...and habits that follow you: impact

Part 4 of a 4 part series.

The fifth and last item on the Google re:Work blogpost on attributes of an effective team is impact: team-members believe their work matters. At this point we have most of the list.

  • We have psychological safety.
  • We can depend on our coworkers to deliver on their promises.
  • We have enough structure and clarity in our roles, goals, and plans to believe them and work towards them.
  • We consider our work personally meaningful.

But for some reason you still think the work doesn't matter. Why? There can be a few causes of this.

  • Maybe you're on a team that's doing great work, but your employer simply needs more of you, needs to invest in your area more, or needs to listen to you more often -- and isn't. Many QA and Security teams suffer this blight.
  • Maybe your organization is simply working towards the wrong problem. You have clear roles, goals, and plans, and your team is working on the right stuff (once in a while) but you aren't allowed to do that often enough.
  • Maybe you're the one person on the team that fully understands what you're working on, and no one else is even trying to get to your level. This affects senior techs (both in tenure and industry experience).
  • Maybe your company had a large layoff reduction in force and what is left of your team is merely going through the motions right now, while job-hunting on the side.

Most of these points are symptoms of a breakdown in the feedback cycle of decisions. I wrote about how context for decisions flows up and down the org-chart this past July.

  • If your team is doing great work but is being under-invested for some reason (in time, resources, or attention), this is a sign of a breakdown in feedback down the org-chart. Assuming you're communicating your needs upwards, the context for why that advice is not being acted upon is not getting communicated down. Or what is being communicated down isn't being believed. Troubleshoot where the context is getting lost.
  • If your organization is working on the wrong problem, this is a breakdown in feedback up the org-chart. It could be the message is getting lost along the way, or your part of the organization is suffering a credibility deficit so feedback isn't believed.
  • The senior pathology of being the only one who knows how it works is in part due to that person not creating the conditions where other people need to up-skill. Throughput thinking (whoever is fastest does the work) does not create cross-knowledge because there is no incentive to learn something that someone else already knows. Growth thinking (the person who knows how helps someone who isn't quite there) is far better at that.
  • Layoffs Reductions in force are intentionally terrible, everyone is going to come out the other side traumatized. There are changes you can make to the RIF process to reduce the damage.

Whatever the cause, the two biggest compensating behaviors for dealing with this trauma is quite similar to what we saw with meaning, detachment and cynicism. The difference between meaning and impact are that with impact you're sharing this experience with your whole team. This means you have a support structure in place: all of your coworkers going through the same thing, thinking the same bad thoughts about management, and reinforcing each other's assumptions about how it all works.

How I got broken

In my post about personal meaning I talked a lot about how traditional pre-DevOps Operations teams became people you didn't like to work with. Too cranky, snarky, and quick to anger. I talked about how the service-center approach to operations made for an environment that fostered toxicity, which definitely applied to me from 2003 to 2011.

Today I want to talk about how going through that with my entire team was subtly different than the isolation I talked about in the meaning post. The pathology we experienced was the second bullet above: we weren't allowed to work on the right problem often enough. This meant that from time to time the decisions coming down the org-chart were the problem we had to manage.

This happened often enough it destroyed our faith in management's ability to make good decisions, and slowly trained us into thinking that only we knew how things actually worked around here -- and no one listened to us. This made us build strong cynical walls because it was better to expect the worst and be surprised when things worked out, than expect the best and be surprised when things went terrible. The team itself was great to be on, these people got it and were there for me.

However, when the official feedback processes don't work, all that's left are the casual ones. So we became assholes. If someone came to us with a bad idea, we let them know it was a bad idea, and they should be ashamed for bringing it to us. The most tragic part? This actually worked; sometimes we could scrub some of the bad off before we had to just do it. It also got us a reputation for being cranky, snarky, quick to anger, and generally hard to work with. We wanted people to think twice about coming to us with a thing.

That said, because of our traumas and how we reacted to it, we were even less likely to be invited into the official process: who wants assholes in the room?

When I left there to go to a 20 person startup as their only Ops person, I brought this mindset with me. I literally had a seat at the decision table, but I was still treating the process as one I had to be unhealthily reactive to in order to participate. Their culture was far better than the one I had left, I just wasn't primed to see it that way.

Note: I need to point out that when someone with this trauma in their head starts on your team, they consider themselves a team of one. This trauma damages your ability to trust people just because you're supposed to. The above was all about this trauma happening to a team of people, but getting a new job destroys their sense of team. That's why a lot of the same advice I gave for the meaningful article applies here.

If you are a manager or team-lead, you will start to see pathologies here once your new person starts trying to build that sense of team. The cynic's handshake will happen where you can't see it. For reports who aren't traumatized this way, the handshake is off-putting. For those that are, well, now you have two problems on your hands.

In my case, what would have helped me was my manager sitting me down and explaining to me the cardinal rule of the agile rituals: flow is everything. The improv rules totally apply. Use yes, and or no, but to keep the flow going. Using a flat no stops everything cold and people begin to hate you. That would have redirected me into more healthy communication patterns, and slowly detoxify me.

For other things, employ radical empathy. In your 1:1s complete the cynic's handshake and get them talking about org structures at their previous jobs. Even if they don't tell you it was terrible, you can still smell the terrible. It took until 2015 before I saw what I lived through from 2003 to 2011 as terrible. This gives you the information you need for highlighting how different this workplace is from their previous ones.

This is one area where the manager/lead is only weakly effective, though. If you suspect you have a cynic on your hands, you can work with your other reports to get them to help nudge the newcomer onto better ways of communicating. This is long-term work, people like me adopt cynical shields for safety reasons and it takes time to get them to come down (or a hard knock to the head in the form of getting fired).