Building trust, building teams

Who doesn’t want to be part of a team like this?

How do you build a team that’s so supportive and so invested in each other’s success?

First is creating an environment of psychological safety, so that the individuals (and the group) are willing and able to take risks.  Being vulnerable is critical to learning and growth and cooperation, and you just can’t do that in an environment that is not psychologically safe. Here’s the essential Brene Brown on connection, conversation, and constructive feedback.


“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” – Brene Brown

That’s impossible without a means of giving and receiving high-quality and valuable feedback. This Asana blog post about how they’ve worked to make the company an organization focused on learning and growth discusses how they’ve built feedback into their regular working rhythm. One of the central concepts is that feedback is necessary:

It’s also important to provide a climate that tolerates mistakes and lets people take chances. This means being mindful about the kind of feedback you provide. This is particularly relevant for creative feedback, since the best output often requires extra experimentation or taking risks.

The critical aspect here is to make feedback valuable and not just stressful or anxiety-inducing or causing someone to armor up.

I’m really excited about Kim Scott’s work on Radical Candor. I’ve talked previously about her work on gender bias impacting feedback. Here’s a wonderful update, expanding on how to receive feedback. It includes a lot of examples of ways managers have successfully solicited feedback:

“There’s this rule we’ve all accepted that you must criticize in private, but when you’re the boss, you’re the exception to the rule. You want people to see how you’ll react — that you can take it and will appreciate it.”

[Kim Scott, h/t First Round Review]

All of that is just lip service unless you are committing to living it, to being the change you want to see. Nobody’s going to magically make the culture you want to live in. It’s about knowing and deciding how you want to live, how you want to engage with the world, and then living that way. Cap Watkins does a terrific job of addressing how to build a culture of empowerment (Treat Your Life Like a User Experience Problem).

He touches on giving and receiving feedback, not just on the work itself, but on the processes and methods by which work is done. His advice for people in teams that don’t collaborate is to behave as though the problem isn’t there — to just begin collaborating, to begin to live in the new framework you want to exist in, as you build it.

“It doesn’t matter what level you are. It doesn’t matter what team you’re on. It turns out that leadership is not a role. Leader is not a title that anybody has at any company I’ve ever been at. You can always be an advocate. You can be a collaborator. You can be an idealist. You can create change locally.” – Cap Watkins

This article about Girls Rock! Pittsburgh includes some beautiful commentary from volunteer Tilley Hawk about how to create this change and build the environment you want to work and live in:

“When looking at large problems within societal structures, it is very difficult to figure out solutions while looking at such a large system that is in place. In playing by their rules, it is difficult to find change, and you often find yourself back in their pocket. GR!P plays by its own rules and thus finds itself outside of these structures. It uses music and puts the power directly in the hands of those who want to use it. GR!P creates its own space, occupies its own space outside of the box, and refuses to play by [their] rules. This is proof that direct action has an effect.”

Ryan Carson’s powerful and moving 99U talk (Begin With the End in Mind) takes a broader view (or maybe a more singular view, depending on how you’re thinking about it) of the idea of building the life you want to be living by prioritizing the things that are important to you, and saying no to everything else.



Katia Verresen on mindfulness at work

This interview with executive coach Katia Verresen does a beautiful, cussing-riddled job of linking up how self-care, self-compassion, gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness are critical for business.

Verresen’s approach is at the intersection of basic mindfulness skills and Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability.  For a little background, here’s a Q&A with Brene Brown on the TED blog, in which she discusses the concept of scarcity thinking, and the idea of not being enough:

Well, the idea of “I’m never enough” — beautiful enough, successful enough, thin enough, popular enough, loved enough, worthy enough — that’s shame and scarcity, and I’ve seen people overcome that every single day. I’ve gone through the process myself. I’ve interviewed people over the course of four years who’ve done a lot of this work. You have to understand shame. You have to understand where the message comes from, what drove it, how has it protected you in the past, and are you willing to look it in the eye and say, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m not subscribing anymore. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and maybe you kept me safe and small in the past, but I’m not doing that.” The answer is absolutely that I’m not enough. You can overcome that, but you can’t overcome it without an understanding of shame. If you are not willing to have that conversation, there’s no way to the other side of it. You have to know what shame is.

Verresen approaches this from another angle, with what she calls abundance thinking: the idea that you have to take care of yourself, see what’s around you, see the resources and choices you have ahead of you, so that you can actively chart your course:

“You’re not going to build a billion dollar business on a string of bad days. It has to be a sequence of your very best days. Your performance is tied 100% to your attitude.”

