Open Source

Just because Linus does, should your boss ever tell you to 'Shut the hell up'?

Developer of the Linux kernel Linus Torvalds is known for ranting at fellow coders but some of his recent outbursts have been notable for their explosiveness - and expletives.

linus-torvalds-072013.jpg

Should your boss ever tell you to "Shut the **** up" or that your work is "Complete and utter ****"? While such an outburst might prompt some employees to quit or complain to HR, not everyone agrees that respect for people's feelings should be elevated above full and frank discussion.

The question of what is healthy for relationships between colleagues and necessary to get the job done - to let your feelings out or to couch criticisms carefully - has come to the fore among developers of the Linux kernel.

The debate centres on the colourful outbursts of Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux kernel, well known for explosive rants at fellow kernel coders in which he has described other people's work as "total ****" and characterised others as "****ing morons".

In a recent discussion thread Sarah Sharp, an Intel developer, took exception at Torvalds' tone and called on him to behave in a more respectful manner.

"Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional on the mailing lists," she said.

Torvalds is insistent that his cursing is not only acceptable, but necessary.

"The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can't just say, 'Please don't do that', because people won't listen."

Diplomacy vs brutal honesty

From his perspective, it's more efficient for managers to be clear about how they feel about their colleagues' work than to tiptoe around issues and let people continue to waste time working on the wrong things.

"I definitely am not willing to string people along, either. I've had that happen too - not telling people clearly enough that I don't like their approach, they go on to re-architect something, and get really upset when I am then not willing to take their work."

Sharp maintains that being abusive adds nothing that couldn't be communicated in a more civil manner: "Tell me, politely, what I have done wrong, and I will fix it.  You don't need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE **** UP!"

"If you misjudge someone's emotional state for the day, your yelling at them is not productive."

Yet for Torvalds, excessive politeness and shying away from conflict leaves feelings to fester and can ultimately result in colleagues acting in a more destructive manner towards each other.

"I'm *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what 'acting professionally' results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways."

Aggression from co-workers

Research into animosity in the workplace has found that aggression from co-workers, whether direct or passive, leads to higher staff turnover and bad feelings towards an organisation.

But does Torvalds have a point in believing that a bit of coarse language is just part of plain speaking and necessary to get the job done? And that the alternative is underhand manoeuvring and lingering resentment between colleagues?

Or is that simply excusing bad behaviour? When you can't be sure of the effect the language you use will have on another person, is it your responsibility not to throw insults their way?

The debate about co-worker conduct in an online discussion thread throws up another question, does remote working and the rise of the virtual office make for ruder organisations?

 Are people willing to be abrasive and critical of others in a way they wouldn't be if they had to sit next to them? And is it necessary to compensate for the lack of feedback from social cues such as body language by being more direct? 

As Torvalds puts it: "On the internet, nobody can hear you being subtle".

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

62 comments
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So... Linus feels that not communicating emotions leads to "professional dishonesty" and resentment.  Yet, screaming and cursing also leads to resentment.  There has to be a middle solution that minimizes resentment.  I would venture something like this:

Linus:  I am way too flaming mad to respond at this time.

(hours/days pass)

Linus:  I really expect better quality work especially from someone who I hold in high regard.  Here is a list of issues I have and here are the reasons you made me angry.


/shrug  Anger expressed.  No outright shouting or abuse.  Rational response.

 That's what quickly comes to mind.  I'm sure there's an even better approach.

sar10538
sar10538

He is a great guy BUT all this says is that he has a complete lack of skills needed to communicate. Communication is the absolute key to efficient working relationships and when someone feels they have to be abusive to get their point over, they are really saying that they lack skills in English language. Perhaps he should attend an English language course and management training, especially in communication. This abrasive behaviour is always counter-productive as you have indicated in your article. He will loose respect of his colleagues and that will diminish his own effectiveness. It's not big and it's not clever!

willy
willy

@sar10538  I call this utter BS.  There should never be an "ad-hominem" attack, but when crap stinks, just say "it stinks".  I HATE it with a vengeance when people try to be "nice" to me.  Golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. If I make a BooBoo, yes it happens, it's ok to be made aware of that.  English language .. hah ..more nonsense.  Whatever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones .. but words can never hurt me".  I suggest people, especially in technical and business fields, grow up.  Nothing justifies ad-hominems, but being very clear and direct and not "Politically Correct" leads to better communication, not worse.

yawningdogge
yawningdogge

Linus rocks. Oh, how I wish I could tell some of my colleagues to shut the f*** up when they say things that are absolutely and insanely stupid. Not only that, their pointless and clueless objections to progress usually cause everyone else (the ones actually doing the work) many extra hours of work. I'm certain I'm not alone on this.

