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The effect of indirect actions on team dynamics
How to act the next time you find yourself in a conversation that's giving off some bad vibes, or even an intense one.
When I started this role about 4+ years ago, I never thought about how indirect actions could shape the people around me even more than any direct action or speech on the stage.
This is true both in the short and long term.
Some time ago, during a break, we discussed this pattern along with some colleagues. It's impressive to see how people slowly start to imitate their managers in their everyday work life, both in positive and negative aspects.
Looking at everyday life, it's easy to recognize how the mood of those around us very influences us. Usually, it's not even something we do consciously; most of the time we unconsciously pick up on a different tone of voice, observe the body language of people nearby, and our brain does the rest.
Nothing strange; in fact, our brain is hard-wired for this stuff.
We are constantly on the lookout for threats in our environment that could lead to bad news. Our brain assembles signals from gestures, voice tone, facial expression, words, and so on to infer behavior or make (sometimes wrong) assumptions.
Moreover, humans tend to mirror each other.
Mirroring is a nonverbal technique where a person copies another person's body language, attitude, or vocal qualities.
From an evolutionary perspective, being in sync with members of your group is vital to survival; it signals that we are connected to a person in some way.
The whole point of mirroring is that it’s a way to understand better and connect with others.
Being able to mirror someone is the same as listening to someone.
How does this affect your role?
Spreading fever is not a good idea, even if there are reasons to feel sick.
Mirroring in teams is a sign of trust, but you must take it responsibly.
How often have you left a bad meeting only to have those strange vibes picked up by other people?
I consider myself a very empathetic person.
It's easy for me to pick up on the general mood of a person or group in the room. For the same reason, it has always been easy for me to influence (and be influenced by) the "temperature" of people.
However, in any leadership role (and generally speaking, every senior role) part of the job is to learn when and how to intentionally change the vibes in the room.
Sometimes it's not spreading flu, but just a rash.
Some other times instead, you need to take action to avoid worse situations.
It’s not always easy, that’s for sure.
You will end up making many more mistakes than you would like.
But it's an exercise that you carry with you throughout your entire life.
I would love to take a look at some tricks you can apply to reset the temperature of a group when a flu is about to spread all over the members.
Reset the temperature
Model the environment using your tone, body language, and wise word choice.
If you’re noticing a major shift in someone’s demeanor, instead of guessing what's going on for them, it is better to ask an open question about what they need or how they're feeling.
Be intentional about the tone that you’re using since your body language always reflects your real mood. You’re responsible for communicating that you want to hear what they have to say, and that you’re here to support them.
Soft eye contact is better than keeping constant eye contact (which is, frankly, a little creepy). You can break eye contact every few seconds naturally, then connect again, and this still feels attentive and affirming to the other person.
You smiled a bit, told a little joke that made them chuckle, and nodded at the pace that they spoke to indicate you were listening, and their mood started to change.
Sometimes people may feel overwhelmed, stressed, or distracted.
In these situations, the best way you can do is to take a break.
It's like when you feel stuck with a coding issue.
That's the same, take a breath... and a break.
Offer a pause in the conversation and a plan to return to it later.
Try to intentionally avoid putting someone else on the spot or making them feel attacked:
"I really want to support you on this.
How would you feel about us taking a break now to spend some more time thinking it through?"
What I learned
If you aim to be in a leadership role, you're a senior engineer or you're in charge of a team, you should always remember how strongly indirect actions can influence all the members of your group.
Moreover, it's your responsibility to avoid acting like a flu spreader.
You need to acknowledge tense or awkward situations, or you’re going to risk developing a forever-antagonistic relationship with them.
Also not supported assumptions can lead you to the wrong path: talk to the people.