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We Are What We Celebrate

Perspectives in Engineering

We Are What We Celebrate

A story about praising things that are not coherent with the technical organization

I remember the meeting well. It was an all-hands meeting. A leader rattled off a number of the “big wins” from the last month. All of them were customer-facing.

Sales did this. Marketing did this. The “feature teams” did that. I was sitting with a developer near the corner of the room, watching the slides whirl by.

Slide after slide, different groups received well-deserved praise. But when we finally reached “questions,” my developer friend walked out.

Later I asked what had happened. I had a hunch, but wanted to hear the full story.

I learned that the last month had been extremely hard on Ops. They were working tirelessly to stabilize a system put under great strain by rapid growth. The “good news”, that we later celebrated, was causing cracks to emerge everywhere. My friend and his team had given their all to hold the system up, quickly patching fractures before they resulted in an outage.

Even worse, the team had experienced a number of meetings that seemed to have little purpose other than to lecture, to micromanage, and to add stress.

“The least leadership could have done,” he said, “is acknowledge our hard work. None of that good news would have been possible if it weren’t for the hard work of the team.”

This is not a unique story.

We tend to fetishize the shiny objects, the new features, the “big customer wins.” Anything that’s symbolic of “growth”.

But in the background of any organization, hidden beneath the hype, are teams of people holding the ship afloat. In this case, the team was serving as a backbone. They were working to maintain the system, instead of focusing on adding to it.

If we are what we celebrate, then too many organizations are communicating that they don’t value this type of work.

Granted, we don’t necessarily want to celebrate “heroics”. The fact that there was almost an outage, and that folks pulled “crazy hours” to fix the problem, isn’t something people are altogether proud of. So it’s easy to see why leadership might choose to not publicly praise the team—working long hours with high levels of stress isn’t something they’d like to replicate.

Even more, we want to emphasize “what our customers are experiencing,” right? Sounds reasonable, but there’s a mismatch. When customers aren’t experiencing friction, that’s a job well done. Customers expect performance, stability, and intuitive design. It can be easy to forget that there’s an ecosystem of parts underneath the hood, making it all “work”. So naturally, organizations take reliability for granted as well.

So the problem ultimately boils down to 1. not being aware of what we (naturally) feel is worthwhile mentioning, and 2. not realizing the importance of the things we—especially in leadership—say and don’t say.

So how do we define a “win”?

You may have heard the saying, “culture is the behaviors you reward and punish.” When praising, promoting, or punishing, look to your company values first. But even then, there’s plenty of gray area. So here are a few considerations that I often see leadership overlook:

1. Different people have different perspectives on what an accomplishment is.

For some, celebration often lacks bite and data. It will always feel like “shiny objects”, even when the wins are substantial. This is an important consideration for leadership. The way you describe the “win”, may not be how the folks on your team process “wins”. We need a mix of qualitative and quantitative data to appeal to a diverse audience.

It’s also important to keep this idea in mind when looking to others to contribute to the list of things to celebrate. Only asking for one perspective—a product manager’s or a director’s, for example—on what’s “important”, will most likely reflect the world as they see it. Likely, you’ll miss out on what’s happening on the ground, and on what really matters to different teams.

And finally, it’s easy to reward the self-promoters. They are skilled at standing out. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t forget those who aren’t like that.

2. New employees, and ‘firsts’.

For new employees, it can be daunting to hear about the “big wins” when they are struggling to finish their first project inside the company. Everything feels slow and challenging. So celebrating ‘firsts’ helps build empathy and demonstrate values. It shows that learning is important, and that support for newcomers is important. Newcomers shouldn’t have to wait a year to enjoy some recognition.

3. Heroics.

How often do you celebrate ‘heroics’, vs. the team that delivered on something in a disciplined way? I remember a “drop everything” project that worked, somehow. This was deemed to be a huge success. “If only we could work like this all the time,” mentioned the CEO, longingly. But to the people working on the effort, the progress was not special. They had been giving permission to drop everything—their normal responsibilities—and focus on one thing (a luxury). So to celebrate that, felt off. And then to go back to “business as usual” and to be expected to meet that high standard, was very unreasonable.

4. Short and long-term wins.

Many times, the “results” we see today are really a result of the efforts of the last year. If we only talk about the “win”, and don’t tie it back to the hard work months ago, we may not be acknowledging the hard work of the team. Heck, even they might not be able to really remember what was happening then. So celebration should indicate the small wins from current work, as well as the “big outcomes” that were percolating for months.

Along that note, showing regular, frequent progress against what is viewed as systemic issues, can send a far more powerful message than “here’s the NEW stuff!” If your goal is to retain employees, it’s far more important to know that shit generally gets fixed.

5. Celebrate learning in success and failure.

Celebrating learning—in success and in the midst of failure—sends a powerful message to the team. It’s natural to want to tip-toe around “embracing failure”, but for a growing company, you aren’t taking enough risks if you aren’t failing and learning often. Celebrate canning an unsuccessful initiative and share what you learned. If all you celebrate are the ‘wins’, you disincentive people from taking risks.

As for success, it’s simple, but so often overlooked. What made this success possible? You’ll most likely hear a number of different answers. Talk about it, so the team can learn from what really worked, how it could have gone differently, and how it could have been executed even better. That said, be careful to not jump to “room for improvement” too quickly. Allow time for the team to enjoy their hard-earned win.

Parting thoughts

It’s worth mentioning just how salient these moments really are. A single sentence from a CEO can set the standard for the company. A snide remark, rewarding toxic behavior, or downplaying hard work…That sends a strong message. It is not trivial. So when it comes to choosing the words you say in the presence of others, choose wisely.

Nothing turns people off more than praising things that are not coherent with the stated values of the organization. So celebrate the actions that personify your company culture.