Working Together

A New Way to Get The Most Out of Tech Workers

Tech companies are notoriously fast-paced and challenging places to work, yet burnout is an often discussed – but ignored — problem. It’s compounded by the fact that developers and engineers often work in silos. The result, says Christine Comaford, author of the book SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, is that it’s not uncommon for tech workers to go into what she terms “the critter state,” a fight/flight/freeze reaction.

How to combat that? Comaford says it’s critical for managers at tech firms to build a “tribe mentality to get the best out of their people.

In a conversation with Dice News, Comaford observes that innovative tech firms require special attention when it comes to creating the right company culture. A former Microsoft software engineer and venture capitalist, Comaford is now an advisor to large firms regarding HR and management issues, focusing on neuroscience-based leadership and culture coaching. DeLisa Alexander, Red Hat’s Chief People Officer, and Richard Stack, Vice President of Global Recruiting for Cloud Sherpas, also spoke with us, responding to Comaford’s tips and providing their unique perspectives from inside their growing tech firms.

1. Focus — Avoid ‘Shiny Object Syndrome’

Comaford argues that tech firms and their managers often go astray in overseeing people and projects because they refuse to focus their priorities. All too often, tech workers are told everything is important. “It’s not about doing more,” she says. “It’s about doing less.” So, managers need to rank the firm’s business activities or run the risk of sabotaging employee productivity.

Red Hat’s Alexander agrees, arguing that setting priorities is about getting rid of the “shiny object syndrome,” the distraction of too many new and competing objectives. By doing that “we’ve closed the aperture a bit,” she says.

2. Clarity — Compelling Vision or Vague Concept

Explicit, organization-wide communication keeps people motivated and productive. Says Alexander: “We’re dealing with a knowledge workforce, and they’re not handed a manual on what to do each and every day. They need to understand our mission and follow through on it. We have a methodology to teach people how our executive team thinks.”

For tasks that are critical to the company, adds Stack, it’s important to leverage a robust and open governance and communication model, constantly determining and reconfirming priorities.

3. Accountability — Move the Needle

People need to feel that they’re being treated fairly, and there need to be transparent structures for accountability, if a tech company is to establish an inclusive culture. “I do believe the key is aligning responsibility and accountability,” Stack says. “You need a very clear message regarding who is charged with specific tasks and how they will be measured and, ultimately, who will be accountable. With that accountability should come rewards.”

Alexander argues for a four step approach: freedom, courage, accountability and commitment. “You have to give a lot of freedom, and employees have to have the courage to act,” she says. “They need to be committed and accountable. After that, you can build community and rewards.”

4.  Influence — Load the Dice

Highly knowledgeable individuals need to know that they influence the organization. “We are a tribe and everyone has the same value,” says Comaford. Employees need to feel safe and as if they belong and matter. That’s how people rise up to new levels of leadership.

“If someone feels like they understand the greater mission and feel like they can contribute to it, are measured and rewarded appropriately for their contributions, and spend their day within respected relationships, they will find the proper sense of belonging,” Stack adds.

5. Sustainability — Tension to Empowerment

Not surprisingly, burnout is a top concern for tech workers. To avoid it, Comaford says managers should be responsible for keeping close tabs on the problem and get employees to “ditch, delegate, or defer work to another time.”

Stack warns that “organizations in high velocity and evolving industries, like ours, have an even greater risk,” so often a fresh perspective is what’s needed to keep employees from burning out. Cloud Sherpas addresses the problem by providing rotation opportunities and cross training. The mission, Stack says, is to maintain career freshness and opportunities by providing support for rotating in and out of projects and business units, as well as challenging staff to help recruit and develop the talent that can succeed them.

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About Myra Thomas

Myra Thomas is an award-winning business reporter. She started her career in finance, eventually becoming AVP for a Lloyd’s of London intermediary. She applies her extensive business knowledge to the world of reporting. Her stories run the gamut of topics, including tech, banking, healthcare, personal finance, and small business. She has a BA from Vassar College and an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Myra lives in Fanwood, New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and two fierce Cairn Terriers.