Episode 23: Lara Hogan on the Secret to Being a Successful Manager
Are companies setting up their managers for success? What are BICEPS? How do you assemble your colleagues like a management Voltron?
Lara Hogan is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm that specializes in management and leadership training — a company that Automattic has worked with in the past. She’s the author of Resilient Management, a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one, or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate.
Lara spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy.
Full episode transcript is below.
MATT MULLENWEG: Hello everybody, this is Matt Mullenweg with the Distributed Podcast. I cannot think of another time in my entire work career when we’ve been so faced with so much dramatic change in so little time. How we come together, how we listen to each other, and even how we understand ourselves can define the future of our companies right now in this pivotal time. What does it mean to be a good manager or leader in this moment?
Today we’re going to chat with Lara Hogan, she is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm which specializes in management and leadership training and that Automattic has worked with in the past. She is also the author of a book called Resilient Management, which is a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate.
She spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of engineering at Kickstarter and an engineering director at Etsy, both companies known for their excellent engineering and execution. So thank you so much for being here.
LARA HOGAN: Thank you so much, what a lovely introduction.
MATT: We’ll make it easy with a one-sentence question. What’s the secret to being a good manager?
LARA: [laughs] Oh, this is going to be such an annoying answer of mine, but it’s listening. It’s so obvious to me how this all boils down to how we as humans are not really trained to listen. We are trained to share our knowledge, we are trained often to teach, we are trained to set direction, but we are so rarely trained to listen and that seems to be the crux of most things.
MATT: How did you learn that?
LARA: I’m going to say the hard way by… [laughs] by not listening. I think that especially in engineering land so much of the value is placed on the information that we can provide to others, what we can build, what we can create, again what we can teach. And the act of listening is not really I’m going to say valued in an obvious way.
So for me, when I became a leader or a manager, I just kind of assumed that everybody was functioning the same way that I was, needed the same things, valued the same things, liked the same kind of feedback or recognition. And I’m going to say I learned the hard way that that is not the case. We are all pretty unique and special.
MATT: How would you describe how you like feedback and communication and everything?
LARA: I have started to hone how I ask for feedback in terms of after I give a workshop or a talk. I much prefer for people to read it first and digest it before I talk about it. I was a public speaker before I was a coach or a trainer, just giving talks. And I found especially at lots of tech conferences I was receiving a lot of unsolicited feedback, a lot of which was gendered, and it was really hard to be able to distinguish the stuff that was really valuable from the stuff that was this one person’s opinion and perspective and not actually valuable to me getting better as a public speaker.
And I started to realize if I could read it first and digest it first I wouldn’t get so amygdala-hijacked, my fight-or-flight mode wouldn’t kick in. So now these days I always try to ask for feedback written first, that way I can digest it and then talk about it afterwards. Because still, digesting it with somebody is also equally important. But for me I need my prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical part of my brain to be online before I can really have a healthy conversation about feedback.
MATT: One of my favorite things about distributed work is how the asynchronous nature allows for you to catch that amygdala hijack.
LARA: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny though, a lot of people think that when you’re distributed you can’t notice it as much in the other person. You can’t notice when someone is amygdala hijacked. And I don’t think that’s true at all.
MATT: You don’t even notice it.
LARA: You don’t notice it if you’re not listening, I guess I’ll put it that way. But if you’re watching for it, if you’re sensitive to this other person’s body language or voice, if you’re on over video, or obviously if they’re on the phone with you, if you can only hear their voice, you can still tell if someone is not themselves.
And via text, when someone’s text-based communication changes from their normal pattern, either more long-winded if they are more terse usually or more terse if they are long-winded usually, these are all… If you’re looking for it, if you’re paying attention to it, it’s so easy to tell, I think. I don’t know. How has it been in your experience?
MATT: That’s very interesting that you mention people becoming more long-winded. In my experience you can pick up clues for sure in how people are showing up or their responsiveness or the timing. There is lots of metadata in how we communicate that and we can have clues, but I don’t know if it’s a perfect signal the same way that reading someone’s face might be.
MATT: Not that that’s a perfect signal but maybe it feels better.
LARA: Yes it feels like we can get more data usually when we have the extra sensory experience, absolutely.
MATT: And we’re wired to pick up on lots of those things, even if subconsciously around physical presence that we might not get from text.