The goal is to be in a non-reactive position (see also mindfulness teacher Tara Brach: Learning to Respond Not React). The example Verresen gives is about the moments when you need everybody to drop what they’re working on and jam out a huge and focused project:

When you’re building something new, you’ll inevitably run into 11th hour, all-hands-on-deck, crunch-mode situations — all the time. When you lead teams, you’re never out of the woods. In these cases, it’s so easy to tell your team, “Keep cranking, we’ll breathe when we’re done!” It’s easy to let all the habits enumerated above fall by the wayside because you believe you have no time or room.

But this is exactly when they’re needed the most. Every tool mentioned here takes less than 5 minutes to perform, enabling you to be at your best — which is also the way to ensure your team is at its best. At the times that matter most, you can’t accept less. That’s not going to happen if you’re pushing through exhaustion.

Cue up the classic Zen adage:


She goes on to discuss how essential feedback is for healthy teams (I wrote a bit about feedback here and here), and focuses primarily on appreciation-based feedback:

“When you look at healthy teams, unbridled, uninhibited appreciation is always a key ingredient. It’s the No. 1 retention tool in the world.”

Verresen offers a handful of tools for getting unstuck, for finding support, for busting yourself out of a rut, for approaching projects with neutrality. One I really love is the idea of forming a “giving circle” — a group of friends or colleagues where everybody is working on something unrelated (see Heidi Grant Halvorson’s work about competition as it relates to communication for more on the importance of projects not overlapping in this context) — to offer support, guidance, brainstorming, and resource-finding help to each other.

It seems so obvious to suggest putting together a network of people you trust, for ongoing collaboration, but how rarely do we offer up our struggles for others to look at? Our default answer is “I’m fine” when in truth we need some help. If we can be vulnerable and open, we can accomplish so much more with so much less suffering.

Facilitating Communication

Communication is a two-way street, but I am a big believer in the idea of the burden of responsibility being on the sender — the person trying to communicate the message. There are two parts that make it complicated. The first is that you’re harder to understand than you think you are — it takes work to make sure your message will be received by others. The second is that it also takes work to understand other people, to listen to other people, to make space for people who don’t communicate in the same ways you do. Like everything, it’s an ongoing process. It’s a massive undertaking and there’s no magical “awareness” switch to flip. But there are skills and tools you can learn to make it easier for others to communicate with you.

You’re harder to understand than you think you are.

Heidi Grant Halvorson lays out why nobody understands you and what to do about it.

She says:

You’re a lot harder to understand than you think you are. Most of us sort of walk around assuming that we’re kind of an open book, and it’s obvious what we’re thinking and feeling. And, really, nothing could be further from the truth.

She goes on to explain WHY we are so hard to read:

  • your intentions: “you know what they are. Other people do not. They don’t have access to that. They have to guess.”
  • your thoughts: “other people don’t know what you’re thinking. You might tell them. But most of the time we don’t.”
  • your feelings: “you know what they are. Other people do not. “
  • your behavior: “you have access to that. And, yes, sort of– this gets an asterisk– other people have access to your behavior, and also what you say. But there’s little asterisks there for a reason. And that is, first of all, they have to actually be paying attention to your behavior and paying attention to what you say, which is kind of a big assumption to make that other people are actually doing that.

She goes on to really lay down why behavior is tricky: It’s not just that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s that everything is in the eye of the beholder. This further puts the burden of communication on the sender.

“It’s important to realize that all actions, and all words, really are open to interpretation. There’s really many meanings to the things was we say. And so we have a tendency to feel like beauty is in the perceiver. And that’s true, by the way. But what’s really true is everything is. Everything is in the eye of the perceiver. Everything is given meaning by the person who’s trying to understand you.”

Building awareness of your communication methods and styles and effectiveness is so much about developing a framework in which everyone can be heard, not just you and your own voice. That’s one piece of it — making sure you can be understood — but the other piece is making sure you’re listening. One of the basic concepts in Buddhism and mindfulness is that a mismatch in reality versus expectation leads only to suffering. It’s worth the work to help get your expected communication result closer to reality.

Make room for other people

The first step is to make room for people who are not like you. In this era of ultra-curated media, though we recognize and acknowledge the value of hearing other voices and engaging with other perspectives, it’s very easy to unintentionally filter out voices that are not like our own. Making room for other people can be hard and can feel awkward or not as natural as we’d like it to magically feel. But that’s ok — that’s reality. Everything takes work, everything takes practice.

