Illustrated by Matt Peet
“As a technical-minded person, I always think of things very much as A-to-B,” he says.
But Josh, who has been in the industry more than twenty years, has now worked with the gamut of companies and worn a number of hats. He’s led development teams and interacted with clients. And he’s realized that not everyone responds well to his no-frills communication style.
“In my interactions with people not in the technical space, whether it was family members or my wife or project managers, I could see their eyes gloss over,” he says. “I started to watch for those cues that they’re becoming annoyed with me, or not liking what I’m saying. And that’s when I started to pick up that maybe I was coming across as condescending, or maybe someone’s reacting to my direct way because they think I’m mad at them. How I communicated wasn’t right for everyone.”
Josh extrapolated this discovery to his technical team members, too. Just because many of them appreciated his communication style didn’t mean that all of them would. In this interview, Josh walks us through his strategy for making his approach to communication more malleable and adaptable for each teammate, how to keep communication deliberate (and thus clear) and adapting these approaches when problems arise.
Start with soft communication and adapt
Over the years, Josh has learned to identify how people communicate best, or how they prefer to receive communication. What he says hasn’t changed much, but how he says it changes with each new person or context. The natural problem is that he cannot know how someone wants to communicate until they spend some time communicating together.
So he has altered his initial approach to be more receptive.
“It’s always better, in my mind, to start with a very soft communication style and adjust as you go along with someone,” Josh says. “If you come in hard and direct, that tends to be off-putting.”
Starting “soft” means remembering that communication is about more than conveying information; it’s also about building relationships with teammates. The basics are simple, though not always instinctual to inherently direct people like Josh: opening conversations with cordial questions about how the other person is doing, or questions relating to past personal conversations, before diving into the work puts the interaction on a different footing.
“It makes people feel less like I’m bossing them around and more like we’re having a conversation and helping each other out,” Josh says. “It’s taking the time to be an active listener where you’re thinking not about the next thing you’re going to say, but about what someone else is saying, and then reacting to that.”
Through these conversations, you can then identify how your team members want to communicate. Some engineers won’t want to hear about your weekend (or tell you about theirs); they want to know what needs done so they can get right down to it. They’ll appreciate you being more direct with them and won’t take it as abruptness. Others will want to talk about the big game, their families or their interests. They’ll appreciate you building rapport with them.
In any case, you can learn to mirror each developer’s preferences—even if it’s not your way of communicating. “I adapt so they feel that I’m supporting them,” Josh says.
He then optimizes this communication in other mediums, as well. Instant messages, like Slack, are by nature more direct—but a touch of softness is applicable there, too. Even a “Hey, how’s it going?” or a “Happy Wednesday” before jumping in with what you need breaks the ice in a comfortable way for the people who respond well to that.
Prevent misdirection with deliberate communication
It’s important to remember that soft communication does not mean indirect. Perhaps a better word than direct is deliberate: say exactly what you mean, and ask for clarification when things are unclear.
“I picked this up on the agency side of things, working with clients and billing by the hour,” Josh says. “Optimizing our time. If someone was musing and said, ‘Oh, I wonder if it would look better with the logo bigger,’ I’d repeat back to them. ‘So do you want us to make the logo bigger?’ That makes sure the person really wants to see that change.”
When you communicate to your team as a leader, you have to be direct with what you want. You want to leave no space for misinterpretation. “Beating around the bush tends to cause more problems,” Josh says: If you want something done, say so. And if you’re thinking out loud, clarify that you’re thinking out loud and not giving a directive or a suggestion.
Engineering teams work well with the latitude to be creative. Josh stresses the difference between deliberate communication and dictating a team’s work. “I much prefer the environment where I'm not dictating what needs to be done,” he says. “I'm presenting what we need to do, and then saying, ‘Let's figure out a solution on how to do it.’ That makes us more of a team.”
Optimize conversations for the team
Josh finds that real-time conversations, either in person or over video, are the best way for him to have these deliberate discussions when possible. Distributed teams may find an asynchronous method that works for them. But finding a working strategy and sticking to it maximizes a team’s ability to communicate effectively.
“Doing every-other-week one-on-ones with my employees is critical because it gives us time to talk about projects they’re working on, to make sure goals are being met, but also to have that personal touch so they understand that I care about them as a person, their happiness in their jobs, that they’re getting what they need,” Josh says.
Josh also does a team meeting every other week, as well as dedicated scrum meetings. Beyond normal project updates, these meetings give team members the platform to offer feedback for what they need, the problems they’re having and where all they need unblocked. They have learned, over time, that their leader will respond to their direct communication during these meetings.
Model deliberateness in your own communication
On the flip side of building strong communication practices, leaders need to model how to receive deliberate feedback. A lot of beating around the bush comes from being worried about how the other person will receive the information.
“So as managers or as leaders, we need to be more accepting and less reactionary,” Josh says. “If someone doesn’t like the size of the logo, we need to say, ‘What is it you don’t like about it?’ and not react like, ‘Oh, you hate what I did.’”
Likewise, leaders need to manage up with the same standard of deliberate communication. Scope creep is an excellent opportunity to practice clarity and directness over reactionary responses. Often, a leader’s desire to protect the team means they have to tell other stakeholders no. The truth is that anything is possible, given enough time, money and resources—so instead of that reactionary no, Josh suggests saying yes, and.
