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Ask Me Anything (AMA) with workplace psychologists, Shanta Dey and Annaliese McGavin

Ask workplace psychologists, Shanta Dey and Annaliese McGavin, anything.

They are both, by background, researchers--Shanta has PhD in Clinical Psychology and Annaliese is finishing up her PhD on Emotional Intelligence & Stress.

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Together they work on...

  • Atlassian's pulse survey, delivering a range of support offerings aimed at helping individuals, teams, and entire organisations move towards more mentally-friendly ways of working.
  • Providing live coaching with managers and teams. Their coaching work often revolves around ways of creating space for individuals and teams to open up and have great conversations.
  • Providing async strategy support via podcast-style workshop series. This support includes easy-to-apply psychology and cognitive science strategies for improving work happiness and team effectiveness.

Subject matter expertise:

  • A remote-first workplace
  • Increasing awareness of how other people might think/feel/see things differently from you.
  • Helping grow team connectedness.
  • Keys to giving great feedback.
  • Highlighting hacks for making sustainable improvements to a team’s ways of working.


What are things to keep in mind in making sustainable improvements for a team that has regular team composition/staffing changes?

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Shanta Dey Atlassian Team May 26, 2022

This is a really good question - and one we often hear in our coaching sessions! One of the reasons why regular team composition/staffing changes can feel like an impediment to team improvements is because a lot of time has to be invested in making the new team members feel welcome, in establishing new team norms, and in bringing up them up to speed on your team’s work.

Whilst it can feel like a progress blocker to invest all this extra time in integrating new team members, the act of investing all that time can take on a new meaning when we try to reframe the situation. For example, think of it as: (a) an opportunity for the original team members to refine the way they think and talk about their work, (b) as an opportunity to hear a fresh perspective on your work, or (c) as an opportunity for a reset and refresh in team dynamics.

If you are in a team where you know composition or staffing changes will continue to happen, it’ll also be more important than ever to create solid knowledge sharing practices. For example, find ways to document challenges, actions & outcomes AND regularly spend time reflecting on these as a team. By sharing knowledge broadly within a team and involving the whole team in building and driving improvements (Ikea effect, anyone?), the team no longer relies on one or two individuals (who may soon be gone!), and instead the whole team is empowered. No team can work well together - let alone be able to improve their ways of working - if they don’t have a shared mental model of their work and goals.

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Ah the IKEA effect...great reference! Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. This may be an issue of reframing the problem from losing what's built from relationships to losing what's built from systems. The latter, is obviously longer lasting.

I'm guilty of feeling not wanting to join a new team so as to avoid having to rebuild relationships. And I'm just as I'm guilty of feeling a sense of momentum loss when there's a large composition change up on a team.

Thanks for this rethink!

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Vivian Chau Atlassian Team May 16, 2022

What are some ways to build up psychological safety that both managers and team members can do for each other in order to make giving and receiving feedback effective?

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Shanta Dey Atlassian Team May 26, 2022

I love that you are asking this - because it highlights just how important psychological safety is for these kinds of conversations to be even remotely effective!

I’ll share two of the most CRITICAL ways to ensure psychological safety during feedback conversations. The first is to give positive feedback before the critical or constructive feedback. In our observations of feedback-giving conversations, starting off without any positive feedback will likely make the other person feel defensive, unappreciated, and/or upset - and this in turn will compromise their sense of psychological safety and their likelihood of actually listening to the feedback. Lead the conversation with something you have noticed they do well - and make sure it’s sincere and specific (use a behavioural example).

When you then move onto to the constructive feedback, it is imperative you wrap your constructive feedback with a question to involve the recipient and ensure they have a space to voice their views on the situation. Ask something like, "How do you see the situation? Is there something I’m missing?", or "This is what I'm thinking we should do, but what are your thoughts on it?" Asking these types of questions signals that you care about their perspective, are open to adjusting your perceptions, and will move the conversation from being a monologue to being a two-way conversation.

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How to deal with toxic managers? The type of manipulative and empowered people who don't care to affect other people's work as long as their will is done.

I'm doing research for a master's degree, and this answer could be insightful, thank you for your answers in advance. 

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This is a challenging situation to be in, so we empathise with anyone in this predicament.

One of the first questions which come to mind here is whether the manager has enough self-awareness to know that they are behaving this way. One of the initiatives we have been a part of to tackle these kinds of issues is the launch of the Atlassian-wide Team Insights Pulse Survey, where every two weeks, teams are sent a 2min pulse survey to rate their work happiness, team experiences, and perceptions of their manager. This pulse survey gives teams the chance to flag issues that they may be constantly facing - not only for the team to reflect on as a whole, but also for the manager to reflect on as an individual. This is one way to hopefully increase a manager’s self-awareness of their problematic behaviours - and to give them an opportunity to change their ways. However, where a manager is made aware of their toxicity, and yet scores remain consistently low, the manager’s manager, relevant HRBPs, or even the Employee Relations team might need to intervene (and indeed, these external bodies have access to manager-relevant scores). Unfortunately, sometimes the only thing that can change a situation like this is when someone senior or external steps in.

