How to Build a Tech Culture that Makes People Want to Stay
One of the first things to suffer when things take off, is culture. Rapid hiring that ignores cultural norms can introduce new attitudes and expectations. Some good, some bad, the worst of which can deteriorate trust and breed a culture of fear — and fast. So how can you start to repair a tech culture?
One of the most effective ways to build efficiencies in a technical team is to focus on culture. It’s said that culture trumps strategy. Why? Because the execution of any strategy by a dysfunctional team, will be poor.
Some of the signs of cultural problems within a technology organization are:
- Poor communication between development teams
- Lack of visibility to the business
- Ability to avoid accountability
- Avoidance of meaningful conflict
- The ridicule of ideas
If you’ve spent any time at all working within a technology team, you’ve seen several of these problems.
So, let’s get started. Below are three things I do to get things moving.
Prove that Conflict and Vulnerability are Acceptable
People often avoid conflict because their leadership taught them to. It’s that simple.
Many situations occur where someone disagrees with leadership and they are dismissed. Worse, they could face ridicule in front of their peers. The effects of this type of behavior are fast acting and long lasting. In such a culture, the best ideas often die before they’re ever explored.
Many years ago I was co-writing a song with a very talented writer who said to me, “Give me any ideas you have an I’ll give you mine. Some are going to be awful, but you never know what other ideas an awful one will spark.” It was a little uncomfortable at first, but I soon recognized my ideas weren’t getting an eye-roll. That motivated me to dig deeper. We agreed, we disagreed. There was meaningful conflict. We were kind to each other, but didn’t hesitate to disagree.
It was an impactful experience that I carried into other areas of my life.
[For More Posts like this, see Kevin Carlson’s blog: The Fractional CTO]
And that’s exactly how to approach it in the tech world. Prove that conflict is acceptable by welcoming new ideas. Avoid any response that could make a person regret their decision to be open.
More important, the team should see you do this with other leaders. Show that you’re not afraid to be vulnerable and introduce conflict. Above all, show your team how to do that while being kind.
Praise Those Who Take Accountability, Whether for Success or Failure.
One of the best signs of an improving culture is the admission of failure. In a recent client engagement, a team member sent me an email telling me of a problem they caused. It cost the company customers and money.
Here’s what I did next:
- Immediately thanked the person for bringing the issue to my attention
- Asked for their recommendation on how to solve the problem
- Requested they quantify the impact to the company and share the detail with me
This person knew they made a mistake. There was obvious regret. But they had the courage to step forward and make things right. No need to make them feel any worse.
It’s important in this situation to express gratitude that you’re now aware of the issue. Learn what went wrong. Hear recommendations from the person that brought it to your attention. You will get the best from your team if they can be honest with you without fear of retribution.
Quick story: A CEO and CFO were talking about a new salesperson. The CFO was angry that the rep messed up a $2 million dollar deal and recommended he fire the salesperson. The CEO responded, “Why would we fire someone we spent $2 million training?”
Be Open in Your Interactions with Everyone
A few years ago, I had been coaching a 25 person development team on the importance of building trust. I wanted people to admit when they didn’t know how to do something. I wanted them to be open when they made a mistake.
Then it happened.
I had been upgrading a Jira instance and something went wrong. Long story short, every single bit of data had been completely wiped from the system. Not realizing that had happened, I decided to head home and get back at it the next day.
The next morning everyone was frantic. Luckily, one of my colleagues saved me from embarrassment and restored Jira from a backup. Things were up and running again. All was good with the world, right?
Not at all. I needed to prove to the team that everyone, including and especially me, needed to be open. At a team meeting that afternoon, I opened with, “We found out who deleted the data from Jira.” A nervous silence enveloped the room as people looked around and tried to guess who was in trouble.
“It was me”, I said. “I made a mistake during an upgrade and I apologize if it caused anyone any trouble.”
The team was gracious and accepted my apology.
From that point on, people new that it was OK to be honest. That they could trust I wouldn’t hold myself to a different standard than I expected from them. Communication almost immediately began to improve.
You must be the example you want your team to follow. Asking people to be accountable, yet avoiding it yourself is only going to build cynicism in the team.
If you’re in a position of leadership, prove that you will hold yourself accountable. And prove that the standard isn’t any different for you than it is for your team.
It’s an Ongoing Process
You can have significant impact and begin to repair a tech culture by taking these straightforward actions. But it doesn’t stop there.
As a leader, you are the guardian of the culture you want to have. You will have to make occasional adjustments to process, technology, and, yes, people.
Sometimes they will be painful decisions. But make them anyway and learn as you go.
And when you’re wrong, tell the team, adjust, and keep moving. I promise you, it will be worth it.[This post originally appeared on TheFractionalCTO.blog]