Why it can be hard to find fulfilment in IT and what to do about it in 5 points. Musings on expectations, closure and Gestalt psychology 💫
Recently, I’ve been exploring how, in some environments in IT, people expectations mismatch reality and how we seek closure that seems never to come. This is not a sustainable mix that can lead to high churn and burnout.
In this article, with the help of Gestalt psychology, I share:
the problem behind closure
stability vs expectations dilemma
what is closure in this context, and why do we need it
where to seek it, and how it can make your work life more fulfilling
People working in IT are not finding fulfilment due to seeking stability where there is change and having too many threads open, which consumes their energy.
🧘🏼♂️Seeking stability explained
In some environments people associate coming to work with certain characteristics:
stability of salary
expectations as per performance management
tempo of work
stability of work
The last one, from my experience working with teams, comes with an expectation of regular work coming in at a sustainable pace. I come to work, do my thing in 8 hours and go home.
Let's compare these expectations with IT reality where the workload varies, priorities change often and people are required to make more decisions and have more interactions, e.g. with the client or internal business, clarifying possibilities and scope.
These often are perceived as outside the role for a developer - "I am here to write code" or "I have enough responsibilities on my plate" and can lead to frustration or burn out. This is due to the cognitive dissonance1.
Whether it is outside of the role or not might differ depending on the organisation. To me, it’s hard to imagine a team taking ownership of their product with only thinking about the code. It might be mainly the PMs role to clarify expectations, yet treating experts on the team as coding monkeys will significantly limit the potential of what you get. But I digress..
Frequent changes in the backlog, environment and how teams work can lead to many open threads.
That brings us to the topic of closure.
💫What is and why we need closure?
In Gestalt therapy, we have the Law of Closure, which we interpret as:
"an unfinished experience (…) constantly occupies the attention and prevents the full experience of the present"2
In other words - open loops, especially connected with strong emotions and experiences, take up our energy unless closed. We need closure to manage our energy and attention better.
The above loops are also used in Holywood movies to keep our attention and interest when they open a scene soon interrupted by another. After a while, the initial scene's loop is closed, often giving the viewer a relief.3
In IT, lack of closure can come in:
many backlog items in progress rolled over to subsequent sprints
changing priorities that result in discarding tasks already opened
lack of strategy for the product or architecture underneath
poor reviews without concrete deliverables
never-ending improvements from retrospectives that never fix what's not working
The more the above happen the more it creates passiveness and people shutting down.
🧠 5 ways to find more fulfilment in your teams
Consider the below as not only a manager’s responsibility but also this of each individual to take control over their context and well-being.
Reduce cognitive dissonance
In recruitment - sharing what it means to work in this project, company, what the organisation struggles with; the good, the bad, the ugly,
👉🏼 e.g. we struggle with XYZ, we still haven’t figured out ABC - how would you cope with that if we hired you?
On the job - what is expected of the role with examples of behaviours instead of buzz-words, how people can get there and where to seek assistance and long-term skill development,
👉🏼 e.g. from whom and how can I learn talking with client?
Up-skilling - cognitive dissonance is not only removed when talking to people but also helping them up-skill so they can cope with aforementioned expectations,
👉🏼 e.g. lightning talks, peer-to-peer coaching, negotiators club, book club etc.
In terms of up-skilling - Why should they care about doing this extra step? How will learning the above increase people’s market worth and peace of mind?
Recap the team's journey regularly - show where the team was a few months ago and where it is today regarding product, process and relationships. Make it visual.
This requires gathering data over longer period of time. It’s not about yet another retrospective to recap where the team is. It’s about showing real progress based on data.
👉🏼 e.g. note down how stakeholders feedback changed, visualise kinds of topics team discussed back then and now, how technical debt has shaped over time, note down quotes how people used to talk with each other and how they converse today etc.
Close smaller loops - closing loops is not only delivering this shiny new feature. It also means changes in the smaller things the team struggled with. Showing them can bring relief and feeling of being in control - the “aha!’ moments saying “we got this!”, “we did this!”.
👉🏼 e.g. less context switching, PR reviews that help others grow, first review with a great discussion with the client, product getting traction, setting up process for creating documentation that’s not overwhelming etc.
Adjust the time-frame for delivery - reduce or extend the time for your iterations for the teams to be able to deliver working increments.
👉🏼 e.g. if many items roll over to the next sprint maybe extend the iteration from 2-3 weeks or shorten to 1 week and deliver smaller increments.
Emphasise the role of an individual’s work - taking ownership of how we feel instead of waiting for things to change. Individuals reducing tension themselves through:
👉🏼 e.g. clarifying ambiguity, upskilling to reduce tension of not knowing, changing what stability means to you or finding more sources of it, being more curious than judgemental etc.
Access to therapy or coaching can also help individuals cope with reducing tension and getting closure. It's an individual's choice, yet some companies started offering this as a benefit to their staff.
What other ways do you know for the teams to get closure? Eager to read your comments.
🎈Share this post if you think it can help others build more fulfilling environments.
🎵I’m testing a new AI voiceover (as you might have noticed in the beginning of the article) with the intention to give you another way to digest the newsletter content.
Let me know if that is something that works for you:
“Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that people seek psychological consistency between their expectations of life and the existential reality of the world. To function by that expectation of existential consistency, people continually reduce their cognitive dissonance in order to align their cognitions (perceptions of the world) with their actions.” - Wikipedia
“An overall increased rate of editing, Cutting and Candan maintained, serves even better narrative and memory and the mind’s capacity to create forms in time and ﬁnd pleasure through this process.”
- The 'Good Form' of Film: The Aesthetics of Continuity from Gestalt Psychology to Cognitive Film Theory by Maria Poulaki, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki