Tips and Tricks to Manage Stress as a Developer
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We're kicking off 2021 with a new interview series: GOTO Unscripted, with our first round of interviews recorded back when we could still meet in person. GOTO Unscripted takes our conference speakers off the big stage and brings them behind the scenes for an intimate conversation on topics they know best.
Jørn Larsen: We're sitting here in Amsterdam at GOTO Amsterdam, and in the studio here we have John Le Drew and Markus Wittwer. We are going to talk about positive and negative stress for developers and what we can do about it. I'm Jørn Larsen, and I'm from the GOTO organization, and I'm very pleased to have you here. So maybe you can start introducing yourself.
John Le Drew: Sure. Hi. I'm John Le Drew. I was speaking today on psychological safety in teams. I've been a kind of IT consultant and software engineering consultant and agile coach for about 20 years.
Markus Wittwer: Hello. My name is Markus Wittwer. I spoke today on mindfulness, mindfulness in organizations, and especially mindfulness for nerds and techies, and how they can utilize that. I'm mostly an agile coach, developing this idea of bringing mindfulness into organizations.
What triggers “negative stress” for developers?
Jørn Larsen: What drives negative developer stress? What stresses people and could later affect their health. So what do you see there?
John Le Drew: Well, for me, I think the... and this isn't really just engineers, but it's kind of anyone working, but the major cause of stress is actually a lack of engagement in the work. It's been shown in many studies that when you're engaged in what you do, and you love what you do, you actually experience negative stress less. It acts as almost a shield. In my session, I talk about a story of an engineer imagining… you kind of imagined, so you're in the office at 7pm and your boss charges in the office [and says], "Oh crap, we need to get this project done. You have to have a demo ready for me to show the CEO tomorrow," and, "Oh, my God." And this person is in the office till 2am, and they're stressed and they're tired. Then the next story as well, you're in the office, and it's 7pm and you're on… you've just started the project that you love, and you finished the old project, the one you didn't enjoy. And now you look up at the clock, and, "Oh, God, it's 2am I better get home." Now this time you get home, and the ideas are still going crazy in your head, and you're like, "Oh," and then you just pick up your laptop, and your wife grumbles and goes into the other room and swears at you or something.
Then you're working until the sun's coming up the next day, and you charge into the office early, you've got your laptop above your head, and you're going, "I did it, I finished the story I did. I fixed the thing." Because you love what you're doing. You've not slept. But you're not stressed either, you're actually still completely... You're probably exhausted. And I don't think working through the night is a good thing. In fact, I was only talking today to another friend of mine who's been working with a team in London, [where] her challenge is actually that they're so engaged, it's such a positive environment, that she has a problem with them setting boundaries, and knowing when to tone it down because they're almost working too hard. But you find that, for me, the difference is most people are not engaged like that. They experience this stress because of the fact they're so disengaged. They're in an environment that doesn't engage them and doesn't support their desire for doing good work and other things. And a lack of mindfulness is a...
Markus Wittwer: Yes and what comes up for me right now is actually, besides like, disengagement and besides stuff like that, is that people long for a sense of connection and long for a sense of that they can be themselves in a work environment, that they don't have to hide stuff they would usually bring, and so that they can bring themselves fully into something. That relates to psychological safety. Because if it's not there, I have this idea that I need to hide parts of myself. So what I'm really longing for as an agile coach especially is for environments where people dare to show up as they are, or dare to show up more fully as they are, which doesn't really mean telling all private stuff. That's okay. There are private things, but not having to kind of bend myself into kind of the right person to be at work.
What skills are helpful when dealing with stress?
Jørn Larsen: What skills are helpful when dealing with stress? Let's talk a little bit about that.
