This is a transcript of episode 198 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

When your team misses a sprint goal, or you let down a stakeholder, you or your team may feel guilty—but we make concrete recommendations, using Pixar movies and Adlerian psychology, for grief as a more effective alternative that leads to faster recovery and improvement.

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile! Hi Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel. We were in a joint coaching session and I really wanted to talk about this line that you used that really stuck with me. If I remember correctly, you were advising this person to choose grief over guilt. I think I’ve shared that line with three people just since that session. Can you tell me how you developed this? I would love to hear that because I think you and I have ended up at a very similar place, but from different paths. What’s the story here?

Squirrel: Well there’s a very personal background, but there’s also the reason given in this coaching experience: I often see there’s not much you can do when you feel guilty. A software team might feel guilty that they missed their deadline, that they didn’t complete all their tasks in the sprint, or that they released a bug. The thing that’s always challenging for me is they say, ‘What should we do about this?’ Well, the first thing we need is a time machine. The problem is that mine is broken. I’d be so rich and such a valuable consultant to the world if I just could get my time machine fixed. But it’s been in the shop, so I can’t do anything with that. The kind of guilt that the team feels regardless of source isn’t something you can do anything about. If your team feels guilty and incompetent and under-skilled and can’t do anything about it, that really saps morale. This isn’t true only of software teams. This is true of lots of different groups of people, and I find it in my personal life. For example, I was 20 minutes late for us to record this, and before a certain experience I’m going to describe, I would have felt quite guilty about that. ‘Oh man, I let Jeffrey down. I was late and I’m not doing a good job.’ I was reading a book called The Courage to Be Disliked, which is a fascinating exploration of something called Adlerian psychology through a dialogue. It’s quite an easy read, and I got a lot of insights from that, including ‘separation of tasks.’ It’s really not my task to help Jeffrey feel better about me being late. It’s his task to tell me that he’s upset or not. In this case, you weren’t. That’s an idea that somehow led me to this insight for myself, which I’ve now begun sharing: guilt isn’t going to help you very much. In fact, it’s probably going to sap your strength. So it would be good if you could instead feel sad about it and ideally do something about it. That would be the the best way to use your sadness. Then after you feel sad for a while, you’re likely not to feel sad. That’s kind of a good thing is about sadness, right?

Could Have, Would Have…

Listen to this section at 03:55

Jeffrey: There’s so much in this that I really like. While listening I was reminded of the Feeling Good podcast with Dr. David Burns, and some of what he has discussed about about cognitive distortions. He’s one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and he would say our emotions arise from our thoughts. When we have very negative emotions, it’s because we have distorted thoughts that lead to them.

Squirrel: A distorted thought would be something like ‘we’re a bad team because we never deliver’ or ‘I’m an incompetent podcast host because I’m not on time.’

Jeffrey: Exactly. He’s built a substantial list of them, and one type I want to highlight are ‘should’ statements. ‘You should be on time.’

Squirrel: ‘You should get your sprint tasks done.’

Jeffrey: Exactly. He uses a phrase: ‘How do people make themselves unhappy? By ‘should’-ing all over themselves.’

Squirrel: Hmm. Yep, that’s a good one.

Jeffrey: This did seem like a space ruled by ‘should’ statements. I am also reminded of Buddhism and the idea that suffering comes from attachment, and essentially being guilty is being attached to the way you would have preferred things to be, as opposed to accepting things as they are. Where sadness is saying, ‘Yeah, I would have preferred to have been on time. I would have preferred that we got our all of our sprint items done. And here we are. I can only do things going forward.’

Squirrel: So this is a great ‘get out’ clause? It means that I don’t have to worry about anything? I can just tell the people in my in my business ‘Yeah, sorry. We sometimes don’t get things done. I’m a little bit sad about it.’ I don’t think that’s what we mean.

Jeffrey: No, not at all. Actually what I have in mind is that this is a path to taking more responsibility rather than less. As you were saying, feeling guilty can lead to feeling very stuck, because we’re spending emotional energy on something that can’t be changed, as opposed to ‘Well, what can we do from here?’ The fact that there was a violation of expectation prevents them from doing something more productive. That’s what was really behind my excitement hearing this as a way to communicate and help people get to a more constructive frame.

Squirrel: I was giving advice to this person as to how they might use this notion of choosing grief over guilt. I’m curious about your perception of the situation they were in and how this idea could be applied.

Processing Time

Listen to this section at 07:00

Jeffrey: I mentioned in that session I had been at an interesting meetup, the ‘Wisdom at Work’ meet up. They had been going through a particular system of coaching. As part of that, the person leading the session shared a clip from the movie Inside Out. In the movie we follow the perspective of a young girl and internal personifications of her emotions. In the relevant clip, another internal character has just faced this very personal loss. The personificiation of joy responds to this by saying ‘Hey, cheer up, let’s go do things.’ That’s not very effective, and the personification of sadness goes in comforts this other person and helps them acknowledge that they’re sad, they’re grieving, they’ve lost something. It’s being able to process being sad that allows that character to then get moving again. I thought that fit really well with our client’s scenario, and it fits very well this idea of choosing grief over guilt. Or, I would say more generally, grief over ‘should.’ Rather than saying, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t have happened’ and being stuck on how you didn’t want that, you can say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be sad about that’. Then, having acknowledged that and actually felt that, we can move on to ‘what’s going to be more productive?’

