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Dealing With "Anal Sphincters"


1. Facilitator: SaleemSiddiqui

2. Participants: KathyGettelfinger, DawnCannan, DeclanWhelan. If you attended this session and your name is not here, please add it!

3. The colloquial term for "anal sphincter" has been slightly bowdlerized in this article.

4. It's perhaps more accurate to describe people as acting like a-holes rather than being a-holes. However, to keep the language of the rest of the article simple, this distinction is ignored in writing (but should be borne in one's head!).

5. There is a wonderful book on the subject of a-holes.


An a-hole is one who is/exhibits one or more of these traits:

  • Ignorant
  • Misfit
  • Uncompromising
  • Dismissive (of other people, their opinions, etc.)
  • Know-it-all
  • Disrespect to other people's time and priorities
  • Disrespect to ground rules / process
  • Lack of desire and/or motivation for continuous improvement
  • Toxic and disruptive to the team
  • Does not give direct feedback
  • An "it's all about me!" attitude

Although most people exhibit one or more of these traits occasionally, the hall-mark of an a-hole is that s/he consistently exhibits these traits. Anyone can have a bad day; with an a-hole, pretty much every day is a bad day!

Giving feedback to a-holes

Challenge: Some of us prefer to avoid conflict.

Challenge: It can appear that to give feedback to an a-hole, one must first "match up" to some of the a-hole's behaviors. (E.g. it's difficult to give feedback to an abrasive, non-stop talker without at least finding some way to interrupt him/her.) This "matching up" may cut against some of our values.

Challenge: Cultural differences can also affect our ability to interact with a-holes. (Some participant noted the variance between Americans and Canadians; and others commented on the variation amongst different geographical regions within the United States.)

Challenge: We don't know all the constraints that the a-hole is working under. We don't know his/her "mental model".

Tip: Try to look at things through the a-hole's eyes. Perhaps this gives you a perspective that explains some of his/her behaviors.

Tip: Let the a-hole explain his/her point-of-view. This can help you understand his/her mental model. Understanding the mental model of an a-hole is critical to defusing his/her argument.

Tip: A bit of teflon coating helps! KathyGettelfinger presented a good visual analogy here. Imagine someone is slinging arrows at you. The trick is to imagine you can reach out and grab the arrow before it reaches you, casually look at it and say "hmm, this is not aimed at me!" and just dump it. Such a dispassionate approach can protect you and help "de-personalize" some of the attacks the a-hole may direct towards you.

Tip: Use metrics - carefully! Sometimes, metrics can be used to deflate the scathing, personal attacks of an a-hole. You may be able to say "I hear that you're saying that our team sucks, but over the last 3 months we have been able to establish a consistent velocity of 5 story-points per week and the defect rate has gone down by more than 50%". However, be careful when using such metrics: some a-holes are liable to take that as a personal attack to them.

Tip: Turn a diatribe into an dialog.

Tip: Try to find what the "nirvana" is for the a-hole. What his/her vision of idealism is. Then it may be possible to discover how far the reality is from nirvana and if any concrete steps can be taken to make progress.

Tip: Recognize your own limits and tolerance levels as a coach and work within them.

Tip: StevenDocList talks about asking yourself the following question when faced with seemingly inexplicable behavior: "Why would a rational, reasonable, decent human being do this?" Trying to answer this question can help you understand the a-hole's mental model. Are all people reasonable, rational, decent or compassionate? The trivial answer is 'of course not!'. However, looking beyond the trivial answer can help you as a coach deal with a-holes.

Tip: An a-hole can also be an asset. Some people are reclusive, unfriendly, almost anti-social to an extreme. However, they can perform some tasks in the narrow confines of that domain very effectively. Understand the person's limits and try to see if there is a role which fits these limits.

Observation: Some a-holes can be heroes. The stereotype of the anti-social, unfriendly, grouchy über-coder is based on several actual individuals, some of whom we may know personally!

Tip: Sometimes, you can use simple gimmicks to defuse the tension when interacting with an a-hole.

Tip: Often a-holes are not even aware that others perceive them as a-holes. Use a 360-degree review to assess each team-member. Each person assigns a small-number score (1-5, say) to all their peers on several skills (e.g. Analysis, TDD, Pairing, etc.). The results are anonymized, aggregated and shared with each recipient. To avoid number-inflation, use the 'you must use a different number for each skill' rule. That is, if I have to rank John on five skills, I must use a different number (1 through 5) for each of his skills. This means I cannot trivially mark him as a 4 on everything. I must rank John's skills in order: I may decide that pairing is John's best trait, followed by writing unit tests and that keeping the build green is his weakest point.

Tip: A variation on the 360-degree feedback is the 361-degree feedback where each team-member gets to rank their own skills in addition to receiving feedback from all their peers. This can help individuals who may think very highly of themselves to gauge how others perceive of their skills and attitude.

Unfinished subjects

The participants submitted the following at the end of the session in response to the question 'what topics would you like to cover that weren't covered?'

1. Specific tips, tricks and techniques ++
2. When do you decide / suggest / explore that an a-hole should not be on the bus?
3. When is enough? How do you end a relationship with an a-hole?
4. References of external resources around compassionate understanding
5. Tip: clinical reaction to a-hole: that's interesting!
Created by SaleemSiddiqui. Last Modification: Sunday, 21 of March, 2010 13:01:22 CET by SaleemSiddiqui.