John Le Drew: One of the main aspects of my session, when I’m talking about psychological safety, is the realization that many teams are very clearly not psychologically safe in the way they behave. When I talk to them about that, they'll be like, "No, no, we're fine. We're absolutely fine." They'll say that, "We're absolutely fine," while we're stood here with our arms crossed and not talking and clearly not communicating. We've just had a major project failure that was due to someone not speaking up about a big problem or all of these things that are obvious signs of a lack of psychological safety, but they think they're absolutely fine. One of the reasons, and this kind of leads well into what Markus was talking about today on mindfulness, is this lack of self-awareness of how they are, and I call it paying attention. It's really what I call a subset of mindfulness. So mindfulness is a far more broad brush on kind of self-awareness and sense of self. This is very focused on how do I feel right now as an engineer, or a person, part of a team? Do I feel that I can be authentic? Can I be present as me right now or are there bits of me that I'm not bringing? I don't need to talk about them.
It's almost that you said that you don't have to bring all of yourself but it's not just, it's more like, do I feel like if I did open up about that thing I haven't yet that that would be okay, or is that not okay? Is it okay for me to talk about my challenges in life or the fact I'm tired this morning, whatever it might be? Is it okay for me to say that I don't understand this technology that well? It seems everyone knows this technology really well, I'm the only one that hasn't used it before. Is it okay for me to say, I don't know how I fit into this project, and I'm not quite sure who I should be working with or what I should be doing? And becoming more mindful as an individual of how that works and how you are really, really helps and then allows teams as they kind of grow that shared mindfulness to I find, to actually begin to have conversations about safety and recognize that as a group, before that they're often stuck. It's like, you can't solve a problem that you can't even talk about, you can't even describe or have an awareness of.
Markus Wittwer: Yes, I agree. So one thing is self-awareness, as you say. An additional skill is then if you have some kind of self-awareness, that's also a skill in expressing what's in yourself, kind of how do I actually say that I'm not feeling comfortable right now? Because many people then have some kind of judgmental thinking. So the only idea they have [on] how to express that is saying, well, "You make me unsafe." And actually being able to say that, "Well, right now, I'm not feeling fully safe to share that. Could you help me or could we find a way to do this?" That's also an additional skill. And I need both. And the interesting thing, what comes with self-awareness, so if I know better how I am myself, it's usually also developing empathy. Because if I know if I have a good sense of how I am, and I have a good, actually embodied sense of feeling how I am, then this automatically develops a feeling, sensing how the other person is, and that, again, creates a bit of safety. So if there are even a few people having a high skill in self-awareness, and empathy kind of invites the others to open up themselves too.
What is mindfulness?
Jørn Larsen: You mentioned mindfulness. Maybe we can talk a little bit about it to get closer to it because I think a lot of our audience might not know about it. They've heard the term. But let's elaborate a little bit on what it is and define it and get into it a little bit deeper.
Markus Wittwer: I think the first thing to say that's important is that there's a mindfulness practice. The practice of mindfulness is actually like being able to focus on something you choose. So it's a skill of enough concentration. The interesting thing is that you can actually practice that. It's really basic training, training your mind to be focused. And then depending on what kind of school of mindfulness you follow, and what kind of person you read, they define mindfulness as a combination of concentration, so being able to focus, but then also having or gaining clarity. That's exactly the clarity we were just talking about, clarity, meaning, gaining insight in what's going on in yourself. The third thing is usually called equanimity. And equanimity means not being so attached to positive experiences because that creates pain when they go away. Life is like that, they will go away. Also is not so kind of in a negative way touched by negative experiences because it's also part of what happens. It doesn't mean that I don't care about the world anymore, it just means that I'm actually experiencing them fully. But I'm not creating additional drama about it. I'm not really making things bigger as they are, I'm experiencing things as they are, but then I'm not making them bigger. That's basically mindfulness. The important thing is that you can train it. There's enough research around that says that with the right practices, you can train these three skills.
