Better communication for stronger leaders

This talk was presented at The Lead Developer Meetup in Berlin, November 2018 and is targeted at engineering leaders. Full speaker notes and slides below.

A separate version of this talk exists that’s designed for engineers. This is the video recording, and here are full speaker notes for the engineer version (in case you want to send it to your teammates).

Better communication for stronger leaders


Many signs of bad communication can be hard to see: like stress, unmet expectations, frustration, lack of innovation, decreased productivity, and even increased downtime.

Bad communication creates a ripple effect that can seed mistrust and erode relationships across an entire organisation. Especially when it comes from leaders in the organisation, bad communication is incredibly powerful – and incredibly destructive.

And here’s why. –

  • Communication is part of our work as leaders, and part of our teams’ work every day: It’s in what all of us say or sign: in meetings, at the water cooler, in the hallway. It’s in what we write: In code, comments, Pull Requests, code reviews, or messages. It’s in the nonverbal: In our body posture, facial expression. It’s in the visual, like in typography and symbols.
  • Engineering and engineering leadership require being able to express complex concepts to different people. We need a shared language with our teammates to be able to exchange knowledge and learn together.
  • At its core, engineering is about making decisions and tradeoffs. As an industry, we need engineers who communicate, who ask questions before writing the first line of code. — This, again, requires shared understanding.
  • And communication is a core skill for leaders. There’s a widely spread idea in our industry that engineers wouldn’t need communication skills. All of the above explains why this is an incredibly dangerous misconception. We need engineers who communicate well, communication isn’t a skill that you can just magically pick up once you transition into leadership. And you shouldn’t have to – It’s a skill all of us need to work on continuously, no matter if we’re in formal leadership roles or not.

You can’t be a good engineer, and you can’t be a good leader without being an effective communicator.

And being a good communicator will strengthen your team:

Communication is about building relationships. Building strong relationships with your teammates that are based on mutual trust and respect will enable you to be a more effective leader. The prerequisite for building these relationships is good communication.

Good communication improves motivation, increases productivity, improves work results – and it makes strong teams.

So what does it mean to communicate well? —
Over the last 13 years, I have had the honour of working with many extraordinary people and teams in Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas, and West Africa. The main thing all these teams have taught me is how vital intentionality is in our communication – good communication doesn’t happen “organically”. We need to be deliberate about it.

Good communication gets a point across clearly and coherently – it’s effective, and it’s about understanding, and being understood. This is why we always need to be deliberate about our communication, and we need to communicate effectively in inclusive ways, to ensure understanding. if there’s one thing you take away from this talk, make this your guiding principle in your daily work going forward.

And for everyone in a leadership role, we also have a responsibility to not just demonstrate these behaviours in our own work – but to also help our teammates communicate more inclusively.

Over the next minutes, I want to share with you what I learned from my teammates about how you can communicate more effectively and inclusively in engineering teams.

Good communication starts with you

And the first step is in reflecting on how you show up and what you bring when you communicate.

Show up with humbleness, with genuine interest and curiosity, and with a desire to build a relationship. Leave your ego at the door.

Be open in admitting your limits. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” This can be hard, because all of us want to be perceived as knowledgeable, and oftentimes may also feel like, being the ones in a leadership role, we were supposed to have all the answers. Spoiler alert: we’re not, and especially in a leadership role, admitting to what you don’t know can really help add to a culture of learning on your team.

Communication is essential work – but often falls to members of underrepresented groups in tech, oftentimes femme people. But everyone of us needs to do this work, especially all of us who have some form of power. Power can come through seniority, special expertise, good connections in your company, or through rank or title, and of course everyone in leadership positions has some form of this power. Power gives our words and actions more weight. Power dynamics are a beast, and can never be underestimated. All of us who have such power should be extra mindful in how we communicate, and use this power to take on some of this communication work for our teams. And if you have such power, being open about your limits and admitting what you don’t know can be tremendously useful for the tone you’re setting in your teams.

