To Ask or Not to Ask

Starting a New Job

Many years ago, when I started a new job, I was excited because, well, I am not exactly known for being tolerant of boredom. New job, new domain and some new tech: heaven for a curious person such as myself.

My induction task looked fairly innocuous: Refactor some part of the code and add a few features that customers had been asking for. Doable, you’d think. Well, yes, at first glance.

The code base was larger than any I had seen before. Someone who was no longer with the company had done a refactor earlier, but the need for further work was obvious. The code was still unnecessarily complicated, and getting to grips with it wasn’t easy.

I went about that task in the most ineffective manner possible: I tried to figure it all out by myself. While I did ask questions, I asked nowhere near enough.

Guiding New Hires

A couple of years later, by then well-versed in the code base and the functionality of the application, I volunteered to help new hires get up to speed. It was fun, and I liked it a lot. My heart always jumps a little when I see the lights go on behind someone’s eyes.

The arrangement was simple: We’d discuss what the part of application they were working on was intended to do, any problems that existed with it and any features that needed to be added. Then, I’d show them around the relevant code and give them a few “search terms” to find other related code. After that, I was available for any questions they might have.

Though not ideal, it worked well--at least, it did at first. It fell apart when a new hire didn’t ask enough questions. We had some of those, and the consequences weren’t pretty: oversights, bugs and inefficiencies in places where performance was crucial. Many were caught at review time. More were caught by the QA or acceptance testers. Some were not caught until they reached customers. All of them required extra work to rectify what had fallen between the cracks.


What stopped me from asking questions? What allowed some new hires to ask questions, some of them ad nauseam? What stopped other new hires asking enough questions?

There are plenty of reasons why people do not ask questions. Over-confidence is one. Not wanting to bother busy people is another. Fear, as the opposite of trust, is what interests me.

Though I didn’t think of it at the time, in hindsight, fear – or a lack of trust – was the main reason for my lack of questions. While I haven’t explicitly asked any of the new hires about this issue, I do remember many conversations we had around the topic, including some very illuminating responses that all point to that same reason.

So, what was driving that lack of trust?

We just started out in our jobs and were still feeling out our new surroundings. Every interaction we had would have influenced our trust levels, as would every interaction we observed. Still, trust doesn’t erode that quickly.

Whenever you go into a new situation with new people, you are thrown back onto yourself. So, unless you actively discourage questions, how many questions people ask in the first few weeks is driven by their levels of self-trust.

I do mean self-trust and not self-confidence. My self-confidence has always been pretty high. I know what I can and cannot do and I tend to think I can do almost anything given a bit of time and practice.

My self-trust, however, has until recently been extremely low, if not non-existent.

When you look at BRAVING, it’s the N that’s the kicker in these situations. The more judgmental your self-talk is, the less likely you are to open yourself up to judgments from other people. Asking questions becomes fraught with danger, the core of which is: “They will think I’m incompetent.”


When you start a new job, or join a group of people:

Realize that the judgments you fear from others are actually your own judgments about yourself which have formed as a result of your self-talk. Practice non-judgment (towards yourself) and ask the questions that enter your head. Of course, you should try yourself first, but don’t remain stuck by not asking. Show what you’ve tried when asking your question. It will go a long way toward other people gladly helping you out when they see that you don’t just cry for help at the first obstacle. Realize that asking questions shows your reliability. This may sound strange, but it shows that you are aware of your competencies as well as your limitations. People can rely on you to ask for help when you need it.

When someone new starts in your team:

Realize there are several reasons for not asking questions: over-confidence, not wanting to bother busy people or lack of self-trust, to name a few. Realize that no matter how often you assure people that it is okay to ask questions, it does not guarantee they will do so. Respond to questions with patience and non-judgment. Judgment and lack of generosity are the quickest ways to kill trust. Showing impatience or getting irritated by questions is just as much a judgment as an explicit statement. Proactively engage with new hires. Show interest and ask open questions daily, if not multiple times a day. Realize that “how are you” and “how are you getting on” may start with “how,” but are actually closed questions because they only allow for a very short answer: “Good.”

Have you or a colleague ever struggled with a fear of asking questions? Let me know in the comments below.

Be brave and braving!

