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.

happiness, growth, vulnerability, gratitude and resilience

Happiness requires a state of growth and learning.
Growth requires being vulnerable.
Vulnerability requires gratitude and resilience.

That’s my take on what it means to happy in life. There aren’t different processes for being happy at work and not-work — it’s the same framework.

Gretchen Rubin‘s book The Happiness Project illuminates beautifully the idea that being happy requires growth. She describes having settled on this stroke of brilliance, only to be informed that there is a William Butler Yeats quote to that effect. This is not a new sentiment!

“Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

She goes on to write about the importance of identifying feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. Here, she discusses how important feeling bad is, because it’s what can help you identify what it is that will make you happy.


Most of my life I’ve been very afraid of being bad at things in general, but the very specific fear was being bad at something in front of somebody. It took me a very long time to identify that churning gut feeling as a physical indicator of learning and growth, and longer still to learn to embrace it as evidence, as proof, as the one true indicator that I’m learning and growing and making myself vulnerable.

I certainly felt like I might puke right around the time this photo was taken, when a friend and I were setting out on a hiking trip in the remote wilderness in Newfoundland where there was no trail. Photo by Christopher Tracey.

A subtlety worth noting: In order for growth to be related to happiness at all, it has to be about the process of growing and learning, not about an end state. It’s easy to believe that when you’ve achieved something, then you’ll be happy (“when I get that job, I’ll be happy” or “when I finish this project” or fill-in-the-blank future state that disregards the work you’re doing right now), but the means are as important as the ends. It is in doing, in making, in learning, in growing, in the process that we find growth. And oh boy, are generalists good at learning to love the process.

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande wrote a lovely piece for the New Yorker about realizing his surgical skills had plateaued, getting a coach, how much he learned and his techniques improved, but most interesting to me: How vulnerable and exposed and scary that can be.

We give a lot of lip service to efficiency at work, but it takes time to learn and improve. Truly, learning is inefficient.

And how of course the now-famous Brene Brown “Power of Vulnerability” TED talk explains that:

And beyond assessing your own vulnerability, it’s important to support the state of growth and help make it safer for others to be vulnerable around you. One way to do this is staying excited when somebody you meet doesn’t know something, rather than being dismissive or judgmental or condescending.

There’s a joyful XKCD comic about just that:

And of course Hank Green is great at explaining excitement:

But this is important beyond simple kindness extended to others, Golden Rule style — it’s a well-researched concept in ESL education, tied to ability to learn. Stephen Krashen describes the concept of the affective filter, which is essentially a brick wall that rises and prevents new information from entering a person’s brain, when that person is stressed or anxious. Being kind and letting other people be vulnerable with us promotes a learning atmosphere. This is relevant in so many fields, and is demonstrated in the vulnerability required for a good sprint retrospective, for folks working in the scrum framework.

This beautiful TedxSF presentation by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is a ten-minute celebration of the concepts of gratitude and open-heartedness. (Here is the video’s transcript.):

The narration is is by Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, and is rooted in empathy and expectations.

Resilience can mean a lot of things, but let’s focus here on stress resilience, with Kelly McGonigal’s awesome TED talk about re-framing our understand of the purpose of stress and making friends with it as something useful to us, in much the same way Brene Brown helps us understand why we need to make friends with vulnerability.

Cue some dramatic singing of the Circle of Life: Happiness –> growth and learning –> vulnerability –> gratitude and resilience –> happiness

IMG_2118(Smashed penny from my friend, artist Shaun Slifer.)