Using Fear to Build Effective Teams Part 2

In this first part of his new blog series, Alasdair Smith, Software Craftsperson at Codurance, looked at how fear can be a driver to success.  Now, in this second instalment, Alasdair offers a new approach to overcoming your fear and using it to succeed.

A (not actually) new approach

If you've stayed with this article until now then you are interested enough in this topic to benefit from my ramblings. If you'll allow me, I'll attempt to offer you a very simple, unremarkable approach to dealing with this unwelcome guest we call Fear. Let me explain.

One of the reasons Fear is such a difficult, insidious little blighter to deal with is that it can feel nebulous and hard to track down the source of it. As an exercise in this try the following:

Think of a recent moment in your life when you were feeling a strong sense of negative emotion. Perhaps you were 'angry' or 'sad'. Or maybe you might label the emotion as 'irritated' or 'frustrated'. Or worse still, perhaps you couldn't put a label on it at all other than you felt 'bad'.

Now try to remember the context surrounding that whirlpool of emotion. What were the events that took place prior to your negative feelings surfacing? Was it an unwarranted rebuke from your boss perhaps?

Finally, ask yourself this: "why did that specific experience make you feel that way?".

I'll be willing to bet that the more you dig into that experience you'll ultimately find yourself confronted with Fear pulling the strings behind it all. Do this a couple of times if you can and really drill into the underlying reason your reaction to the situation was negative. Each time I do this, personally, I find that Fear is too often the root cause. I should know better than to allow this devious emotion to take control of me by now, but I'm only Human after all.

Applying this to your team

If you've followed along with my simple exercise above then you already have the ability to apply this capacity for reflection and emotional intelligence for the benefit of your team as well as yourself.

As you may have been able to elucidate, the first step in addressing Fear running rampant in your team is to identify how Fear forces its presence upon you and your team members. If you can see how it affects you then it's not a massive jump to start to ask yourself how you think it affects your team.

Let's do another exercise. If you are currently established in your career as a Software Developer (or any other role in the tech industry for that matter) then it would be fair for me to assume you were once a junior member of a team. Go back now and put yourself back in your younger self's shoes. What were you afraid of back then? I'll list a few obvious examples below (many of them my own):

  • I'm scared of looking like an idiot.

  • I'm scared that I won't be able to do the job.

  • I'm scared that this job isn't for me (because I'm finding it hard) and I'm wasting my time and other people's by continuing to work here.

  • I'm scared that I'm not putting in enough time and effort outside of the work day to stay ahead of the curve and that I'll be found out.

The above are just a small handful of the different ways in which Fear has manipulated my thoughts into an irrational miasma of anxiety and sleepless nights.

Let's turn the clock forward a few steps and imagine ourselves as leaders (perhaps Team Lead or Tech Lead or any other role with the responsibility of leadership) and consider how Fear might affect us. Again some example from my own experience:

  • I'm scared of looking like an idiot.
  • I'm scared of speaking my mind in case I offend my boss.

  • I'm scared of trying to help my peers because I'll be exposed as not knowing anything. I'm scared of letting go of responsibility because if my team messes up then it'll be my fault.

  • I'm scared of taking a holiday/sick leave because my team can't be productive without me.
  • I'm scared of looking for another job because I won't be able to justify my salary expectations.

You'd hope that after having fought your way to the position of leadership that you'd not have to feel these sorts of emotions because you'd have "grown out" of them somehow. Not so! Many times people in positions of leadership simply have the effects of Fear magnified with every level of seniority.

Of course, you can do this exact same exercise for every role in your team. No one is beyond the invisible reach of Fear. What's more, while these examples may seem extreme to you, they are far from unrealistic or irrational. They may not be helpful thoughts but they are often very valid and arguably appropriate thoughts. It is in our nature to be self-preserving. Unfortunately that natural instinct can be so strong it overrides our logical actions in preference of those that seem "safe".

An aside: how Fear impacts the team

I'd like to take a moment to consider what the observable behaviour of the above might be. This is useful because it can help you to identify the presence of Fear and allow you to begin the process of neutralising it.

Let's take one of the above examples and consider how that Fear may manipulate the actions of an individual.

The Junior

I'm scared that I won't be able to do the job

This is interesting. Despite the fact that the individual has only just begun their career they are under the impression that they need to be able to fulfil all the needs of the role straight from the outset. In my experience these individuals can end up acting in a couple of ways.

Firstly, they may become very isolated and introverted in an attempt to hide their inexperience. Instead of reaching out to more senior individuals for help they do all their work "in secret" and keep any blockers hidden from scrutiny. It's quite obvious how this can have a very negative effect on a team. Velocity drops, bad code makes it into Main, unexpected bugs begin to surface and cause headaches, managers get frustrated and so on. If that junior is lucky and manages to get reasonable code merged into Main without any perceivable impact on velocity then they will likely suffer from minor burn-out from the unreasonable amount of pent-up stress and anxiety they had to go through to get there.

Alternatively, the individual may become obviously frustrated and irritable due to the pressure they are feeling. They may become monosyllabic and difficult to work with. Perhaps they have very obvious outbursts of frustration. Unfortunately, this more volatile response can be even more damaging to this individual's reputation and very off putting to the team (who would otherwise likely be willing to help them). I have indeed observed this exact behaviour resulting in the on-the-spot dismissal of an employee suffering this very frustration. If that individual is lucky enough to not be dismissed (I certainly hope they aren't) then it is likely the team will have to suffer the brunt of their frustration much to their dismay. This burden will likely be further compounded by their velocity suffering due to the damage to the team's morale.

In either case above (or any other of the many possible ways a person may react under the influence of Fear) the result is rarely good.

The Team Lead

For the sake of completeness let's consider how Fear presents itself in individuals with the privilege of leadership. Surely these individuals can manage their emotions better due to their experience and battle hardiness? Not so.

I'm scared of speaking my mind in case I offend my boss.

Again, an interesting situation. You'd think that an individual who has been employed into this position would believe that they had been judged competent and able to make the necessary decisions in the presence of their employer. One might even suggest that they have been employed to do just that. Yet I have seen this very problem affect Team Leads more often than I'd like to admit.

So how does this look in terms of observable behaviour? In my experience it presents itself as a duality of personality. The Tech Lead is observed saying one thing and doing another. Perhaps, as an example, they have expressed a similar opinion as the other developers on their team regarding a recent requirement being ill-considered and should be brought up as something to be pushed back on as a matter of urgency. However, when the opportunity arises for them to confront their employer and make a well-considered argument for the benefit of themselves and the team they falter and fail to make their position known. Thus, they return to their team without having achieved the anticipated outcome. Instead they now have to encourage the team to do something they collectively feel uncomfortable with.

What a position to be in! This individual has committed to a course of action they know isn't appropriate and will likely fail to meet expectations of their employer. What's more now they have to face the ire of the team, likely reducing the team's confidence and trust in their leadership capabilities. They are under attack on two fronts by both their team and their employer all whilst having to deliver a feature which they don't believe in. It's enough to burn anyone out, and it does.


In the next, and final part of his blog, Alasdair will show you how to overcome these fears.