John Le Drew: So what I can add… it was a wonderfully succinct definition. I think that for me when I think more about I suppose my own subset of that, which is the thing I focus on, which is this paying attention, as I call it, which is obviously a very specific thing is when is that kind of almost encouraging people to become aware of their internal monologue. So for me, it's literally saying, "Okay, so you're in a meeting, and you're sat there, and you're asking yourself, "Well, was I able to say what I needed to say?" And you think, "Well, actually, I didn't say what I needed to say. I don't know why I didn't say what I needed to say. So was it because that happened? Was it because someone walked in that changed how comfortable I felt saying that?" So that's one thing is kind of is how I do that, which is very much I find that a lot of people already have an internal monologue. Just becoming and bringing your attention to that can really help. One of the other things is around, to kind of extend what you were saying, is also around the idea of empathy is, for me is a lot of conversations I have is this kind of you have conflict, conflict in the team and conflict situations.
And people really struggle with empathy because it seems like a very soft and fluffy word. It's kind of like you got the typical room full of, I don't know, 20, 30, something male engineers who are just like, "What the hell? Empathy, this is so kind of..." I normally just say the key thing is if you're going into that conversation, it could be a disagreement over an architectural thing or argument with a junior engineer, or whatever it might be, is always go into that conversation with the idea that you might not be right, which is a very hard thing to do. Because engineers, obviously, as engineers, we're always right. In fact, I think the Trifork t-shirt that was going around today was that I'm not right all the time, but most of the time or something like that. And I think that's one of the... It's a joke. As an engineer, I know we're always right, we’re brilliant. But it’s that basic assumption, because the problem is, as soon as you assume you're right, in any conversation, you've created a hierarchy, which compromises the ability to have that conversation. Actually compromises your own mindfulness of that situation as well.
How can you start practicing mindfulness?
Jørn Larsen: I actually think performing an interview makes you quite focused and aware. And so I think that's maybe one of the things you can do if you want to learn something new, just doing an interview with two very clever people. So you can do this with your colleagues as well. But then the question now goes on, how can you get started with practicing mindfulness? And I know there are a lot of resources out there, but can we just have a few hints?
Markus Wittwer: So actually, you can do it now. So if you're listening, you can stop the video and, after I finish speaking, and what you can do is, stop the video and take a couple of really deep breaths. And when you do these deep breaths, notice the sensations of breathing in your body, really notice where you actually feel your breath, you might notice it in your chest, your stomach, your nose. So do that for a couple of breaths. Probably one thing you will notice is that once you start your mind gets crazy. Your mind is going somewhere else. "Oh, okay, there was this email I have to write, and, oh, I need to fix dinner. And, oh, I didn't really like the lunch I had today." So maybe the next day… your mind is just doing all that stuff. And the practice is then to notice that and then return to the sensations of breathing in your body. That’s the whole practice and doing that, again and again, kind of primes your mind to be more and more focused. Because you're deciding on being mindful with the breath, you're deciding that this is your focus, and you realize that you can't and that's the training. So as often as more and more as you do that, it's gonna be easier after a while. The other important thing is you don't need a quiet mind for that, there can be lots of stuff going on. The only thing you need to do is when you realize you're not with your breath anymore, you can come back. So no need to get a quiet mind.
John Le Drew: So one of my favorite meditation practices is what's called walking meditation. So it's literally you might be walking across the square, you might be walking around the parking lot in your office, or around the office. And you don't do it with your eyes closed, which is less intimidating, it's a really bad idea, in fact, to do it with your eyes closed. It has a lot of health and safety risks. But the main thing you're doing is as you're walking around is you're rotating your consciousness around the sensation. So the first time you're gonna focus on the sensation of the ground touching your feet, and the pressure, and what happens if you walk a little faster or a little slower, then rotate it around and think, "Okay, well, what am I hearing right now? Am I hearing people speaking? Am I hearing the sound of the outdoors, the wind? What am I smelling? What am I seeing?" And you really just bring all of that… rotate your consciousness around each one. And I find at times when I have been very stressed at work and have been experiencing a lot of stress, going outside, just walking often around the block for 10 minutes or less, a lot of the time, it's not even that long to be up to one end of the office to the other, just focusing even just on my footsteps, you can just somehow... It is a very, very grounding activity that really brings it back in. And I find that a very easy one to do, wherever I happen to be.