Emotional awareness is another important aspect, and can be a challenge to learn.— Men, especially cis white straight men, are still the majority in the tech industry, and are also still the majority of people in leadership positions in this industry. Many of us, especially men, grew up with specific ideas of what it means to be a “real man.”

Often, these are very narrow, repressive ideas, like having to be strong, dominant, and never displaying emotions, because emotions are considered a sign of weakness. These ideas are often summarised under the term “toxic masculinity”. Many men have been brought up to strive for this ideal of masculinity, and it’s still prevalent in our societies. This ideal is very harmful for men themselves, as it doesn’t allow them to fully express themselves and their emotions. And it’s harmful for others, as it leaves no room for emotional awareness, empathy, and for working to communicate better, because communication is considered a “soft skill” and “unmanly”.

These ideas of what it means to be a “real man” blend into interactions at work as well. Toxic masculinity erodes company cultures from the inside. Toxic masculinity impacts all of us, and all of us, regardless of our gender, can perpetuate it, consciously and unconsciously. Take time to examine your own ideas about yourself and masculinity, and think about which of them might not be helping you, or those around you. This can help you change for the better and build stronger relationships with others, – including with people you work with. –

The “bro culture” in many tech companies is the direct result of toxic masculinity, and it’s really harmful for teams. Examples of it are: “work hard play hard” work cultures, alcohol being a central part of company events (like in Friday beers), war mongering language around war rooms and battles, looking for “passion” in hiring, requiring employees to put their personal lives on hold while the company pursuits its next growth stage, centralised decision-making, as well as bad communication habits, contribute it. Calling women “girls”, being insensitive to exclusionary language, misogyny, as well as tolerance for microaggressions and hatred towards gay or trans people, are all other signs of such a culture.

The thing with bro culture is: you may not know that you’re in one, and you may even contribute to it unknowingly. But such cultures are incredibly exclusive. Examine your own behaviour for expressions of toxic masculinity. Examine your company culture for signs of bro culture. And work to make your culture more inclusive. And if you’re not sure what that looks like: hire and pay people to help you with that.

Practice the aforementioned finger-tip feeling or “Fingerspitzengefühl”–  learn to communicate with care, tact, and consideration for others. Read other people’s reactions not just for what they’re saying, but also for the feelings behind it, and address them in your responses. Learn about and practice empathy.

When you’re in a meeting, make sure that no one is dominating a conversation, especially yourself. Watch out for more quiet folks. Pull them into the conversation by addressing them directly: “what’s your opinion? I’d like to hear your thoughts”. Amplify other voices, especially when they’re these voices belong to members of underrepresented groups in the industry. Make sure their points are heard and noted by others – and by yourself.

There’s a leadership book entitled “Leaders eat last”, and I’d like to propose an alternative book entitled: “Leaders speak last”. I currently have a few managers myself who practice exactly that. They’re known to listen well, ask for and consider everyone’s opinions first, and share their own thoughts last. And it has great impact on our conversations, as it helps us hear much more diverse voices, and is a great way to avoid group think and work through power dynamics. Speaking last, and genuinely caring about what others have to say, will help you learn so much more from your teams.

Become a better listener

Without listening, good communication is impossible. And there are lots of things you can do to become a better listener.

Be open, instead of making assumptions. Assumptions mean we’re putting our own ideas of someone’s thoughts over their actual thoughts and perspective. Recognise that others bring context, expertise, and perspectives that you don’t have. Know that these can make you realise that a situation is more complex than you first thought it would be.

Listen to learn – not to respond. Listening with real intent means that I’m going to be open to being very wrong, and I’m comfortable with that in this conversation. Remember that conversations aren’t competitions, and they’re not for anyone to win. While you’re listening, don’t already plan your next contributions, don’t go over your emails, don’t mentally run through your own agenda. Focus, and focus on actually listening, and be ready to have your mind changed.

