Being a workplace crusader

Published 2021-02-25.

1 Introduction

Back in November 2020, Stay SaaSy introduced the term workplace crusader:

Tech startups attract passionate people. Large companies pay well and offer a great lifestyle, so the type of personality that wants to work at a startup is often especially ambitious or driven. This can be great, but can also present a number of management challenges. One of the most difficult traits to correctly harness at a growing company is a personality type that is compelled by perfectionism, often driven by a higher sense of righteousness.

I like to call these folks crusaders, as they’re driven by an almost religious passion to snuff out any problem that they see. A crusader is willing to die on any hill. No issue is too small – they attack problems like “the login page doesn’t work 10% of the time” and “Billy keeps writing user stories sloppily” with the same zeal.

The post struck a chord with me because I am one of these people. (I asked one of my previous managers about it, and he wholeheartedly agreed.)

Stay SaaSy offered some good advice on how to manage workplace crusaders. But what if you are one yourself? Their post is still useful, as it can help you become easier to manage. Also, it is very clear on the importance of prioritization: You need to pick your battles.

However, I think there are additional things you should know. Having been involved with various organizations over the past 20 years, I have learned some lessons the hard way. Today, I want to share the seven most important of these with you. As a crusader, you have the potential to be very beneficial to the teams you end up working with. You just need to be smart about it.

Towards the end, I also speculate a bit on what makes a crusader.

2 Lessons learned

  1. Choose your organizations wisely
  2. Accept that people are very different
  3. Learn to fix things yourself
  4. Be concrete, explicit and constructive
  5. Be patient
  6. Write things down and talk to your colleagues
  7. Study prior art

2.1 Choose your organizations wisely

Whether for paid employment or volunteer work, you will want to choose organizations that prioritize improvement. The variance is extreme.

As an example, I used to work in the (Norwegian) Army. That was a frustrating experience. For instance, I once reported to the unit that my team needed a new extension cord. Should be simple, right? Hell, no. Ten months and several follow-ups later, the cord had still not arrived.

The army is a huge beast that you would expect to be slow and resistant to change. But you can run into trouble in smaller organizations too. I once worked as a mechanic for a small bicycle repair shop. The shop was extremely messy. I tried tidying things up, but got berated by the owner, as he was used to the mess being the way it was. That was also not a good match for me.

So far, I have found tech startups to be the best fit. They may be a mess, but they are also very interested in making improvements, and they are anything but bureaucratic. There are probably other types of employers that would be a good fit too, such as manufacturing, franchising operations and some parts of management consulting.

If you find yourself in an organization that does not value your contributions, consider looking elsewhere.

2.2 Accept that people are very different

People’s personalities and talents vary widely. For example, some people are empathizers rather than systematizers. They might be very interested in helping and connecting with people and rather uninterested in some technical flaw that is very important to you. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them. They are just different.

Others may also have very different priorities than you do. A problem with your customer service process might seem very important to you right now. But if your manager is struggling to meet payroll, they will not prioritize your request. And they will probably not tell you why.

2.3 Learn to fix things yourself

Every organization is, at least to some extent, a do-ocracy. This means that you can often fix things yourself. You just have to learn how to do it. For example, you can learn how to automate the boring stuff with Python.

If you do decide to fix things yourself, make sure to be transparent about it. There is often a reason why things are the way they are, and changing them can have consequences that did not occur to you. (See Chesterton’s Fence. The more initiative you have, the more good judgment you need.)

Therefore, you need to let your manager know what you are doing and give them time to object. Over time, you will get better at judging your own ideas.

2.4 Be concrete, explicit and constructive

Stay SaaSy writes:

Crusaders can exhaust their teams, and they can aggravate others who don’t share their idealism or perfectionism … If left unchecked they can transition into a more harmful place by becoming complainers.

In order to avoid exhausting your colleagues, be concrete and explicit about your observations, uncertainties and expectations. For example, instead of saying “our customer service process sucks”, you could saying something like:

It took us 23 business days to be resolve our customer Carl’s issue. I think this harmed his impression of us. A lot of the delay seems to come from handovers. Maybe we should look into what happens when support agents hand over requests to others? I think we would also benefit from measuring these handover times somehow.

Just to be clear, I am not sure that we need to prioritize this right away, as we may have some more pressing issues. But I think it should be a priority to look into this in the next three months or so.

2.5 Be patient

Very few problems are really critical. In the words of Stay SaaSy:

After a few cases of letting minor issues go, it becomes easier to realize that:

  • Many problems naturally resolve themselves with time
  • Many other problems are not existential
  • If you leave these low severity or self-resolvable problems, you and your team have more energy to tackle the challenges that really matter. This can be surprisingly hard to do for people who are very invested in their work, but when done right it can add much-needed balance.

Related to this is Paul Graham’s advice to do things that don’t scale.

2.6 Write things down and talk to your colleagues

Writing is very useful. It

  1. helps you get things out of your head;
  2. makes it easier to deal with emotions;
  3. adds clarity and therefore understanding;
  4. builds lasting insight in the organization; and
  5. levels the playing field between aggressive and passive communicators, different cultural backgrounds, etc.

However, it might be good to also schedule a meeting. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Many people, especially managers, have overflowing inboxes and use their calendar to manage their time. If it’s in their calendar, it’s happening. If not, who knows. Don’t be shy about inviting for meetings. If they think you ask for too many meetings, they will tell you.
  2. Written communication is really hard. Before you know it, you have hurt or frustrated the other person. Talking is a lot easier, in part because you can pick up on their reactions continuously.
  3. For many people, especially managers, writing feels like work. Talking to others is easier and more fun. Therefore, it might be easier to get a meeting with them than to get a written response.

2.7 Study prior art

Simultaneously improving things and accepting the things you cannot improve is hard. Fortunately, a lot of people have shared their experiences. They can help you become more effective at moving your organization in the right direction as well as managing your emotions.

Below are some of my favorite books.

  1. The Toyota Way
  2. How to Measure Anything
  3. Nonviolent Communication
  4. The Goal
  5. The Phoenix Project
  6. It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work
  7. A Guide to the Good Life

You might also be interested in Ruthanne Huising’s 2019 paper Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organizational Operations Empowers and Alienates.

3 What makes someone a workplace crusader?

Putting a name on the workplace crusader concept got me thinking about the psychology behind it. What kinds of people are more likely to become workplace crusaders? How could employers and career advisors identify them?

To speculate, I think there are a couple of personality traits that help predict crusading:

  1. Openness to experience: You need to be able to imagine a different state of things in order to want change.
  2. Neuroticism: The more dissatisfied you are with things, the more motivated you will be to fix them.

As alluded to above, I think that systematizers tend to be more common among workplace crusaders.

There is also Philip Zimbardo’s Time Perspective Theory. I suspect that having a future life goal-oriented time perspective would make you more likely to be a workplace crusader. However, considering Zimbardo’s relaxed relationship with scientific integrity (paper, podcast episode), I am hesitant to put too much weight on this.

I would love to hear from you if you know anything that would help me learn more about this. For example, what words would psychologists use if they were to write about workplace crusaders?

4 Conclusion

To summarize, if you are a workplace crusader, I advise you to

  1. choose your organizations wisely;
  2. accept that people are very different;
  3. learn to fix things yourself;
  4. be concrete, explicit and constructive;
  5. be patient;
  6. write things down and talk to your colleagues; and
  7. study prior art.

Thanks to Stay SaaSy for reading a draft of this post.