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Tech Career Insights: Being a Terrible Technical Leader – The Inversion Mental Model
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Being a Terrible Technical Leader – The Inversion Mental Model

By Gys Muller

Being a solid technical leader and applying good leadership principles when it matters can be hard. There is plenty of excellent advice for being a great technical leader. However, it can still be challenging to relate to and apply this advice in the present moment. I’ve found it quite useful to look at what terrible leadership looks like to understand what I need to avoid at all costs. That’s why I set off to explore the opposite by applying the Inversion mental model:

What if your goal was to be the worst leader you can be? What techniques should you follow? This line of interrogation helps you identify and understand the behaviours and actions you should avoid in real life.

Being a Great Technical Leader The Inversion Mental Model

Through this, I’ve found 11 techniques across three categories that guarantee terrible leadership:

1. Preventing innovation
2. Disempowering teams
3. Creating toxic cultures

Here’s a talk I gave on the topic that also goes into detail on good leadership principles:

Here are the presentation slides for you to follow.

Let’s take a closer look at them:

Techniques for preventing innovation

Hire a homogenous group of individuals

An excellent method for preventing innovation is to hire people like yourself.

This will limit the creativity and diversity of thought within the team, and as a result limiting the level of innovation the team can produce.

You’ll find everyone always using the same set of tools and gravitating towards similar solutions. Here are a couple of tips to help with the challenge of finding people like yourself:

  • Only source from your own network
  • Run a biased interview process, and
  • Use non-inclusive job ads by including lines like “like playing paintball with the boys over the weekend”.

Keep developers isolated from everyone

Create as much of a divide between your developers and the rest of the business. Keep your devs and the rest of the business in separate offices. Get specialised security to keep wandering users from entering the office and chatting to any devs. Jeff Lawson, founder and CEO of Twilio, wrote that code is creative, and developers are creative problem solvers.

If you treat developers like ticket processors and don’t provide the context to understand the “why” behind the problems they are solving, you’ll create user apathy and stifle innovation.

That’s exactly what you want, so only feed them Jira tickets.

Embrace complexity

Get your teams to follow design principles such as aiming for perfection and YGNI (You Gonna Need It).

Paul Graham once wrote in an essay that you need to “live in the future, then build what is missing”. Time travel is obviously impossible and you’ll never be able to know what is missing, so instead, you should just build for every possible future requirement.

This will help slow down and prevent future innovation by ending up with products that are confusing for users, overly costly to maintain, and too inflexible and complex to improve.

Techniques for disempowering teams

Embrace decision paralysis

Find and embrace your inner sloth. When presented with a decision, spend as much time as possible not deciding what action to take, especially when your team is blocked and waiting for you to provide clarity around the next steps.

This will leave your team in a state of limbo. Measure your success by the number of pending decisions on your backlog.

Embrace bikeshedding

Spend your time on tasks that are easy and trivial. Avoid tasks that are hard and consequential.

Use the habit loop-building psychology to train your mind to always gravitate towards trivial tasks by celebrating completing easy and meaningless tasks.

Doing this will build a positive reinforcement loop for trivial tasks.

Overload yourself with work

Many managers frequently ask - how can I be an absent manager? Well, easy, use the aforementioned technique to fill up your calendar with meaningless tasks.

That way, no one will ever be able to schedule any time with you. Moreover, your team will see that you prioritise trivial tasks above helping them.

Be highly coupled and loosely aligned

Set ambitious, ambiguous goals that motivate and excite the team, while at the same time causing just the right amount of misalignment. Everyone should think they’re aiming for the same goal, but actually be working against one another.

If you find yourself using metrics for setting goals, make sure they are ill-defined without an accompanying data dictionary.

This will cause a situation where everyone on the team works extremely hard without making any progress.

Embrace the Peter principle

The Peter Principle explains the phenomenon of promoting individuals to a position they lack the skill and experience to succeed in.

Let this be your north star for guiding individuals into an environment where failure is the only option.

You can also use the inverse of the Task Relevant Maturity framework from Andy Grove to identify the type of management style you should apply for maximum effectiveness. Low-touch feedback for individuals with low task relevant maturity (TRM), and high-touch micromanagement for individuals with high TRM.

Technique for creating toxic cultures

Delayed destructive feedback loops

Feedback can be a powerful tool for preventing the growth of individuals and keeping their potential locked down.

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott describes Manipulative Insincerity as a style of communication where you neither care personally nor challenge individuals directly. This is the perfect feedback style to create a toxic culture within a team.

Adding delays in a feedback loop can act as a force multiplier. Even terribly presented feedback can be used to apply corrective actions and improve oneself. This is why it is important not to provide feedback directly after an observation.

Avoid addressing conflict

Applying all the preceding techniques should have created an environment full of tension and frustration: Individuals in the team will start fighting over trivial things such as the correct way to pronounce Svelte, and you need to ensure this conflict continues by not intervening.

Invest in expensive noise-cancelling equipment to avoid getting swept up in arguments. If you are fully remote, this is much easier. All you need to do now is snooze or leave the relevant Slack channels, or just go offline completely.

Unaddressed conflict causes a cascade event that will result in a self-fueled cyclone of pettiness and anger.

Ensure you don’t get swept up in the cyclone, otherwise, you might feel the need to get involved. If you do get involved for some reason, be sure to pick a side.

5 WTFs

The 5 WTFs is a post-incident investigation technique used to blame individuals instead of processes. If applied correctly, you’ll destroy any form of psychological safety that might be present in a team and ensure that the root cause persists and repeats.

This will create a toxic, never-ending loop that will see your employee retention rate go down and your downtime increase.

Using this technique is easy - just ask individuals involved in the incident any five emotionally driven questions in front of the whole company.

Tip: Take care not to confuse it with the 5 Whys technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda as part of Toyota’s lean manufacturing methodologies.

End note

Even though this is obviously terrible advice, many leaders will unfortunately end up implicitly applying these techniques by not being deliberate with their actions, even though they have access to a copious amount of leadership advice.

The inversion mental model can be a powerful tool to help you understand the first principles of what it takes to be the leader your team deserves.

Resources

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