Monday, September 29, 2014

Confession from a bully for a tester

About three years ago, something happened that shook my life and shattered my self-image for a while, something that I've talked about only to very few people. Thanks to recent events and the realizations they have led me, I finally feel that the burden has lifted so that I can write about this. And forgive myself, others have forgiven me long before.

About three years ago, I was told I had bullied my colleagues. I got to learn this through an email to the whole organization by a personnel representative, who I think was one of the people that I had bullied. But there were also others that never identified themselves. They never came to talk to me. Not before or after the public accusation. I felt shattered. I ended up meeting a psychologist regularly, trying to understand what had happened or how I could cope with the situation. I was struggling for my mental health. 

I looked up texts about what is bullying. That it would usually be about an individual being bullied, someone bullying and others accepting quietly. But the accusation was that I had bullied several people. With all that I read, I ended up with the conclusion that this was a move in the nasty politics played in that particular organization.

I knew what I had done: I had played a part in removing the personnel representative from a multi-million project's project manager position by showing that he could not keep up with the work. That was not personal, really. It was about the success of that project under appropriate leadership and while I had played a part, the part was more about showing pieces that were missing. With this in the background, I was convinced that instead of me being a bully, I was being bullied.

I was different from everyone else - recognized for deeper skills in software development that most colleagues in that customer organization. Unlike my colleagues, I had worked with multi-contractor settings before and there were different things to learn for me than for the rest of the crowd. As I knew more to  begin with, people could use my help on various things and I felt bogged with work, there was just too many things I was needed for. So I started selecting my battles. I could not be available for everyone, and to be frank, I wasn't really interested in working with the ones furthest away in skills as I would get frustrated. I don't recall being mean to anyone. I would choose to not volunteer to help on some things, as I was busy with other stuff. I would check with my boss if I would need to be in some meetings I was invited to. And I would avoid getting into hallway discussions that would divert me from the selected goals. Prioritization, that's all - at least how I saw it until last weekend.

Last Saturday I realized that being a bully isn't about intentionally being a bully, it's about how your well-meaning actions are perceived by those being bullied. It's not only about what I do, it's also about what I choose not to do. And with that realization, I would like to apologize to people I've bullied. Bullying in my case comes from a sense of being better (I work hard on my skills) and how that manifests in my presence. I have authority and power, and I can be intimidating. I also see myself as a people person, always have, which was the reason for shaking mental health in re-seeking my identity after the incident.

Last Saturday was a turning point for what happened. On Friday evening, I tweeted about being a tester by identity not by role - which was a thought from working with agile team on whole-team ownership on testing. James Bach wanted to understand what I mean by I role - a challenge to debate / clarify as he often does and I failed to answer promptly. With the style of questioning, I also turned to ask for a friendlier way of challenging as I felt afraid with him expressing he was upset and expecting more of me. I had to take a pause for groceries and was ready to respond to the challenge with an article I was writing. All was well, I thought and went to sleep.

On Saturday morning, I saw an interesting tweet about #stop29119 James Bach had tweeted, and pressed the retweet button to share it - business as usual. I couldn't. I tried again and couldn't. So I tweeted my surprise out:
I looked around to learn James had blocked me in twitter. All of a sudden I had turned from a good person worth following to someone worth blocking. Since I blurted my surprise out with a few more tweets, I got a fair number of contacts, both public and private, with explanations of why he might do such a thing, even suggesting I could try seeing it as a compliment. For most of Saturday, I was just offended until I realized that this type of behavior was very close to the bullying incident I had been accused of: a general pattern of behavior from one person towards many people.

So with this incident that I still don't understand, I now understand this about bullying. It's about how the other person feels about your actions, not the hurtful intent in your actions. And it's about continuing those actions towards many people, regardless of the fact that many people express being hurt by those actions. Sometimes they express that in words, sometimes by shying away from actions with you. Like with James, I feel liberated with the idea that he would no longer see my tweets. While others question (and questioning is welcome), the feeling of intimidation and urgency is rare with anyone else. It's about how I feel - not equal, but underpowered; not seeking understanding, but to be proven wrong. It most likely isn't the intention.

I wasn't a bully because I wanted to be a bully. I did not know another way then on how to cope with the workload I had and the skill imbalance and other people felt, justifiably, bullied. No one, including the psychologist I was seeing, helped me then. I hope people close to me will help me see if I do that again and help me find better ways of responding, because the feelings I went through on Saturday being blocked by the community leader I respect a lot are feelings that I hope people would never again have to go through because of my actions. I can't promise I'm better, but I can promise I will actively work on it. Because software development is a team sports, and feeling matter. People matter.