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Getting external help (Markus Gärtner)

On February 10, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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Over the course of the past week, I realized the importance of external help – and some of my cultural biases for admitting that I might need it. Here is my story, hoping that it might help others seeking out for help.

I think deeply rooted in our culture lies the notion that getting help from outside comes with a double-edged message. On the good side you can understand that message as a self-revealing message that you noticed that something is wrong with you, and you realized that you need help. That is why you reached out to someone that can actually help you. Good one. On the bad side, you are giving out the message that you need help, that something is just not “right” with you – for whatever that means.

Since a couple of years, I am working with a psychologist. As part of my job, I receive a lot of things over the day. At times people get mad at me during training classes. At times, people get mad at me during a coaching situation. At times, I see a lot of people suffering from a missing work-life-balance. Although I try to take nothing personal before 6pm, I sometimes fail at that – and I am aware that I need help to seek options to alter my behavior.

A while back, I was visiting a client. We were in the process of setting up several Scrum teams at that client. We were starting to kick the first one off. As part of that we invited the developers from the team that was supposed to start the next day for a round of estimations. To make a long story short, we faced some resistance – up to the degree that I felt offended of being a racist.

I knew that this offense had nothing to do with me personally, since the offender couldn’t know me at all.

Now, if I had taken that personally, after 6pm, I would have told that guy that my school certificate from first grade said that I was strong at making friends, especially foreign ones, and helped them to integrate. I had long-term friendships with several folks from various countries. And so on. If you know me a tiny bit, you will have various stories to tell on a similar line.

The bottom line? Without personal coaching months before that situation, I might have reacted differently. I might have reacted personally. I might have made things worse.

Being a coach myself, I am aware of this.

A few months earlier, a colleague of mine reported that his first gig at a client was shadowed by a strange acting developer. Basically, that developer was fighting every outside coaching, everything new. He even left the workplace earlier without mentioning a word to my colleague.

When people act strange, that usually triggers some awareness for me. Usually it has nothing to do with whatever I do at a client. Uncovering the backgrounds of these situations is crucial, and at times hard to take personally.

Later, I learned that that developer was undergoing some personal stress. If I recall it correctly, his wife was dying.

Last year, I heard a story from Johanna Rothman. She told that she had a 1on1 with someone that was working for her. She told that he was acting strange, and she wanted to help her act differently. He told Johanna in that 1on1 that his wife was dying.

He would never have told her that story without the privacy of a 1on1.

Johanna was able to fix the situation, and get that guy some relief. Personally, I would have cried out after that meeting.

Last week, I had a discussion with someone from my family. He told me that he had never got over the situation when his father died. Only three years later he was suffering from burn-out because of that. He needed to take visits at a psychologist for fifteen months.

That story stroke me. What stroke me more was the fact that he didn’t dare to tell that story at his workplace. Personally, I have been in the position of a team leader. It was my job to engage with my colleagues, and find out what troubles them, besides leading them technically – two hard duties, at times warranting one person for each.

If one of my colleagues back then told me that he needed some psychological support, I would have had a hard time – and I would have granted him whatever support I could give, maybe even with the support of my superiors.

What I told my family member was that he shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about that with his superior. He shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that something was influencing his working life. He should have told at his workplace that he needed support, and that that support would help him contributing by having fewer distractions.

I think we shouldn’t be ashamed about some of the psychological stress that we undergo. My father died about a month before I joined my first job. That shaped me. Still, I know that I need professional support from all the situations at work, at home, and maybe in my past. We shouldn’t be ashamed to talk at our workplace about that. We should be proud that we are able to admit that, and seek for help where it’s due.

Don’t be ashamed.

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