Tackling the People Side of Technical Debt

Technical Debt

There’s a concept in software development called technical debt that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing quick and easy solutions over a better solution that could potentially take longer to implement. Technical debt comes with the obligation of interest similar to financial debt, but in the form of extra work in the future. Dag Liodden, CTO of Tapad, identifies three main types of technical debt in “There are 3 main types of technical debt. Here’s how to manage them”. I’d like to add to that list emotional rigidity. Though technically not technical, emotional rigidity has the same potential to hinder a team’s ability to be productive and efficient if left unaddressed for too long.

When members of a team or in extreme cases an entire team becomes emotionally rigid, the default choice is to avoid addressing the underlying causes rather than confronting them with courage and compassion. It becomes even more difficult for the team to respond optimally to everyday situations. In this blog, we’ll discuss the importance of addressing the people side of technical debt and what can be done to address it.

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Emotional Rigidity is the Human Side of Technical Debt

Emotional rigidity is when thoughts, feelings, and behaviors keep you or your entire team stuck in a place that does not benefit anyone in any way. The speed of change is accelerating every day and an organization’s need to stay relevant and responsive is critical more than ever. In this demanding world that is constantly changing, psychologist Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility (2016) asserts, we need to be resilient more than ever to deal with the only constants of each day – ambiguity and change. For David, the problem is paradoxically rooted in the same forces of speed and change. While demanding flexibility, these forces also conspire against us to remain emotionally rigid. With so much information thrown at us every day and decisions to be made, it is easy to go on autopilot and enter into a rigid way of thinking. It leaves little room for human interactions and reduces our relationships to transactions.

Emotional Rigidity at the Office  

At the office, we put our best efforts to focus on data, spreadsheets, and make cold rational decisions to increase productivity. According to David, it’s the perfect stage for all our bottled-up emotions to play out, whether we’re conscious of them or not. It is during the most critical and intense moments at work, such as receiving negative feedback, feeling pressured to take on more work, being told to work faster and increase velocity, having to deal with a supervisor or coworker with a very strong personality, or feeling under appreciated, that we can’t help but traverse down the path of emotional rigidity.

David refers to the idea of getting “hooked,” getting caught by a self-defeating emotion, thought, or behavior such as: No one understands me. If the team doesn’t care, why should I? I’m too busy to help. Nothing ever changes. I didn’t get that promotion because the system is rigged. If we fail to work through our internal anxieties and fears and allow them to grow out of proportion to the actual situation at hand – it can become paralyzing and unravel the thread that binds a team together. When things get really intense at work, it is all too easy to fall back on our “hooks.” These hooks create emotional rigidity and can lead to a toxic way of thinking that undermines a team’s culture and overall productivity.

The Goal: Emotional Agility

Emotional agility is not about avoiding stress, anger, or other uncomfortable feelings and emotions or denying its existence. Rather, it’s about accepting your stories, thoughts, and emotions with flexibility so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations with intentionality. You can read more about emotional agility by David in her 2013 Harvard Business Review article.

17th Century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza aptly wrote, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” A 2012 Concordia University study on general anxiety disorder led by Sonya Deschenes further illustrates Spinoza’s point. The study revealed a direct link between anger and anxiety suggesting that anger is more than an emotion. What Deschenes and her colleagues learned was that anger, specifically internalized anger expression – boiling inside without showing it, serves as a conduit that intensifies anxiety. If we do not try to understand our emotions, we simply suffer our emotions. It is when we seek to understand our emotions that a transformative effect occurs that provides the space for growth and freedom.

The goal of emotional agility is to delve into the space, what Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist describes, that exists between stimulus and response. Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Emotional agility is a process that allows you to be in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviors to live in a way that align with your intentions and values.

The presence of emotional rigidity in a team warrants immediate attention. Failure to do so can eventually lead to low team morale, unsatisfied employees, high rates of turnover, low productivity, missed deadlines, increase in avoidable mistakes, and much more. It requires both courage and compassion to handle people’s emotions and feelings with respect and sensitivity. Organizations seeking to be agile cannot afford to ignore the people side of technical debt any longer.

4 Steps Towards Emotional Agility

  1. ACCEPTANCE is a prerequisite for change. We can’t change ourselves or our circumstances until we accept what exists right now.
  2. INCREASE CAPACITY FOR SELF-AWARENESS. Understand your motivations, emotions, and identify factors or people that influence you both negatively and positively.
  3. BE MINDFUL and turn off the auto-pilot. Mindlessness can easily lead one down the path of getting stuck. It’s important to be present in the moment and notice what’s happening around you with a non-reactive mind.
  4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY TO MOVE ON and BUILD RESILIENCE. You alone have the choice to your happiness and life. Even though past decisions may have kept you from getting to your final destination it is important to recognize your ability to make new decisions. Seek alternatives and find ways to face your fears and accept the challenges in your life.

Our emotions help us connect to others and our external environment in order to survive as well as live more meaningful lives through our relationships. Teams that address emotional rigidity well are able to create better products and services. Remember, not all conflict is bad. In Bruce Tuckman’s 5 stages of group development, the 2nd stage storming is necessary to build a high performing team. To learn more about building healthy teams, I recommend Jordan Job’s reading list for Scrum Masters who are seeking to be change agents in their organization. Learn more about cultural agility and how Responsive Advisors can help today.

Rosanna Suh