“It’s the honest discussion,” he says. “Yeah, we can do this, but it is going to cost this much time, this many dollars. Then let the project owner or the executive make the call. Flipping the script shows people you are willing to do the work, and it gives them the decision of whether the thing they want is really worth the scope.”
Adapt your communication when problems arise
It’s one thing to start soft, adapt a communication style and speak deliberately when all is going well. But when things fall apart? Well—Josh says, do the same thing.
He shares a story from earlier in his time in leadership. A developer on his team was working on a server, made a mistake and deleted a client’s database. That developer had to come tell Josh, their boss, and Josh’s heart dropped.
“The first response that comes to mind is what the bleep are you thinking?” he says.
Fortunately, by this point, Josh had established how he communicates, and how he expected his team to communicate. When the problem was raised, he had a sense of how to approach the personnel side of the problem while they tackled the technical side together.
We’re all human
Josh’s communication strategy in good times laid the groundwork for bad times like this: “You have to receive that information and you need to make sure that your employees understand that they can come to you, whether it is a good situation or a bad situation, and you're going to help them,” he says.
Basically, the approach already worked, because the developer didn’t try to hide the mistake until they had fixed it, which would likely have caused more problems and more loss of both trust and revenue.
This situation didn’t result in anyone losing their job. But even in a scenario that bad, Josh emphasizes remembering that the person who messed up is still another human being. “We’re not perfect,” he says. “Put yourself in their shoes, and think, okay, what can I say and do in this moment that’s going to make this at least a little bit better for them?”
Fix problems first, diagnose second
Starting soft after the database deletion didn’t mean saying “How’s it going?” or “Happy Wednesday!” But it did mean recognizing that Josh had been in their shoes in the past. He’d made mistakes. So he took a beat, and instead of reacting with fear and anger, he said, “Okay, well, let’s get it figured out.”
“We rolled up our sleeves, jumped in, did the research, figured out where we had a backup database that was older but would get us up and running,” Josh says. “And then, we sat down and talked about what happened. Let’s figure out how we’re going to mitigate this in the future. Some of it came down to exposing issues with our process of not having daily backups running on databases. So there was a positive that came out of it.”
Early honesty is a better policy than late honesty
Josh expects his developers to speak up right away, and he can expect that because he does the same thing for his team’s clients. In this case, he had the honest discussion with the customer as soon as they were able to put a fix in place.
“I didn’t go into the specifics of who deleted it, but I told them the database got deleted, we were able to restore it, we lost this many days of data,” Josh says.
Fessing up to a mistake is never truly easy. Even now, Josh admits to many times when he forgot his own rules about being honest and straightforward—and it has always come back to bite him.
“As humans, we are generally optimistic,” he says. “We always think we can get things done and catch up. No problem. And when it comes down to it, I’m like, ‘Sorry, we didn’t get there. We ran into all these issues.’ And they say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about these issues before now instead of waiting?’ Nine times out of ten, the person you’re telling is going to be understanding and make an adjustment. It’s way better to have that discussion early than late.”
Your team learns from your reactions
Just like when Josh discussed modeling deliberate communication to a team, he points out how your team will react to bad situations differently depending on how they think you’ll react. So a measured response to small problems will build their confidence in sharing the bigger problems with you down the line.
“If an executive came to me and said something that frustrated me, not making that frustration public or sharing it with my team in an unproductive way [is helpful],” Josh says. “But it’s okay to share your frustration in a way that you would want them to share their frustrations with you.”
This comes back to the reactionary vs. deliberate idea of communication. Flying off the handle with frustration makes a team less likely to share frustrating news with you. But talking through problems with your team shows them that you don’t know it all, that you value figuring things out together, that you are there to support each other.
“Including people in decisions and discussions and debates lets them see that I don’t know everything, that I’m not the greatest developer, that I’m not the greatest at X,” Josh says. “And that’s okay. Because I try to hire people better than me, and let them know that so they can see it.”
Final thoughts: Communication makes our world go ’round
“We forget that communication is key in every business and every job,” Josh says. “Communication is the end-all be-all.”
Communication is about more than conveying information; it’s about adapting our ways of interacting to make that information transferable and receivable for our team members, our organizations and our customers. Josh’s strategy for adapting our communication styles includes:
- Start with soft communication and adapt: Directness can appear abrupt to some people, while others see being convivial and personal as a waste of time. Starting “soft” simply means including a bit of relationship-building in conversations, and then adapting that style to reflect each individual’s own communication preferences.
- Prevent misdirection with deliberate communication: In a nutshell, deliberate communication means saying what you intend, and clarifying what you’re asking for. It also means developing a cadence of communication for your teams that keeps everyone aligned, on track and unblocked.
- Adapt your communication when problems arise: The way you handle small problems as a leader demonstrates to your team how receptive you are (or aren’t) to working through big problems. Here, “soft and deliberate communication” doesn’t mean avoiding responsibility; it means remembering that all of us are humans who make mistakes, that problems are more easily remedied with early and honest communication and that acting on our first emotional reactions to big problems is often counterproductive.
“We, as leaders, as people, need to take the time to understand how we communicate and be good listeners or good interpreters of how other people communicate,” Josh says. “If we do that, our teams will be happier. We'll be happier. And companies will run smoother and be better all around.”
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