When we consider the benefits of non-solo working approaches such as pair programming or mobbing, the ones which normally come to mind are related to improvements in the speed or quality of delivery. The old adage “two heads are better than one” applies as we are usually able to get more work completed faster and with fewer defects. And by injecting variety by having participants alternate between different roles frequently, we also reduce the likelihood of fatigue.

But an HBR article this week on the topic of disengagement caught my attention. The author suggested that finding someone to hold us accountable increases the likelihood of our completing an activity. She highlights the benefits of body doubling where we work in the physical or virtual presence of another. By working with someone as opposed to by ourselves, it reduces the chance of procrastination and distraction.

While I hadn’t thought about this before, it makes perfect sense. By pairing up with someone else who can see what we are working on, it is a lot harder for us to tune out. The discussions we will have with our partner will also help to keep us focused and alert so long as both of us are not likely to get distracted by the same thing – this is where strategic pairing where we pick partners based on diversity of thought and background might help.

But without psychological safety, we will be less likely to explore creative ways of getting the work done and we might also lack the courage to provide direct, compassionate feedback to our partner. This is quite likely when the people we work with are at different levels of seniority, experience or influence than us.

Many of the same practices which apply to building psychological safety within a team could be applied in the context of pairing. We could take some time before we start to work with a new partner to define a few ground rules for how we will work together including how we will provide feedback. At the end of a pairing session, take a few minutes to share our perceptions of how the session went and what we might want to adjust going forward. And solicit and be willing to share our working anti-patterns so that we can watch out for one another.

So while there are many benefits to be gained by engaging in non-solo work, psychological safety is a prerequisite for realizing most of them.

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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