Squirrel: In this case, this team wasn’t meeting sprint goals, and some other things were going wrong as well. Our advice was not to do the Joy thing, not to come in and say, ‘Well, all right. Move on.’ Instead we suggested listening very carefully to the team’s quite justifiable sadness and anger, and to listen kind of drain them out. We’ll link to that video because it’s quite a good encapsulation of this idea. Our advice to this person was ‘Let your team grieve a bit, let them feel sad about the thing that didn’t work and maybe angry and maybe something else. Only after that will they be ready to move on and tackle that same problem again in a new way.’

Jeffrey: That’s right, that especially is very useful for leaders who have the idea that their role constantly is to boost people up. You know, ‘how do I get people back in the game?’ The clip really captures that kind of pep talk approach that is typical for Americans at least. When instead what might be more helpful would be to have people acknowledge their feelings, for you to acknowledge their feelings, and demonstrate that you’re actually listening and that what they’re feeling and communicating is OK. This is a part of healthy relationships and healthy teams. Also interesting to me about this is I had a very similar sort of conversation last week, and I thought it would be worthwhile to try to look at the differences.

Squirrel: How did that come up? It was an individual who was feeling guilt if I recall correctly?

Just Isn’t Right

Listen to this section at 11:10

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. Rather than as with our joint client, this person’s issue was something that had happened that they felt shouldn’t have, not the absence of something expected. They were being asked to do a lot of rushed work for a demo that was internal. The feeling was, ‘Why is there this fire drill approach of trying to rush things together? If our system is working and we are making progress on our quarterly objectives, we will get everything done when it should be.’ The major point of similarity I saw was in the presence of guilt, but here it’s not guilt for themselves, but guilt for others. Other people are guilty! They violated this person’s expectations of what should happen.

Squirrel: And what was your counsel?

Jeffrey: Well, I didn’t use the word grief, I said ‘What I hear you saying is you would have preferred this be different. Is that right?’ That conversation allowed us to identify what specifically was upsetting to them about the situation. Having discussed that, could we then turn towards curiosity. ‘Well, why is it you think that they’re doing this? What’s the motivation?’

Squirrel: This is easy to skip over so I want to emphasise it, underline it here. Listen carefully when Jeffrey says that, because the crucial thing is that curiosity wasn’t possible until they were able to drain off some of that sadness, or in this case perhaps anger and frustration. You’re just not in a mindset to be curious at that point.

Jeffrey: That’s right. To me, that’s what links these together: people being stuck because what happened shouldn’t have happened. They’re focussed on the way things ‘should have been’ without being able to just move from ‘I really wish it was this way instead’ to, ‘I have a preference. I’m sad that we didn’t do this. I think it would have been better.’ Being able to go and put it into that frame of mind helps them move on to something more productive. I’m reminded a bit actually of our podcast of a few weeks ago where we talked about banning the word ‘need.’ The idea ‘Oh, I need this’ gets people stuck. I think it’s very similar to ‘should.’ It’s an attachment to a fantasy rather than accepting the world as it is. My view is that suffering comes from arguing with reality.

Squirrel: Strangely, reality always seems to win when I do that.

Closing Thoughts

Listen to this section at 14:35

Jeffrey: Well, you can deny it for a very long time, but I don’t see things very productive come out of it. Getting a productive mindset seems to always, always start from accepting reality and then seeing what we can do. That’s really the message I have for people, if they find themselves stuck because of what should have happened or what is happening that shouldn’t, making this kind of change of frame. To move to choose grief over guilt. Rather than being feeling guilty about being late or feeling that other people are guilty, getting to ‘They did that thing and I’m sad they did it.’ Acknowledge that and then get to more productive thoughts.

Squirrel: There you go. Moving it to the concrete, the example we’ve been using throughout is if your Agile team misses some goal, the thing to do is neither to try to make them feel guilty about that nor to feel guilty yourself or to encourage that thinking. None of you will be able to do anything about that guilt. Instead listen to the sadness, encourage sadness, because they should feel sad about that. It would be good for them to feel a normal reaction like that, and then drain the sadness and move on to concrete actions that can help them say hit their target next time. I should add one caveat. I don’t mean to say when I tell people to choose grief over guilt, that guilt is never useful. It would be useful to feel guilty if, for example, you put passwords in your software in the clear and allowed hackers to get hold of people’s passwords. That’s probably good to feel guilty about, because that would be a fairly major violation of your user’s privacy. You can think of lots of other examples where there’s a moral component. I think guilt then is useful because it’s our conscience telling us that we’ve done something morally dubious. That I think is helpful. The problem is we overplay this and we use it in cases where really we haven’t done something morally wrong, we’ve done something darn unfortunate. Our time machine is broken, and it would be useful to do something about it after we finish feeling sad.

Jeffrey: That’s right, I really like that. I’ll be curious to hear from our listeners what they think about this. Does the concept of grief over guilt seem to apply for them, or is guilt the wrong word?

Squirrel: Right. And of course, we’ll be back here next Wednesday with another episode of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.