Use active listening: listen, then use phrases like “So you’re saying that…” or or “I understand that…”, and then repeat the gist of what you heard back to the speaker, to check with them if your understanding is correct.

We all want to be heard, seen, and acknowledged, but we also all have our limits. In any conversation, work to add your humble part, and strive to build on what others say: ask yourself, “what else do we need to achieve our goal?”, and use this to contribute to a great outcome. Be more invested in the result of a conversation than your own contributions.

Know your audience & adapt to them

Listening well is a first great step to knowing your audience –

Get to know your audience, learn about their needs, and adapt your communication style to them.
Some people want a lot of information, detail, context, and technical depth, others don’t – and these needs can also change depending on the subject. Show your audience how your topic relates with other topics they know about. Consider how they may react to what you’re conveying. Especially once you’re communicating with increasingly large audiences, knowing them becomes tricky. In these cases, make sure you have even shorter feedback loops, and adjust your communication constantly to ensure understanding.

Be culturally aware. Be mindful when you’re using references, industry jargon, idioms, expressions, or jokes, as they’re often only accessible to a small group. Anything that has layers of meaning can be super tricky to navigate, and far too easily misunderstood, so be mindful with it.

Choose the content of your communication wisely. You may have heard of the role of the manager being a “shield” for their teams. As a leader, it is your job to help your teams focus. But that doesn’t mean to keep them from everything. Managers aren’t glorified babysitters, and it’s not our job to pretend things are fine when they’re not.

And if your organisation is so dysfunctional that there’s so much crap flying around that people need to be shielded from, fix your organisation. And if you can’t do that, work with people instead of shielding them. Find ways to share with them what they need to know, without overwhelming them. Be empathetic. Help them understand context, bigger picture, and what’s going on around them, and work with them to create good things with them despite chaos — not by pretending the chaos isn’t there.

As a rule of thumb:

The bigger your audience, the more you need to be mindful in how you communicate.
And the less you know your audience and the weaker your relationship with them, the more you should be asking questions and reading their signals, so you can adapt.

Ask better questions

Another helpful path to knowing your audience is by asking good questions. They are a great way to open doors, connect with others, and build relationships.

Use neutral questions:.“how did you like the great team meeting yesterday?” – that’s a leading question: it already carries a glowing opinion, so it increases the barrier for the respondent to share a different opinion. Leave your biases and opinions out of questions as much as you can, and ask neutral questions: “how did you like our team meeting?”

Use open questions. They can help you uncover information and learn something new. Start your questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why”, like: “What did you think about our team meeting?” Thing with a tip like this one is, I’m sure you’ve all heard of this already. But I’d recommend you just watch the questions you ask for a day, and see how often you actually use neutral, open questions. Especially when things are hectic, it can be so easy to fall into closed questions, and carry our opinion into what we ask. But especially for leaders, power dynamics can make our questions turn into directives really easily.

You can learn more by using follow-up questions. They signal that you are listening, care, and want to know more. Ask: “what makes you say that?”, or “why do you take this approach?” to dig deeper:

I love questions that help us learn. “What should we do differently next time?”, or “What can we learn from this that might be useful to us in the future?” are great to help us continuously improve.

And: give the other person space to answer. Silence isn’t a void that always needs to be filled. Give people space to think and respond, and in the meantime, enjoy the silence.

Communicate early and often

When communication goes wrong, it often has to do with expectations that weren’t met: like when a project turns out to be a failure, or a piece of work doesn’t get ready on time, and it’s too late to change course. This is why timing and clear expectations are really important.

Clarify what you expect from your teammates. This is generally one of the fundamentals of good leadership, and especially important in communication. Define guidelines for how you want to communicate, the tools you use and in which ways you use them. Such guidelines can really help everyone understand what others expect of them, and help you communicate more effectively as a team.

Avoid surprises. Don’t wait until code review to share your direction. Communicate early and continuously to ensure shared understanding at all times.