And since when is Linus a Kernel developer's "boss"? Does he pay kernel developers a salary? Last I checked, it was simply a mailing list of people. If you don't like how he treats you then find work on one of the thousands of other open source projects to donate time to. But be prepared to have issues there too, because your failure as a kernel developer just might be your own fault. Did it ever occur to you that Linus might be right and your ideas really are stupid?

jsargent
jsargent

I've NEVER and many bosses around the world have never had the need to resort to this behavior which is why it is unacceptable. Torvals is just trying to justify his own bad behavior. He needs to grow up. If he believes it is ok to have such behavior then he should take his own advice. I wonder if he has ever accepted such behavior himself. Anyone who resorts to this obviously cannot justify their own arguments so they resort to verbal bullying. I find it far more acceptable and justified to hear "I am the boss so do as I say" than expletives. 

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

If the boss was to sit down and think, and send me a memo/email stating what I had done wrong, how I should amend my behaviour, or what I could do to fix it, I would be a hell of a lot more scared that if he just had a rant. 


I have worked under both types on manager, and know which I had more respect for. 



Rajdeep Biswas
Rajdeep Biswas

Yes :D if you do not have spiritual power, you ought to have physical power!

Sanders Kaufman Jr.
Sanders Kaufman Jr.

There is no justification for being abusive. There are reasons that people try to use as excuses - but there are no justifications. I modern communities, that lesson is taught to kids the very first time they act out, and every time after that. It's only among the lunatic fringes (Tea Partiers, Libertarians, religious extremists, and a few other hate groups) that abuse is ever considered to be acceptable.

willy
willy

Abuse is in the mind of the receiver.  Not the so called "abuser".  Advice to you .. grow up. Words like "lunatic fringes" and "hate groups", to me, sound abusive.  To you they probably do not.  So, my friend,I will get over it.  I suggest you do too.  Namaste.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

There are very few situations when such behavior is justified. I don't think the coding field is one of those. Torvalds needs to grow up and learn some people skills. If I worked for him, we would have words about his behavior.

I had a boss once who behaved in a similar manner towards me. After a few times, I told him, politely but very firmly, that I was not going to tolerate such behavior towards me from him unless I was doing something that might harm life or limb. I am an adult and expect to be treated as such. If I make a mistake, I expect to be talked to about it, not screamed at. When he saw that I stood up to his almost-bullying tactics, he backed off and our relationship was cordial after that. I still see him occasionally and we get along fine.

Sandra Gladwish
Sandra Gladwish

no -- this would be called a jerk ... and who wants to work with jerks? I believe respect is required in the workplace -- if you can't get your message across and be effective without showing some decency then you need some serious management skills.

ParNeverhood
ParNeverhood

He sounds like he is a douche.  I won't subject myself to people like this, if he can't learn basic respect then one us is going to leave.  Unfortunately at the same time I understand the frustration with the new workplace.  In all honestly you cannot be frank with anyone anymore, even when you employ tremendous tact.  Feelings and emotion are valued greater than results, so maybe Linus will figure that out and earn how to push people without hurting their feelings.

Zorched
Zorched

Torvalds sounds like a bully wanna-be that was picked on a lot because he was a geek, and now he feels justified in lashing out because he finally has some street cred.

Grow up little man. Your attitude isn't welcome in polite society.  If you're incapable of speaking to others in such a way to effectively get your point across without resorting to blatant violent verbal abuse, then maybe you should crawl back into whatever dark CSCI lab-hole you hobbled out of.

aidemzo_adanac
aidemzo_adanac

I don't know about the US but up here it is reason to quit, and you will be excused as being laid off. (For unemployment acceptance it makes it fast and easy).  Such verbal abuse in a workplace is actually recognized here as being unreasonable physical abuse. 

If you work a good salary job, you can quite and the employer can be held responsible for your salary for 6 months or more while you find suitable employment, IF you are in a sector where any kind of specialty is concerned.

"The fact is, people need to know what my position on things are. And I can't just say, 'Please don't do that', because people won't listen."

That's the most pathetic excuse for an inability to communicate that I have ever read.