How does the work environment affect your mood, stress and productivity?
Jørn Larsen: So now we're going to talk about the work environment and how that affects your mood, your mind, the stress level and productivity. So let's see what you can say about that.
John Le Drew: I think that for me, the most important thing in any situation is for the work environment to reflect accurately and to closely reflect and align to the teams and the context of the work. In the same way, the process teams are following should be reflective of the work they're doing and the context in which they're working in and who those people are. Their work should be… if your team, as a team, and as a group of people needs to work individually far more, needs to work on their own, needs to be away. Well, your space should have spaces where those people can go and work in the way they are most effective. If your teams are always wanting to be kind of stood around boards, and drawing and collaborating together, again, your space should be flexible enough to allow all the people to be stood up and stood around boards and work in the way that best supports their needs. If that happens to be team rooms and small spaces, or a big open house, warehouse with thousands of square meters of space. Well, that's right in either of those contexts. I don't think there's a specific right way that is the best way. I think it's always about flexibility to allow the teams to experiment and explore what works for them. And that's likely to change over time. What works day one is likely to be different on day 100 because things change all the time.
Markus Wittwer: Yes. A facilitator also loves if there are flexible environments because then I can do stuff differently with teams and I need this. Sometimes I need a big space for an open space conference. Sometimes I want to have people work in really small groups or me personally, like if I do my own work, I like to be alone. I think that's also besides that flexibility, I think that's also this element of that people actually do have different preferences. As for me, I'm actually more introverted. So I need to have these times where I can be alone, I cannot be constantly in an open space environment at work. And I would never select an employer who offers me just an open space environment, I would leave. And I think that's why companies have so many different policies, why some companies have open space, and they kind of thrive. But then also because the people self select this company, and there's another company and they just do remote work. And they don't have any office plan and they are good enough that they find the people who are kind of drawn to that kind of work. And I think that's important to remember because there is no best plan.
Jørn Larsen: Is there anything else like cats, music, plants?
John Le Drew: I don't think there's… So there's a common… Some organizations will often have some of the worst environments for working and often some of the worst and most toxic cultures I've seen. It's all okay, because they have a foosball table and a pool table and they have beer in the fridge, and it's kind of like you can't actually… in fact, most of the studies and the stuff that I have researched is the most important thing to motivate and engage your team is not providing them with a continuous supply of soda and beer. It's those individuals feeling that they are making progress on the work they care about. Amazingly enough, your teams actually want to get work done. They wanna do the things that drive the company forward and they wanna understand those things. So when we have those things that are being topped up in the environment, like, "Oh, it's cool, because we got beanbags in the corner, and we've got a foosball table and isn't that awesome?" That's fine. But you will still have deeply disengaged teams if they're not making progress with their work and they're continually frustrated by the culture that's actually stopping them from achieving what they want to achieve.
Markus Wittwer: Actually, I have a very good friend, and she opened a co-working space together with some other friends. They were first thinking a lot about the room and what they need. She always tells the story that they had hours-long discussions if they need, like, a really fancy coffee machine because they really didn't have a lot of money. But they said, "A co-working space, everybody has this great coffee machine. So people come in." So at some point, they said that "We don't have the money for that. So let's just get started." And then they realized that everybody who came actually drank tea. So people were really happy. They had like these 15 types of tea and just a kettle and everything. And that's it, and they never got a coffee machine. So it's really not about these things that you provide. If the team wants it, yes. But really check it's not going to increase morale, or motivation, or whatever.
Tricks to keep yourself and the team engaged
Jørn Larsen: One last question. We talked about being engaged — it's really important. Do you have any tricks for how to be engaged? I guess you're both very engaged in what you do. And what difference do you see between very engaged people and not engaged people? Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
John Le Drew: So I don't think there's anything that I can do to engage myself in that situation. I find that depending on the environment, and I enjoy these environments, I enjoy being in conferences, having interesting conversations with intelligent people. I find that to be an engaging environment. I find that there are other environments where I am significantly less engaged in that circumstance. I think that the important thing to look at is the environment and the system in which the team members are operating, which really dictates their level of engagement to that system and that work. So if they are in an organization that doesn't encourage exploration and experimentation, doesn't encourage or expect a certain degree of quality, so that means that increases their satisfaction in their work, doesn't have don't have leadership, which is what I call facilitating progress.
