How do you handle challenging engineering leads?

I work as a PM for a B2B SaaS startup (1 YOE). I don’t have any technical training, so as this business grows, I’m taking on a lot of responsibility and learning a lot.

How do you handle challenging or toxic engineering leads? I work with a front-end lead who is bullying, confrontational, domineering, and constantly uses passive-aggressive language.

Things like repeatedly addressing me as “welcome to software development” in what seems to be an attempt to minimize me based on my expertise, coercing designers to work against the product, essentially labelling me as stupid, etc.

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Without knowing more about the circumstances, it is difficult to offer many helpful suggestions. Bullies at work are awful, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do since certain people are toxic and terrible.

If I were in your position, I would try to spend some time with them one-on-one and simply level with them. Although I don’t have a lot of experience, I would explain that working effectively with you is essential if I want to succeed in this position. So, what qualities do you seek in a PM? Even if all they do is offer unsatisfactory responses, at least you’re tackling the issue head-on.

If it didn’t work, I would try to concentrate on forming connections with the other team members. If you think someone is a jerk, there’s a good chance they’re not widely liked by the rest of the team, which could make it easier for you to get along with them.

Last but not least, I would alert your management, especially if this is bordering on bullying. This kind of activity is typically taken seriously by companies.

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Thanks for the feedback @DanCoelho, I really appreciate it!

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That’s positive feedback from @DanCoelho. Using his ego against him by pointing out that he is the star is another strategy you might attempt. Because they enjoy hearing that kind of talk so much, the technical team is unaware when it is being used to manipulate them.

Listen, I realise there is a hierarchy at work and that your skill set is far more difficult to learn and replace than mine. I’m not ignorant of it. I am working hard to catch up as quickly as possible so I can assist you and the rest of the team, but I do have certain talents that will help fill in the gaps on these projects. Could we collaborate on this?

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If you can, bring them in frequently and early. They are not production horses. Since that is their area of expertise, they will be able to develop ideas better than you can.

Learn/understand the costs associated with your requests, and support the team members’ bandwidth and road maps. Reiterate: Be aware of the costs associated with your requests, and support the team’s roadmaps and bandwidth. You may put your trust in them to know what they are talking about.

Do your utmost to gain their trust at first to ensure that you are in good standing. Not all teams will be ideal, so if the toxicity persists, the group may not be mature enough for you, and you may be best off finding elsewhere.

Despite challenging workplace circumstances, the finest product managers I’ve dealt with excelled at strategically influencing stakeholders; they had high EQ and knew how to persuade and inspire important stakeholders to advance the roadmap or goal.

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This information is insufficient to proceed.

The best solution is to speak with the eng lead one-on-one and express how their actions are making you feel. Avoid assuming what they mean and only pay attention to how you are feeling. For instance: You made me feel disrespected during our most recent meeting. or I thought my thoughts were discarded last week without justification. Don’t provide any solutions; just express your feelings.

But this is so very hard, I’ve never had the guts to do it myself.

Second-best option: Go to your manager and say the same thing.

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Hey @JaneWinfred, read posts and your replies.

We basically gauge people on these 4 points:

  1. Character
  2. Competence
  3. Commitment
  4. Connectedness

You say you guys chat offline so 1 and 4 are maybe ok. The issue may be in 2,3 for both of you.

Above is you to help with a basic mental model for your relationships.

In terms of meetings, with this type of person I tend to say things like:

  1. That’s not helpful, I’m looking for xyz feedback
  2. I’m just seeking to understand here, how/what/why ….
  3. Help me understand …

I will also try to use frameworks and stuff that are anchored in the profession so it doesn’t seem like just my opinion.

For example, insisting on confirmation of definition of done and acceptance criteria. And if that prompts negative feedback, saying things like “so I’m hearing (playback the comment), how can we (make more clear, reduce ambiguity, reduce complexity, be more specific)?

This madlibs approach is challenging but it sets precedent that you will stick to the script to get what you need, not just be bluffed or bullied or torn down.

Motivations on his side can be unclear so don’t assume. He may be fearful or overwhelmed or unsure etc. but you have to work together for shared success.

If you want to do some reading, look at The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni) and Ken Blanchard’s ABCD Trust Model.

