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Kindness is Underrated (circleci.com)
45 points by venantius on May 12, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments



People always paint this on a "deceptive & kind" vs "honest & mean" axis, but I don't think those attributes have to be tied together. You can be direct without losing kindness. Saying "I don't think this is the right approach, don't go down this path anymore" is direct, but it's not mean. Not to sound like a fanboy, but since most people here are familiar with his writings, I think PG's essays are a good example of this. He'll say direct things that probably piss some people off, but it doesn't ever seem to come from anger.

Saying "are you fucking insane? Only an idiot would come up with this", like Linus would, is also direct.. but, not particularly necessary in my opinion.


A separate but related issue I've sometimes run into in team interactions like those described (particularly in github issue discussions and other asynchronous text communications) is people mistaking kindness or inquiry for passive aggressive demands or mandate.

Something like "is there a reason you chose to do it that way instead of this other way that we have done things in the past?" might be interpreted as "This is wrong. Why didn't you do it the way I did it the last time I did something similar to this!? Please throw out what you've done and re-implement it my way."

This might have something to do with the assumption that the OP mentions: that everyone is aggressive and blunt by default, and this is just a passive aggressive form of the same. If this wasn't the norm, perhaps this subtlety wouldn't go unnoticed.


One of the core problems I struggle with in human relations is, effectively, the prisoners dilemma of kindness: we are all better off if we are kind to one another. However, a "better" (and I recognize that is a fraught word) state, for me, would be you being kind to me, but me not being kind to you, especially when the stakes are high.

This leads to a situation where the sociopaths thrive by convincing the clueless that "we all must be kind" while, themselves, adopting Machiavellian ruthlessness, including publicly shaming the people who point out their hypocrisy: "How can you be against kindness! Shun the outsider!"

My working theory is that in small enough groups where, and this is key, the groups are largely self-autonomous/autarchic, the game can remain stable in the "all kind" state. From personal experience, I have seen that simply having small groups, but arranged in a power hierarchy, allows the sociopathic element to win the game by appeals to the remote, functionally indifferent master.

Can a company (or, indeed, a country) be organized this way? Can it prevent the Gervais Principle (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-o...) from winning out?

Dunno. Gonna try to find out.


Great company culture post. This is very much something I have long struggled with. I find the challenges of the fast growing company environment analogous to the communication struggles people experience online. People just don't have time to build relationships with everyone and form that trust.

I had a recent situation in which we were in a focus group and I followed the CEOs explanation of our plans for a particular feature with, "To clarify, we are going to be..." Little did I know the words "to clarify" irked and upset him as he felt undermined. I should have used the words, "To build on Jerry's point..." Needless to say, in several meetings after that he displayed aggression toward me, which then upset me and it was weeks before we sat down and cleared the air.

There is much subtlety in communication and interpretation that it can be maddening. One simple word or phrase can trigger extended bouts of unpleasantness and inefficiency. I do believe there is responsibility on both sides: In this world of ever quickening communication, one should choose their words carefully and one should not be so sensitive and take things too personally. It's my personal opinion that we have too much of a problem with the latter than the former, but then again, I'm usually the one on the other side of that situation.


All I can think about while reading this is that it's so ironic that Bezos was making this speech, given the press on some of its abhorrent working conditions. [1][2]

[1] About working in warehouses. Stories persist from 2012 to just last year and Bezos was always around. Paints a picture of draconian working environments meant to save every last penny for the end customer.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-f...

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/jean-baptiste-malet-amazon-wa...

http://gizmodo.com/5982811/life-in-an-amazon-warehouse-fear-...

[2] Can't find link, but just last week on HN there was something about working at Amazon corporate. Here is another link. Same sense of austereness and frugality (albeit of course perks shouldn't be expected), but there are also fundamental aspects of employees just not having a voice that really goes against choosing kindness in my mind.

http://www.minyanville.com/sectors/technology/articles/AMZN-...


It's difficult to give any credence to those obvious agenda bent articles rife with unsubstantiated claims.

The first author makes a stink of the fact (and mentions no less than three times) that one is fired if they are late the first week no matter the circumstance. Oh, the travesty. But then she even details the performance point system they use in which one is marked down 1.5 points for not SHOWING UP to work. And it requires 6 to fire you. You can actually just not show up 3 days to work and not get fired. Incredible. I mean really, she paraphrases a conversation she just happen to have with a woman in her late 50s about the tragedy of having to be at work at 5am the first day.

The second author's statements are full of innuendos such as "if someone talks during work hours, the rest are expected to shun them." No claim that this is written policy of course of which he could not back up. No, the only explanation being, "it's a subtle thing because they ask you to "report possible anomalies to your superiors."

The horrors of capitalism. Guess what? Working at a warehouse sucks, but after fully reading both the above articles it actually doesn't seem as bad as I thought.


This was pointed out pretty early on when I was thinking about this piece, but I don't necessarily think it makes what he says invalid, even if he doesn't practice it himself.


You can attack an idea without attacking a person. As long as people realize they are distinct from the code they write, you can be direct and brutal about code, without devolving into ad hominem. The problem is fostering a culture where people don't feel as if they are socially defined solely by the code they write.


Humility is often quite difficult to maintain when you're working with something as esoteric as code. It just feels good to know that you understand something complex. And, often with negative results, it's easy to get a rich warm feeling of pride when you see someone else make a mistake that you'd have avoided because of your deeper understanding of a system or language.

And let's face it, we all like to get together and laugh heartily at bad code. It can be pretty fun.

That's why I'm consistently impressed by engineers who provide feedback free of pride. I've been lucky enough to learn from people like this and even luckier to work for them.


Tl;dr: On the Internet, if you are subtle (and kind) with your criticism, people don't listen. The dominant style is then to be harsh and aggressive. At Circle CI we hear subtlety, so there's no need to be rude. Being nice is better than rude.

OK. To each his own. Use the style of the community you're in. The fact is that I don't take technical criticism as personal, so I really don't mind getting called out on my faults directly. It's like peeling off a band aid. Better do it fast and painfully than slow and painfully.


The problem is when one applies that to other people, it doesn't work. They don't enjoy getting treated like that, get chased off and don't come back.


Not for nothing but it's easier to be kind to your coworkers when they're not fucking up their work. Or even worse, yours. Of course in those times you have bigger problems than kindness. Or perhaps better put, empathy and kindness have many dimensions. Having a smile on your face while you make a mess for your coworker isn't actually kind.


Another thing to consider is the best way to help your coworkers not fuck up. Is being a dick and calling them an idiot going to help more than empathically working with them to fix the problems? If it were me, I'd be looking for the door rather than working with someone who yells at me.


Indeed, but if you're lucky enough to have reasonable grounds for the faith that your coworkers aren't screwing everything up then the cost of being nice is pretty low, all told.




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