Fear and loathing in IT: how to transform your teams’ communications

Ever known someone who just sucks at communicating? Who can’t be honest about how they feel?

“I love you.”

“Er, cool.”


That person is fooling no one. Except perhaps their partner. Unnecessary pain ensues.

Take-away: communicating openly with other human beings reduces suffering. But it’s very hard to do – which is precisely why it’s so valuable.

In the IT world, things are no different. If resentments build between individuals or teams, information is withheld, a sense of competition prevails, an unwillingness to take responsibility develops or any other kind of organisationally-maladaptive behaviour emerges, unnecessary pain will ensue…

…which ultimately cascades down to the customer in the form of poorer application delivery and performance.

How do you avoid this?

Culture is the cornerstone.

But how do you know what your culture is? Problematically, it’s really only when people start communicating honestly and openly that you realize what your departmental culture actually looks like deep down. This creates a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem that has to be resolved with purposeful action. It’s unlikely that it transparency will arise by itself.

So you will need a bit of legwork from yourself to get the transparency ball rolling. Set up some internal comms champions in the business. Get senior management buy-in. Impose organised fun in top-down authoritarian fashion (maybe).

Because when you do improve your communications, that’s when the veiled deficiencies and blind spots start to become more clearly illuminated. And also where hotspots for collaboration reveal themselves. Opportunities for improvement that cannot be revealed by one-to-one or closed modes of communication.

For example, at Claranet we created and implemented our own transparent internal chat system that has catalysed a shift in how we work. If an infrastructure issue arises, it allows the different skill sets across the company to get the latest from engineers on the ground and respond quickly and appropriately – all in an open forum.

Importantly, everyone – from junior engineers to the person looking after our Twitter feed to our CEO – can keep track of a particular incident and respond appropriately to his or her stakeholders.

There are plenty of practical benefits to this kind of open communication.

  1. When a question is asked publicly, it only needs to be asked once, rather than many times. What’s more, as people are witnessing IT problems being solved openly again and again they are learning each time, eventually gaining the confidence to contribute themselves.
  2. Open communications leads to a natural upskilling as colleagues observe the whole problem-solving process by those in-the-know, which, with repetition, results in learning.
  3. Via the above processes, you don’t end up with isolated teams who are clueless about what’s going on in their department as a whole, obviating the need for them to receive expensive training to even be able to participate in the conversation.
  4. Finally, once communications are open, the petty, solipsistic internal politics tends to die down as well. It’s no longer a free-for-all of individuals – or small groups of individuals – but obviously a team effort, based on knowledge-sharing, collaboration and a focus on the end result, rather than on individual success.

Passing it forward

Transparent communications are incredibly helpful when dealing with external customers, also.

When a customer is complaining about your service it’s tempting to try to give away as little as possible whilst you fix the problem – thinking that this limits the damage that can be done. If you don’t say anything, they can’t use it against you.

But here you’re talking about the social animal par excellence – the human being. They can smell the pungent whiff of your lack of transparency a mile away – and it’s not pleasant.

Imagine that your kid has done something wrong (or if you don’t have kids, recall a time when you did something naughty as a nipper – I once poured a barrel-full of Rumtopf over myself, for instance, the room smelt of rum for months). If the kid ‘fesses up and tries to rectify the situation does it make you more mad than if they try to dissemble, delay and weasel their way out?

It’s much more palatable – not to mention effective – for both sides to be working together. But for that to happen you need to build a trusted relationship. And this can only be built up over time through the regular deployment of honesty and transparency in communications.

Then your customer – even when something has gone wrong – is working with you rather than shouting at you as you desperately try to fix whatever problem you have.