Communication and Culture


Communication styles vary significantly from one person to another, due to personal tendencies and cultural influences. Keeping this in mind is especially important these days, with so much global connectivity. The DevOps transformation compels us to revisit the way we manage communication and culture and be mindful of our interactions with coworkers.

The DevOps transformation compels us to revisit the way we manage communication and culture. When guiding a team to embrace new ways of collaborating, the DevOps coach often comes right up against the characteristic communication style and organizational culture that, for many corporations, has evolved over many years or even decades. Organizational silos have developed defense mechanisms that shut down communication while highlighting existing policies and entrenched rules of engagement. These practices block attempts at organizational change.

In our configuration management consulting practice, we often assess existing practices and make recommendations for process improvement based on industry standards and frameworks. While implementing our recommendations, many organizations ask us to mediate discussions between teams mired in behaviors that are best described as dysfunctional. One pattern we often see is the very bright technical guru who has quietly become an expert in a particular niche and carefully maneuvered into a position where he is the only expert in this area—essentially, a key man risk. The resulting problems become apparent when the teams get ready to deploy their code.

In most large organizations, there are federal regulatory requirements for maintaining a well-delineated separation of duties. These rules actually make sense because having the developer turn over his code and build procedures helps to ensure that corporate assets are safeguarded along with the procedures to build, package, and deploy the code. In our practice, we often hold working sessions where we have the developer and operations personnel on the same call to iron out the procedures to automate the application deployment. This is an essential step in implementing continuous delivery and continuous deployment successfully. Very frequently, however, we feel like we are playing referee in a full-contact rugby game as we make the different teams aware of one another’s perspectives. The biggest issues are often related to communication styles, with culture coming in a close second.

Communication styles vary significantly from one person to another. Some technology professionals find it particularly difficult to communicate with each other. Too often, we see people getting defensive and attempting to shut down the conversation. DevOps strives to increase communication and collaboration so that people who are uncomfortable communicating may begin to contribute more, rather than following their usual pattern of retreating and withdrawing. We also see cultural norms that impact explanatory styles.

International corporations, by definition, include many people from different countries, and they each bring along a set of expectations that impact their behaviors and communication styles. While no one wants to stereotype a cherished colleague, we all have to acknowledge that our cultures do impact how we interact with the world around us. Some cultures can be characterized as very passive and conflict-avoidant. We see colleagues who struggle or just simply refuse to deliver bad news and say “yes” too much—possibly because they just were not socialized to be assertive and so lack the ability to turn down a request directly. Others seem to be easily intimidated by managers with significant positional power. Effective organizations have cultures that empower members of the team to speak freely, especially when the news may be bad. While loyalty is important, misplaced loyalty can also be dysfunctional.

Organizational structures are essential for any large corporation. These entities require management structures to operate and function effectively. Good managers instill loyalty in their staff, but there is also a dark side: organizational silos can act as if they are in competition with each other. Interdepartmental rivalry results in behaviors that often resemble a volleyball game, with each side throwing responsibility over the net to the other group. In DevOps, we remind each member of the team that the enemy is not on the same payroll. Teams should be incentivized to work together for the common good. The only way you can make this happen is if you understand the personalities and behaviors of the people on your team.

Savvy managers listen carefully to the way their team members communicate and interact with each other. True leaders exhibit behaviors that encourage positive interactions, including excellent communication and collaboration. The accomplished manager will also understand the cultural norms of the technology experts who are on their teams. The rapid rise in globalization of commerce and social interconnectedness means that most employees now find themselves working in a culture-rich international community. It behooves today’s professional to understand how we can utilize our strengths and abilities to work together in the most effective way possible.

In this series, I have been examining and suggesting effective strategies based on the exciting work found in positive psychology. If you can master some of these techniques, your ability to be an effective leader will be significantly enhanced and your organization will benefit from the synergy and power of high-performance teams.

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