In this moderately depressing but important piece by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Speaking While Female,  the authors reference a Yale study about gender bias:

Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings. As this and other research shows, women who worry that talking “too much” will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right.”

But the authors go on to point out that there are a lot of things leaders can do to make room for women (including enforcing no-interruption meetings, doing anonymous suggestion sessions, and actively making more space for women to draw attention to the issue). And on the topic of gender, let’s also address gender identity. The smallest actions can make an incredible difference in making space: just ask somebody what pronouns they’d prefer. It’s respectful and not a big deal.

Making room for other voices and perspectives can also be as small a thing as recognizing that introverts and extroverts need different things in a work environment. This great interview with author Susan Cain explores the cultural bias toward extroversion:

In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.

And beyond gender, introversion/extroversion, race, class and the subtleties of personalities, there is a broader conversation to be had about culture of origin. This fascinating HBR article about international negotiations places several countries in quadrants of emotional expressiveness and confrontational behavior.  One of the key points in that article is that you have to learn how the other party in the negotiation builds trust, because it might not be the same way you build trust:

Research in this area divides trust into two categories: cognitive and affective. Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in someone’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability. This trust comes from the head. In a negotiation it builds through the business interaction: You know your stuff. You are reliable, pleasant, and consistent. You demonstrate that your product or service is of high quality. I trust you. Affective trust arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. It comes from the heart. We laugh together, relax together, and see each other on a personal level, so I feel affection or empathy for you. I trust you.


(A good followup to that article is William Ury’s talk about negotiation.)

Be Nice

You will not, I hope, be surprised that the other critical part of improving communication and trust is just to be nice. It’s the oil that you put in the communication machine to keep it from breaking down. Be nice when you’re listening, be nice when you’re talking.

In No Time to Be Nice at Work, Christine Porath looks at the costs of both civility and rudeness at work, and discusses finding that incivility leads to leads to decreased creativity, decreased engagement, decreased efficiency, and increased errors.

“Given the enormous cost of incivility, it should not be ignored. We all need to reconsider our behavior. You are always in front of some jury. In every interaction, you have a choice: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?”

I know I want to hold people up. And if all of this seems like too much to think about, and it’s too hard, and there’s no way we’ll ever prevent ourselves from stepping on a landmine while we’re talking to other humans, here are two lovely examples of successful communication.

The first is a beautiful back-and-forth exchange of letters that could so easily have been accusatory and inflammatory and angry but was polite and kind and resulted in real actual change: A woman wrote to Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz in 1968 asking him to please consider having a cast that was not all white. The conversation brought about the Franklin character, and the series of letters is absolutely worth your time. The only effort it took on the part of both people in the conversation was to remember that they are both only human, and to treat each other as humans.

The second example is Sugata Mitra’s brilliant 2007 talk about collaborative learning, in which he describes an experimental education project that revealed kids teaching themselves and each other in an incredibly autonomous way. “Learning is a self-organising system,” he says in the talk, and I close with this example because I really believe we’ll figure it out. We’ll learn. We’ll help each other out and point out ways we could have communicated in a less hurtful or more productive way. Just gotta keep trying.


Bridge-building case study (“Factory Fridays”)

In early 2013, I was working as a technical writer and a facilitator for a startup company on the precipice of its commercial launch. The company had found a site for its factory and had begun to build it out, and the manufacturing team was gunning to spec, buy, and install equipment in time to hit the production launch date. Trouble was, the product was still very early in its development stage and thus not fully defined. This of course led to big frustrations between the teams:

“Can’t you just tell me what material you need this equipment to be able to make?”


“I cannot believe you’re considering buying that piece of equipment. It’s not what we need at all!”

I was in a really interesting position to tackle this communication gap, because I worked directly with almost every single person in the company at that time, and thus had a very high level of influence, even though I had no direct authority or power by title.

This case study steps through the scenario, my assessment of the problems, the planning work I did to bridge the gap, and how I evaluated the success of the project. It’s an interesting case, because there’s truly only one major deliverable: transferring enough knowledge to build out and standup a manufacturing plant (I’ll spoil it for you: the company did open a factory). But there were lots of interim projects, successes, and realignments, and I step through those as well.

One of the biggest realignments, which I reference in the case study, is that initially the two teams were operating in different working structures and methods. The development team had been using Scrum to great effect and was feeling really good about it (I was that team’s Scrum Master), and part-way through the knowledge transfer project, the manufacturing team switched to using Scrum as well. Here’s a short Scrum 101 post, which includes the presentation I made for the manufacturing team, to explain to them how the development team was using Scrum. It’s an interesting way to manage work in that context — it’s a framework designed for software development, which has no lead times, but product and equipment design can involve very long lead times — and requires a bit of adjustment.