He is suggesting that, if he can't swear at and degrade an employee, the only other solution is to say "please don't do that" ?  

What a tosser!

"Sharp maintains that being abusive adds nothing that couldn't be communicated in a more civil manner: "Tell me, politely, what I have done wrong, and I will fix it.  You don't need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE **** UP!"

Exactly!  The inability to see a difference, which I feel in Torvald's case is an extreme opposite just to excuse his methods, simply illustrates someone who has no place managing a team of any size, or even being a parent, spouse or friend.  

Such people are weak, pathetic and in need of a good cuddle I think.  After all, it's not my fault that your dad used to beat you and now you don't know how to manage your unwarranted anger.

Guys like that always have to run their own company though, they wouldn't survive in anyone elses workplace.


william.ketcher
william.ketcher

if that guy says those things to me and it's OK, then is is OK for me to tell him to Kiss my a _ _?

g01d4
g01d4

It's simply a matter of style that's not suitable for everyone. That being said it's a style that requires strong support to be effective. And whether it's effective will be seen in the quality of the product.

jsargent
jsargent

@g01d4 Do you believe it is a matter of style or socially acceptable behavior to answer in that way? If we said "shut the f$%k up" to you on this forum you would declare it as unacceptable and flag it as insulting.  I understand what you say but style has to fit into socially acceptable behavior otherwise we would have to consider all forms of violence as style instead of bad behavior. This is where some people CHOOSE to consider was is acceptable and cross acceptable boundaries. Next you will tell me that if an employee doesn't like it then it is acceptable to dismiss him. Where do you want the consequences to stop?

willy
willy

@jsargent @g01d4 Sigh .. violence eh .. As I commented above .. what happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones .. but words can never hurt me".  As I said .. grow up.  And by the way, STFU is not an ad-hominem.  Maybe it's a bit "crude", but it is not violence.  Ad-hominems in the workplace, or anywhere else, are in 99.99% of the cases not justified.  "Crude" language, is a matter of style, and I personally avoid it.  However, it is also a question of where it is used.  Go work on an oil-drilling rig some time :). Namaste.

eoschlotz
eoschlotz

Being frank and being respectful are not mutually exclusive.

Brandon Sims
Brandon Sims

Do what works. Let someone else build a feel good organization. Go work for MS, I'm sure Bill Gates is a really nice guy to have around the office.

adornoe1
adornoe1

A real leader inspires, and a loser needs to yell and insult in order to try to get his way.  Linus is a loser, and not a leader, but, he is a first-class coder with intolerance of those who dare follow or admire his work.  


Arrogance is more of what Linus is about.  Their previous accomplishments leads them to believe that, they are gods in their field, therefore, they think they can get away with anything.

Rexxrally
Rexxrally

Yelling and profanity are signs of low class. Intelligence does not beget class. While intelligence may attract other intelligence to work with them, class will inspire them to stay. Nothing can be done by intelligence that does not stay, and we (the entire Linux community) lose the benefit of their intelligence when they leave.

If someone is doing something incorrectly, not up to standards or will not fit into the "big picture", then they can certainly be told in no uncertain terms without resorting to yelling and profanity. Not yelling or using profanity is not the same thing as delving into office politics, stringing people along or tiptoeing around the issues.

Yelling and profanity are barely one step above a neanderthal level of management, clubbing them over the heads and dragging them back to their caves.


eScoop
eScoop

There are 2 ways to say this...

- Torvalds is a stupid F*&^ing moron who acts like a spoiled 12 year old boy because he's a selfish b#$%ard who has has his own way at the great expense of the creativity that could have come from a frank but civil discussion. What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long? Obviously his way is getting results? Not.

- Torvalds is someone who may have significant expertise but his selfish spoiled 12 year old boy antics come at the great expense of the creativity that could have come from a frank but civil discussion. What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long? Obviously, the results his combative counterproductive methods are likely that the best most creative minds and ideas stay away from the fray and the product stagnates in last place.

Point being, there are always ways to say things that are direct but not chidish. You CAN get your point across and the discussion is enhanced by civility not intimidated into submission and silence.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"What percent of the market does Linux dominate after how long?" 

That depends.  Which market are you asking about?  Desktops, not much.  Servers, possibly a slim majority.  Embedded single-function devices, it rules.

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

And more than 90% of top 500 super computers, huge on clusters, huge on the "cloud", 2/3 web servers, 3/4 mail servers, some 70% smart phones, and the international space station. :)

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