Why communication matters.

Many people, especially in IT, believe that optimizing communication and dialogue is difficult and nebulous, often leading to touchy-feely conversations they would rather avoid.

Unfortunately for those folks, the quality of communications cannot be ignored as it directly impacts performance. “Communication quality” refers to the ability of the team to effectively share and receive information, navigate conflict, resolve ambiguity, and manage expectations.

To understand how performance is impacted by communication quality and complexity implications, consider the following framework:

The Impact of Complexity and Communication Quality on Team Performance

With any degree of complexity (and complexity is almost always high in IT organizations), strong communication becomes paramount to prevent the breakdown of the team. How do we ensure communication quality is the best it can be? It starts with understanding, norming, and building trust.

Identify and normalize the team’s unique communication preferences.

Just as people prefer different weather and cuisines, each of us prefers to be communicated within a particular manner. There are many frameworks that address preferred communication styles. Kantor Institute’s Structural Dynamics is one of the most robust and practical models in this area.

Two key insights from Structural Dynamics are:

  1. In any communication, both parties are accountable for positive and negative communicative outcomes
  2. Effective communicators are aware of—and promote—the communication preferences of others

Teams are accountable for the quality of their communication in terms of what communication style they prefer and how well their communication is working. Therefore it is up to the team to define and uphold an agreement on how to interact with each other.

A “team norms” session is a fantastic tool for the team to come together and define how they prefer to communicate through several dimensions: making decisions, managing conflict, and collaborating, to name a few.

By defining norms, you create a consensus around what ideal interactions within the team look like. Most importantly, the team can leverage these norms to reduce the likelihood a team member will feel personally attacked or antagonized in a difficult conversation. Referring to norms (the commonly accepted behavior that has been defined and embraced by the team) keeps people grounded in objectivity in the face of criticism.

Continually build trust within the team.

Trust is the basis of healthy relationships and effective dialogue. If you consider any enduring and positive friendship you have, it is likely characterized at its foundation by a high level of trust. Building and maintaining trust within a team is instrumental for the team to feel cohesive and empowered.

What are the conditions that foster trust? In an interview with the Washington Post, Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, states that trust is built through these four elements:

  1. Intent: create shared objectives; build an environment where I want your win as much as I want my own
  2. Integrity: eliminate any difference between what you say and what you do
  3. Capability: learn, grow, improve, and stay relevant
  4. Results: remain focused on the ultimate valuable outcome

If you’ve kicked off a project with everyone on the same page about its value and mission, you’re starting on the right track with a shared intent.

(Related: First Impressions Matter: How to introduce a new project so your team knows how to succeed.)

One particularly effective way to manifest these four ingredients is to focus on continuous improvement. Continuous improvement incorporates all four elements of trust: honest conversations (intent, integrity), a growth-orientated mindset (capability), and delivery of improvements (results).

Retrospectives, open space sessions, and hackathons can set the tone for how the team demonstrates, maintains, and improves trust with one another. 

Additionally, building genuine relationships is key for the team to create trust. Rituals like “questions of the day” at team meetings or recurring events (gaming day at lunch, bowling after work, cocktails over Zoom, etc.) create opportunities to get to know each other better on a personal level. Introversion is high in IT organizations, so those interested in building trust within the team need to be courageous and take the first step for these types of events. Once someone has made the first move, others often come forward to organize more trust-building activities.

Communication + Trust = Performance

In closing, how well your team communicates with and trusts one another is a significant determining factor of performance. These two elements are the invisible undercurrent setting the stage for every interaction within the team.

Teams dealing with low-complexity work and an absence of conflict may get by with poor communication and limited trust. But such a dynamic will quickly deteriorate IT teams that regularly deal with high complexity and stressful situations.

With well-established communication norms and trust-building mechanisms like continuous improvement, you can transform a group of people sitting near each other into a high-performing team that always has each other’s backs.