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Emotional Intelligence

Soft Skills

When we discuss useful tools in the DevOps and SRE space, we tend to speak in terms of technology (eg: observability, configuration management, container orchestration, CI/CD). These tools enable us to be successful by introducing reliability and efficiency to the systems that support our products.

They are ubiquitous; discussed in places like Hacker News, supported by large communities, have meetups and conferences, and the enterprise versions are aggressively sold and advertised… even in unlikely places such as subway stations and airport terminals.

However, there is another tool that is far more important and yet is grossly underrepresented in our discourse. There are no huge conferences for it, no cold emails from sales reps offering to demo it. And yet, those that use it tend to be more successful.

What am I talking about? Emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others. More specifically, it enables us to:

  • identify the emotions we are feeling;
  • effectively use them in reasoning and problem-solving;
  • and regulate them in ourselves and others when necessary.

Why is this important in the DevOps/SRE context? Successful use of emotional intelligence allows us to navigate stressful situations, gather important information when interacting with our colleagues, and make sound decisions- all important skills when trying to drive a transformation of a team or product.

Managing Stressful Situations and the ‘Amygdala Hijack’

Let’s talk about how we can better handle stressful situations. Recall your anatomy and physiology lessons in high school/college, particularly about the human brain.

There are a few components worth discussing here:

  • Thalamus: routes sensory data to other parts of the brain;
  • Neocortex: responsible for learning, memory, and language (all necessary for higher-order thinking);
  • Amygdala: involved in memory, decision-making, and emotional processes (which includes fear and aggression).

The amygdala is our brain’s monitoring and alerting system and operates with a faster reaction time than the neocortex. If the amygdala detects a threat from information relayed from the thalamus, it will trigger a fight or flight response taking over normal brain function, known as an ‘amygdala hijack’. All of this makes perfect sense: when reacting to a situation like swerving to avoid a car accident, defending yourself from a wild animal while hiking, or removing your hand from a hot stove, instant action is required. We need our amygdalas to keep us and our loved ones safe.

However, there is a side effect: the fight or flight response takes resources away from the neocortex in order to facilitate that reaction.

In other words: when we feel threatened, we cannot think clearly.

What do we do with this information?

First, we need to recognize moments when we feel threatened. In our industry, that can be:

  • Incidents, especially those we are on-call for or ones we had caused;
  • Interpersonal conflicts,
  • Harsh or unfair criticisms from a manager or client, especially when public

All of these situations are unpleasant, and in some cases do require timely action (eg: incidents), but none of them are actual physical threats requiring that level of response. Acting on those feelings, or making important decisions while experiencing them, can make the situation worse and have serious impacts on our teams and our careers.

Therefore, we must take responsibility for ourselves in the following ways:

  • A meditation/mindfulness practice enables us to stay in the present moment without judgment or feeling threatened.
  • Working with a therapist is a great way to tackle specific issues and will give you tools on how to better manage stressful situations. (Therapy is for everyone.)
  • When you do experience that fight or flight response- my best advice is to pause, excuse yourself from the situation if possible, and take some deep breaths to calm down and regain your ability to listen, clearly communicate, and reason.

Once we have better control of our own emotions and learn to appropriately respond (and not react), we can then create a work environment that supports the same for our peers. Examples of this are:

  • Conducting blameless post mortems (talking about incidents can induce feelings of guilt and shame if not properly managed, which can be very threatening).
  • Authoring thorough and understandable incident runbooks (Again, incidents are scary.) If you have clear instructions to follow, the on-call engineer can still respond effectively even if they are experiencing a fight or flight response. For this exact reason, some teams create a panic feature as part of their CLI toolset.
  • Moderating group discussions and pausing the conversation if a disagreement becomes too heated.

Managers have even more responsibility in how they interact with their reports:

  • The manager’s behavior sets the cultural tone. Emotional regulation is very important- one outburst can undermine the trust of the entire team.
  • Scheduling meetings should include providing the agenda up-front. Ambiguity creates anxiety, especially in this season of layoffs.
  • Constructive criticism should be delivered strictly in private and be bi-directional: reports should be encouraged to bring any opportunities for improvement to their manager.

These processes performed in concert will reduce the likelihood of being overwhelmed by threatening emotions for yourself and your team- and reduce the impact if they still happen.

Gathering Information In Social Settings

Emotions are information. Just as it’s important to be mindful of your own, also pay attention to the affect of others, meaning the observable signs of a person’s emotional experience. Sources of this information can be facial expressions, posture, body language, tone of voice, level of participation in a conversation, etc. For example, comedians do this by ‘reading the room’ during a performance to see if their audience finds their material funny, interesting, boring, or offensive, enabling them to change up their material if necessary.

This skill is important as it reveals things that a person may not want to openly say for fear of being criticized. Examples:

  • Does that team truly support the lead’s architectural proposal- or are they just going along with it in order to avoid conflict?
  • Is your manager (or your report) actually receptive to your ideas and feedback, or are they simply giving you lip service?
  • Did the organization buy into the vision presented by the CEO at today’s all-hands, or were they dismissive and waiting for the meeting to end?
  • Does your peer actually understand the complex problem you’re trying to explain to them, or are they just nodding their head in fear of being exposed?

These insights allow you to ask follow-up questions by speaking directly to the emotion you are sensing and prompting additional information. If done in a calm and supportive way, you may be able to get even more clarity on what they are thinking.

When driving change in an organization, buy-in and cross-functional collaboration are essential- meaning that ‘reading the room’ when introducing a new idea or process is always smart.

Making Decisions With A Clear Head

Consider the title of this article about Kubernetes on an IT training website:

What thoughts and emotions does it invoke in the reader?

Perhaps: “There are so many organizations using Kubernetes. If we don’t as well, we won’t be competitive in the workplace.”

Also consider the terms ‘fall behind’- suggesting an underperformance or failing to meet expectations.

Clearly the article’s title was meant to inspire fear in the reader, as well as a certain way of thinking: emotional reasoning.

Emotional reasoning is the state of being affected by your emotions to the degree that you accept them as reality. In the above example, you could decide to adopt Kubernetes because you are afraid of being exposed as an underperforming employee, team, or business. If you made such a decision on that basis alone- you would indeed be underperforming- by not doing the actual due diligence to determine if Kubernetes is the right fit for operating your company’s workloads.

Fear isn’t the only motivator. In my career, there was an instance where a certain NoSQL database was selected as the primary data store for a very high-profile website. This decision was made because at the time this database generated a lot of hype- there were no proofs of concept or performance benchmarking supporting their assertions that this was the right decision.

Within 6 months after launching, the site’s data persistence layer had to be rewritten to support plain and boring MySQL- as the original database choice failed to scale and was very difficult to operate.

Decisions made by emotional reasoning happens more often than you think. To combat this, before making any decision (especially when it involves a significant time or capital investment): ensure that the facts actually support it- no matter how exciting a shiny new technology is or how scary it is to not follow the norm.

EQ Is Not Just for Therapists

Emotional intelligence can be used to great effect especially in our industry, where there are incidents, high-pressure to perform, and growing pains associated with high-growth companies.

I believe that if we all can cultivate some self-awareness and empathy for others and put those skills into practice at work, especially in those challenging moments, we can transform our typically dysfunctional company cultures into open, supportive, creative- and ultimately successful ones.

Want to make changes to how your team communicates/collaborates? I would love to hear from you!


Image Credit: meo