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Background: I work in a company that has a bad culture: everybody has been treated the same: The same salary, no rewards for high achievers, and no punishment for bad employees, including people who have a part-time job during work hours while not doing anything. The company pays on the lower end and requires a lot of knowledge of niche market and custom IT systems and business rules. The two people, who got fired, were only fired after one year of constant warnings for not doing anything and watching porn multiple times.

My team is working on a new system and two new employees got onboard with high productivity. We are on 70% of the project completed after almost three years working on it, but other people got promoted in other teams, based on relationships while not achieving anything. My team have not had a salary correction in two years and is solving a big problem for the company, and we are still below the market average

Problem: the team got demotivated and contaminated with the culture, while before they wanted to change the company, but now they are becoming slackers. Management is increasing the complexity of the project (never-ending scope creep and unrealistic expectations). I am putting more resources such as external freelancers, but the more I put the more they slow down.

Note: the resources are not redundant, but they focus on different areas such as QA automation and DevOps that speed up development. They know I am trying to do my best to finish the project, and I try all my best to give them the option of being self-managed and make decisions, but for some reason, they are responding negatively because they know the company is willing to pay external people and not pay them better or improve them.

My current problems are:

  • team members are lying to me
  • team members are leaving work unfinished for me to correct
  • team members are acting like they are doing a favor to me and I'm not the real boss but my boss
  • team members are pushing more and more to take more time to do the same thing. An example: last year was two days, but now they are pushing for one week
  • team members are decreasing the quality of work

I talked to my boss about this and he said we can't say too much or punish because we "depend on them" to maintain an old system and the current system. The new system is being done in a similar way to the old system (very complicated without documentation), so the developers can build job security.

This was something that was discussed at the beginning of the project that needed to change including employee rewards, but the culture doesn't change and it's repeating the same errors as before. Including the same developers on my team who saw the old team doing this, and now they want to become like the old team and repeat the same pattern, so they might be getting a shitty salary, but will be able to build a business on the side and maybe retire sooner.

Any suggestions on how to change this behavior? I know that if the project is completed successfully I might have some more power to talk to the CEO to let him know what is going on.

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    If things are as you say, you would need a pretty systemic overhaul to start shifting the culture. The behavior is a result of ingrained cultures that need deliberate attention from top leadership as well as significant time to change. – Daniel Dec 16 '19 at 2:02
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    From the way you've described it, the team is working exactly as the company wants them to. You're the anomaly. If you want to complete your project then move the permies off it and the consultants onto it. Oh, and replace your consultants while you're at it. Although, I would question whether your company even wants the project to ever be finished...you know the "80:20 'rule'"? Well your team took 3 years to not quite reach 80%. That last 30% is going to take more than another 3 years. At which point the project will probably need to be scrapped, rescoped, and restarted. Look for a new job! – Aaron F Dec 16 '19 at 13:46
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    More people slows things down at a certain point, because work hours have to be spent training and coordinating them. – Mark Rogers Dec 16 '19 at 14:12
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    “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” — The Mythical Man-Month – Witiko Dec 16 '19 at 16:38
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    So if your team slacked off completely, nothing would get shipped. But in the opposite situation, if they started working the hardest anyone has ever worked, the goalposts would move and nothing would get shipped. Maybe your CEO needs to appreciate what the Greek gods did to Sisyphus was meant to be an ironic punishment, not a guide to good project management. – Nathan Cooper Dec 17 '19 at 12:06
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TL;DR:

The main problem is the toxic culture of the company. You can't improve the team's behavior without addressing the toxicity of the environment. You need the company's leaders' full support on this. You can present them facts and solutions, but if they don't care (and from your question it is obvious they don't) and don't fully support you, then you will be fighting a losing battle.

Full answer:

Let's say you are in school. You pay attention in class, do your homework every time, you are a hard learner, you never cheat on exams, etc. You are a good student basically. Some of your classmates are the same as you (good students). Some others students don't really try that hard (they might miss some homework, might get a bad grade at some exam, might daydream from time to time) but they manage decently. And some of your colleagues don't give a damn (they don't learn, never do their homework, they never pay attention in class, and they cheat on all exams). Like many things in life, you get a normal distribution with many students falling in the middle, with extremes to the left (very good students) and to the right (very bad students).

