How to deal with a team with broken communication

Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack



"I inherited a team who hadn't had a dedicated manager for six months. When I joined the team, I quickly noticed that communication between its members was broken. Team members were getting upset and emotional about any kind of interaction. They struggled to communicate with one another, and because this prevented the team from being able to make any technical decisions it was important to fix the problem. With a fast growing team, it's important as a leader to equip your team members with the skills to build trust with one another. With trust comes effective communication."

Actions taken

"You can't fix what you do not understand. Because I was new to the team, I needed to understand the team before taking any action. I first sought to understand the history of the team and each team member's perspective and connect with them on a human level, through regular weekly one-on-ones. I observed that the team was composed of both extroverted people, who gave and received feedback easily without taking things personally, and some more introverted people who were averse to giving or receiving feedback because they were afraid of showing their weaknesses to their more extroverted peers. Because the team grew quickly, the dynamics changed every time a new person was added. The root of the issue was psychological safety. Psychological safety is where people on a team have interpersonal trust and respect that allows people to be themselves. This is what gets people comfortable voicing their own points of view, which is essential in collaborative problem-solving."

"My conversations with the team confirmed my impression that everyone was in agreement that the team atmosphere was not pleasant and that it needed to be improved for the long-term health and productivity of the team. The team also did not have the skills to create a better team dynamic and so I used our weekly team meeting to educate them on teamwork. This was a diverse team of individuals who came from different backgrounds and experiences and, therefore, thought differently. I shared a framework with the team about how to give effective feedback and how to have difficult conversations. A great book on this subject is "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most" by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton. I encouraged my team to read this book and use the techniques from that book to prepare for difficult conversations. I also stated that I would not have conversations for people but I would help people prepare for conversations, because only the two individuals involved could improve their relationship with one another. I also organized team lunches every two weeks and this created a space for people to have informal time with one another. Informal time is important in building trust and finding commonalities with one another, as it allows people to see each other as human beings."

"Over the next few weeks, once the team had gotten used to giving feedback and had gotten to know one another on a personal level, I noticed improvements in their interactions with each other. The team were mindful of hearing everyone's thoughts when solving problems and moderated one another so that everyone had a chance to speak. This allowed them to interact effectively, without conflict. The other outcome of this was the team members gave each other peer-to-peer recognition, which is an important positive feedback loop for team bonding."

Lessons learned

"I managed to work with the team to improve communication by teaching them about why peer recognition is important, how to give effective feedback, and how to have difficult conversations with one another. Recognition and feedback are both important aspects of strong working relationships."

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Shivani Sharma

Senior Engineering Manager at Slack

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthSkill DevelopmentDiversity and Inclusion InitiativesIndividual Contributor RolesTeam & Project Management

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