MATT: That’s why, yes, text is definitely I think one of the superpowers but also one of the weaknesses of distributed organizations, or at least ours. You mentioned listening, do you mean that for listening to others or listening to yourself and what is the relationship there?
LARA: When you asked the question, I was talking about listening to others but I think when it comes to the feedback question I needed to get to know myself first before I could be able to direct others and how I would much prefer to receive feedback. One thing that I’ve learned is that I’m really bad at listening to my own body. I have a chronic illness and it flares up whenever I’m stressed out, which I learned when I was in my early twenties was a thing, and until then I just didn’t pay attention at all to what my body was telling me.
LARA: You know? So it’s one of those things that once you start to realize that you need to pay attention to those extra signals, you start to pick it up elsewhere in the world too. Like about the long-winded thing, I can tell when someone is over explaining when they’re normally pretty succinct, I’m like, oh, something is going on for this person.
There’s these five common forms of resistance in humans that — again it’s not a perfect system but it’s a nice framework to think about. If we notice one of these and it’s unusual in the person that we’re talking to, one of these five forms of resistance, it’s pretty likely that their amygdala has been hijacked.
Again, that lizard brain, that fight-or-flight response has kicked in and they are all about fighting, verbally fighting, questioning, or doubting, like playing devil’s advocate, avoidance behavior, just being really checked out, looking for an escape route, trying to leave the team or leave the project, leave the company. Or, my personal favorite, which is bonding, which is when you go and try to talk to other people to either process, verbally process what you’re feeling, or just try to find comrades who might agree with you on it. But once you start to pick up on these five common forms of resistance you start to see it everywhere.
MATT: Is there a fun acronym for remembering those?
LARA: I wish, I really wish. This is the longest one it took me to memorize just because I haven’t found a good acronym yet. [laughs]
MATT: You have a book called Resilient Management, which is a fantastic guide to understanding management as a practice.
LARA: Thank you.
MATT: So many people get promoted into management as a next step in their career or whatever feels like an upgrade, but they are not always given a playbook.
MATT: Maybe there isn’t even a playbook for how to do that. What should organizations do when they promote people to set them up for success?
LARA: Even that word promotion is so unique to organizations. Some organizations do view it and treat it like a promotion, like you’ve now got this new level of responsibility and power and title and then that’s true. Some organizations say that but then there actually isn’t that much of a change in power, responsibility and title. And others treat it more like it’s a role change, which is actually my preferred way of thinking about it just because these skills don’t come naturally to most folks, just like any discipline.
So for me I think a lot about it as this is a new rule with a new set of skills, a new set of responsibilities, often more power, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a level up from what you were doing before. It just means that there is a new heaviness than what you were doing before. So I like to think about it in terms of okay, what are the skills that someone might need to be successful at this new kind of role that they haven’t really done before.
MATT: Yes, we’ve tried to decouple some of that by when someone starts managing people they don’t get a compensation change.
MATT: And vice versa if they ever want to stop that wouldn’t be a downgrade. But yes, I did use the word promotion. [laughter] So you mentioned that there’s skills needed.
MATT: In your book you had something that did have a cool acronym called the BICEPS model?
LARA: Yes, I love talking about this, thank you so much for bringing it up.
MATT: Let’s dive in.
LARA: It’s funny, I also… Right now we’re in quaran-times and I talk about the BICEPS model more now than I ever have done before. So this acronym, BICEPS, was coined by Paloma Medina. And she helped us come up with this handy acronym so that we could easily remember what are the six core needs that humans have at work. And I think that managers are not the only ones that need to pay attention to these things because all humans have these six core needs in different amounts.
So I’ll really quickly run through the acronym. The B stands for belonging. So it’s how do we belong to a group? Any time we feel othered or left behind this core need is going to feel threatened. And just like all of the six core needs, this comes from evolution. We needed to belong to a group in order to survive, so any time we feel like oh, everybody’s going out to lunch without me, that’s your amygdala trying to keep you safe. So just keep that in mind, even though a lot of these might feel very like non-events, our amygdala… they are not trivial to our amygdala.
The I is for improvement and progress. We need to feel some kind of forward motion in our work or in our careers, in our life. We need to see change and improvement in the things that matter to us. Any time things feel stagnant or it doesn’t feel like we’re learning, those core needs might feel threatened.
