You've seen it happen far too many times. A junior developer questions an architect and gets rudely dismissed. A developer storms off to the breakroom after a bad interaction with the tester. Or perhaps you've felt your own stress rising as you hear your team misrepresented in leadership meetings. Like it or not, our human emotions are a major factor in team success, no matter what technical skills we possess.
A story I've shared with my teams is the illustration of the Venus Flytrap, those amazing little plants with a carnivorous appetite. My roommate in college had one, and it was a wonder to see how quickly the two leaves folded together when triggered by a brush of the finger or the landing of a doomed insect. Like the Venus Flytrap, we too possess triggers, little mental checks that are often hard to discern. In our interactions with others, we process and react according to the following internal checks:
The Truth Check
Is the information being presented to me demonstrably true? Is this being accurately communicated?
The Relationship Check
How do I feel about the person talking to me right now? How have they treated me in the past?
The Identity Check
What is this saying about me? How does this information make me feel about myself?
It's important to remind everyone that these checks are part of who we are, but we must be disciplined in our emotional response to them. If a Venus Flytrap closed its leaves on every gust of wind, it would have no energy for the fly buzzing past. In the same way, all three checks are there to guide and orient us, given we have the proper self-awareness. One beneficial use of retrospectives is to work on self-awareness together, especially in mature teams that have been working together long enough to build up some trust, along with a few aggravating pet peeves. When leading this examination, I follow the following steps:
- Introduce the Venus Flytrap analogy, making sure people understand our reactions are part of being human, and not something to be judged on their face.
- Walk through an explanation of the three general types of mental checks, giving examples of when you have demonstrated those responses or observed them in others.
- Open up some reflection space for the team
- Once people have had ample time to reflect, ask for some volunteers to speak on which check is strongest for them. Using open-ended questions, try to draw out at least one example to talk through together.
- Close with re-iterating the human reality of our responses, and the need for cooperation and patience as the team learns to work together.
Using this retrospective technique, I've seen breakthrough as team members who were previously entrenched in disagreement realized the underlying dynamics behind their arguments. When we understand how to avoid each other's triggers while properly responding to our own, our teams can thrive, and collaboration and innovation take a giant leap forward.