What Trust is Made Of

Dysfunctional Teams

Some years ago, when the team I was on was starting to Scrum, I dove into agile. A whole world opened up for me. It was like somebody had written down what I’d been carrying around as wishful thinking for quite some time. About a year later I was getting rather frustrated. We were doing Scrum and were pretty good at delivering working software every iteration, but other than that we weren’t really being agile.

I spoke with several people about my experience. J.B. Rainsberger was one of them, and after hearing my description of day-to-day life at the office, he recommended Patrick Lencioni’s "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" to me.

Hit the nail right on the head, he did.

Improving Trust the Lencioni Way

“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” explains what lack of trust in a team can lead to, and how the consequences can seriously affect the bottom line. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading this book. The parable is a nice read even if you are not interested in dysfunction or trust. If you are, it will give you a lot of food for thought.

At the back of the book, Lencioni provides tools to assess your team’s health and discusses how to remedy each of the five dysfunctions. When I first read this book, I was quite taken with all his advice. After digging into the concepts of trust and vulnerability a lot further, it impresses me less. To start rebuilding trust, Lencioni mentions a number of techniques:

Personal history exercise Team effectiveness exercise Personality and behavioral preference profiles 360 degree feedback Experiential team exercises

One problem I have with them is that using these techniques means calling meetings. When you are the leader of a team, you may be able to get away with calling a meeting and doing the exercises “because you think it’s a good idea.” But, when you are “just a grunt” like I was at the time, you have to convince the members of your team to take part. That involves broaching a subject that is thorny at the best of times and positively hazardous at the worst.

A second problem is that each of these exercises themselves requires a willingness to open up. That’s not going to be easy in a situation where there is little trust to go around to begin with.

Lastly and most importantly, these exercises focus on connection and mutual understanding. While these are important in allowing trust to grow, they don’t constitute trust itself. It really doesn’t matter how much I know about your private life, your personality, your behavioral preferences or how many shared experiences we have; if your behavior remains such that I cannot count on you, the likelihood that I will trust you will remain slim indeed.

What is Trust?

If connection and mutual understanding are not trust and don’t necessarily lead us to trust each other, then what is trust? What behaviors would signal that you could trust me if you’d be willing to do so? What behaviors would inspire you to trust me?

I found the answer to these questions quite serendipitously.

On one of my browsing adventures, I happened upon Brené Brown’s “Listening to Shame” TED Talk in which she shares her experience with her TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” This led me to take part in the first ever “Living Brave Semester.”  In the lead-up to that, we all received a free pass to Brown’s class, “The Anatomy of Trust.”  

The main video of that class (which is freely available) provided me with what I felt was lacking in all other discussions about trust. Where other discussions of “building” trust always feel like they are overcomplicating things or confounding trust with connection, the Anatomy of Trust is powerful in its very simplicity (see my blog post, “Myths and Misconceptions About Trust” for more on this matter).

“The Anatomy of Trust” is outlined with the acronym “BRAVING:”

You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s okay and not okay, you ask. You’re willing to say no. Reliability
You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities. Accountability
You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends. Vault
You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential. Integrity
You choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them. Non-judgment
I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment. Generosity
You extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others. Surprising Realizations

These definitions were a revelation to me. The acronym would not have had half the impact on me if not for the definitions that Brené Brown attached to each word.

I never understood the idea that setting boundaries is simply telling people what is okay and what is not, defining what you like and what you don’t like and saying “No” to inappropriate requests.

It was a shock to realize that my inability to say “No” to requests in general meant I was a lot less reliable than I had previously thought. Since that sunk in deeply, saying “No” has become much easier for me. It no longer means not being nice or cooperative. Instead, it is now tied to improving my reliability and thus my trustworthiness.

Seeing accountability defined like this cleared up a lot of misunderstandings I had about it. Until seeing these definitions I confounded accountability and reliability. As a result, I often shirked “being held accountable” as I thought it meant having to live up to (someone else’s) estimates or targets. Now, I am fine with being held accountable since it is clear to me that it is about owning your decisions and the consequences that come with them.

The vault made me realize that trustworthiness also means not allowing other people to share information with me that’s not theirs to share. In other words: it’s not just about not gossiping yourself, but also about stopping other people from gossiping to you. After all, what they can do with you they can also do to and about you.

I don’t know how or why it got to be like this, but saying somebody was a person of integrity to me simply meant that he or she was honest and sincere. Brené Brown’s definition of integrity made me realize where many trust failures come from. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone in software development who will not stress the importance of quality, maintainability and robustness. Yet, when push comes to shove, managers will ask for speed and developers, including me, don’t stand their ground nearly as often as they should.

