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One of the most meaningful experiences in my career was a conversation where I turned an engineer from an intimidating adversary into a supportive ally.
I'd been working with Jon at Quip for nearly three years, but I'd only ever interacted with him in technical discussions.
I felt immense respect for Jon, but he also greatly intimidated me. He always seemed busy working on important things. Should I bother him with my question? Nah, let me see if I can solve this myself even though I know it'll take longer. We never spent the time to get to know each other, and it felt difficult for me to approach him.
There's so much to get done at a growing startup though, and so I thought, maybe it's reasonable that we're both heads down in our work. And since my own team's work was generally orthogonal to his, the state of our relationship seemed okay for a while.
That all changed as the team grew. As two senior leaders on the team, we each started initiatives to support other engineers, and that's when we began to bump heads.
I'd been thinking about and talking with some engineering managers about how to train our tech leads more. Perhaps a workshop on effective tech leading? Or making use of my new coach training to guide tech leads? Or spending some time debugging teams? One day, Jon announced a new initiative to mentor tech leads and that I would be a mentor. Objectively it was a great idea, but I felt left out from the decision-making process and boxed in from suddenly being told what to do.
About the same time, I was piloting a new program called engineering circles. I wanted to create a space for engineers where I, and later others, could facilitate shared dialogue topics like when to ask for help or how to deal with burnout. The feedback from everyone was mostly positive, but I hit strong resistance from Jon. What if these groups fragmented the team and created cliques? Or hurt the team emotionally? I didn't know where the skepticism was coming from, but I also knew I wanted his support.
We both had positive intentions for the team, but one thing was clear. The lack of trust in our relationship was creating unnecessary friction in both of our efforts.
Something had to change.
One day, I mustered enough courage to just tell Jon that he intimidated me. I shared that I knew we both had good intentions and that investing in our relationship would lead to better outcomes—he agreed. I had learned a new assumption-clearing exercise to build trust from my year at the Coaches Training Institute, and I invited him to try it with me. He was game.
We took turns clearing the assumptions—the stories that we made up in our heads about the other person—that held us back from a stronger working relationship, and we shared the impact that those assumptions had on our own behaviors.
I shared an assumption that Jon didn't trust my motivations, and the impact was that I felt a lot of friction to implement more initiatives to support the team.
He shared an assumption that I wanted to coach everyone—even people who might not want coaching—and the impact was a feeling of resistance toward things that I did.
I shared an assumption that he felt like he had to solve the team's problems on his own, and the impact was that I felt excluded and also that it was harder for me to pitch in when I did have ideas.
Back-and-forth we went for over an hour. I learned about some of his previous experiences with bad managers and teammates that led to his skepticism, and he learned how coaching had impacted my life and what made it important to me. We both learned that the stories we made up were just that — stories. And with them out of the way, we had a much stronger foundation to build on. By the end of the conversation, we were throwing out fun and creative ideas for how we might work more together on team initiatives.
That conversation was a huge turning point in our relationship—we built more trust in that one hour than from our previous three years combined.
After that conversation, Jon started joining in and even informally co-leading the engineering circles. I started playing a more active role in the mentoring initiatives he was starting. And together, we co-created more value for the team than each could have done alone.
That conversation was also a formative experience for me. It taught me a valuable lesson:
We can build trust in moments, not in years.
These powerful conversations that accelerate trust aren't just limited to tense relationships. When you're working with someone on a new project, explicitly designing your relationship with that person as you would an alliance accelerates trust. When you're in a high-stakes situation, discovering and sharing what's important and listening to what's not being said accelerates trust. Even when you have a healthy relationship, sharing the unintended impact that people's behaviors have on you accelerates trust.
There's also urgency in learning these skills sooner. I'm grateful that Jon and I had that honest conversation, but I also feel regret at not having it years earlier. What opportunities did we miss out on? How much easier would our work have been if we could have relied on each other's support sooner?
How much more effective would we all be if we could intentionally create high-trust relationships at work?
Jean and I have spent the last year coaching 100+ people, ranging from tech leads and managers to directors, VPs, and CTOs. We've been teaching these skills for a while and we're excited to share with you what we've found to be most effective.
Our vision for our work together is a tech industry where leaders are equipped with the tools to have these types of conversations.
We've been running experiential workshops in San Francisco, and will soon be offering online workshops and courses. We'll teach you simple but impactful frameworks for having powerful conversations, effective technical leadership, and more. You'll walk away from the demos, exercises, and discussions with tools that you can use the very next day. You'll leave with the confidence that you can intentionally build trust in the span of a conversation.
If you'd like to equip yourself with these tools, get notified of our future workshops.
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