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The Devastating Price Developers Pay for Working Hard

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You’re a wonderful developer.

You come early, and you stay late. Your code is clear and well documented, you’re eager to help others, and you’re able to handle 3x the work your co-workers can handle.

You’re an amazing developer, and that’s your problem.

Your boss and your co-workers all want your best work. It’s an unspoken expectation in the workplace. No one prepares you for the horrible consequences that come with doing your job well.

The devastating price you pay for working hard

There are several unpleasant downsides that come with exceptional performance and hard work. There’s one reward in particular that acts as a demotivator that destroys job satisfaction.

You’re probably already familiar with it.

The reward for working hard and performing above expectations at your job is more work.

This is devastating to developers in the long term, and here are a few reasons why …

1. Price’s Law becomes a dysfunctional cycle
Information scientist and physicist Derek de Solla Price discovered that the square root of the number of people in any domain does 50 percent of the work. If there are ten developers on your team, 3 of them do half the work. Who are these employees? If you’re an A-player, you’re already doing far more than your co-workers.

This is devastating because it creates a vicious cycle. In many organizations, you’re rewarded with more and more work, but your salary, titles or earning power remains unchanged. When this happens, your employer steals from your future, minimizing your earning power and your ability to get a new job at an appropriate salary level with an appropriate title.

2. Mercenaries corrupt patriots
According to Gallup and Steve Rasmussen, former CEO of Nationwide, your co-workers are either Patriots or Mercenaries.

If you’re a Patriot, you’re engaged. You believe in your managers and co-workers, and they believe in you. You’re focused on taking care of your organization because you trust your co-workers to look out for you. If you’re a Mercenary, you’re focused primarily on yourself. You’re a job hopper or social climber. You’re focused on getting as much value as you can for yourself; forget the company!

The employees who are willing to let others work for them? They’re usually mercenaries, people who are willing to do the bare minimum to collect a paycheck. Left unchecked, these mercenaries kill morale in the company, causing A-players to leave or become B- and C-players.

3. Crab mentality sends A-players to the bottom of the social hierarchy
Mediocre employees don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre employees. If you’re an A-player who’s surrounded by mediocre B- and C-player employees, you’ll be punished for excellence.

What does this mean specifically?

Your co-workers will attempt to destroy the self-confidence of any employee (you) who achieves success or outperforms the rest of the group due to envy, spite, resentment, conspiracy or competitiveness. This isn’t mere speculation: the tall poppy syndrome, crab bucket mentality and tragedy of the commons are all examples of this kind of behavior in action. If you’re a great developer and you’re surrounded by mediocrity, you’ll be punished for it.

“Yeah, well, I don’t care what anyone thinks anyway!”

Here’s why you should care. No man is an island. At some point, you’re going to need help from others to do your job or complete a task. Want to find another job? You’ll need references from your manager and co-workers.

4. Mercenaries sabotage patriots
Their methods are simple. They get A-player patriots to do the work for them. Then they immediately take the credit for the A-player’s hard work. Mercenaries use a variety of strategies to accomplish this.

Machiavellianism, or interpersonal manipulation to shape alliances, is used to gain and maintain social status, regardless of their actual performance, to gain leverage against opponents or poison the well, turning managers against A-players they perceive as a threat.

Indirect aggression is characterized by bullying, slander, gossip, shaming or ostracizing others. It’s common in office settings and typically involves some reputation destruction. The thing with indirect aggression is that it’s incredibly difficult to prove and harder still to counteract unless you have a clear understanding of what it is and how it works.

Leverage. Malicious mercenaries will use anything as leverage: past mistakes, secrets shared in confidence, insecurities — anything that will get others (you) to do what they want when they want. For whatever reason, it’s important that they win and you lose.

Successful patriots use their abilities and accomplishments as leverage to counter mercenary bad behavior. But they’ll also rely on strong relationships with others as a balm for scheming behavior. Unfortunately this is the exception, not the rule.

See what I mean?

Working hard comes with a devastating price. So what’s the alternative then? Doing the bare minimum? Working to keep my head down and collect a steady paycheck?

Many employees do that already.

Doing that is worse, because it comes with its own set of miserable problems. It’s difficult to find and keep a job. The mediocre aren’t paid all that well, and they’re the first to go if your company initiates layoffs or mass firings.

How Can Developers Overperform without Punishment?

There are several strategies you can use to protect yourself from abusive, toxic or inappropriate behavior. These strategies are most helpful when they’re approached with sincerity and authenticity. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

Let’s take a look.

