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Olivier wrote me last week: I’d be interested in tips on how to bring positivity in a team that is exhausted and stressed out.

This got me thinking that some of you might not be working in “ideal” circumstances.  You might not be able to apply what I teach because you don’t control the process.  Or the estimates.  Or the deadlines. Maybe this has lead to a team that’s “exhausted and stressed out.”  Maybe your team needs some hope, a light at the end of the tunnel.

If this is you, read on.  I used this framework multiple times at my last job, and it always yielded new options I’d been missing.
(WARNING: This post is long because this problem is TOUGH!)

5 Steps to bring hope back to your team.

1. Be willing to tell your team “This sucks, and I know it sucks.”  Have you gotten the team together and acknowledged how bad things are?  I’m not talking about a blamestorming session or simply complaining about a customer, department or boss.

I’m talking about taking off the mask of insincerity that we often wear which has the words “EVERYTHING IS FINE” tattooed across the forehead.  If everyone knows it’s bad, then you’re not telling anyone something they don’t know.  Instead, you are acknowledging that there is a problem which goes a long way to building trust and rapport with your team.  It puts you on their side, shows you see the situation, and calls out the elephant in the room.

This technique should be done sparingly and behind closed doors with your team, but if you haven’t done it yet today may be the time.  After you state that “This sucks.” you need to stop and ask if others feel the same way.  Then shut your mouth and listen to what they say.  They might agree, or they might surprise you and have a different perspective.

Remember, you may not know the solution yet, but you also shouldn’t pretend it’s not happening.

2. Take an inventory of the good, the bad and the ugly.  It’s easy to get in the habit of saying “Our process sucks” “The timelines are insane” or “The clients (or customers) are idiots,” but this doesn’t help you fix anything.  Broad statements only feed resentment and mask the real problems.

You can break this cycle by taking a detailed inventory of what processes, people, and situations are working well, and which are not.  You need to be specific as possible and think about examples you’ve seen.

For example, instead of simply saying “Our process sucks,” you could break the process into INPUTS, PROCESSES, and OUTPUTS.  Then ask: What are all the INPUTS you receive, both formally and informally?  Are you happy with the INPUTS you receive?  Is your team?  Next, what are the steps in your PROCESS?  Where do you see problems, and what’s working well?  What does your team see?

This inventory can be started by you, but since you’ve now acknowledged to your staff that there’s a problem, you need to involve them in this as well. They hold vital information to assemble this inventory, so do it with them (not for them).  By redirecting everyone’s negative energy toward new possibilities, you are introducing the hope of change into your team.  And hope is crucial to them.

3. Identify your boundaries: what you own, and what you do not own.
Taking that inventory from the last step, identify the owner of each good and bad item.  Do you own it?  Does your team own it?  Does your boss own it?  Does another department own it?

Knowing who owns what is a significant step, because you don’t own everything, but you do own some things.  And you may own more than you think…

4. Remember that you are free because you control yourself and your team.  For each problem that you own, discuss with your team how you can improve it.  Can you run an experiment to see how something might be enhanced?  Do you see small changes which might make small improvements?  This is owning your problems, and showing your team how to take responsibility for them.

Put the issues on a common wall where you show everyone that your team is OWNING their problems.  Discuss how the experiments and changes are affecting outcomes, and continue to make changes.

5. Play defense. Now to the kicker, the hardest part of this process.  For each problem that you do NOT own, you need to do two things:
a) Figure out who owns it.  And by “who” I mean what specific, named individual has control of it.  If Department Q is always complaining about software quality, then write down the name of the manager of Department Q.  That is the person who owns that problem.  And that is the person you need to have a discussion with about the problem.  You need to explain to them why it’s a problem, the impact of the problem, and then brainstorm options for solving the problem. Don’t start by telling them “This is how you must change.”  Instead, show them the problem and discuss possibilities for new interactions.

When you consider the problem together, you take a joint problem-solving approach and get on the same side to find a win-win solution.  This opens up new opportunities for dialog and collaboration than traditional win-lose strategies.

b. Create a more defensive process of interaction.  If talking with Department Q, or your client, or someone else hasn’t worked then you need to create a defensive process of communication.  For example, if you receive project requirement with a pre-defined estimate, and you don’t agree with the assessment, you may have a policy that rejects the project from your work queue.  Or maybe you re-estimate the project and inform the submitting group that your team must be involved with all estimates, and you do not accept outside estimates.

Or, maybe you have to email the salesperson who promised the customer a feature by next Friday (without talking to you!) and CC: your boss and the sales manager that you cannot be held to someone else’s commitments, and reject the project request until a collaborative estimate is created.

You may have to resort to playing politics, creating defensive processes and being hard-nosed about how you interact with other groups if they don’t collaborate with you to solve problems that they own.
I realize this might sound surprising, but it’s a part of protecting your team, and you are in unique position on the team to defend them this way.  It’s a good idea to discuss these defensive processes with your boss, when possible, so you can explain your goal of improvement, and get her support.  She might have to back you up at times, but don’t feel bad because her job is to defend and protect you.

Working in a hostile environment is tough, but it doesn’t make you helpless.  In fact, helplessness creates a victim mentality, which can be contagious to your team.

Instead, take action to identify problems and their owners.  Assume responsibility for the things inside your group, and have clear, direct, collaborative discussions with those outside your group.  As a final resort put in place defensive processes which protect your team.
I know this is hard, but if you take this approach, you’ll show your team that you’re on their side and you’re optimistic about the future. That optimism is the hope they need to believe tomorrow can be better than today.

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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