This case study also looks a bit at why the approach was successful, which was matching the method to the situation. I talk a lot more about knowing which are tools and skills are necessary for which project, product, and company stage in this post about transitions.

Scrum 101: Using Scrum outside of software development

Scrum is a working method designed for software development. The Scrum Alliance published a quick but comprehensive summary of what Scrum is, and what its goals are, and that page includes this very condensed outline:

The Scrum framework in 30 seconds

  • A product owner creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog.
  • During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces.
  • The team has a certain amount of time — a sprint (usually two to four weeks) — to complete its work, but it meets each day to assess its progress (daily Scrum).
  • Along the way, the ScrumMaster keeps the team focused on its goal.
  • At the end of the sprint, the work should be potentially shippable: ready to hand to a customer, put on a store shelf, or show to a stakeholder.
  • The sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective.
  • As the next sprint begins, the team chooses another chunk of the product backlog and begins working again.

When I got my Scrum Master training, I was the only person in the room who wasn’t working in software development. That meant that I couldn’t use Scrum exactly as it’s intended to be used: It’s not designed for projects that have lead-times. Software doesn’t really have waiting periods, where you’re waiting for a manufacturer to make a tool for a part, or where you’re waiting on 12 weeks of cycle testing, for instance.

When you’re working in hard goods, you aren’t talking about a potentially shippable product at the end of a sprint, but you are still talking about the work being ready to show to a stakeholder. But once you wrap your head around how you need to scope out the work and break up the tasks, it’s a really useful framework. What you wind up doing is breaking up tasks into smaller pieces that are less time-dependent. For instance, the task isn’t “make parts” — it winds up being several smaller tasks, that can be divvied up into various sprints (“finalize tool design” and “submit purchase order for tool” and “complete first article inspection on parts made with new tool,” for instance).

We used the Scrum framework to organize the development and manufacturing teams’ work to build out and stand up a manufacturing plant. The development team had been using the scrum framework for about a year by that point. I was the team’s Scrum Master. (I wrote a bit about my thinking on the Scrum Master role as a Facilitator role.) During the knowledge transfer process, when the development team and manufacturing team were working very intensively together, the manufacturing team switched to using Scrum as well. One of the engineers got Scrum Master training as well, and I showed the manufacturing team how the development team had been using this slightly-modified version of Scrum. Here’s the quick presentation I made for introducing the method to the whole team:

I did some training with the manufacturing team to help them get up to speed (how to estimate effort for chunks of work, how to get unit-of-measure-loving engineers comfortable with the idea of completely subjective point values for effort, how to build a backlog spreadsheet with a burndown chart — straightforward stuff, but practical examples based on how the company was already using these tools).

Working as two aligned scrum teams had two really valuable impacts. One was that it became much easier to schedule work that involved both teams, because there was a lot more visibility into work scope and schedule. The other was that folks were able to support each other: folks regularly attended the other team’s sprint reviews to see the presented completed work, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

How to make a process from nothing

You can’t worry about change management until you’ve got something to change.

And you can’t worry about process improvement until you’ve built a process.

So how do you build a process when there isn’t one at all? How do you know you need a process?

When I was a technical writer, I was asked to write a form that people would fill out to request resources to run a trial. The person asking knew what the output of a business process would be, but didn’t know how to ask for a process to be built. I could have just written a form, but that wouldn’t have gotten us what we actually needed.

Most of the work of process development is in talking to people. It’s interviewing. It’s asking people what they mean, what they want, what they need. But the key is understanding that it’s often hard for people to ask for what they need, because they don’t know yet that they need it. That sounds condescending, and I bring it up because it’s so crucial to not be condescending when you realize that what somebody is asking for is only the part above water, the part they can see. It’s so important to not be dismissive or to say it’s that what they’re asking for is too hard, especially when you haven’t walked through your thought process together. You risk not being able to get any more information from that person, which pretty much guarantees that you won’t be able to give them what they need.

In short, this approach does not help anybody:

The root of it is helping folks come to the understanding on their own that they’re asking for a whole iceberg. Then, once you’ve set some expectations (for example, no, I really do honestly only want the tip of the iceberg to be delivered, or yes, I guess I do actually want a whole iceberg!), then you can begin to think about resourcing the work.

