Thriving within the sh*tstorm echo-chamber

Bonding over negativity in the shitstorm
Can you navigate your way through the sh*tstorm?

We’ve been there before. Tension is high, morale is low and there are seemingly an insurmountable number of problems to solve. People are bonding over negativity, more than by any other means.

You are in the middle of the sh*tstorm.

I’ve seen it most often in major capital projects with many different parties all trying (unsuccessfully) to work together. Mixed messages abound, communication is just not getting through (or even arriving!) and everyone is trying to get their own work complete at any cost, without much regard for others.

I don’t have time to worry about the other teams, dammit! I’ve got to get my work done!

Living in the sh*tstorm echo-chamber

One of the interesting things about living through a sh*tstorm of a project is that if you aren’t careful, it becomes an echo-chamber (one of my old manager’s terms) of negativity which makes the whole exercise an impossible undertaking.

The echo-chamber happens when everyone you talk to within a project bonds with everyone else by telling their war stories about how the stakeholders are a nightmare or they can’t get other teams to understand what they are doing. You hear an echo because for every retelling of a bad experience you communicate, you hear a similar story right back from somebody else.

When everybody starts bonding over negativity and lack of success, it becomes the most prominent topic of conversation in the project. Any successes that people are having are quickly overshadowed by the louder failures. People who are struggling don’t often want to hear about successes that others are having, because they like to wallow in the failures and the futility of it all.

However, often there are successes going on somewhere, it’s just that they aren’t as fun to talk about, especially if you haven’t been a part of them.

After a while of living in the echo-chamber, it begins to feel like you are all doomed.

How do leaders withstand the echo-chamber?

It’s very, very, very difficult not to become downtrodden when you are working in an environment of extreme negativity for prolonged periods.

I’ve struggled with this on a number of occasions. It’s tough, because bitching can be a good way to bond. When you don’t seem to be getting anywhere for long periods, failure and frustration becomes the norm.

When I left one sh*tstorm of a project after 14 months of bashing my head against the wall with some difficult stakeholders, my boss left me this message in my leaving card:

Thank you for your help. You did a thankless job very well and made my job easier.

Since that time, that particular project has been delayed twice and is under a cloud of controversy.

Was it because I left? Heck no! I wasn’t that important. But that project definitely damaged my sense of self-worth and made me doubt my abilities and I still carry some residual doubts to this day.

During that project I was leading a small team, and while my attitude was very negative, I still think I did some things well. However, if I had my time again, this is what I would do to resist the sh*tstorm echo-chamber effect.

1. Look very, very hard to find successes even outside of your team and communicate them

It is easy to find failure and to complain about difficult people. But in any significant project, there are successes happening, somewhere. Find them, tell your team. Balance the good news with the bad. Never ignore the bad news, but always spread the good news.

2. Feel free to vent about your own struggles, but don’t pass on the second-hand complaints of others

Sometimes you need to vent. That’s OK. Tell your struggle stories to the people you can trust. However, during the course of your day, you will come across other people who vent about their own troubles. I suggest not passing these on, because otherwise you will find you have a never-ending supply of negative stories to tell.

Did you hear about what happened to Jack? OMG, he was like, sooooo angry. Let me tell you all about it!

If something happened to you directly, go-on, let yourself have a vent. But don’t wallow over the failures and trials that others have experienced as if they were your own, because it simply magnifies the negativity within the echo-chamber.

3. Be involved closely with the dealings of your team, and support the sh*t out of them

In a sh*tstorm, you can be sure that there will be accusations flying around. “She did this”, “They said that”, “I can’t believe they are so incompetent”. You know the score.

Your team will probably incur some criticism at some point during a sh*tstorm, nobody is perfect after all. All I can advise is that you back your team publicly.

Sure, behind the scenes, you might give some advice on what to do better, but if you have a well-meaning team who is trying to get the job done, back them up and take the flak for them when you need to. This is one instance where I will say that I did well. My team was good and trying hard, so I stood by them and defended them against the attackers.

The closer you are to your team, the more you know what’s happening. When somebody is shooting their mouth off with accusations, you need to be aware of the truth if you can. That will give you the umbrella you need to shelter your team, so they can get things done.

Shitstorm umbrella
A sketch by Julie Zhuo in Average Manager vs. Great Manager

Living through a sh*tstorm isn’t easy, and thriving within the echo-chamber is even harder. It’s never going to be an enjoyable existence, but you will learn a lot and remember that you’re better now than you were when you first walked into that first storm. Be sure that you aren’t bonding over negativity to the extent that it’s too hard to come back from it.

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