Swing, Batter-Batter-Batter! June 29, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: Best Of 2009, Communication, Leadership, Teams
It’s easy to tell when a youth baseball team is struggling: they fall silent. If the silence persists for any length of time, the coach (or a parent in the stands) will yell out, “Let’s hear a little chatter out there!” This request hopefully refocuses the team as they start talking again.
Baseball chatter falls into two broad categories: inane repetitive noise and helpful advice between the players. The inane noise is designed to annoy and distract the opposing team, especially the pitcher and batter as they duel at the plate. The helpful advice is more important: players call out potential defensive plays, adjust coverage, warn about possible bunts or steals, and so forth.
The parallels for any support team, and especially IT organizations, is obvious. A happy team is constantly communicating with themselves, in matters both large and small. As changes occur and problems arise, they go out of their way to make sure people know what is going on. The communication is fluid and consistent. Ideally, most of the chatter should fall into the “helpful advice” category, although it could be fun to taunt your DBA during a big upgrade. (“Drop, table-table-table!”)
As a leader, are you listening for chatter in your team? Are you even in a position to hear it? Chatter is in the break room, the hallways, and the parking lot. It’s both verbal and electronic, via Twitter, SMS, and instant messaging. Chatter isn’t in the formal memos, project charters, and design documents. It may not even be in the general email flow. In fact, formal communication is the enemy of chatter.
When teams get bogged down in Memos and Documents, they stop chattering. They begin to formalize their communication, creating paper trails and looking to cover their read ends. They think before sharing and selectively reveal information to suit their own agendas. This kind of thinking, putting self before team, is disastrous for any group. If it persists, the whole group will fail.
Leaders must create a culture that promotes chatter. This includes both physical and cultural components:
- Does the work environment provide places for people to gather and chatter? Are teams co-located so they naturally interact? Are there places for groups to meet informally? Is it easy to see when people have gathered, so that others can join the conversation?
- Are people inclined to chatter? It’s easy for people to send email back and forth all day. Do you encourage them to get up and actually engage in conversations? Do you walk around and engage in conversations? Do you provide positive feedback to groups when you see them gathering and chattering? Do you use chatter to communicate to your direct reports?
Stuffy, staid environments inhibit chatter. Do you work in such an environment? Have you inadvertently created one? Here’s an easy test: from your office, can you occasionally hear laughter? If your people are not enjoying themselves to the point where they laugh every now and then, how can you expect them to chatter? How often do you laugh with your team?
Our work teams are more complicated than a baseball team, but the core value of chatter is just as important. We can’t simply call out and make them start chattering. We have to build environments and foster cultures that make people chatter on their own. Are your people chattering?