Now a new school year starts and you get a new Math teacher. This Math teacher doesn't care about what happens in their class. They don't care if you pay attention, if you do your homework, or if you learn anything. When exams come, they look the other way when they see people cheating. Then everybody ends up getting pretty much the same grades (you studied hard and got an A, other cheated and got an A+).

Any suggestions on how to change this behavior?

I'll respond to this with a question of my own:

Whose behavior?

Are you going to try to convince your fellow students to stop cheating and be fair and start learning instead? Are you going to convince your teacher to do something about the situation? What would be your approach? What chances do you think you have with either of these approaches?

When a situation like this exists and nobody is doing anything to make right of all the wrongs, everyone eventually figures out that it's best to stop learning and start cheating instead. If you can't beat them, join them, right?

This is exactly what happens with your situation. Good people figure out that nothing is done about those who "cheat the system", so they join them (if they don't leave in disgust first).

You very well put it in your title of the question: this is a toxic culture. You can't fix an entire company's toxic culture by yourself. Whoever is running your company is incompetent, and you don't really have an influence on them since you are their employee not their boss. You can explain to them with facts why things are bad and how they can be fixed. But if they don't care (and from your question is obvious they don't), then I suggest you find another job and let them go down the toilet, project, company and all. Figure out how much effort you are willing to put into this situation before giving up, or cut your losses and go find a company without a toxic culture.

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The team members understand perfectly how the company "works" and have no reason to change their behaviour. Why would they want to work harder for no reward just because you tell them? If the project is has delivered nothing but mission creep in 3 years, its real value to the company is zero.

  • team members are acting like they are doing a favor to me and I'm not the real boss

They are absolutely right. You can't reward or punish them in any meaningful way. So ignoring you as much as possible is perfectly rational behaviour. That includes

  • lying to me
  • leaving work unfinished for me to correct
  • pushing more and more to take more time to do the same thing
  • decreasing the quality of work

Your idea that

if the project is completed successfully I might have some more power to talk to the CEO to let him know what is going on

seems like pure fantasy. If the CEO really doesn't know what is going on, he/she won't believe you anyway. If he/she does know, then obviously he/she doesn't consider it important.

There must be some process by which the company gets money from somebody. If this is in the third world, you might not want to ask too closely what that is, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be "delivering value to customers."

If you want some personal job satisfaction, find another job. Or, just take the same attitude as everyone else in the company. It will only take you a few minutes a week to pretend to "manage" this project, and spend the rest of your time working at a second job from the office, like the other employees.

Sorting out this mess is too much for one person - and from your description, nobody else thinks the situation is a mess, so from their point of view there is nothing that needs fixing.

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    "Or, just take the same attitude as everyone else in the company. It will only take you a few minutes a week to pretend to "manage" this project, and spend the rest of your time working at a second job from the office, like the other employees." - This is bad advice. If you are getting paid to do a job, you should do that job. The expectation from all companies is that you are not working at a second job while you are at work, and if you are found doing this, you risk being fired. I would remove these two sentences from your answer. – kloddant Dec 17 '19 at 14:31
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    @kloddant If we take the asker at their word that no one in the company faces negative consequences for working multiple jobs, then why would the "expectation" matter? In practical terms, it seems to be allowed by this company. I believe the asker knows the company culture better than we do and can make that judgement better than we can. – Corrodias Dec 17 '19 at 18:21
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    @Corrodias At a company, you do what you are hired to do, because they are paying you to do it. I doubt the OP's company hired him to work for other companies. Doing so is not only unethical but is also not the safest option for him career-wise, regardless of company culture. – kloddant Dec 17 '19 at 19:22
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Senior Management Owns "Tone at the Top"

Modern governance frameworks like COBIT, COSO, and others all describe some variation of "tone at the top". Basically, it boils down to the fact that in business, senior management owns all of the following:

  1. Responsibility for the project's success or failure.
  2. Responsibility for the design and operational effectiveness of all project, program, and organizational controls.
  3. Responsibility for organizational structure and composition, including hiring and firing of project team members.

