I’m two feet off the ground, balancing on the handle of a socket wrench, cursing my inability to remove the wheels from my Honda Civic. I’ve decided to change my own brakes, and this simple first step has thwarted me for at least twenty minutes.

I see my auto-mechanically gifted neighbor across the street. The idiots at the dealership must have overtightened everything, I tell him.

“Did you loosen the lugnuts before you jacked it up?”

Oof. Sinking feeling of shame. Rather than accept my own ignorance and humbly ask for help, I’ve externalized the problem and made myself into a jackass. I cringe as it reminds me of seventh grade football; I told a teammate that my “lungs were too big for my ribcage” (that’s how it felt) – clearly the reason I was so out of breath during sprint drills.

Insecurity has this funny way of sneaking into benign situations and turning them sour for everyone involved. We are all subject to insecurity’s malevolent force, because we all have contexts in which we feel inferior. Left unchecked, small behaviors can accumulate to alienate friends and colleagues without us ever realizing it’s happening.

What does this have to do with developers?

Many workplaces thrive on insecurity. Harmful attitudes towards job security, rankings, salary, productivity, status, and task importance are purposefully or unwittingly nurtured. A majority of interactions become free-for-all competitions for the ever-elusive “respect” of those with power.

No environment will ever be free of these pressures, and it is our job as emotionally competent humans to combat them within ourselves. Part of that battle, however, is manipulating our own context: toxic environments eventually poison the healthiest inhabitants. The effects of this exposure are akin to radiation poisoning: tiny particles bombard your sense of security and self-esteem until you succumb. Even removing yourself from extended exposure isn’t enough to rehabilitate you; many (most?) developers carry their scars from job to job.

Here are some side effects I’ve noticed can surface over time:

  • Expressing oneself angrily (fearing your ideas aren’t valued)
  • Hesitance to admit ignorance / ask for help
  • Unwillingness to provide help or recognize others for their assistance
  • Assuming negative intent in others
  • Perceiving ambiguous stimuli as intentionally harmful
  • Striving for superiority / making others feel insecure
  • Competetive attitudes toward work
  • Showcasing one’s own accomplishments

Jobs where any portion of your colleagues act this way can prove miserable. So how can you inocculate yourself against these woes? Largely, doing the exact opposite of the above:

  • Assume positive intent (verbally, even when you can’t mentally).
  • Maintain your calm. Make sure others in your team feel listened to and valued.
  • Observe and be skeptical of your own reactions.
  • Seek alternative explanations for seemingly harmful behavior.
  • Build others up as much as possible. Brag on your colleague(s) to their peers and bosses. Brag on your own boss when deserved.
  • Be generous in your willingness to help others, even when you won’t be credited or recognized.

In the end, we are responsible for our own states of mind. Sometimes the environment can’t be fixed, though, and we aren’t yet able to set aside our egos in the face of a daily onslaught. Sometimes the mental ruts are just too deep. A change of venue may be warranted in these cases, where you will immediately begin the struggle anew with a clean slate.

I left a toxic environment exactly once, and found a simple strategy gave me closure with the decision. After resolving to leave, I also resolved that I would not do so until I felt like I wasn’t desperately running away. I set out to adjust my attitude and rid myself of any behavioral baggage I’d accumulated over the years. This was made far easier knowing the environmental pressures were no longer relevant: Who cares if someone maneuvers to take the high-visibility tasks? I’m leaving. Who cares if someone talks over me rather than listening? Who cares if people are focused on showcasing themselves to avoid the next round of layoffs? The removal of these pressures allowed me to just focus on improving my empathy, teamwork, and overall state of mind. As a result, my last day was peaceful and I left feeling empowered rather than spiteful.

As an aside, I genuinely liked the individuals at this company. Environmental pressures often bring out less than ideal behaviors in good people, including me.

Have you dealt with insecurity at work? How did you handle it?

Discussion at Hacker News and reddit