I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
– Frank Herbert, Dune

A little healthy fear is a good thing.  It’s what identifies risks to team members.  It’s what encourages people to plan well.  It’s what allows you to consider options and work-arounds with your customer.  As long as the fear is from an external source, and doesn’t become overwhelming, it adds significant value to your project.

When the source of the fear is internal the story changes dramatically. It doesn’t help us, it hinders us.  It makes us unwilling to try something that could have been achieved.  It makes us unable to take responsibility for an aspect of a program.  It makes us spend more time creating caveats and covering ourselves than doing useful work.  Ultimately it will paralyze a team.  A good Scrum Master will remove fear so the team can be effective.

What are people afraid of?  People have different motivations so different things cause them to fear, but there are a few things that will frighten most people.

One is ridicule.  People are not afraid of having their mistakes pointed out to them, but they are often afraid of being made to feel inadequate for making those mistakes.  Because we are human, we expect to make mistakes.  But we don’t expect those mistakes to make us unacceptable as team members.  Some people accept a little “light hearted ribbing” as a reasonable way to identify their mistakes but others react to that same level as if they were struck.  You need to recognize this difference in people and help the team to find the right balance for each individual.

One is failure.  People generally want to succeed.  Some want to succeed so badly that any failure creates pain for them.  Others seem to understand that some failure is natural and necessary and look at the overall picture to see how they’re doing.  For those that react strongly to failure you need to re-define success.  Success is progressing and learning, not necessarily arriving or finishing.  If an attempt to speed up a program by adding caching fails, it’s a success if the developer understands the characteristics of the program that made caching a poor alternative.  It’s only a true failure if there’s nothing to learn.

The last fear I’ll deal with today is the fear of being taken advantage of.  People don’t mind helping the team and most people don’t mind being somewhat generous.  But people really don’t like it when someone takes from them out of greed with no thought for their gift.  Again, there are those who simply learn to deal with the “taker” in a different way, but others become paralyzed by the fear that they will lose out to someone else’s gain.  This will be especially true when it comes to credit for an achievement or blame for a problem.  You should probably correct all circumstances where one team member takes advantage of others, no matter how the others react.  This kind of behavior is not conducive to a strong team even if it doesn’t create fear.

There are more, obviously.  There are probably as may ways to paralyze team members with fear as there are team members.  The important thing for you is not to develop a list, but to develop a mind-set.  In Dune, Paul learned to master his fear.  We don’t all do that.  So you need to master the team’s fear to help them be successful.  So, with apologies to Herbert, your litany should begin:

I must not allow fear.
Fear is the team-killer

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