Bad news should travel faster than good news, is what Bill Gates wrote. Share bad news early. it allows your teammates to react and take action. When kept in silence, bad news has a habit of only growing worse and bigger over time. Deliver bad news as soon as you hear them. The worst bad news is late bad news.

Ask for feedback early. Share drafts with your teammates, ask them for their input. Work with your team to understand their feedback, and take their into account. This is key to helping support a strong feedback culture, a learning culture, and a culture of continuous improvement on your teams. Iterate, make small, incremental improvements, and learn from your teammates, and together with them.

Focus on what really matters

Have you ever had a discussion about whether or not a feature should be built? Or anyone ever had a heated argument about which tool to use? Anyone? Or gotten into an argument about implementation details? This kind of situation can easily happen, it happens often – and often, it’s a warning sign that we’re discussing the wrong topics. In these situations, I like using questions to regain focus:

One of my favourite questions of all times is “what problem are we trying to solve?” When you see a discussion go down a rabbit hole, you can throw this question as a rope to drag it back to the light of day. It helps us connect with our main goal: solving problems – for our users, our company, or our team.

The second question I like asking is: “What is our priority?” When you’re facing a lot of different tasks, it’s easy to get lost in details and lose sight of the most important ones. This question connects us to what we actually want to accomplish.

In discussions about communication or collaboration, I like asking “What culture are we looking to build?” It’s useful because culture often appears as something really abstract that’s hard to grasp. Culture is the behaviours we reward and punish, and this question can help us remember that all our actions every day are part of building culture.

These questions are relatively simple, yet straightforward, which makes them very useful for turning conversations back to what really matters.

Write better

Another way how you can become a more effective communicator is by writing better. More and more of our communication in engineering teams relies on writing, so here’s how you can write better:

Knowing your audience is especially important in writing because even in chat, the communication pace is decreased – and you often don’t get immediate reactions which you could directly respond to. In written communication, important communication layers like body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and pace of speech are stripped away. Thus, if you can anticipate concerns or questions they may have: address them upfront in your writing.

Use direct, simple language and short words wherever possible. Don’t use long or complicated words to impress people. Wanting to be understood should always win over your desire to sound clever.

Say more with fewer words, and cut out all words or sentences that don’t add to your message. Write short sentences. They’re easier to read and can also be more accessible for multicultural audiences. Keep sentences to around 15-20 words. This is around one line in many chat tools and document editors.

Be mindful of the voice you’re using. You can use active or passive voice, and a great way for spotting passive voice was shared by Monzo: you can detect it when you can add “by monkeys” to a sentence and it still makes sense: “The incident was investigated – by monkeys”, “The bug will be fixed – by monkeys”. Passive voice is often used in incident reports. It creates emotional distance, disconnects from context and causes, and it removes clarity.
Active voice is more engaging, more personal, and clearer. It adds a layer of responsibility, because it makes ownership clear, and it helps you build trust. Use active voice wherever you can. Write: “We investigated the incident”, “I will fix the bug”.

With any message you send, ensure to convey your main message. Ask yourself: “What do I want the other person to do with this information?”, and include a clear call to action, request, or question to tell them what you expect or need of them.

Be direct, with kindness. Written communication can sometimes feel like walking on thin ice, especially when it’s asynchronous. So we often shy away from being direct, we soften our message, and use subtlety and nuance instead, and hope the other person will interpret things in the way we mean them. – Which often leads to misunderstandings. On the flip side, leaders easily overdo it on the side of directness. I’d like to encourage you to combine your directness with kindness, and a genuine desire to help your audience understand or grow. Practically, this means: Be thoughtful, don’t just blurt it out. Use “I”-statements, like: I think, I would like to, I want to ask you to. Use a neutral tone, and be succinct. Separate facts from your own feelings and observations. Make straightforward, clear, and specific requests about what you want. — Being more direct and kind with your teammates increases trust in relationships and ensures shared understanding.