The C stands for choice, which is effectively autonomy. This is a funny one where we all have a different amount of choice that feels comfortable. Paloma, who coined this acronym, she needs like 98 percent choice in her work-life but that would stress me out so much. I need a solid 80 percent. We are all different. And we need just the right amount, not too much or not too little.
E stands for equality and fairness. We are seeing this so much right now come up not just with the pandemic and how members of minority groups are more heavily impacted by COVID, but also with the Black Lives Matter movement. When humans perceive a lack of fairness we will take to the streets, we will riot, and this is equally true in the workplace. Any time there is a perception of a lack of fairness, organization psychologists see teams ripped apart, companies destroyed, usership decline.
MATT: I have actually seen research as well that shows that it occurs in primates as well, the perception of unfairness. It seems like very, very deep inside us.
LARA: Oh yes. All of this.. There is that great video of the two monkeys.. [laughter]
LARA: All of these things, we see all of these things in animals because, again, this is how we evolved. Our amygdala really… This is not pseudoscience, this is neurology of our limbic system.
So the P stands for predictability. We all want to have some sense of certainty and understanding what’s going to happen in the future. Just like choices, we need a balance, too much predictability and things will get really stagnant and we’ll get demotivated and de-energized and totally bored. But too much unpredictability and we will also freak out a bunch.
And the last one is significance, which is effectively status. We want to know where we sit in the informal or formal hierarchical structures and how we relate to the power around us.
So yes, BICEPS. If I think about this over time, significance used to be the one that would come up most often for me. My amygdala, if it felt like my status was threatened, my amygdala would lose it a little bit. But honestly, since April 2020 predictability is the number one thing I need. Just the volume of change.
And everybody is so different. So when we think about mask-wearing, we can actually track back why someone might not wear a face mask to any of these six core needs because they show up super differently in all of us and the same stimulus can threaten any of them.
MATT: Could you do that for me just so I understand? Would that be choice?
LARA: Absolutely. Yes, choice is absolutely one of them. I want to have autonomy over my body. I want to have autonomy and control. Don’t tell me what to do. So you can see how choice might come up. Fairness, it’s unfair that I have to do this, it’s unfair that in order for everybody… I need to get mine. We could do belonging, we don’t want to feel like the uncool kids, we don’t want to feel like we are… we want to feel like part of the in-crowd and who we are surrounded by.
I mean, I know this is true where I live. Like the more and more I see people not wearing masks I’m like, oh, if everybody else is not doing it, what am I doing? Now obviously my core need is going to be different there — predictability, I need to have… And choice for me too. I want to have control over my own health and I want to have some semblance of what the future will hold so I’m going to choose to wear it. But yes, you can see how the same stimulus can threaten…
Which my normal thing I like to talk about is desk moves. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked for a company where desks were assigned or where people were told to move where they sat every day, but it absolutely caused the most emotional reactions in folks. I talk about it with re-orgs too. Every time there’s a re-org it could threaten any of the six BICEPS core needs.
LARA: Oh, absolutely, right. Precisely. Literally anything. It’s so relevant.
MATT: The desk move resonates a lot for me because when I moved to San Francisco I worked at a company called CNET Networks. And I started with this really cool corner office and then a VP saw it and I got moved into an interior office. And then there was a re-org and I got moved to the basement and I felt like… oh gosh, who’s that guy from Office Space with the stapler?
LARA: Yes, absolutely. [laughs]
MATT: That character. Don’t take my red stapler. And then I started Automattic. I thought, oh, okay. I probably overcompensated for the lack of office moves.
LARA: I’m curious, if you think about those six core needs in that example, which ones stood out for you?
MATT: Definitely choice, definitely fairness, definitely status.
LARA: Corner office, right.
MATT: I was literally being moved down.
LARA: Yes. [laughs] Yes, it can absolutely threaten multiple, which is why this stuff is so hard because you can’t guess, you really have to think about it and process it. And we are really bad at guessing other people’s… Like when you were telling that story and you mentioned the corner office, I was like it’s going to be significance for Matt. But you didn’t start with significance. You listed it eventually in your list but it was choice first.
We are really good at projecting our own onto other people but again, coming back to the listening thing, we’ve got to start asking lots of genuinely curious open questions and listening to people’s answers and preparing to be surprised by what we hear and not just assuming.
MATT: One of the other ones that stands out is fairness. Again, at this moment in time we’re at where there is so much going on is people’s perception of fairness to a third party might be unfair. So there’s almost a point of view to fairness.
