Book Review- "You First; Inspire Your Team…" by Liane Davey

2020, Jan 30

My reading material throughout most of December was You First by Liane Davey, a book about dysfunctional teams and how to not be part of their problem. Davey establishes the term "Toxic Team" to model teams where "the lack of alignment and the poor dynamic are a threat to both the productivity of the organization and the engagement and well-being of individual members"; in other words, teams whose members don't get along and/or can't work together frictionlessly to the point that it harms the team. I very much appreciate the "well-being of individual members" part; Davey approaches this problem not just as an obstacle to the organisation's productivity, but to the quality of life and health of the inviduals in the team.

Davey models these toxic teams as having distinct types;

  • Crisis Junkies: a team that has to be constantly fighting fires, and otherwise isn't productive.
  • Bobble Heads: a team that never disagrees with or criticises their leaders
  • Spectators: an apathetic team wherein no-one presents alternative ideas
  • Bleeding Back: a team where trust has broken down, but members act happy in public and take out their frustrations in back-channel, private discussions.
  • Royal Rumble: a team that can't come to a consensus, wherein members commit viscious personal attacks against one another rather than having an objective debate.

The first half of the book details the model that Davey has established after years of experience business consulting, and during her PhD at University of Waterloo in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. The second half introduces positive behaviours one can use to reform a toxic team. One of the central promises of the book is that by exhibiting these positive behaviours just one person can turn a team around. This second half of the book I found to be much more interesting than the first, it's very self-reflective; Davey ernestly encourages you to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do better. It's a kind of tough love that she espouses like so:

All I can do is hold up the mirror. You have to do the rest. If you really let the words sink in, some of them may be tough to hear… But if you're willing to go there, you'll find it's liberating to understand why you are acting the way you are. If you're behaving badly, it's probably not because you want to. It's more likely that you started using a coping mechanism to survive during a particularly hectic or vulnerable time. Taking a shortcut helped you to survive, but now you're seeing the negative effects.


Amplifying Other Voices

One part of the book discusses "Amplifying Other Voices" and I felt it was very relevant to Software Engineering. Davey discusses a team in which every member was a blue-sky thinking, big ideas person except for one. This lone, process-minded pragmatist found themselves ostracised from the team and had to work hard to make their point of view heard.

Unfortunately this reminds me of how software teams tend to consist mostly of developers, with one or two attaches representing other interests; a Quality Analyst, a Product Owner, maybe a Business Analyst. I've often found that a tight-knit culture emerges around the developers with their shared interests (technical excellence, ways of working, prioritising technical debt) while non-developers may have other motivations (Timely delivery, pressure from upper management, user experience). If your team has this problem particularly badly you may catch yourself referring to people in these roles as "The business"; as in "We should see what The Business thinks of this; let's ask Dave", as if the developers weren't part of the business at all.

Davey suggests that we can solve these problems by amplifying other voices. Not that we need be guilty about the blitheness that occurs when you get a bunch of computer nerds in the same room, but that we should be aware of how a boisterous group may inadvertently drown out the minority, that our perspective isn't the only valid one and that to achieve a measure of balance we need to amplify the minority's voice before we can have a diverse discussion that appreciates every angle.

Start with a Positive Assumption

I'm a bit of a cynic. I don't trust people easily, and I'll often second-guess what another person's motivations may be. So this is the chapter that spoke to me the most. In it Davey suggests a simple principle to live by; start with a positive assumption. Anyone you have dealings with, assume that what they say is in ernest, that they're committed to their work and have no ill intentions.

Davey describes four areas of trust: connection, competence, reliability, and integrity. In this context, I'm a little confused as to what "connection" means; but Davey uses it to say that you should assume everyone you meet is "a decent human being who got up in the morning and came to work to do a good job and make a contribution". The other three are self-explanatory, but I particularly like Davey's reasoning for why we should trust one another's integrity:

If you sit across the table from someone assuming that they are going to screw you, you are actually giving them a reason to do it.

Davey suggests that we can change our behaviour by stifling the impulse to make a cynical assumption, consider the context that this person sees the topic from, get more information by asking open-ended questions, and listen for clues: try to understand the underlying emotions and beliefs that may have informed the other person's perspective, and look for any evidence they may have that contradicts your own view. This method reminds me very much of critical thinking; go out of your way to expose yourself to contradicting views, and ernestly analyse their merit. Don't trust your own assumptions, but rather accept your falibility and practice self-correction.

Since reading You First this phrase, "Start with a Positive Assumption", has been rattling around in my head. Whenever I find myself questioning someone's intentions, I remind myself to start with a positive assumption. By coincidence when I was attending the Codurance OpenSpace recently one of my colleagues initiated a round-table discussion on the topic "Assume Good Intentions", which seems to be the same concept. They described how they'd been practicing it as a mantra of sorts for years until they no longer thought of it at all, and such trust came naturally to them. I hope to reach that point one day, too.


I don't agree with Davey on everything. In particular, we differ on our view of overtime. I feel strongly that overtime should not exist in business. Where overtime is seen it is a symptom that something is wrong (Understaffing, bad deadlines, etc), and by taking part in overtime you mask the problem rather than solve it. You accept being overworked, and the struggling machine continues to maintain it's mirage of an orderly contraption. Better, I think, to let the machine break and in doing so expose the problems inherent with it.

I often find my views clash with a pervasive business culture wherein overtime is viewed as a good thing that should be praised. Several times in the book Davey espouses this view, like so:

Sometimes the inner circles forms among a group of people who work longer hours and go the extra mile. These people have learned to count on one another to get things done when it really matters. Next time a project requires extra hours, roll up your sleeves and find a way to be useful.

In this case, I would say the "inner circle" is the problem. By letting work take over their lives they're not only sacraficing their own work-life separation but, as Davey illustrates here, harming other people's quality of life by creating a growing culture of overtime.


I've certainly been on teams that would fit one or more of the book's definitions of toxic teams, and you probably have too. Perhaps the members of these teams didn't disagree as violently as the two argumentative foxes in the banner above, but nonetheless there were problems.

I've worked in teams where contentious issues were discussed in secret, where everyone is managing a list of secrets. I've worked in teams where colleagues form into cliques that oppose one another. I've worked in teams full of apathetic spectators, because management has taught them time and time again that trying to drive positive change is fruitless. Knowing how to handle problems like these effectively is surely part of the professional mastery we should all strive for. So the next time I find myself in a toxic team I'll reach for Davey's guide and put it into practice.