Strategy #1: Share your success with others

Pay attention to your co-worker’s positive contributions to a project. Was your PM thorough and helpful? Did your account manager hold a client accountable when they failed to deliver on their end of the project? Did the front-end developers on your team make things easier for you?

Write it down.

Then, express your gratitude. You can do it publicly if this person had an impact on others on your team, or you can do it privately if you’re dealing with an introvert.

Here’s why you should do this consistently.

This strategy counteracts the crab bucket mentality many people have. In some cases, it actually reverses it. Gratitude works when it’s genuine because others are allowed to share in your success.

Here’s the thing about gratitude.

Your co-workers can sense sincerity and authenticity; when you’re not sincere or authentic, you’re co-workers know it, and you amplify the crab bucket mentality I discussed earlier.

Strategy #2: Create an accomplishment portfolio

I covered this in a previous post, but I’ll share a quick recap here.

Any time you achieve anything of value, no matter how small or insignificant (to you), open your notes and write it down.

  • Did you receive a compliment from a manager in another department? Write it down.
  • Have you fixed three times as many bugs as the next developer in your company? Write it down.
  • Have you created libraries and tools for other developers at your company? Write it down.

There’s no judgment in this.

Don’t question it, don’t debate with yourself about whether your work is really that good, but don’t oversell it either. Just record the facts.

Do this regularly.

This enables you to build a list of amazing stories you can share in your cover letter, resumé and job interviews. You’ll need to record specific bits of information to ensure that it’s useful to you later.

  • Your accomplishment: what you did, why it’s significant.
  • The dates of your accomplishments: when it happened and the range of time (such as Jan 15th to Mar 31st).
  • The results of your accomplishment (such as “reduced website load times by 23 percent, increased conversions by 19 percent”).
  • Attach a dollar value to each accomplishment that’s based in reality. Don’t make something up or guess. Use real dollar amounts from your company, third-party tools, research or data to justify your claim.

Here’s why this strategy is so effective.

Recording this data makes it difficult for any of your co-workers (or managers) to steal the credit for your hard work. You need the credit for your hard work. Your accomplishment portfolio is the justification you need to win a coveted promotion, raise or bonus. Your accomplishment portfolio protects your present and your future.

Strategy #3: Say No (gently or forcefully)

There are forceful and gentle ways to say No. When your co-workers demand that you do their work for them, you can take a gentle or forceful approach. Here are some strategies you can use.

Gentle

These gentle requests are easy to swallow, but the intent is often deceptive or manipulative. This phrasing makes it easy for them to get your help and take the credit when they’re done.

Co-worker: Would you help me with these bug fixes?

You: I can help you when I’m finished with X

Co-worker: Can you show me how to do X?

You: Absolutely, here’s the training I used to figure out X.

Can you see the manipulation with these requests? They’re presented as requests, but they’re really not. If a co-worker wants to saddle you with their work, they’ll ask for “help” then decide to have you do all of it.

Forceful

These requests are commands that come with implied or unspoken consequences.

Co-worker: I need you to help me fix Y.

You: What’s going on with Y?

Co-worker: [Boss] says you need to help me fix Y.

You: [You CC boss and co-worker] Sure, I can do that. [Boss] did you want me to stop working on X to take care of Y? We may miss our deadline.

These are commands, but they’re phrased in such a way that they’re implicitly coercive. If you don’t go along with their command, there may be a negative consequence to you. As it turns out, this is the secret to countering these manipulative and coercive requests.

You ask questions or agree (tentatively) with the request, but you lay out the consequences that will come as a result of their request. These consequences could be missed deadlines, poor quality work due to inexperience, or increased cost or expense.

Hard Work Doesn’t Have to Come with a Devastating Price

If you’re a wonderful developer, you’ll be punished for your hard work. The truth of the matter is that not everyone has your best interests at heart. A large number of your co-workers would like nothing more than to see you fail — to prove once and for all that they’re better or smarter than you.

You can counteract this behavior.

If you choose to come early and you stay late, you should be rewarded. Do you go above and beyond with superior code that’s clear and well documented? You can keep your accomplishments.

You’re an amazing developer, and that’s your problem.

Your co-workers expect you to deliver high-quality work. It’s an unspoken expectation in the workplace. The good news? You’re prepared for the horrible consequences that come with doing your job well. You have the strategies and tactics you need to work with mercenary co-workers. Pay close attention to the signals from your co-workers, and you’ll find hard work really does pay off.

Andrew McDermott is the co-founder of HooktoWin and the co-author of Hook: Why Websites Fail to Make Money. He shows developers and designers how to attract and win new customers.

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