Non-judgment surprised me. Without the definition provided, I would have interpreted it to be about not judging other people. However, it is just as much about not judging yourself.

Judgment and a lack of generosity often go hand-in-hand. They are the fastest ways to erode trust. Where failures in all the other anatomic parts of trust may not affect our emotions directly, judgment and less-than-generous interpretations of our intentions hit close to home, perhaps even more so when they touch upon our insecurities. For example, our insecurity about our professional skills, our mistakes and our social skills.

Practical Application

Where Lencioni’s advice to rebuild trust involves meetings and group exercises, “The Anatomy of Trust” can be applied individually. You don’t need anybody else to start adopting behaviors that are (more) in line with BRAVING.

Setting boundaries is the most important practice. Upholding your integrity and being generous in your interpretation of what your teammates say and do is not possible without setting boundaries. You can’t practice your values if you are not setting boundaries around behavior that is not in line with your values, while being generous without setting boundaries is being a doormat – letting people walk all over you.

Practicing reliability may get you some flak. People may at first be taken aback by your candid “No, I can’t do that” or “What would you like me to drop instead?” However, they will soon pick up on the fact that when you say “Yes” you mean “Yes,” and they can count on you to deliver.

Practicing accountability is interesting. Acknowledging your mistakes instead of making excuses or pointing your finger at someone else may feel extremely dangerous, especially when you are in a team with a culture of blame. It takes guts and trust--self-trust. My advice is to take baby steps. Start with acknowledging your mistakes to yourself, then acknowledge a small mistake to your peers: “Oh, darn, I forgot to add that new file to source control. Sorry about that.”

Practicing the vault is pretty straightforward, I’d hope.

Practicing integrity is probably the hardest task. For integrity, you need clarity on your values, especially your core values. That will require some, if not a lot, of self-work. Starting is simple though. Pick one thing you really, really, really find important. Kindness, for example. Then, start showing it more often and start stopping yourself from being unkind. You know what they say: it’s like a muscle, you need to train it.

Practicing non-judgment and generosity aren’t a piece of cake either. Forming judgments and interpreting intentions is built into our system, or at least has been driven into it by our upbringing and education. It’s hard to stop, even when we know it’s not likely to improve our relationships. However, it’s still important to try.

The effect that judgment and lack of generosity have on trust is huge, and is what makes giving feedback so hard. Effective feedback requires you to get past your emotions, focus on observable facts and request what you want and would like to see. I’ve found Jurgen Appelo’s feedback wraps helpful in this.

The simplest way to start practicing non-judgment is to start with yourself. Be non-judgmental about not knowing something. Start asking for help. In the process, you may be met with judgmental responses. Don’t bite and don’t retort. Just say something like “Yes, will you help me learn?” There are no guarantees, as some teams are toxic beyond repair, but I’m willing to bet the judgmental responses will decrease and it may not be long before your teammates will feel safe enough to start asking for help themselves.


The fun part of BRAVING is that as you start practicing it, chances are that your example will spread. Maybe not like wildfire, but the people around you can’t help but notice.

Vulnerability begets vulnerability and trust begets trust.

As you start displaying more vulnerability (like owning your mistakes) and setting boundaries around inappropriate responses (telling people that sarcasm is unwarranted and not very helpful), your teammates will feel safer to follow your lead.

The best thing about it is that you don’t even have to care whether your example is copied.

Practicing BRAVING has done wonders for my self-trust. I now know that I can count on myself to take care of myself, to set boundaries around toxic behavior and to be generous to myself when I stumble. To pick myself up, dust myself off, be self-compassionate and try again when showing my vulnerability is met with harshness.

What BRAVING has done for me, and what I hope it will do for you, is provide an easy-to-remember acronym that shows you what inspires trust. Behave in alignment with the definitions of “The Anatomy of Trust” and your trustworthiness will increase. Behave out of alignment with them and your trustworthiness will decrease. It’s as simple as that.

Be brave and BRAVING!

PS: If you’d like to discuss BRAVING, for example in a retrospective, just Google “BRAVING download.” That should bring up several results for the original BRAVING poster by COURAGEWorks (Brené Brown’s company).


