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.


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.

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.




I love talking and reading about work — my own work, and what other people do for work. I took a copy of Working by Studs Terkel with me on a backpacking trip once. There are infinite paths through life, and that’s true for the working world as well. There’s a fabulous series called What Do You Do that illustrates anonymous interviews with people working all kinds of jobs (art handler! bouncer! best-selling author! negotiation coach!) that I read with glee every time there’s a new post.  One of the reasons I love learning about other peoples’ work is that it’s about finding other perspectives, other voices, other approaches. It reveals that what we are all doing is pretty darn similar, just using different words and different frameworks. The delight of a generalist: it’s all related, you just have to find the common thread.

And one of the things that is so neat about finding the common thread is that it removes the need to think about the work at hand as a problem, a fire to put out, and instead lets us think about it more openly, with more curiosity, and see it as a project to be investigated and explored. The cost of thinking about work as a problem is that it changes how you approach the work — it strips away inquiry and replaces it with urgency. Worse, it creates a barrier to finding the root of the issue.

Say I’m approached by someone at work saying “we need to change ______” (fill in the blank document, process, specification, really anything). If I were approaching it as a problem, I would just do what they ask, and just fix their problem. But if I approach it as something worthy of investigation, I dig deeper into why they think they need this fix. What’s this symptomatic of? What is the underlying frustration? Who is impacted? This is the way medical professionals are trained to interview their patients — to assess first, and act second. That’s not the training in most fields, but it’s valuable everywhere.

There’s a sweet aside in Michael Moore’s autobiography, in which Kurt Vonnegut tells him the meaning of life:

“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

It’s beautiful because it’s totally open for interpretation. It might mean putting compassion and kindness and empathy above all else. It might mean that we do work because it’s hard or because it makes us happy. It might mean doing work for future generations. Or it might mean just surviving.

As Robert Frost famously said, “the best way out is through.” Do the work. Get through this thing.pat-fennessy-aiga-design-quote-frost(This gorgeous print is by Patrick Fennessy.)

Shawn Achor’s 2012 Ted talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) makes a very clear link between work and happiness. The premise is that your brain is more open to learning, more motivated, and more able to do good work when you’re happy. And conversely, the usual “I’ll work hard and my success will make me happy” script does not work.

And this Harvard Business Review article about positive work cultures being more productive than negative ones takes that same idea one more step to clarify that it’s engagement that keeps people happy. It points to disengagement as a very costly cause of organizational and individual stress, and goes on to note that you just don’t find engaged, happy workers in negative work environments:

“Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

The piece goes on to distill six characteristics of a positive workplace culture, and all rooted in empathy. All of them.

Engagement is tied very closely to accountability in group dynamics (really, what reason is there to be engaged if the team, or others on the team are not held accountable?). There’s a somewhat grim discussion of (lack of) accountability in another Harvard Business Review article. It centers around the study of cooperation and what happens to teams with cheaters or “free-riders.”

“Within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice. However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual.”

Accountability and engagement bring us right back to the idea of learning to love the means, the process, the doing, the working, rather than the ends (the completed work). Maria Popova (brainpickings) wrote a lovely piece about Annie Dillard’s book the Writing Life, about habits, about routines, about the way we approach our work and our lives. Dillard said the single most representative sentiment, illustrating how I think about work and life, which can be applied to productivity, but also to relationships and intentions and work style and communication style and our whole selves, our priorities:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard

What are you willing to struggle for?

This piece on Quartz by Mark Manson about the concept of struggle resonated so deeply with me.  The premise is this: instead of asking what you want out of life, a more interesting question with more informative answers is to ask: “what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?”

“At the core of all human behavior, our needs are more or less similar. Positive experience is easy to handle. It’s negative experience that we all, by definition, struggle with. Therefore, what we get out of life is not determined by the good feelings we desire but by what bad feelings we’re willing and able to sustain to get us to those good feelings.

He goes on to say that quality of life is determined by the quality of negative experiences in life (rather than positive experiences), so it’s valuable to get good at dealing with negative experiences. “To get good at dealing with negative experiences is to get good at dealing with life.”

This resonates so much for me because it’s so tied to my views on happiness, and learning to love and exist within the process of growing and learning. It requires stress resilience and grit.

