When I was in college and job searching, I had an interviewing experience that still haunts my nightmares.
The process involved a series of onsite conversations and activities that was meant to last all day. While the conversations were going well, I misunderstood some instructions in the coding interview and completely bombed it. It was so bad that my next interviewer came in and let me know that obviously I didn't have any sort of web experience whatsoever (I did), and they definitely weren't offering me the job. They invited me to stay for the dinner at the end regardless.
Now, there is a correct order of operations here for recovery. The company—in retrospect—handled this poorly, but the situation was still potentially salvageable on my end. Here's how Present Brittany would respond:
- Try to explain what happened.
- If that fails, gracefully thank them for their time and decline dinner.
- Exit the building.
- Cry in the car.
Past Brittany, unfortunately, didn't have the benefit of my wisdom, and elected to burst into tears first. Which left her/me in no condition to pursue the rest of the plan.
I wish I could say the story ended there. But the remainder involves me crying in a bathroom (while a very patient employee waited anxiously outside — if you're out there and remember this, I'm so sorry), spending several days hiding out in my apartment, and sending something like three emotional feelingsbombs to the hiring manager who (wisely) ceased responding after the first one.
I didn't get that job, obviously.
I've never told anyone in the professional world this story. I thought the best thing to do—the mature thing to do—was to bury it deep, move on, and hope no one ever learned about it. What was it that made me do that? Why did I feel the need to treat this as an unmentionable event instead of as a very understandable learning experience?
The answer: shame.
The Shame of the Game
Guilt: I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I'm sorry. I am a mistake. - Brené Brown
I struggled to let go of the Nightmare Interview experience because I felt that it reflected badly on who I was, not just my behavior. It left me questioning whether I was cut out for work in software, and whether I was cut out for work in general. The problem with shame is that, because it's tied to our sense of self, it can feel insurmountable. It makes us feel like the only solution is to change ourselves, and that isn't always a healthy response.
The difference, I think, between a painful but learnable experience and a shameful, toxic one is being able to talk about it. According to researcher Brené Brown, shame requires three things: "secrecy, silence and judgment". After the Nightmare Interview, I supplied all three of those things to myself, by myself; I passed judgment on myself so that no one else could have the chance. And while this was one relatively small incident that didn't go on to negatively impact my career, it and other small shames like it formed the undercurrent of insecurity that I still struggle with today.
I'm not suggesting we try to abolish shame — it's a fundamentally human emotion. But I am curious why we work so hard to cover it up.
The tech industry has a culture that encourages perfectionism. Despite a lot of talk about being empathetic and understanding of failure, the prevalance of imposter syndrome suggests that many of us internalize our insecurities to the point that we think we don't even deserve to do the jobs we're currently doing. Because other people are also trying to present an idealized version of themselves, we wind up comparing our insides to their outsides, which only makes us feel less adequate.
The average person is, well, average, but because of social media and this idea of the ‘tech celebrity’ we hear a lot about others’ accomplishments and not much about their hardships. - Jo Franchetti
Does any of this seem familiar?
- Re-wording your status update to avoid saying "I don't know" in front of the team.
- Responding to your manager's inquiry with "everything's fine!", when it isn't.
- Hoping that someone jumps in to volunteer or take charge, because you're afraid you won't do a good job.
- Considering finding a new job because you're out of your depth and you don't know who to talk to.
I've been in each of these positions throughout the years, and I'm not particularly special, so odds are others have too. These impulses come from the feeling—either internal or external—that admitting to our shortcomings is going to end up hurting us in some way, and the only defense is to be as perfect as possible.
There's No "I" in Shame
The truth is, our individual insecurities and fears translate to the teams we work on. If we're afraid to admit these things to ourselves, we won't admit them to our coworkers either. These shame responses delay a team's awareness and ability to solve to problems that could be affecting everyone. Many companies talk about empathy, driving for improvement, and adapatability, but very few talk about vulnerability1. And, unfortunately, this isn't a problem that your individual contributors can fix by themselves. Repairing company culture isn't something that can be pushed to the leaves of an organization — leadership needs to own it.
Test Double isn't above this problem either. At a recent retreat, we accidentally had a conversation about insecurity. I say "accidentally" because it started out as a discussion about connectedness, and quickly veered off in a different direction. As it turns out, many agents—including myself—have struggled with feeling like we aren't good enough to do this work, we aren't smart enough to be consultants, and that everyone else is more qualified than us. There's something powerful about admitting your fears to people you respect, and having them say "I feel the same way".
It's also worth considering that shame can be a good thing. A sense of shame is linked to capacity for empathy, so we shouldn't be ashamed of feeling ashamed. But we also shouldn't ignore it on our teams. Shame can absolutely be damaging when it isn't paired with vulnerability, empathy, and room to process, which is why bringing our shames forward and working through those emotions is a necessary first step to helping others do the same. Yes, I'm suggesting we allow emotions a place at work.
If we're going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy's the antidote to shame... The two most powerful words when we're in struggle: me too. - Brené Brown
I'd actually build on Brené's point by saying that 'me too' is an excellent place to start, but that there is more to empathy than understanding. As team leaders and managers, we have the ability—and arguably the responsibility—to not only have empathy for our team members, but to create an environment in which they can safely be vulnerable and thrive.
So how do we accomplish that? You can't stick everyone in a room and command them to be vulnerable2, so let's talk about some possible options.
The easiest starting point is to model vulnerability as leaders; we should avoid asking our team to be more vulnerable with us than we're willing to be with them. This might mean being honest with your team when you make mistakes, working to uncouple incentives from perfection, and providing your reports with judgment-free tools for improvement (such as retrospectives). We might also consider celebrating teams and individuals that achieve good outcomes (such as owning a mistake and identifying solutions), rather than reserving praise for the sort of success that's measurable on a Kanban board.
Vulnerability doesn't have to be public, either—it's a useful tool for mentoring and coaching in an individual setting. Adrienne Lowe, in the talk "Crucial Career Conversations", provides a framework for creating career plans with reports through learning their life stories in one-on-ones. I'm sure there are plenty more examples of useful tools and strategies out there; in the end, the important thing is that we try something.
An unfortunate reality is that vulnerability isn't an option for a lot of people in our industry. Managers get stuck between demands from above and protecting their teams. Developers are pushed to compete with each other for promotions and raises, which makes them less likely to admit their failures. Companies—intentionally or not—perpetuate guarded, failure-intolerant cultures through ideas like "culture fit" and "meritocracy", and then wonder why tech has a diversity problem.
While it's true that we can't change the culture we're immersed in with a Thanos snap, we can advocate for something better and work towards improving our immediate surroundings. Like I said above, even Test Double isn't exempt from problems around shame and vulnerability, though we're always trying to do better3.
Thanks for reading.
This post was largely inspired by Brené Brown's TED Talks on vulnerability and shame, which you can find here:
1Some companies do discuss security vulnerability, it's true, but today we're talking about emotional vulnerability.
2Okay, maybe you can, but you Definitely Should Not.
3If you're interested in helping us improve, consider joining Test Double. :)