Geek Culture
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The Dead Sea Effect

An anti-pattern in business.

Photo by Ondrej Bocek on Unsplash

What is the Dead Sea Effect?

If you follow me, you know I normally write about software engineering. You’ll find a lot of the discourse concerning the dead sea effect is related to software engineering, but the dead sea effect isn’t exclusive to software engineering. It can and does happen to a lot of teams.

The dead sea effect is when bad managerial practices, bloated processes, or really any other toxic traits you might find on a team drives the good employees out, and leaves only the “bad” employees.

The name is a reference to the dead sea, a large body of water that lies between Israel and Jordan. Water can only leave the dead sea by evaporating. This leaves behind a lot of salt, eight times more than the ocean. As a result of this buildup, the dead sea cannot sustain or support life.

The idea is that the good or highly sought after employees will not tolerate bad practices because opportunity is not limited for them. So the “salt” left behind is people who either facilitate or encourage bad practices, or are too incompetent to find another job.

The “bad” employees left behind are not always bad — hence the quotes. I disagree with that idea. I think it lacks empathy and perspective. There are a lot of instances where good employers stay in situations like this for very valid reasons. Here are some examples:

  • They could be entrenched in proprietary tools and no longer have very marketable or transferrable skills.
  • They lack ambition because they are gaslit by their organization into thinking this is the best it could be for them.
  • They believe they can singlehandedly change bad practices as an individual contributor.
  • They do not want to go through the hassle of finding another job. Entering the job market is a lot. Preparing a resume, applying to new jobs, preparing for interviews, and interviewing is a lot.

But when the “bad” employees are actually bad, you’re left with an organization or department that can’t get anything done and can’t retain talent.

The Solution

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

For Employers

  • Take the feedback you get from your high performers seriously. Ask them what their pain points are. Ask them where the bottlenecks are. Trust their feedback because you’re not “in the weeds.”
  • Inject a learning process or rotation into your team. That could be a book club, or something like, everyone takes one day of the month to experiment with a new flashy tool, process, or framework. Exposure will turns gears in their heads and facilitate innovation.
  • Higher compensation is the easiest way and most effective way to retain talent, by a wide margin.

For Employees

  • Try your best to avoid tasks and responsibilities that aren’t transferrable or marketable. I understand this is easier said than done.
  • Have a long term plan for your career. Don’t coast.
  • A lot of organizations fail. Don’t think yours can’t. Know when to jump off of a sinking ship.

Conclusion

The dead sea effect is when bad practices can leave only incompetent employees. This can be avoided if employers are proactive.

Thank you for reading!

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Michael Faber

Michael Faber

Working in software is one hell of a ride.