provide is ignored or steamrollered. If you end up being this person, check in with the people around you periodically to make sure you aren’t becoming jaded or burnt out yourself because of what seems like a hopeless battle.
Also check in with those around you to make sure that you aren’t transitioning from Designated Jerk to just plain being a jerk. Part of the risk of being the one who offers pushback or ends up saying “no” a lot is that it sometimes becomes part of your personality and you start to let it become part who you are rather than a tool used to improve things around you.
An old friend of mine once gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me for many years now – “You can either change where you work, or you can change where you work.”
Be passionate about making the world around you better, but don’t let it consume you. Being a Designated Jerk is only one way to accomplish this and, in a reasonable world, it’s not a tool you should have to use too often. If it needs to be used frequently, that may be a sign that it’s time for you (and your team) to take option 2 from my friend’s advice.