Presentation: A Neurobiologist's Guide to Empowering Your Team

Track: Empowered Teams

Location: Broadway Ballroom North Center, 6th fl.

Duration: 5:25pm - 6:15pm

Day of week: Thursday

Level: Intermediate - Advanced

Persona: CTO/CIO/Leadership, General Software

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What You’ll Learn

  1. Learn how to improve team communication and effectiveness.

  2. Find out how to avoid and solve conflicts at work.

  3. Understand the principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and how they can help.

Abstract

A useful-psychology double-whammy: (A) Developers are great systems thinkers. Surprise: your brain is a system too! Reframe frustration into accomplishment, and become a more effective and bubbly person using a frontal cortex feedback loop. (B) Want your team to be the happiest, most productive team around? Recent psychology research reveals one key attribute of the most successful teams, and it's within your influence.

Question: 

Tell me a bit about yourself.

Answer: 

I have a background in psychology and I’m co-author on several neurobiology publications. That makes me more qualified than the average person to talk about psychology principles. I understand their low level mechanisms, how they work. And as a developer, I can communicate these particularly clearly to tech-minded people as well.

Question: 

And about your talk?

Answer: 

This talk is about two big topics: the first is that you can influence the way you're thinking to make yourself more effective. And the second is that you can influence the minds of your teammates, and how well the team works together.

Question: 

Who are you talking to in this audience?

Answer: 

Many of these techniques are for when you're interacting with other people. How to do that well. That applies to teams, it also applies to VPs if they have to work across teams. A lot of it is cultural, so it affects the whole company.

Question: 

How is this going to help me as a software developer?

Answer: 

When there's conflict at work, in particular the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) apply to that to help you think clearly and communicate effectively with your teammates. I can give you an example. Let's say that there's a disagreement, you are considering a wonderful solution, and someone else is considering another one, and they think theirs is much better than yours. If you start getting upset over that, which is very possible especially if the stakes are high, it helps us take a step back and to process what you're thinking and feeling before responding. It might sound basic - and hopefully if that doesn't, that means we're good at it already - but a lot of these techniques are intuitive.

Question: 

When you say take a step back and process my feelings, what do you mean by that?

Answer: 

I think of the brain as a system that has inputs and outputs, and there's a little processing part and a feedback loop. And if you could take stock of what's in all of those for you than I can give you a much clearer picture of what's happening, why you're thinking about what you are thinking, and why your feelings are the way they are.

Question: 

So you suggest to disconnect the emotions from the reason to be able to more effectively communicate the reasoning?

Answer: 

That's right. It's about guarding the emotions. See them as data and not be judgmental. If you're upset about something, that's probably a good reason, whether you can articulate it yet or not. And if you can get to that then you can really communicate your viewpoint clearly and probably received by that person also.

Question: 

What do you want someone to walk away from this talk with?

Answer: 

A mental framework of how CBT works. And by the way this is the first half. There is a second half - the team half. I think they're both important. They go together completely; it's hard to do one without the other. So, if you have a mental framework of CBT or brain it's a system, and if you can identify the most common maladaptive cognitions, I go through some examples of those, and, as a result, you can be a lot happier and more effective. Then is the team part. The second part is psychological safety on your team. There's a lot of psychology research, Amy Edmondson did a lot of a fundamental work on this. Psychological safety is a specific term, and it's different than safe space. Psychological safety is when the people on the team feel like it’s safe for interpersonal risk taking. One way of thinking of it is - you can end up with a higher IQ within a group if you have everybody able to contribute. But if one person can't contribute, they can't share their thoughts freely, that cripples the team. It effectively lowers the team count by one. So, if you can improve psychological safety and get everybody to be able to communicate clearly all the time, it's going to be a much more effective team. I believe this is what makes or breaks teams.

Question: 

Do you go through techniques to increase psychological safety?

Answer: 

Ten techniques, and I might add more. I have others but I've been keeping it short for other talks.

Question: 

Can you give me an example of one technique you may go through?

Answer: 

Yes, this one has the catchiest name, I start with it. It's the Earned Dogmatism Effect. That's when somebody believes that “since I'm experienced, therefore the idea that I'm having it's the right one.” This can be useful sometimes. For example, if you're confident that 2+2=4. If someone disagrees with you, you should hold your ground there. But it's less useful for more complex things where it's a large architectural problem that you're trying to talk about. If the person is missing information, they're not going to make the best choice even if they are very experienced. So, if you are experiencing this right now, one thing you could do to help them is to help them understand that they're missing information, and try to share that information with them so they can make the better decision.

Speaker: Casey Watts

Lead Software Engineer @Heroku

Casey Watts works for Heroku, doing Ember. His super-power is empathy and helping others become more empathetic. He never leaves home without bubbles. He has a background both in psychology and in software development, making him well prepared to discuss psychology with developers. He studied neurobiology at Yale University, and he co-published a few neurobiology papers.

Find Casey Watts at

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