Lena Wiberg’s Keynote: Living Fearlessly – While Living with Fear at #AgileTD & Psychological Safety

Lena Wiberg wrote the book Would You Heu-Risk It? Tools, Traps and Weapons for Software Engineering and the accompanying game that helps software teams to do their risk analysis, improve their testing and build their quality strategy. She is an engineering manager, been in IT for decades and is a dear friend.

Sketchnote of Living Fearlessly by Lena Wiberg
Sketchnote of Lena Wiberg’s keynote Living Fearlessly – While Living With Fear at Agile Testing Days 2022

At Agile Testing Days, Lena keynoted on the topic of Fear, Anxiety and succeeding all the same. In a highly vulnerable, open and honest keynote, she offers the audience a way to take their fear, examine it and embrace it.

Fear is meant to keep us safe. It tells us something for us to listen to. It has real physical effects and influences your capacity to think and act. Lena highlights the idea of fearlessness and bravery. When fear limits or hinders you, it is important to get to the underlying fear. Acknowledging fear’s existence, finding the underlying core belief and fear, and reframing it to allow you to understand it and accept it.

Lena stresses that fear is a highly personal thing, and living fearlessly in one aspect of your life does not necessarily translate to other elements. For her highly personal example: her communication strengths in her professional life did not preclude a lack of communication in her own marriage. So, as she faces this new chapter, she embraces forgiveness, therapy and the challenge to embrace the fullest of our lives despite often being terrified.

What I personally value in Lena’s keynote is the highly personal nature: there are ways we can calm our own anxiety, be brave, and gentle with ourselves, and extent that gentleness to others.

For the work floor and our professional careers, the message that fear is personal and not always rational is vital. We do not know what our colleagues are facing and what they are pushing through. The concept of psychological safety has been gaining traction over the past years and the Lena’s keynote reminded me of the value and importance of bringing ourselves to work.

Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences, status or career (as defined by Kahn). Coaching often means asking questions that make our coachees uncomfortable as we highlight challenges or pain points. Uncomfortable questions are NOT the same as questions that make others feel UNSAFE and as a coach it is so important to be aware of the difference. It is often very tempting to say the words: “This is a safe space”. However, as a coach and facilitator, we are not the ones who decide if a space is safe. Each participant determines that for themselves, as our fears, our triggers and our lived experiences are different. This is the core reason why consent is so vital in coaching and training.

Gitte Klitgaard is the one who introduced me to the concept of “Feeling SAFE to be UNCOMFORTABLE” in her 2018 AgileTD keynote which can be found online here. She offers tutorials, workshops and coaching on psychological safety and I highly recommend her work.

Model by Amy Edmonson highlighting four quadrants with psychological safety on the y-axis and accountability on the x-axis.

In my own talk The Power of Not Yet: Improve Your Testing Skills at AgileTD 2018, I discuss the often used terms: Comfort Zone, Learning Zone and Panic Zone and why it is such a bad idea to try to push people out of their comfort zone. It ties in well with Lena’s keynote on her facing her own fears and asking others to face theirs. Too high accountability without psychological safety leads to anxiety and fear, which impacts our ability to think. It is a timely reminder that when we ask others to learn, to grow and to innovate: we must face up to the challenge ourselves and invite them to step into their learning zone. Let’s be kind to each other, keep the conversation open and realize that this is work.

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