Using Fear to Build Effective Teams Part 1

In this first part of his new blog series, Alasdair Smith, Software Craftsperson at Codurance, looks at how fear can be a driver to success.

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings obliteration. I will face my fear and I will permit it to pass over me and through me."

Lady Jessica Atreides

I am no stranger to fear. I doubt that anyone who has embarked upon a career in Software Development could consider themselves a stranger to fear. Those days of sweaty palms, heart palpitations and selective muteness are all too fresh in my memory. Yet, in many ways, I now look back upon them fondly like an adult observing the foolishness of youth. Those experiences moulded me and made me grow, ultimately making me who I am today. They are the reason I am even able to reflect on the nature of Fear and the impact it has. Fear is what has delivered me to the writing of this article.


First things first, the title is click-bait. I know, I know, I tricked you into reading this article. You were probably expecting to hear the ravings of a narcissistic sociopath intent on destroying the psyche of his team in a tyrannical attempt at squeezing out every last drop of velocity from them. That's not what this is. If you want that then I'm sure a brief time spent scrolling through Twitter will reveal something juicy. No, this article is about dealing with Fear by managing and processing it, with the ultimate goal of dissipating it entirely.

My primary role for my company (Codurance) is as a consultant. As part of that role I am often tasked with embedding myself into a client's development team with the goal of helping them improve their software delivery skills. When I first started doing this I was very focused on the technical details of a team and I would ask questions like:

  • What is their CI/CD pipeline like?

  • Do they employ good practices (e.g. TDD)?

  • Are they using the SCRUM methodology 'correctly' (whatever that means!)?

What occurred to me after a while of approaching my goal in this way was that employing these technical changes wasn't truly making these teams happier or more effective (at least not initially). Don't get me wrong, I stand behind these improvements and believe that they can be revolutionary for the right team. But that's the point; for the right team. Or should I say: for a team with the right frame of mind. A lot of the time, suggesting these kinds of technical changes was a bandaid to address a symptom of an underlying problem but failed to address the root cause itself.

So here is the big reveal, the point of this entire article: nine times out of ten the reason the team wasn't seeing significant improvement despite trying to adopt better working practices was that Fear was controlling their actions more than their well developed logical brains. Turns out, if we don't pay attention to it, we humans are as easily manipulated by our base instincts as any other living organism fighting to survive. Who'd have thunk it!

So there you have it. It's not very surprising really is it. Nothing special. " I’ve heard it all before" I hear you cry and you're right, you have heard this broken record before.

Yet, if that is the case, why do we repeatedly fail to deal with what is staring us in the face? I'm not sure, but I suspect because (quite frankly) it's really hard to face Fear head on.

We still allow our base, animal survival instincts to run rampant and cause no end of problems. Is there a better way?

In part two, Alasdair looks at a 'new' approach to tackling this.