So as a leader, are you turning to your teams and saying, "What do you need from me to help you do the best you can do? What do you need from me to deliver this next week or in a month's time whenever our next deadline is? What do you need from me to help that happen?" When you have the teams that are actually facilitating progress, you completely transform… When you have a situation where teams feel, essentially, just all of the responsibility loaded on their back, it's like, "We've got a deadline." You know what I mean? And in the story, I told at the beginning of the engineer, actually the manager who runs in, kind of joking, but he kind of storms and goes, "I'm too stressed." And he runs home and runs himself a bath with some nice bath salts because he's stressed, but the team members are still back at the office working till 2am trying to get the delivery out the door.
And when you have those kinds of disconnects, it really does affect the team members that kind of disconnect between leadership. So I think for me, it's in the leader’s hands, and in the people in those positions to think about how they're engaging their staff. And what environment are you creating? And I mean, that more metaphorically than the practical environment we were talking about, that actually engages and creates an environment of engaged employees and not people that are switched off. Energy black holes are the term I used in my talk.
Markus Wittwer: Well, there are two things that come up. One is the kind of almost well-known model of passion, autonomy, mastery, and that's what engages people. And I would like to add something to it because from my personal perspective, I'm self-employed now. I can imagine going back to being employed, but I would make sure that my employer gives me space for my personal development. I would never work for someone where I have the sense or an organization where I have the sense that my personal development doesn't have enough space, that would really be a deal-breaker for me. So I think if a company can manage to kind of give each and everyone space for what he or she wants to become, that would be really powerful. And actually, like the previous company I worked for, they actually have this now in their guideline or mission, whatever, vision, whatever they call it. And they say, this is a company for the employees so that they can learn and grow. And that's the purpose of the company, that's how they define it — it's not serving a customer or something, it's really, it's a company where we have an environment where we can grow. Of course, they have their business. And they do it in a specific way. But that's what I find really interesting.
John Le Drew: Just to add one little story to that, which is that there's quite a well-known story, a company called Zappos in the U.S. They sell shoes. And there's a famous story from their team on engagement, which plays into a kind of autonomy, really, and this idea is the… So they have their customer service team who are renowned as being a fantastic customer service team. So you might ring up and you've ordered some shoes, and the heels are broken, and something's wrong. And you complain. And what they did was is they made a simple rule that said that the individual, the customer service agent, if the value of the order is less than $1,000, then that customer service agent has complete autonomy as to whether or not they give a refund to that customer. They can completely decide without getting any approvals or anything else. They can just say, "Yeah, I think that's a rightful good reason for a refund." And they'll process it. What's amazing is they did that, and the total quantity of refunds, I think, in the following quarter or year, I can't remember the time scale, went down, employee satisfaction skyrocketed. And customer satisfaction went up.
So what's amazing is that that's because of their engagement, that little feeling of autonomy that those individuals had, in a role that often we tend to downplay. In our space, we love knowledge work. So we like saying we're knowledge workers because we work in this space. That means everyone else, I guess is stupid workers or knowledge fewer workers or something. I think it's a slightly self-ingratiating category that we place ourselves into. We would often say that people doing things like customer service work or factory workers are not knowledge workers, they're following scripts and things like that. But you give those individuals a tiny amount of control over their own destiny, over their own situation and the engagement is huge. So that self-directed control is really foundational, I think, to kind of engagement and that sense of growth and connection with the work that you're doing.
Jørn Larsen: Thank you so much for coming. And thank you so much for staying late at the conference.
John Le Drew: Thank you so much.
Markus Wittwer: Thank you so much.