You might also draw some inspiration on other ways to deal with toxic managers by having a watch of this interview of our colleague Dr Mahreen Khan - on
"How to Preserve Yourself in an Environment That isn’t A Good Fit" 

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My team needs a new way to celebrate each other. We don't want to do it in a meeting. Nobody wants to take the lead. How do we get this going and keep it going?

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I love this question, Jenny! It’s awesome to hear that you’re not only showcasing the value of celebrating, but also looking for new ways to celebrate! That’s fantastic (and very proactive!)! In our conversations with teams and managers, we often hear that people love the idea of positive feedback, but find it difficult to actually remember to give positive feedback, or to find a way to do it that feels authentic, so you're not alone in feeling the pressure.

The first thing I’d say is that, sometimes people think that celebrating or giving positive feedback has to be something BIG, but it can be any size. In fact, some of the smallest, easiest to give forms of celebration--like sending a slack message to a team mate that did a great job presenting in a meeting--are often some of the most appreciated. There’s actually a great Harvard Business Review article that offers some really simple ideas for appreciating and recognising great things that colleagues do: The Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated

Second, I completely understand that you don’t want celebrating to feel like a heavy lift for just one or two individuals on your team. When it comes to getting things going and keeping them going, nothing works better than building a habit--with some scaffolding to get you started. Some ideas might be scheduling 5 minutes at the start or end of an existing meeting--not necessarily to do the celebrating live, since I know your team doesn’t want to, but-- to remind everyone to send a quick e-mail or slack message to someone (or more than one) on the team who did something really cool in the past week (or whatever time period suits). If you make it a standard part of your meeting, people can actually send the message then and there so they don’t put it off until later and inevitably forget. Another option is scheduling a 15-min calendar invite into your team members' calendars as a reminder to show gratitude to another team member-- this can make for a nice post-Friday lunch activity. Finding ways to make it easier to celebrate by building the habit, without having to think too much about it, is key.

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I like your idea. I will announce we should send an appreciation note at the end of meetings via DM. I can also try the calendar reminder. Thank you.

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Mahreen Khan Atlassian Team May 25, 2022

Hi! How should individuals prioritise their work happiness when their environment/team/leadership is less supportive of changing how things are working? 

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Thanks so much for your question, Mahreen! This sounds like a really tough situation, so I'm definitely keen to offer some thoughts to help anyone who finds themself feeling this way.

When it comes to work happiness, it feels amazing when your team, leadership and/or whole company is on the same page and you simply seem to jive, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. So, fear not! We can help you navigate a path through when your environment, team or leadership is not supportive of change!

Validate: The first thing that comes to mind in this situation is that if you feel at odds with the people around you in wanting to prioritise your work happiness, you may be feeling uncertain that you’re doing the right thing. So, first, let me just acknowledge that prioritising your work happiness is 100% a-okay and, in fact, demonstrates a lot of self-awareness since research shows that work happiness drives numerous positive outcomes for teams and organisations. So, good on you for prioritising your work happiness!

Find What You Can Control: Second, in feeling at odds with those around you may be feeling like you have no control over the situation and no agency to do anything. One simple but powerful exercise you can use to identify the things you can control is called the Circle of Control. This is an approach to problem solving where you draw a circle within a square. In the circle, you list all the things you can control and influence. For instance, in here you might put in here how you go about your work, and the boundaries you set to preserve your happiness. Outside the circle, and within the square, you list the things outside of your control - such as how others go about their work and how they perceive your work-related choices. This exercise is really helpful for reframing the situation so that you know what to put effort into, and what to not get hung up on.

Speak Up: Depending on the situation, it can be worth raising your feelings with others in your organisation to hear how they see things. This could be talking through your feelings with a close colleague, reaching out to your manager or other leader, or connecting with someone in your team’s HR. Sometimes when we only have access to our own perspectives, we may miss opportunities or ignore our own blindspots--that doesn’t make you wrong, it just makes you human! In talking things through with someone else familiar with the context, you not only open up the opportunity for you to get a fuller picture, but you also give the other person a chance to take action and make a change that could help you! For more on speaking up and when it might be time to change tack, check out this video from Teamwork Lab’s “Dear Work therapist”: Atlassian - Dear Work Therapist: Preserving yourself in an...

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