Here’s a short case study about developing a business process where there was nothing in place at all, focusing on how I determined what was needed (versus what was asked for), with a good look at what kind of deliverables were part of the package. Click on the arrows or on the slide itself to advance the deck..

Multi-tasking and empathy

It’s not a new concept that multi-tasking is really just task-switching, and that it’s incredibly inefficient (we lose time switching between tasks as our brains catch up to the task at hand …every single time we switch back and forth.). There is no such thing as “being a good multi-tasker.”

Scrum trainer Roger Brown illustrates the inefficiencies of task switching in this 2010 piece, in the context of explaining how using the scrum framework can save organizations time and money.

If everyone on the team is working on three projects concurrently, all three projects will finish at the same time:

But if everyone on the team focuses on one project at a time, the first project finishes at week 7 instead of week 20 in this example, where we haven’t begun to account for “team synergies” as Brown puts it:

And it’s not news, either, that working closely with a team comprised of individuals from across multiple disciplines can increase ability to problem-solve and offer multiple perspectives.

Here’s the pretty remarkable new information: there’s a study linking multitasking with a decrease in empathy. This FastCompany piece — a larger discussion of the costs of multi-tasking — references a study that links multi-tasking with a decrease in density in the areas of the brain controlling emotions and empathy. Correlation is not causation, but it still gives me pause, and at the same time, seems really obvious: when we’re multi-tasking, we’re not fully present. We haven’t committed to the task at hand, whether it’s a solo task or a conversation with a human. We aren’t getting any better at empathy if we’re not practicing it, and we’re not practicing it if we’re not really here.

Kim Scott on Feedback, Candor, and Gender Bias Bingo

LOVED this article by Kim Scott on First Round Review about how gender bias relates to ongoing workplace struggles with candor. She’s doing this incredible project called Radical Candor to build tools to help people be candid at work. She defines radical candor as “the ability to give both praise and criticism in a way that challenges people directly and shows you care about them personally” and breaks communication styles down via this great visual:


She goes on to explain why candor is difficult: we’re trained NOT to do it!

Most people have been told since they learned to talk some version of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” When they become a boss, the very thing they have been taught not to do since they were 18 months old is suddenly their job.

Cue Maya Angelou:


Scott’s piece links to this terrific education project about gender bias that fills my heart with both sadness and joy (yes! we know enough about gender bias to be pithy! ugh, there’s enough gender bias to make a bingo card). There’s a clickable link on the site to enter your experiences and a printable format as well.


Related to the notion of communicating with candor is this post about giving feedback, which summarizes some key points from a few leadership and management books, specifically about making sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish by giving feedback, and lists out three kinds of feedback to be aware of:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.


The end of that post recommends Getting to Yes, the negotiation book by William Ury, whose Creative Mornings talk I just linked.

Related: Link: Feedback



Sarah Kay on working

Maria Popova (Brainpickings) is so great at interviewing, and shares my fascination with work and how people approach work. She just posted a great interview with poet Sarah Kay, about being a working artist, about kindness and empathy and vulnerability, and about approaches to work.

Kay tells a fable:

A girl walks up to a construction site and asks the first man she sees, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m laying bricks?” She then walks up to the second man she sees, who is doing the exact same thing the first one was doing, and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a wall?” And then she reaches the third man, who is doing the same thing as the previous two, and she says, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he says, “Oh, can’t you see I’m building a temple?”

She goes on to draw parallels to her own work — what parts of it are brick laying, what parts are wall building, and what parts are temple building. She adds: “But what’s so wonderful about all of this is that if you focus on one of the three for too long, you lose sight of the other two — so it requires a lot of shifting and balancing in order to get anything done at all.”

Lovely complement to Derek Sivers’ recent post about needing to consider all three elements (happy/smart/useful) in his work.



William Ury on negotiation

Just watched this fantastic Creative Mornings talk by William Ury about negotiation (h/t). He notes that that crucial elements of negotiation are a) listening, and b) learning how not to be reactive. In his view, the biggest obstacle we have to getting what we want is ourselves.

Interestingly, that’s the same sentiment found in mindfulness study. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach has done a lot of instruction on the topic, and developed a tool called the RAIN method for helping people learn how to respond rather than react, though it is geared more toward internal rather than external conflict. Here’s a video of her speaking about it in 2011.

And back to the topic of work and how people make livings, Ury’s talk also reminded me of this anonymous interview with  a negotiations coach in the What Do You Do series of anonymous interviews. It’s a really enjoyable read and hugely informative.