This is not a one-off, you’ll see more of this in your career so trying to learn and grow on this front is going to pay dividends as you go.

Good luck!

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Sounds rude, but pay attention. “Welcome to software development” could be a way of showing lack of respect or acknowledgement.

I would schedule a meeting and let them vent all of their frustrations if you want to make things work. Then acknowledge that you heard them, choose one error that is simple to fix, and do so. Then inform them that it has been improved when you return.

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Yes, the comment made me uncomfortable as well. It’s also possible that the OP is unaware of things like how challenging it is to predict software release dates and how frequent errors are, etc. Although EM still comes out as rude, their irritation may be justified.

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I absolutely get this. Even so, I’m taking two days off just to unwind mentally. Because I am aware that my company won’t take this seriously, my situation is dismal. Engineers clearly have a higher value than project managers. I’ve been doing very well by attentively following the advice and coping mechanisms given here because I genuinely enjoy the work I do and want to be successful.

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Comments like these make me wonder if PMs are respected? It’s like you have to take it or something…

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Good PMs aren’t just respected, they’re put on a pedestal and lauded.

Most PMs provide little more value than a project manager while taking up a ton more of people’s time and having more implicit authority, resulting in pretty predictable resentment.

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Go deeper and learn more. Given what you have said thus far, the following examples could all be accurate, but they would all require entirely different approaches to solving the problems:

  1. Due to the COVID that affects half of their family, the EM is currently under stress in their personal life. As a result, they are irritable and attempt to avoid as much work as they can.

  2. You and other PMs before you have continually pushed for time-intensive features that add little value, forcing them to spend their time fighting against plainly poor choices rather than working on useful new products.

  3. The EM tries to show that only they alone are capable of doing the job effectively because they feel intimidated by the arrival of someone fresh who might usurp their authority.

  4. There is a lot of technical debt because of prior pressure from management or PMs, which makes generating new features nearly impossible. However, instead of assisting in devoting the next six months to reducing the tech debt, the PM continues to push for even more new features and more tech debt.

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Well, are you making statements about things you know nothing about? I’m a very technical PM, but I still start most sentences on technical topics with, “I’m not sure this is possible, but could we…” or just outright ask how feasible something is or if my suggestion makes sense. Trying to speak authoritatively about subjects you’re not the expert in makes you an easy target for these people.

Additionally, “welcome to software development” is NOT bullying. It is acknowledging that you are a fish out of water still learning at worst, and has nothing to do with you at best. My coworkers say stuff like this all the time when we encounter tricky problems. You should take your ego out of these conversations - especially since you say you two usually get along - and think about whether these comments are actually directed at you, or just general sarcasm.

If there is a problem there, it doesn’t sound like this lead trusts you to come up with reasonable proposals that make best use of the team’s time and that are well-justified. Start by working on rebuilding that trust, probably by supporting your positions with data (qualitative or quantitative) and staying in your lane when it comes to the topics you don’t know. If you’re asking about what seems like an overestimate, ask questions to learn, not to challenge.

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This. Collaboration with “difficult personalities” calls for a great deal of empathy and humbleness. Developers enjoy stoking people’s natural curiosity as long as it’s sincere and doesn’t try to dictate their field of expertise.

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Each situation is unique, but if you’re in this position you must operate from the viewpoint that a significant portion of your duties is ensuring whatever department you’re working with is acting as a team and call out conduct (at first 1:1, and if that doesn’t work, to a wider audience). I’ve discovered that stating something like, “Well, sure; we’re developing software, and it’s not simple, but how can I help you and the team through this issue?” works. This doesn’t have to be done in a hostile manner (at first). Having said that, you occasionally need to push back. Although they weren’t bad individuals, the Dev Managers with whom I had yelling contests occasionally exhibited less than desirable behavior. In those situations, I’ve called out the poisonous conduct and put the person in question on the spot. I’ve asked them how it promotes a pleasant working environment, increased productivity, team cohesion, etc. In one instance, a really awkward conversation resulted in a fantastic working relationship that persisted until I left the team. TLDR - I firmly believe that the PM job is one of servant-leadership, and it often pays to use the first aspect to make the second possible.