Jul 8, 2021 7:17:00 AM
Kindness Is a Foundation: How To Build A Kind Culture
When we think of kindness, we rarely associate it with business but what if I told you that kindness is the bedrock of any customer-focused team? Kindness forms a foundation of psychological safety that minimizes mistakes, increases productivity and maximizes happiness. Sounds like something we’re all looking for, right?
As a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) at Solvemate, it’s my responsibility to make sure everything stays available and working for our customers and theirs. A large part of that is creating a culture of safety both to reduce the chance of failure, and to embrace it when it happens. We want to catch problems early and often as much as we can and people’s feeling of safety plays a key role in how that happens. Same goes for customer service teams, as it’s best to solve the problem before it even arises.
Move Fast And Break Things
“Accelerate” by Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim, talks about the habits of high-performing engineering companies and what led to their success. The number one habit: The ability to push code. Two of the biggest factors that play into this are deployment frequency (how often we ship changes) and lead time for features (how long it takes to go from concept to deployment).
It’s probably no surprise to any business that being able to conceive of, develop and ship code quickly leads to more success. It’s one of the prime reasons the industry has adopted Agile Development. We need to be able to move fast and pivot, even if that means cracking a few eggs to make our omelette.
The SRE team’s job is to make sure that we make the right tradeoff between breaking things and innovation. We could be innovating 100% of the time but the 0% availability of our platform would probably make our sales team sad (and definitively our customers). Finding that tradeoff sweet spot is a lot easier if you build a kind, safe culture.
Experiencing service failure is never pleasant but it’s one of the best ways to learn about and combat future failure. As well as technical developments such as Graceful Degradation, we try to limit impact to our customers by giving people the voice and power to both identify and deal with service failure. Ensuring people feel comfortable being the Incident Commander all boils down to psychological safety.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is an easier topic to understand than it maybe sounds at first. Boiling it down to just one question: How safe do you feel in your job calling out problems and fixing them? All kinds of problems! Not just technical, but about inclusivity, comfort and blame. The last decade has seen a shift from top-down management to empowering employees with the ability to solve their own problems. (And that’s basically what we do at Solvemate: Empowering customers to solve their own problems with self-service.)
Our feeling of safety is all-encompassing and feeds into every aspect of our work. Not feeling safe can make it hard to contribute in meetings, provide solutions, speak out against future mistakes and may make you feel isolated or unhappy. It’s incredibly important that as the business world evolves, we pay more and more attention to the psychological impact our practices and processes impose on people.
How To Be Kind
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, start by being the first to ask for feedback from your team/peers. Especially negative feedback. Make it clear you’re asking for it and people should be open and honest. This is all in an effort to build relationships and counter the “I can dish it out but I can’t take it” problem that can come up. By seeking out criticism, you make yourself vulnerable and more open. It builds up a rapport with people and makes them more amenable to criticism from you.
A really simple structure I like to use for all kinds of feedback is the same one used in sprint retrospectives: What should I start/stop/keep doing? Which is basically: what went well? What went badly? What can we do again in the future? After a project/quarter ends, or after a meeting or a presentation. Take some time to gather feedback. Take time to listen, process and grow a little. Thank people for their criticism, make them feel appreciated for what they’ve shared because it was probably hard. If you’ve ever had to give tough feedback before, you know what an anxiety-inducing experience it can be. Show people you care by graciously accepting what someone has to say and giving it the respect it deserves.
As the world feels smaller and smaller everyday thanks to technology, embracing diversity is probably one of the most important things you need to do. Be open and aware of people’s backgrounds, history and personal preferences. It’s all about helping people by meeting them where they are, where they want to be helped - being kind is not about “meet me halfway”.
Keep an eye out for people who maybe don't contribute as much in meetings or in documents and try to find ways to give them a voice. It might be just prompting them for feedback in the meeting or maybe you need to re-evaluate how people contribute entirely. Be open to different backgrounds and different life experiences by talking to them and offering to cater to their preferred style of suggestions and communication. Not everyone feels comfortable being outspoken in a meeting so maybe sharing documents beforehand or providing an anonymous suggestion form would give them space to make their opinion heard.
Give people a voice by letting them express themselves in whatever format they feel right. And then bringing those ideas to a central point/meeting/document/dance-off.
Often an individual failure is actually a failure of either process, environment or workflows. Assigning individual blame breeds distrust and caution, the opposite of a psychologically safe workplace. An old manager used to say that we put you in the position to make that mistake or push that commit and that is why the team takes ownership over it.
We succeed together, we fail together.
Being blameless doesn’t mean you can’t make people accountable for ongoing issues. Instead, it means that you don’t scapegoat every mistake on the junior employee who wasn’t given enough training, or who made a bad assumption, or who was just the messenger for a bigger problem. When something goes wrong, you have to look at the whole picture and understand the decisions, the assumptions and the past experiences that all fed into that one incident.
In the end, by shifting away from finger-pointing, people become more comfortable and often they feel safer with pulling apart processes, workflows or code to help prevent this from happening again in the future. We don’t want to hurt people, we don’t want to be the bad guy, so we shouldn’t put people in a position where the outcome of a report could negatively affect one of our friends - you’ll end up with biased, possibly falsified or deliberately watered down conclusions. We want honesty and the best way to build it is to show people that they won’t be fired for being honest.
Turn Failure Into Learning
On a similar note, every “failure” or incident should be celebrated as an opportunity to grow and learn. It's important to recognize that failure is not absolute. It's not the end of the world, we fail, probably dozens of times a day. And we don't always recognize it, but we learn from it, we do it better the next time around.
It’s okay to fail, that’s how we get new ideas. To encourage innovation, we need to encourage people to take risks and experiment - and feel safe doing it.
Similar to the feedback sessions, you can use that same (basic) framework of three questions to pick apart when things go wrong. In fact, in the SRE world, it’s pretty common to publish your findings from those conversations in the form of postmortems. “The cost of failure is education.” - Devin Carraway, Microsoft Engineering.
Recommended reading: 5 Benefits a Support Engineer Will Bring to Your Customers (and Your Product)
Kindness is about fostering a culture of honesty, communication and safety. It’s not about shielding anyone from failure or mistakes, but about learning from them in a way that is productive and doesn’t dissuade people from taking risks again in the future. Being kind is about listening to the people around you (not only your team mates, but also your customers), genuinely hearing what they have to say and finding out how you can meet them where they are to help. Be inclusive, be honest and be a kind person.
And with that, I want you to walk away from today thinking about one question: How can I be kinder?
Evan is a Site Reliability Engineer with Solvemate and is responsible for managing the infrastructure, CI/CD, incident response and monitoring, as well as promoting a culture of kindness and learning. A nerd and a bookworm, he loves reading about internet culture and people. From the deep mines of Omegaverse Tumblr to the vast outer reaches of My Immortal fanfiction drama, there’s a story out there for every niche interest. (Book rec: “Because Internet” by Gretchen McCulloch)