The case for the curmudgeon

The case for the curmudgeon

Ever notice that one guy on the team always complaining about stuff? That’s a curmudgeon!
While today there are calls for more positivity in all spheres of life, I’m going to make a case for why having a curmudgeon on your team might actually be a good thing.

Firstly, a curmudgeon ends up creating a safe space for others on your team to raise concerns. If a curmudgeon’s constant complaining is tolerated, other employees may feel more comfortable sharing any concerns they have, bringing transparency and openness in communication to the workplace. Handled well, this can lend some hard evidence to support the oft-heard phrase “Bring your entire self to work” (with the unsaid second half: “without worrying about it”). Psychological safety based on research by Google was shown to be the number one factor impacting the effectiveness of a team.

Complaints also provide a valuable source of negative feedback, which can be hard to get. For problems to be fixed, they need to be found and highlighted, and I’d say no one finds problems better than a curmudgeon. Dealing with a pool full of problems is better than dealing with an empty one that you’re trying to fill.

Curmudgeons also tend to have a very high standard, which is usually what causes all the grumbling. This serves as a boost to the team and lifts the standards that everyone is aiming for.

Lastly, their complaints belay a truth they may not share openly - they really do care about the work and the workplace, and they want to make things better for everyone.

Note that

A curmudgeon may affect the team’s morale with their complaints. So, as a mitigating measure, team members should be encouraged and lauded for any improvements they make. Non-work activities (like table tennis or a team outing with no work on the agenda) can also let any built up steam cool off in a healthy way.

Beyond tech

This applies more generally too. People who have negative things to say may have a very valid reason for saying those things. Even if the things that are being said are not valid, there may be an underlying systemic flaw that causes those feelings of hurt/negativity.

A curmudgeon by any other name

The definition of curmudgeon as stated here does not include those that bully others. I think Robert Sutton did a good job identifying characteristics found in bullies. A curmudgeon’s complaints should mostly be about the state of systems or processes (red-tape) and not about individual people.

A curmudgeon differs from a cynic in that a cynic does not believe that people are up to any good. A cynic’s opposite would be a “Yes-man”. A curmudgeon, importantly, takes initiatives, and without being told, actively fixes some of the things they complain about. They’d fix everything, but they complain about so much that there’s no time to fix all of it!

Curmudgeons in the wild

A catalog; notes for myself

  • John Carmack, many such examples. Here’s another, oversteps into what may be bully territory at times.
  • Steve Yegge, whose most famous rant was this one on platforms. Yegge has so many that his blog is called “Stevey’s Blog Rants”.
  • Casey Muratori, ranting here about Visual Studio. Many other rants too.
  • Jonathan Blow, one example.
  • Note: It’s interesting that many are from a gamedev background.