Technical debt is a term used by programmers. Referring to the ever rising cost to projects when short term fixes get applied over time to writing code. Over time, these quick fixes make the overall design inefficient.
We can all see how this applies to many projects outside programming. It’s like building a haphazard building that grows and grows but becomes increasingly unstable.
I’d like to introduce a similar term for what happens with quick fixes in our working relationships. Teams tend to gloss over difficulties in how they relate — often because of pressure of work, and because we all tend to avoid having awkward conversations.
Thus teams tend to build up what I call emotional debt: the weight of unresolved questions, frustrations and past conflicts that reduce a team’s ability to respond to challenges.
Emotional debt is often harder to pin down than technical debt: after a while, the limitations of sloppy code become fairly clear, and at least this stuff is written down someplace we can all see.
The law of ruts
Often we don’t know how much emotional debt we’re carrying until some of it is resolved. The CFO finally asks the CEO about something that has niggled him for two years, but was wary of asking. He gets a clear answer and suddenly realises what a relief that is.
I sometimes call this the Law of Ruts: You only realise how deep they are when you finally step out of them.
Clearing emotional debt is risky work
In my experience, emotional debt is rarely cleared by reaching agreements on general principles. Appealing to a list of values won’t stop people from the moment-by-moment quick fixes that lead them to avoid conflict.
Emotional debt is cleared by people taking risks. Making themselves vulnerable. Risking upsetting others by offering a challenging view. I reckon this takes constant practice: being willing to pay attention to discomfort and giving it a name, rather than just hoping for the best.
It’s hard work and it generally can’t be done in a hurry. This is the point in articles where you might generally look for top tips, but I am reluctant to give any. Asking genuinely challenging questions, owning up to more of our hunches and feelings, is never going to be easy.
When we find ways to take those risks, the results are not entirely predictable, but are often much more satisfying than we expect.
I’m running a free webinar called Unhurried at Work on July 13th. Unhurried is an approach to work that I think helps make people feel safer to take the risks I’m talking about here.