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A high performer making legitimate comments in code reviews in a harsh manner

Team reaction
Dev Processes
Internal Communication
Toxic employee
Coaching / Training / Mentorship
Collaboration

6 December, 2017

Code reviews are an extremely useful practice to ensure consistency and high-quality work. However, not all code reviews are created equal.

Problem

A few years ago, I was leading a team of around 20 engineers and we were building web applications. Code reviews were an integral part of our work. One high performer in my team made some legitimate comment in the code reviews, but in a very harsh manner that ended up harming other team members instead of helping them.

Actions taken

I decided to gather my whole team to establish guidelines for code reviews. The entire team participated and submitted examples of what they found to be particularly helpful code reviews. We created a wiki page containing examples of constructive code reviews. While doing so, we made sure to discuss as a team the intent of the practice and how it made people feel when the reviews were harsh and unconstructive. Over time and with continued guidance, the person learned to adjust their tone to provide code reviews in a more constructive manner.

Lessons learned

As a manager, when you spot behavior that is damaging to someone in the team, even if it's from a high-performing individual contributor, you need to address it carefully and quickly. You have to make them understand (directly or indirectly) that words matter. That a code review message which outlines how poor a decision or styling choices are, without a constructive suggestion of how to improve does mostly damage and that they need to be mindful of people's differences. It is up to a good leader to ensure they stay on top of the situation and orient accordingly.


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