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Feelings, Non-Violent Communication, and Feedback - The Rebirth of a Fallen Team

Honey Darling

Senior Software Engineering Manager at New Relic

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Problem

At New Relic, I joined a team that had fallen apart. Most of the team had turned over and there was a lot of baggage from the history of struggle the team had gone through together. When I came in, there was a lot of toxicity and difficulty in figuring out how to work together to produce great products for our customers.

Actions taken

The way I went about solving those problems on the team was by starting with trust building. I am the kind of manager that believes teams have to have ownership over the work they are doing in order to feel invested and part of the solution. So I sought out to have us not only discover where the ownership needed to be taken, but also how to create a better sense of openness within the team.

  • Assess team trust levels. We used an online tool (http://www.teamtrustsurvey.com/) in order to calibrate ourselves and emit a shared understanding of where we were.
  • Develop agreements around entering into vulnerable conversations. With the help of the GROW model, we set goals, established a reality, identified obstacles and options, and found a way forward in how we had our discussions around how we would work together.
  • Attend nonviolent communication training. A blossoming idea from the GROW model, we did a lot of exploration around this as a way to provide feedback for each other.
  • Identify individual and team needs. From there, we were able to come up with shared strategies to meet those needs.
  • Participate in one on one "coffee walks". Two engineers would go off and have coffee based on a rotation program the team set up.
  • Add appreciation into standups. To add positive feedback along with the critical stuff, we spoke about what we appreciate about a certain person's work or how they have been recently helpful. Sometimes it bounced around from person to person and other times focused it around one individual.

Lessons learned

  • The overarching thing I was able to take away from this experience was that feelings matter a lot and are an incredible signal for what is going on or what can be improved. This is especially true when considering team health and in finding a feeling of cohesiveness. I feel that it is essential to do that work first in order to get a team to be high functioning. If they do not have that, you won't be able to get there without making it a priority.
  • The main thing for the team at the beginning was that they didn't feel like they could be open with each other and provide feedback. The GROW model was an easy way to structure a path that lead to an actionable result. In this case, it was the team that chose nonviolent communication training as a means to improve how they provided feedback. Everybody got really excited about the idea and when I see people get really excited about something, especially when the team is struggling, I make sure to rally around that as a manager. The biggest change for the team was the way in which they were able to communicate their feelings, without acting out and making things worse.
  • This experience really taught me how to deal with feelings that are undermining the team and their performance. It's really about acknowledging people, their feelings, where they are coming from, and creating healthier strategies to meet those needs, as well as those of the team. We did a lot of work around identifying needs at the team and individual level, and then coming up with shared strategies to meet those needs. This catapulted the team into a much stronger, cohesive, less resentful acceptance of each other's feelings.
  • One of the issues with a feedback cycle is that engineers do not always have the chance to give and receive feedback, especially because they are usually working in a group dynamic. Setting up a schedule made it a lot easier to establish relationships and give proper feedback to one another.
  • Adding appreciation into our standups helped people to start observing the behavior and performance of others and share that recognition, while at the same time, making them feel seen and appreciated, which was a really big deal for this team.

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Honey Darling

Senior Software Engineering Manager at New Relic


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