The hard work of playing, as a team

I wrote the following essay internally at work, and decided to publish it more broadly, because I think the advice and challenge extends far beyond Atlassian. Please feel free to share broadly, but I’d appreciate the attribution.

One of the most difficult (and often interesting) things about doing my job is the fact that Atlassian does not exist in a bubble. We’re not immune to the realities of the world, and our company and the experiences of Atlassians around the world are shaped and influenced by the forces of history and present-day society. Everything we do–from the product decisions we make to the way we interact with colleagues and they way we experience their interactions with us–is shaped by our unique experiences and perspectives we carry with us. For those who are close to me, I think you’d find it hard to argue with the fact that it’s likely impossible to separate my viewpoint and my identity from the way I have crafted Atlassian’s diversity & inclusion strategy. I would argue the same of any leader or contributor at Atlassian: we actively encourage people to bring their unique viewpoints–their full and unique selves–to their work, because it truly makes the work stronger and Atlassians happier.

But what I want to address today is something very, very different. Bringing our full selves to work means bringing our joys–the baby photos, housewarmings, and moments of luck–to our teammates. But our full selves are not always joyful. Our full selves encompass the full range of emotions, including pain and trauma. And these are the most difficult to deal with. As individuals, it can be terrifying to admit that things aren’t perfect: we can be afraid that we’ll be judged as less competent or overly emotional for not being able to leave our hearts at the door while our minds and bodies head to our desks and meeting rooms.

In order to bring our true selves, the ones who feel joy and pain, the ones who stumble and need a hand from time to time, we must be vulnerable with each other. And that’s a terrifying thing to do. To create the kind of space where people can be vulnerable is the work of each one of us. It is incredibly important that we actively invest in creating safe, supportive environments for each other to have those vulnerable moments. It makes us stronger as people, as teams, and as a company.

Being Aubrey at work, and the Atlassians who made that OK

A picture soothes a thousand fears

On the Monday after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, I was absolutely not OK. The largest mass shooting in U.S. history was committed against a queer safe space, and almost all of the victims were people of color. People who could have been me. I’ve never been quite so scared of leaving my house. The fear I was holding in the pit of my stomach felt like it was infecting my bones. In that moment and the days that followed, I felt heavy and distracted. I fought back the tears threatening to spill out of my eyelids and let everyone see just how human I am.

But strangely, the first tears I shed were not of fear or pain, but of comfort, gratitude, and appreciation. I took a risk, and told a community–my community–that I was hurting.

I can say that I’m personally really struggling today, so if you’re a bit distracted or your heart is feeling heavy, you’re not alone.

A few minutes later, a coworker shared a photo of a crowd of thousands, gathered in London as a show of love and solidarity for the U.S. LGBT* community. That was followed by photos from Austin, the Castro in San Francisco, and some beautiful photos of the Harbor Bridge and Sydney Town Hall, lit up in rainbows. In that moment, alone at my desk, I felt safe for the first time in days. I felt overwhelming relief, and just a little bit of faith that maybe my fears were unfounded.

For the rest of the afternoon, I was able to relax. I was focused and attentive, and when I stepped out the front door to go home, I didn’t feel the prickle of fear at that back of my neck that had been so apparent that morning. Just a few photos.

Just checking in

If you know me well (or follow me on Medium), you might know that I had a particularly difficult time during Brock Turner’s trial. That particular story hit frighteningly close to home, and living in the era of social media isn’t great when you’re trying to avoid news like that. Because I’m pretty open and proactive, I had a very frank conversation with my manager about the fact that it was a hard week, and the reason why. I didn’t ask for different treatment, or miss any deadlines. I just put it out there that I was a bit raw. After the outrage over the sentencing died down, things went back to normal. But three months later, I woke up to the news that he was out of prison after serving only 3 months in jail.

But I also woke up to the following message:

I just read CNN and saw the news that he’s out in 3 months. This shocked, disgusted and appalled me. I can’t begin to imagine how you are doing. I just wanted to send you my love and tell you that I’m thinking of you and sending you all of my positive healing energy.
Please take care of you this long weekend and know that we’re all here for you.

And you know what? The simple act of opening the door, of simply saying that my team was there for me, genuinely made me feel like it was OK. The small show of support was the exact thing that made me not need it. I didn’t think about the news again that day.

My ask of each of you

It’s not a controversial statement to say that there is a lot of pain in the world today. In just the past few months, we’ve seen an absolute horror show of news. From the Pulse shooting to terror attacks in every corner of the globe, to the ongoing brutality by American police forces that is disproportionately borne by communities of color. We see the Kickstarters, the acts of solidarity, and the hashtags on Twitter. But we cannot and should not forget that while these incidents may seem far away, for those of us close to these issues or who are members of these communities, they are very real. They affect us where we live, sleep, and work. Research is emerging showing that repeated viewing of violent images against people we identify with can create PTSD-like mental health symptoms.

Each of us can play a part in helping each other bring our full, sometimes hurting, selves to work. But I also recognize that this can be extremely difficult, especially when we’re mixing expressing compassion with topics that are incredibly difficult to address, like race or discrimination. It’s natural to have difficulty confronting difficult topics. In our environment of media saturation, we often know of incidents affecting those around us, but don’t say anything. We remain silent because we don’t know how to approach the topic: we fear that in stumbling or reach out, we could make the problem worse, not better. We don’t have any solutions, and can feel powerless to “do” anything. But I challenge each Atlassian to think of the simple act of expressing concern, or opening the door to having a conversation about another person’s struggles.

Despite what I described above, it can be incredibly difficult if not downright impossible when you’re hurting to express that to others. Part of playing, as a team is support those who are hurting when we are not. I challenge each of us to think of the ways we can actively provide a platform for others to feel safe. As a leader, it can be setting aside a minute or two to check in with your direct report. Hey, there’s no pressure to talk if you don’t want to, but I understand it may be a hard day. Let me know if there’s anything I or Atlassian can to do support you. As a coworker, it could be as simple as checking in. Hey, how are you doing today? Can I help you with anything? I’m not quite sure what to say, but I’m here if you need.

And I am really here for each and every one of you. It is quite literally my job (and my personal passion) to help people work through these kinds of issues, and to learn how to offer support in a way that feels authentic to them. I recognize how difficult these conversations are, and know how deeply we Atlassians care for each other. Whether you’re struggling to deal with a bit of the world, or struggling to know how to support your colleagues, I’m here if you need.

Like this article, and want to read more? Think about hitting that little ❤ button below, sharing, or following my writings here. Check me out on Twitter at @adblanche.