Myths and Misconceptions About Trust

When I was a teenager, I was bitten by a German Shephard out of the blue, or so it seemed to me at the time. I never trusted that dog again, mostly because we never met again. I'm sure that if we had, we might have become friends and I would have become much better at reading him. The incident certainly hasn't stopped me from loving dogs.

The romantic in me would like to say that this incident is what sparked my interest in trust. It didn't, but it's a nice story, and it illustrates a couple myths and misconceptions about trust.

Myth: Trust Is All or Nothing

For a long time, I believed that if I trusted someone not to bash my head in, it meant that I completely trusted them. You either trust someone or you don't, right?

Not exactly.

I like to drive convertibles at high speeds up and down mountain roads. Roads like the one in the above picture. When that picture was taken, I was not at the wheel. Does that take trust? You bet. Would I trust the driver with anything? No way.

Would you trust the driver of a getaway car with your wallet? Can you trust a very competent rally driver to look out for you in difficult personal circumstances? Can you trust a co-worker that would drive you up or down this mountain safely not to go behind your back to reap the fruits of your labor?

Trusting someone for one thing does not necessarily mean that you trust them for everything. It's quite possible to trust a co-worker not to gossip about you, yet have no trust for them at all about the way they handle their own or your mistakes.

Myth: Trust Is a Matter of Life and Death

It certainly can be, and in many professions it is, whether between teammates or between the person performing a service and the person undergoing it. However, most of us don't work in the fire department or have medical jobs. Most us have office jobs, where life and death situations are few and far between.

In those circumstances, trust revolves more around emotional safety. Can you make a promise because you can trust someone to deliver so you won't have to face another's wrath? Can you trust someone not to judge you? Can you trust someone to walk their talk?

Myth: Trust Is About Competence

According to some, competence inspires trust. While I don't disagree, I don't entirely agree, either. Competence, or being good at something, is more about inspiring confidence. Specifically, confidence that someone is the right person to get a job done. On the other hand, trust is more about being able to rely on them using that ability to do the job right and get the best result possible.

Take the co-pilot of Germanwings flight 9525, trained to the T and perfectly competent to fly an aircraft to its destination. His ability also made him perfectly competent to fly it into the ground. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what he did on 24 March 2015. Despite his competence, he should not have been trusted to fly on that fateful day.

This next example hits a bit closer to home for me. The people I wouldn't want behind the wheel on that mountain road fall into two categories. One group simply lacks the ability to safely get me to the top and down again. I have zero confidence in their competence.

Another group consists of the people that can complete the trip safely, but I am uncertain if they will. Not because they may have a death-wish like the German co-pilot, but maybe because they tend to drink a little too much in the evenings, or because they are easily distracted and tend not to be focused on the job at hand.

Myth: Trust Arrives on Foot and Leaves on Horseback

Google “trust quotes” and this comes up a lot. It's a widespread belief.

However, trust isn't slow to arrive. Yes, some people will not trust anyone unless and until they have "proven" their trustworthiness. Most people, however, function the other way around. They will trust until they are proven wrong.

Further, being proven wrong once isn't enough to warrant a complete lack of trust. Yes, it will make you more cautious, but your trust for them doesn't simply fly out the window. People are quite capable of distinguishing between intention and effect, and are generally willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Even when proven wrong a couple of times, that doesn't mean that all trust is gone, because trust is not all or nothing. Oh sure, after banging your head against the wall several times, you will not trust X to deliver on time anymore, but you can still rely on X to deliver high-quality work. And what if X were to deliver quality goods on time several times in a row?

Regardless of the initial level of trust for others that you operate from, that level of trust is in constant flux. Brené Brown uses a marble jar analogy to illustrate this.

Your marble jar for Peter starts with an initial number of marbles in it. Every action by Peter either adds a marble or takes one away. For example, Peter remembering your mother's name, inquiring about your recent exam, delivering quality work on time or being discrete about something you told him in confidence will add marbles. On the other hand, delivering something late or of inferior quality, being harsh to you or someone else or always saying yes but doing no will remove marbles from his jar.

So, where does the popular belief that trust leaves on horseback come from?

I have no idea. My guess is that we are often unaware of the effects of other people's words and actions on our level of trust for them, perhaps because questioning your trust for someone feels like a betrayal in itself. When you've finally had enough of someone's failures to act trustworthy, it feels like emptying the jar in one fell swoop, when in reality it has been running on fumes for some time already.

