Disassembling Leadership

Rudeness Blindness, The Confusion Between Competence and Effectiveness

4 minute read

“Christ people. This is just sh*t”

“Does anybody really want to dispute this?”

“Give me one reason why it was written in that idiotic way”

These remarks are from Linus Torvalds — and they are unfortunately not uncommon. These are part of an entire rant, more than 500 words long.

As it’s expected, the reply of many is:

“Linus Torvalds: still a giant asshole”

Unfortunately, there’s another big group instead defending that attitude:

“but his arguments are solid and right!”

This rudeness blindness effect is an immunity that an individual gets for something they say, triggered by having expressed a competent remark.

It’s a form of reductionist approach: everything stops mattering but the very question being answered. The better and detailed the answer, the higher is the degree the answer can be obnoxious, offputting and verbally violent.

Even more, the argument of being more efficient is added in support to that: “they aren’t offensive, they just talk without sugar coating”. Ignoring of course that efficiency has nothing to do with it: Linus remark above is highly inefficient: 500 words.

This blindness is a rotten extreme of meritocracy: a twisted idea of merit based on a single, short-term, metric. Nevermind if that individual can’t work in a team properly, nevermind if it kills the creativity and solution-finding ability of the people around, nevermind if everyone else feels bad and hates the time they spend working, nevermind if everyone productivity falls to the ground, nevermind if it keeps away many people.

The unfortunate aspect is that this is a widely accepted behaviour. Even more, it’s perceived and heralded as a sign of extreme competence: they can express themselves in such a way because they are clearly and unequivocally right.

It’s so widespread that many people won’t experience anything different for years, if not their entire professional life.

This high diffusion also means that new people will just learn to model the same behaviour: be competent, be rude, raise to the top of the ranks. How can one be inspired to do different, if there are no examples of the difference?

There’s unfortunately a reason for this. It’s partially rooted in a toxic work culture, but partially also to two main drivers:

  • Being right or wrong is in practical terms very measurable, the impact on a whole team and culture isn’t. It’s the usual short feedback loop problem: on one side you have a short-term, instant recognition. On the other, you have an intangible effect that can be measured only with long-term metrics (how many people leave the team, how bad is that person mentioned in reviews, productivity decrease, etc). The downsides are less tangible, thus become invisible.
  • It’s a highly competitive, ego driven way of working. When in the rant above Linus says “Does anybody really want to dispute this?” he’s clearly putting his ego on the line, and it’s a way to shut down everyone else… except the kind of people that are as competitive, taking up the challenge. This means that this behaviour is a self-reinforcing mechanism.

These two factors make these kinds of culture self-reinforcing in a vicious loop, and since they also start collecting more and more hyper-competitive people, they tend to build up to be hyper-competitive endeavours as well. And we won’t know exactly how many of these failed due to the rudeness blindness, because we are deeply buried under the survivorship bias. There’s hardly any data, and even when companies and projects fails, it’s really hard to pinpoint cultural toxicity elements, exactly because they aren’t measurable.

We also won’t ever know how big or successful the kernel project and Linux as a whole would have been if it wasn’t under the rudeness blindness effect. All we see is a successful project, thus our first though is “How did it became so successful?” instead of “How did it even manage to succeed despite that internal toxicity?”. The second question is far more interesting, and uncovers far more important systemic dynamics at play.

What we know instead is that the behaviour is toxic, not just for the well-being of individual, but because causes a lot of medium and long term effects to projects and businesses:

  • loss of productivity in whole teams
  • people leaving
  • reduced problem solving
  • reduced creativity
  • lower morale
  • people don’t want to join

The good thing about the rudeness blindness is that once you know about it, it’s easy to spot and you don’t have to wait for the long-term consequences. Yes, subtler situations can be more challenging, but far too many are obvious and can be addressed before… well at least before some of these people become managers.

Note: the quotes above are all real people comments. However, it’s not about each of these individuals, and to avoid issues I preferred to not add a link to the specific tweets.

Update 2016-06-18

To see another unfortunate, and more extreme, effect of this same issue, you can read this excellent article:

I sent my friend a direct message. I said, hey, don’t you remember what this guy did to me? How can you retweet him in a show of support when you saw what he did to me? My friend replied, “But he does good work.”
— V. Blue (2016) “But He does good work”