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How to Build an SRE Team with a Growth Mindset

Emily Arnott

The biggest benefit of SRE isn’t always the processes or tools, but the cultural shift. Building a blameless culture can profoundly change how your organization functions. Your SRE team should be your champions for cultural development. To drive change, SREs need to embody a growth mindset. They need to believe that their own abilities and perspectives can always grow, and encourage this mindset across the organization.

In this blog post, we’ll cover:

  • What a growth mindset is and why it helps your SRE team
  • How to hire for a growth mindset
  • How to develop people into SREs with a growth mindset
  • How a blameless culture empowers a growth mindset

What is a growth mindset?

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Carol Dweck breaks down the definition of a growth mindset. She summarizes her findings:

“Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).”

To illustrate this, let’s compare some statements.

Table comparing growth mindset statements with fixed mindset statements. For example, a person with a growth mindset might say "I'm good at this because I've spent time learning and practicing." while a person with a fixed mindset might say, "I'm good at this because I'm smart."

Why does having a growth mindset help?

Having a growth mindset in your organization helps with camaraderie, commitment, risk taking, and innovation. In a study conducted for Harvard Business Review, the authors found that:

“Employees in a ‘growth mindset’ company are:

  • 47% likelier to say that their colleagues are trustworthy,
  • 34% likelier to feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the company,
  • 65% likelier to say that the company supports risk taking, and
  • 49% likelier to say that the company fosters innovation.”

If you want to improve morale and productivity in your teams, a growth mindset is essential.

Your SRE team: champions of the growth mindset

The best way to instill a growth mindset throughout your engineering organization is to have a dedicated team championing it. Your SREs are the perfect candidates to help drive this change. Here are some reasons why:

  • SRE is a holistic practice, so SREs interact with teams throughout the organization
  • SREs create processes that emphasize a growth mindset, such as learning from incidents via blameless retrospectives
  • SREs create safeguards with SLOs and error budgets to encourage innovation
  • SREs drive review and revision cycles, reinforcing the importance of feedback
  • SREs treat all failures as opportunities to learn and improve, making both the team and the system more resilient over time

Wait, what if you don’t have an SRE team right now? If you don’t have an SRE team, these principles can be adopted by each engineer. A growth mindset isn’t produced by an SRE team, only championed. To be successful, all team members will need to be on board. But, if you are looking to build an SRE team from the ground up, here are some tips.

Hiring SREs with a growth mindset

When hiring for your SRE team, finding people with a growth mindset is key. In a discussion with Blameless, New Relic VP and GM Nic Benders discussed how he prioritizes mindset over experience. He says that the predictive power of where someone has worked before is “very poor.” Instead, he says that “I always look for people who are interested in constantly challenging themselves and learning new things.”

But how do you determine someone’s growth mindset while interviewing? Here are some example questions that can be revealing:

  1. Could you tell us about a success you’ve had recently? Why were you successful?

Candidates with a growth mindset will likely attribute some of their success to outside sources. These could be books they’ve read, research they’ve done, or teammates and colleges that they spoke with. The might also point to previous failures as a reason for recent success. Afterall, failures should always teach you something.

  1. Could you tell us about a failure you’ve had recently? Why did it go wrong?

Failures can be painful. Yet they give us space to grow. Candidates with a growth mindset will still likely note the sting of failure. But, they’ll also hopefully talk about what they took from the experience. They’ll turn a blameless eye towards the incident and look for ways to improve in the future.

  1. What are you excited to learn about while working here?

Look for candidates who are applying because they see an opportunity to grow at the company. Learning and trying new things is what makes day-to-day work exciting. Candidates may want to learn a new programming language, or a new tool that’s part of your stack. Or they may be interested in seeing how different teams work together cross-functionally. Curiosity is always welcome.

  1. What does a growth mindset mean to you?

Sometimes the direct route is best. When a candidate is enthusiastic about growth and learning, it’s a sign that they could be a good fit for your SRE role. 

These questions are not comprehensive. They are a starting point for a conversation about growth. Consider giving these questions to candidates prior to the interview so they have time to think about them before answering. This can also take some of the pressure off the interview process and create a more open and friendly environment.

Internally developing an SRE team with a growth mindset

Alongside hiring, you can grow your SRE team by promoting people to the role internally. When building your SRE team, consider a wide variety of previous positions. Just because someone doesn’t have the title “SRE” doesn’t mean they couldn’t be great in the role.

In his discussion with Blameless, Nic Benders shared his thoughts. “I have to always remind myself that I didn't get to where I am today by doing things that I was qualified to do. In the same way, as a leader I need to be giving work to other people who might not be, or might not seem to be, qualified to do that work, because that is their path to growth.”

If you give them the opportunity, people with a growth mindset will rise to the challenge. Someone showing that they’re ready to learn new things is as encouraging as technical expertise. Keep in mind that this may require some additional support from teammates and leadership while a fledgling SRE finds their footing.

Spreading SRE practices throughout the organization

Ideally, everyone within your engineering organization should be familiar with the SRE best practices. Even if they aren’t working directly with SLOs or writing retrospectives, they should know how these tools work. Most importantly, they should understand why these practices are important. Your SRE team should be the ambassadors of these lessons.

SRE isn’t just for SREs. Blameless incident retrospectives are important for all teams responsible for running code in production. Incident response procedures are key for all teams who own services or carry pagers. This mindset makes for a more resilient organization as a whole. It also improves your pool of potential SREs. If everyone understands best practices, you’re able to focus on promoting based on mindset.

Empowering a growth mindset with a blameless culture

At the heart of growth is a feeling of agency. People need to be free to push their limits and challenge themselves. They need to be empowered to innovate. Most importantly, they need to embrace failure. Even the most growth-oriented person will be stifled if they’re afraid they’ll be punished if they fail.

A blameless culture is the key to encouraging a growth mindset. When something goes wrong, rather than placing blame on an individual, look into the systemic causes. Assume everyone was working in good faith to the best of their abilities. Rather than faulting someone for making an error, look into why they made the mistake. Try to celebrate the fact that you’re improving your system with every incident.

The blameless attitude complements a growth mindset:

  • Both deal with the causes behind actions, rather than the actors
  • Both believe that failure leads to growth and future success
  • Both see feedback as a form of support

Are you ready to empower your team with a growth mindset? Blameless can help! To see how, check out a demo.

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