Myth: Trust Happens Automagically

Everything I've read about agile and high-performance teams stresses the importance of trust. Trust between team members, trust between teams and trust between teams and their stakeholders. And yet, none of the agile frameworks or methodologies I’ve seen go any further than that. We are all apparently expected to "get" it and get on with it. "Trust is important. Now go forth and trust each other."

Coaches and facilitators do get a bit more training and can find a lot more resources on trust building exercises. Unfortunately, most trust building exercises I have had the pleasure of reading or being subjected to are not about building trust. They are about building a connection. Connectedness is a lubricant that makes trust easier: you are far more likely to trust someone with whom you have broken bread, played or exchanged personal information. But a connection is not trust itself.

What everybody also seems to forget is that trust or team building exercises and activities can just as easily destroy trust when the person you previously thought was pretty nice turns out to be an utterly unreliable partner in the exercise.

What's more, just like training a dog doesn't just happen during obedience classes, trust doesn't just grow or erode during exercises and events intended to build it. Trust levels wax and wane with every observed word and action. If you want trust levels to improve, you will have to work at it all the time. This doesn't mean you can't slip up, just that when you do, you have to acknowledge it and make amends.

Myth: Trust Must Be Earned

This myth is one of my pet peeves. I am firmly in the "trust until proven wrong" camp, even though it may sometimes be with a lot of trepidation.

That doesn't mean I trust everyone for anything in every situation. For example, I am very much in favor of assessments and tests during the hiring process. I could say that is because of cognitive biases that make people believe they are better than they actually are. While that plays a part, the true reason is that hiring is a process with a lot of conflicting interests, and assessments may add some much-needed objectivity.

But, don't put people through a wringer just to gauge their trustworthiness as a human being. Doing so is a clear signal of distrust that is clearly heard by the person on the receiving end. Distrust begets distrust. They may tolerate it if it's the way to gain a prize they want, but, if anything, it will lower their trust (and respect) for their "testers."

Hearing an agile coach utter this myth really got me on my high horse.

Besides, it is futile. If you are not willing to trust me, there is nothing I can do or that I can give you that will make you trust me. Because, as we’re about to discuss, trust can't be built.

Myth: Trust Can Be Built

Now there's a bummer. Bet you didn't expect that one, especially with all the trust building exercises, ice breakers, team building activities and what have you that all intend to build trust levels in teams.

Unfortunately, it is true. There is nothing I or anyone else can do to make you trust us.

It's not like I can stack packets of trust on you and that will increase your trust for me. All anyone can do is speak and act in ways that will facilitate your trust for them to grow. However, whether it has the desired effect or not depends entirely on whether you allow it and are willing to trust.

Trust can't be built or earned, it is given and it grows.

So, are all those exercises, ice breakers and games in vain?

Absolutely not.

They are essential for trust to have a chance. They create conditions and get people to interact in ways that are conducive for trust to grow. You need to take people out of their "normal" work -- the transactions of day to day business -- and put them in situations where they can interact as people.

Interacting as human beings, with as little interference from formal hierarchies as possible, is what makes people more comfortable with each other and what will allow them to interact more easily and with less trepidation in their "transactional" work. It allows trust to grow and to be given.

Myth: Trust Is Optional for the Bottom Line

Just like "leaving your emotions at the door" is wishful thinking, hoping that you can make do without trust is daydreaming at best. Sure, companies where distrust reigns supreme can be successful and make a profit. I just wonder how much more profitable they could be if they worked on increasing trust and happiness levels. Read Patrick Lencioni's "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" to see where an organization can leak money left, right and center when trust issues run rampant.

And, if you want the people in your company to innovate, to be creative and to be open to change, then you need them to be willing to make themselves vulnerable to the words and actions of their co-workers. That takes trust. Loads and loads of trust.

So, What Is Trust?

Trust is multi-faceted.

Trust is feeling emotionally safe.

Trust is knowing that someone will use their abilities appropriately.

Trust is resilient.

Trust is a two-way street.

Trust is essential for smooth collaboration so innovation, creativity and change can flourish.

Trust is in constant flux, it waxes and wanes with every interaction.

Trust is a verb. It needs to be worked on and you need to be aware of the effect of words and actions on trust levels.

Trust is not built or earned. It grows and is given.

If you have any additional thoughts on trust that I haven’t addressed here, please share them in the comments section below.