Questions of Dominance

Today I step cautiously into the realm of the “Alpha Geek” and of team hierarchies, power and dominance behaviors amongst programmers.

Hierarchies,  or the “Pecking Order“, are part of human social life just as they are a part of animal life.  Any social hierarchy implies that there is dominance.  Dominance is achieved through behavior. Gorillas beat their chest; chickens peck; grizzly bears stand on their hind legs.

I’ve never seen chest beating (literally) or pecking in a programming environment.  But I’ve seen plenty of people stand up to exert authority and many other forms of dominance behavior.

So there is no confusion, it is not my objective to provide a how-to guide for dominant behaviour.  This post is about recognizing dominant behavior and today we start with audience behavior at presentations.

Are You Aware?

A few years back I read an article titled “Are You Aware?” written by Robert Lucky.  Lucky has written about engineering culture for 30 years through his bi-monthly Reflections column in IEEE Spectrum Magazine.  His pieces are concise and are recommended reading.  Dozens of his articles are available through his web site.

His article “”Are You Aware?” struck a chord because it described dominance behavior that I had witnessed many times and, to be honest, I had done some times myself.

Presenter gives a talk on <blah blah blah>

Q1: “Are you aware of the work on this subject by Professor John Blutarsky at Faber College in 1962?”

Q2: “Are you aware of <obscure references to work done in unfamiliar places by unknown people>?”

Q3: “Are you aware of …”

Lucky explains that he doesn’t recall a speaker responding simply “No”.  That’s been my experience too. Instead, most speakers prevaricate in the face of these deliberately unanswerable questions.  (Prevaricate: deliberately misstate or create an incorrect impression)

So, too often the questioner has scored a “win”.  They have asserted their dominance over the speaker; the questioner feels intellectually superior; the speaker is often unbalanced; the audience has noticed.

Lucky’s injunction…

The next time you’re in an audience for a technical talk, listen to the questions critically. How many are real questions, and how many are primarily in the category of “I’m a better engineer than you”?

Try it!

Beyond Questions of Dominance

There are other dominance behaviors to look for in the audience.  There are straight put-downs like “I disagree with ….” (frankly, they are often deserved).  There are pedants who seek to undermine the speaker by picking on unimportant detail.  There are attention-grabbing walk-outs.  There are passive aggressive mutterers who take a quiet shot at the speaker — enough for a few people to hear but without the opportunity for the speaker to defend himself/herself.

For a series of stories about unsavoury audience participation in presentations read Hecklers And Twecklers At Technical Talks (especially the comments section).  For example, there is a well-known story about the physicist Richard Feynman who performed a disruptive walk-out during a presentation followed by a genuinely apologetic walk-back.

Social media have brought new ways to engage in presentation; both constructive and destructive.  Despite the corny jargon — Audience 2.0, Conference 2.0, Tweckling, back-channelling — there is great potential for this parallel communication.  However, the speaker is not usually able to participate and respond effectively and that doesn’t seem fair to me.  The new tools are still open to the downsides of internet discussion — bullying, flames, shooting the person while avoiding the message and worse.

Perhaps this is something we must accept because we cannot change it…

A fool can ask more questions in a minute than a wise person can answer in an hour.

My Favourite Presentation

There were no hecklers or dominant questions at the best presentation I have attended. There was no Powerpoint: only a projector and text on plastic.

Guy Steele, amongst many contributions to computer science, is a leader in the field of formalizing programming languages including important work on Scheme and Java. His writing is eloquent and his insights are wonderful.

Guy’s talk on “Growing a Language” was first delivered in 1998 and I believe he has reprised it several times since.  The subject is the nature of programming language design.  Should languages be large or small?  What are the right primitives?  What emerges is that he is an advocate of  languages that are “designed to grow” with the growth propelled by the users of the language.

I will not spoil the clever language device he uses except to say it becomes clear early in the presentation.

The talk is a masterful performance that communicates a valuable insight. His approach playful and witty, it is engaging, and it is thought-provoking.  Not by accident, Guy’s presentation has been influential.

Guy Steele, Growing a Language

You can also read a transcript of the talk.

A Closing Remark

Social organization is important to effective functioning of software teams.  Software teams can have both documented and hidden hierarchies; hierarchies imply dominance; and dominance can have both positive and destructive effects.  It is my experience that hierarchies and dominance exert a major influence not just on how people relate to each other but on software output, the motivation (or de-motivation) of team members, the way in which good and bad decisions are made.

Thus, I intend to write more about dominance and hierarchies. In the mean time I hope you find interest in the observation of audiences at presentations and that you can spare a few minutes to view the video of Guy’s talk.

Andrew H – Psygrammer


3 Comments on “Questions of Dominance”

  1. […] classified two posts as Advanced: Competence vs. Confidence and Questions of Dominance.  I can’t see a reason for the distinction.  Nor can I see why You can do anything, but […]

  2. […] benefit of the all- or nearly all-woman format is avoiding that chest-beating, alpha geek braggadocio some men feel strangely compelled to perform at technical gatherings. It’s a behavior that […]

  3. test says:

    Hello, just wanted to mention, I liked this post. It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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