Blog Having crucial conversations on an all-remote team
Published on: February 18, 2021
8 min read

Having crucial conversations on an all-remote team

Exploring crucial conversations and the way they fit into our values here at GitLab.


Last week, I attended the Crucial Conversations training. Since joining the GitLab Learning and Development team back in October of 2020, requests for support in having difficult conversations with team members have been a recurring theme from people leaders. I completed this training as the first step in a two-part training that will enable myself and other members of the Learning and Development team to be certified to train the GitLab team in having crucial conversations.

In this post, I'll outline a few key takeaways from the course, share how crucial conversations look in an all-remote work environment, and explain how crucial conversations connect to our CREDIT values.

What are crucial conversations?

When a conversation turns crucial, emotions and stressors are running high. Crucial conversations can occur any day, at any time, with any person. They can be planned or they can come out of a casual conversation.

Crucial conversations usually address one of three topics, but it's not abnormal for a crucial conversation to touch multiple topics!

  1. Content: This could be a crucial conversation about a one-time issue, like a missed deadline, forgotten appointment, or an aggrivating comment. Content conversations address what happened and how to move forward from it.

  2. Pattern: When topics of content conversations happen time after time, they become a pattern conversation. Crucial conversations to address patterns could be centered around multiple missed responsibilities or repetitive comments that impact a team's ability to work together efficiently. At home, maybe your requests to your partner to take their phone calls in another room to keep a quiet workspace have been repeatedly ignored. Or at work, your direct report has missed the end of month reporting deadline for 3 months in a row. It's important to address pattern conversation early to get to the root cause, which is likely a content issue.

A quick note about pattern conversations: At the time of writing this blog post, our world has just hit the one-year mark of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. While addressing patterns is important, it's equally as important to treat each other with kindess and understand that pandemic-induced stress might show itself in problematic patterns. All the more reason to have a conversation about it!

  1. Relationship: Here's when things get sticky. Content and pattern conversations are about the action happening (or not happening). But relationship conversations are about the people having the conversation. These crucial conversations could be about a lack of trust or mutual respect in a relationship, differing communication styles, or lack of agreement on a project or plan of action. It's also important to remember that conversations intended to be content or pattern-focused can turn into relationship conversations quickly, especially when the person feels an emotional tie to the work or action being discussed.

Understanding what crucial conversations are is as important as understanding what crucial conversations are not. Crucial conversations are not synonymous with conflict. This was one of the first things we addressed in the training and I think it's one of the most important factors. When we enter crucial conversations prepared for conflict, we're already approaching fight or flight. We're ready to defend ourselves, to act in protection mode. The goal of crucial conversations is not to fight or protect ourselves, but rather to collaborate on desired results.

Take a second to think about the last time you were part of a crucial conversation - a conversation where you perhaps felt stressed, overwhelmed, or nervous about the topic being discussed. How did your body react? Did your heart rate increase? Did you fall silent? Maybe instead your voice was raised. We each respond to crucial conversations in different ways that detract from the main goal of arriving at a solution that works for all parties.

We've likely all been part of a crucial conversation in the past, whether it be at work or home. Once we know how to identify these conversations, we can move on to strategies for having them effectively.

At GitLab, this means having effective, results-driven crucial conversations on Zoom with people from all over the world, which brings its own set of unique challenges.

Having crucial conversations is hard, and an all-remote team brings its own challenges.

In an office setting, you might pass by a manager or colleague who asks to discuss a challenge or frustration they're having with your work. Or at home, you might spend time after dinner discussing household responsibilities with your children or roommates. During these crucial conversations, we feed off of body language, tone, and energy in the room to recognize if someone feels psychologically unsafe.

But on Zoom, when your teammate might be in their home office across town or across the globe, we need to use different cues to build safety and trust.

Some ways we do that at GitLab include:

  1. We meet regularly with our people leaders in 1:1 meetings. These regular sessions give space for team members to raise crucial conversations often and address challenges and blockers early.
  2. We keep 1:1 agendas to get a heads up on what will be discussed and to document action items and takeaways from synchronous conversations.
  3. We watch for the body language cues that we can see on a video call or in a person's tone of voice. This includes checking if someone turns their camera off mid-call, becomes silent or unresponsive to the conversation, or sounds choked up or angry.
  4. We create intentional space for pause. There can be a sense of pressure to fill every minute during any conversation. During video or phone conversations, silence might feel more uncomfortable. We ask for and respect requests for a minute to think before responding right away.

These strategies aren't exclusive to an all-remote team - I'm sure they can have a positive impact on in-person crucial conversations, too! But when working on a remote team, it's important to recognize what's missing from in-person connection and be mindful to make the space as safe as possible.

I've explained what crucial conversations are and how they show up in an all-remote work environment, but most importantly, I need to explain the why.

Why do crucial conversations matter?

Crucial conversations enable our team to live our CREDIT values. In our values hierarchy, we prioritize results. What I love most about crucial conversations is that they also prioritize results.

Here's an example:

Imagine you're an individual contributor at GitLab. You're feeling overwhelmed with the number of projects on your plate this quarter.

If you wanted, you could commit to each project, knowing the deadlines were probably unrealistic. You could show up to work each day feeling stressed and overwhelmed. You might snap one day, saying something out of frustration to your team, and regret the comment later on.

Or, you could decide to address the issue with your manager in your 1:1. You can:

  1. Collect your facts. In this case, it's your list of projects all due in the quarter.
  2. Share your story. Express how the workload feels unattainable and you know you can't complete your best work in the given time frame)
  3. Come to a conclusion together. Perhaps you decide to prioritize projects, breaking each project down into specific tasks and moving long-term priorities to the next quarter.

This second scenario is completely based on results. This crucial conversation has enabled you to set yourself up for success in completing every project with your highest quality of work. The company benefits from your high-quality output. Your team benefits from having a team member who isn't totally stressed out. You benefit from feeling safe and confident in the work you're doing. Every outcome from the conversation can be traced back to a key result for yourself, your team, and the company.

With such a focus on results, our GitLab team should be having crucial conversations every day!

I see crucial conversations map back to the rest of our values as well. You can read more about the alignment of GitLab values to crucial conversations in our handbook.

Getting started having crucial conversations

If you've read through this post and want to give crucial conversations a try, here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Read our Crucial Conversations handbook page.
  2. Read our Psychological Safety handbook page. Creating safe space to have crucial conversations is essential.
  3. Check out the Crucial Conversations training from VitalSmarts. GitLab team members might consider using our Growth and Development benefit to take the training themselves.
  4. Try it out! Practicing crucial conversations is the key to getting better at the skills, so give it a try at work, at home, or even with yourself!
  5. GitLab team members - keep an eye out for internal Crucial Conversations training coming in Q2/Q3 of this year as the Learning and Development team gets certified to deliver the training!

Looking for more Learning and Development material from GitLab?

If you want to learn more about what the Learning and Development team at GitLab is up to, check out our handbook page or read our past newsletters. You can also reach us at [email protected].

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