While senior management can (and often does) delegate operational responsibility for these elements, the buck still stops with them. Senior management sets the tone for an organization's culture, standards, and processes. They are also responsible for all operational outcomes for the business. If your boss and senior management tacitly or overtly support the current process and are satisfied with the outcomes, then you're tilting at windmills.

Responsibility Without Authority is a No-Op

You haven't identified your role on the project, but since you've already raised the issue with your boss and have been told that the company will not change the culture or process, you have exactly two practical options:

  1. Mind your own business. Do what you can to meet your actual job responsibilities in a sustainable way, but don't take personal responsibility for the success or failure of the project.
  2. Find a new job. Brush up your resume, find a new role, and do more to assess process and tone at the top when interviewing future employers.

You can't exercise authority you don't have, and by definition authority must be delegated from executive management. Furthermore, no amount of personal influence can overcome high levels of organizational dysfunction or poor tone at the top. You're trying to find a magic bullet that will "fix" the situation, but in the end the only thing you can actually control are the choices you make about your own career.

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    I like that: "Responsibility Without Authority is a No-Op", took me 10 years to figure this out, and adjust what I can/should expect from other people. – zmechanic Dec 17 '19 at 15:39
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    +1 for Find a new job. Probably the only solution here, unless the top brass are willing to listen to reason. If you help them succeed when they set up conditions virtually guaranteeing failure, you're just giving them false information that their system works, which will just lead them to keep using a failing strategy. – msouth Dec 17 '19 at 20:04
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If the environment is as you describe, there is no chance whatsoever you can change your team's dynamics for your project, not in the time frame you are supposed to finish the project. What you are describing is an extremely disorganized, immature, ad hoc, and chaotic organization. And this is what was built from the organization's founders / leaders. And this is being maintained by the same. To change it, you are looking at a multi-year transformation which has to start at the top--meaning, the removal of existing leaders and replaced with new ones from the outside--and then all of that trickles down to the rest of the organization. This is way outside of your scope. You best choice, seems to me, is to look for a new role in another organization. That or accept the culture as is and enjoy your new work lifestyle.

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I do not invalidate what any of the other said and there is obviously a problem of company culture.

Yet I want to jump of this particular sentence you wrote :

I am putting more resources such as external freelancers but the more I put the more they slow down.

And it seems to me a perfect case of the Brooks law being verified:

Brooks’ Law refers to a well-known software development principle coined by Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month. The law, “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later,” states that when a person is added to a project team, and the project is already late, the project time is longer, rather than shorter.

https://www.techopedia.com/definition/18085/brooks-law

Techopedia explains Brooks' Law Brooks' law may be applied for two key reasons: "Ramp up" time, which is required by new project members for productivity because of the complex nature of software projects are complex. This takes existing resources (personnel) away from active development and places them in training roles. An increase in staff drives communication overhead, including the number and variety of communication channels.

So the increase in the estimate might be caused by the fact your team has to communicate often and train the new contractors. When they were only 2, they were able to work without being interrupted and thus they were way more productive. Now if someone interrupts them every 5 minuts they just can't focus anymore and thus they will not achieve anything. Development work is not as mecanical or repetitive work, you have to manipulate concepts and build a mental cathedral juggling with these. It takes a lot of time to get the right state of mind, and It can be broken easily.

Apart from this, if you have no power over the pay or the salary increase, maybe you have some power to give them some non monetary perks ? Free lunch ? Giving them more time to rest, approving their time off ? If you truly can't get them any of these, there's no wonder they do not consider you as their boss. You have no power over their well being or over their career so they consider their boss is the person who has these powers.

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Try to dig into the Bruce Tuckman's Team-Development Model.

Based on it I believe that current state of your team is "storming".