Use Emoji, they can be really useful to get feelings across. Emotions are an important part of building relationships. But context like body language and facial expressions which convey them are missing from written language. Emoji can bring some of this context back. Emoji are also a relatively new way of communicating and they aren’t universal: we all bring our own life experiences and cultural contexts into how we translate them. This is why the only and golden rule of emoji use is, again: know your audience – the less you know them, and the weaker your relationship with them, the more you should be mindful when you use emoji.

Like in engineering, rewrites can be really useful for learning. Edit everything you write: simplify your language, remove unnecessary words, clarify your main message, and fix typos. If a document is important, have someone else review it. Editing can really help you learn to write better.

And know when to not write. Even if time zones make that hard: If you haven’t been able to clarify something after going back and forth about it twice, it’s time to talk. If something is upsetting you, it’s time to talk.

Writing better also means you can collaborate more asynchronously –

Make better use of synchronous time

which puts you and your team into a position where you can rethink how you use synchronous time.

One of the teams I’m currently working with is distributed across 3 continents and 16 time zones, all the way from Japan to the West Coast of the US. This team doesn’t have any time where all of them are working and could meet.

In a team like this one, it’s clear that synchronous time is the most precious good we have. But in teams in the same location or within close time zones, we often underestimate the cost of synchronicity: it interrupts, increases context switching, and it removes focus, all of which has impact on productivity and can also impact morale. And synchronicity doesn’t scale well, at all.

No matter if your closest teammate is on the same floor, in the same time zone, or not even on the same continent: Learn to write better, so you can have more effective written and asynchronous communication.

Make an inventory of your current synchronous communication, and ask yourself which parts of it can become asynchronous. Move status updates, check-ins, to asynchronous means of communication. Document and write instead of just talking. Record screencasts and walkthroughs. Stop your reliance on chat and @-mentions to get a hold of people immediately. Even some agile ceremonies like standups, scoping and sizing of tasks can be done async with a little planning.

And of course we can’t talk about synchronous time without talking about –

Meetings. Meetings are a recurring topic of heated discussions and think pieces: should engineers have meetings at all? For our engineering teams, some meetings are an essential part of our work. But, again, they come with a price tag. And that’s why we’re putting a lot of work into making the best use of this time that we spend together.

Even if you’re in the same location as all your teammates: Have better meetings. Develop meeting guidelines that include tools and tips that your teams can use to have better meetings. Plan meetings well. Use agendas. Prepare meetings asynchronously, and ask for input on your discussion topics upfront, so you can make the best use of your synchronous time as a group – this is one of my favourite ways of ensuring we use meetings in the best way possible. Facilitate meetings well, and help your teammates develop facilitation skills.

Share notes and action items for every meeting that you’re in. And continuously ask for feedback about these meetings, so you can improve. Especially with recurring meetings, make sure that they’re not just a block on people’s calendars, but actually stay relevant. — Own all your meetings, and take responsibility for making them the best use of everyone’s time. And sometimes this will mean just cancelling them.

Reserve synchronous time for what matters: for sharing context, working through fuzzy requirements, creating a shared understanding, reflecting together on how you work, and use it to discuss context and strategy – and: for building and strengthening relationships.

And: say thank you more often. Genuine gratitude helps strengthen relationships. When you appreciate someone’s work or actions, tell them. Be genuine, and be generous with your gratitude. When someone from a different team is doing something well, make a habit of also telling their manager to make sure that not only they know, but that their work also gets more visibility.

So now – what about you, and your team? I want to encourage you to work on how you communicate.
Learn to listen well. Know your audience. Ask good questions. Communicate early and often, and about what really matters. Write better. Use synchronous time well. And say thank you more often.

Communicate effectively in inclusive ways, to ensure understanding: to make sure that your teammates understand you. To improve your relationships with them. And — to become a stronger team.