This 99U article is a great summary of the concept of grit, and of Angela Duckworth’s research that indicates that grit is a better predictor of success than talent, self-control, or intelligence. It also links Duckworth’s research scale, so you can assess your own level of grit.

Duckworth’s 2009 Tedx Talk is heartening:

This article about Location Labs (that I’ve already promised I will not stop linking to) ties the the concept of grit to the importance of diversity (not just diversity of race/class/gender, but also diversity of experience):

Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman.

Grit is so necessary for work involving transition (startups, major organizational changes, product development), but it cannot exist without autonomy and empowerment.

Generalist, multi-disciplinarian, Renaissance lady

I am a generalist. A multi-disciplinarian. What maybe used to be called a jack-of-all-trades. I have a little bit of skill in a lot of areas, and I’m a quick study. I can pick up enough of what you know to have a meaningful working relationship. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a specialist, but I realized what that would involve — there is a significant life trade-off when you specialize.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers — the idea that you have to practice something for that much time to achieve mastery. And to work for 10,000 hours at something means you can’t spend those hours on any of the other interests in your life. You cannot indulge your curiosity in the same way a generalist can.

One of the trade-offs of being a multi-disciplinarian is that it’s easy (and dangerous) to see yourself as a failure for not staying in one track. There is of course no inherent failing in moving through multiple careers and projects — it’s what you’d very naturally do when you’re a person who is fascinated by the world and many aspects of it call to you.

But the working world at large really appreciates the idea of a specialist and doesn’t quite know what to make of a generalist. You see job postings for “mechanical engineer” or “nurse” and if you’ve specialized in those fields, then those are the terms you look for when you’re job hunting. But you don’t see job postings for “smart person who can do all kinds of things” so there is another layer of struggle in being a generalist, which is convincing yourself that you have value, and convincing potential employers that a generalist is what they’re looking for.

One thing I do want to note though, is that I don’t think this is black and white, that you’re either one or the other (specialist vs generalist). My suspicion is that it’s more like a spectrum, and we’ve all situated to a general position on the spectrum, when our personalities and interests are taken as a whole.

Emilie Wapnick gave a terrific Ted Talk called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” in which she introduces the term “multipotentialite” — it’s a really worthy watch for anybody who identifies as a generalist.

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. What you are is a multipotentialite.”

In her followup to the Ted Talk, Wapnick touches on the extra layer of struggle: “I see career, productivity, and confidence, as the three largest multipotentialite challenges. These are areas we each need to address and find workable solutions to.”

But I think generalists have a gift as well — we are massively empathetic. I can’t speak to causation but I do think there’s a very strong correlation between generalists and empathizers. Maybe it’s an empathetic natures that drives someone to want to experience new situations and work with people and materials and projects of all kinds. Or maybe knowing enough about a lot of subject matter, and having experienced lots of roles and worked with lots of people from lots of backgrounds, it’s easier for a generalist to see things from another person’s perspective.

But in either case, this combination of empathy and exposure to many fields and skills and backgrounds is what uniquely positions generalists to be great facilitators.   In this interview, MDavid Low discusses what it’s like to have switched roles, from being a specialist and technical contributor to being a generalist. Interestingly, what he notes as a special skill in the generalist role is facilitation. In response to the question “What are the biggest pros and cons of being a ‘utility man,’ as you are, as opposed to a specialist?” he says:

I think it’s led me to be somewhat decent at being the skipper on the team. Helping to guide and motivate the team towards the right outcome, but with enough of the right insights from each role in my past to be able to provide the right insights for the future.

I like to think that the landscape is changing a bit — I know that those of us with varied backgrounds are good for the organization we work in, and I think that some organizations are seeing this and starting to write about it. This article about Location Labs delves into the company’s hiring practices that result in their 95% employee retention rate. They focus on hiring “diamonds in the rough” – people whose potential for growth is massive – and one of the ways they do that is by looking for diversity of experience.

When screening resumes, they don’t look for specific technologies or skills. They look for results. What was this person’s legacy in past roles? Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman. “We’re not overly impressed with pedigree. We let demonstrated growth be our primary filter.”

Demonstrated growth, eh? That’s one thing most generalists can claim.