I won't give you any particular advice as the situation is really complex and only you know all the background, however I feel that trying to understand and going through the techniques of how to move team from "storming" to "norming" will help you.

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    In the nicest way possible, one has to question the usefulness of an answer that says "I won't give you any particular advice". – anaximander Dec 16 '19 at 16:10
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    Giving a fish is less useful then teach how to fish. – Andrii H Dec 16 '19 at 20:30
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    This answer doesn't even teach how to fish. It says "what you need is a fishing pole; maybe you could find one of those somewhere". – anaximander Dec 17 '19 at 10:30
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    Answers on stack exchange sites should have something useful in them, and when you, say, provide a link people usually tell you to copy in text from the source in case the link dies. You've provided a reference without even providing a link, which is even less useful. What does "storming" mean? What does Tuckman say to do when your team is "storming"? Put in a couple of quotes or something to make this a better answer than "Google Bruce Tuckman" – msouth Dec 17 '19 at 20:00
  • You read not so accurate as I want you to. I've mentioned particular stages of this model. However, I share your opinion regarding pasting the model description here and highlighting required parts. – Andrii H Dec 17 '19 at 20:09
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What jumped out at me was the continuous scope change and expansion.

I think you could remedy some of the issues creating lots of milestones. Each one should be about a week or 2 long.

Track - very visibly - the upcoming 2 or 3 milestones. Post frequent updates, as an email or a GANTT chart or a Kanban board.

This will hopefully help motivate the team to work towards a visible goal, and also give you some "ammunition" against the scope change. Claiming "we're about to finish this milestone, the change will have to wait for a future milestone" may prevent the "shooting at a moving target" issues you mention; which is probably helping demotivate and fracture the team.

Once people realize that the work they are doing is actually contributing towards something (the upcoming milestone) and is unlikely to be changed, it will hopefully give them the needed incentive to work again, and to work as a team.

Depending on the company culture, you may want to name the upcoming milestones, using a predictable scheme like planets, or months or personalities in alphabetical order.

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    This needs buy-in from upper management as well as the team. If you can't push back on the scope creep, this method has no future and only emphasizes the problem to the line workers. Maybe that's a good thing and will create massive turnover to get the attention of the higher-ups, but that also has the possibility of pointing back at the OP as the one who "started the mess", even though they just make the mess more obvious. Don't get me wrong, this works in a normal work environment, but that's not what the OP describes. – computercarguy Dec 16 '19 at 18:15
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I'm not in your shoes and I can't really judge what is happening. But as a developer, I have plenty of experience with project managers, good ones and bad ones.

You have a team of developers working in a niche market, where people with domain knowledge can't just be hired off the street. At the same time, you have unclear, shifting requirements. If I had to guess, your devs spend just as much time understanding the problem domain as they do actually coding or writing architecture.

Then a manager comes by and says "hey, it seems you're not meeting your deadline." Your devs know that, but they are also aware how many man-years they have spent catching up with shifting scope and requirements. "I'll add some freelancers to the project," the manager says. What the devs hear is "you're all incompetent, so I'll call in the professionals." Probably at a hourly rate that that comes close to the daily rate of your developers, from what you wrote about salaries. But as the dev team sees it, they are not the problem, and more people would just fiddle their thumbs together while the specifications shift again.

  • DevOps is not just a role, it is a culture. It means that the ops responsibility is in the dev team. Having a freelancer as the dev team member who specializes in ops/admin tasks sounds like a very bad idea to me. What happens when the project goes live and the (remaining) team has to run and maintain it?
  • Adding a separate test automation team sounds like a bad idea to me, especially if the scope is shifting. You have two teams trying to understand the specs and implement something, and the tests will fail unless both teams have the same understanding what the system should do at any one time. Just more frustration and back-and-forth. (Unless there are lives or millions of dollars at stake, then you need it.)
  • What Danny wrote in his answer sounds very much like scrum. I'm a fan of scrum as long as the product owner is empowered to do his or her job.

Summary: Fix the scope creep first. Then nail down the requirements and involve the people who are changing them in the effort estimates.

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