LARA: Absolutely. And we all are our first person —
MATT: How do we navigate that? What did you say, we’re all our own..?
LARA: Our own first person. We are all the protagonist of our own story, things are happening to us. And so any perception of fairness from where I’m sitting is going to be very different from where you’re sitting.
Which is why as managers I think it is so important to develop some of those empathy muscles, but mostly just to do this act of reflecting back what you’re hearing the other person say to make sure you have it right. Like, okay, what I’m hearing you say is blah and then just asking “is that right? Do I have that wrong?” and waiting for them to respond is so powerful. And triple-checking that again you’re not just projecting or assuming, that you don’t have it wrong.
MATT: And by these being amygdala lizard brain reactions, is it also fair to say they are not always rational?
LARA: Yes, they’re almost never…
MATT: Like your rational mind might disagree with it?
LARA: Well it’s funny, so your amygdala, its whole job is to be looking out into your environment for threats, threats and rewards, that is the only thing it’s categorizing. And if it gets a sense that a threat is headed your way, if the threat feels significant enough it actually tells your prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical part of you, to go on standby.
Because your amygdala is a lot faster than your PFC and your amygdala can actually make sure it can keep you safe. It can tell you to run and jump and duck and hide to avoid danger. If split-second decisions were left up to your prefrontal cortex we would never have survived the many wooly-mammoth attacks that got us to where we are today.
So when we are amygdala-hijacked our rational, logical brain is nowhere to be found. And on average it takes about 30 minutes after you have removed the threat from your environment for your PFC to come back online, and that’s if you’re not still stewing on it. If you’re still stewing on it, your brain is still releasing these chemicals into your body from your amygdala, it’s just like nope, still in threat mode. So it can take a long time for your rational, logical brain to come back online.
MATT: Do we just live in an era of these always being activated?
LARA: With the pandemic I am seeing it all around me. And our PFC is a finite resource anyway. Usually by 3 or 4PM in our workday it’s shot. No more decisions should be made. The eight-hour workday is an absolute lie when it comes to this.
So it is already a finite resource and the fact that our amygdalas are just constantly on overdrive, every single thing right now is a threat, physically, emotionally. I think about all the parents who are struggling also with figuring out… everybody in their household, all their amygdalas and their core needs, it’s just… Our poor prefrontal cortexes are overloaded at the moment.
MATT: Well knowing this how do we not become victims in this story?
LARA: The number one thing I recommend to folks is to figure out what’s your number one core need right now. Like I said, it’s usually significance for me and then after about a month of not figuring out what I needed, like, really having a hard time, I started to think about okay, what’s mine? If it’s not significance right now, what’s mine? Feeling this bad right now is a clue to me that I’ve got to do some more thinking and research.
So once I put my finger on the fact that it was predictability, I put a little sticky note on my laptop, I still have it here actually with a little star next to it that just says ‘predictability,’ as a reminder to myself the I need to optimize everything in my life for creating this. Because I can’t get it in the outside world. I don’t know when a vaccine is going to hit, I don’t understand what the next few months are going to look like, so I need to take every opportunity I can to create more predictability.
In my case, I had… the vast majority of my income for Q2 and Q3 were coming from in-person workshops, so me talking to a room of 40 managers. Obviously those could no longer happen. So how do I take this complete lack of predictability — and obviously compounded with other things, lack of choice, lack of fairness, yada yada yada — but really try to say okay what is one thing I can do today to create more predictability?
And again, predictability might not be your core need right now but it’s really important for everybody to take a look at this list of six core needs and say, okay, what is my number one and how can I make sure I’m reminded every single day to get one new thing to happen to nourish this core need? Or, if I have to choose between two things, as yourself which one is going to get me more of that core need right now? Use it as a north star to help you out of this season that we’re in.
MATT: I want to dive into knowing this for others. But first, a quick sidebar since again a lot of the people listening to this work at distributed companies. Have you developed any thoughts yet on virtual or non-in-person versions of what you do and what could be effective?
LARA: Yes. So I almost exclusively now do this virtually. I’ve been able to, thank goodness, within about three weeks of everything changing, create a bunch of new workshops that are more ad hoc so people can sign up for the individual workshops, one-on-one, or, it’s so easy, I’ve always brought them into distributed companies anyway, I’ve just made it much more of a clear offering.
Just last month I had this opportunity to do this leadership program for a distributed company’s employee resource group for marginalized genders. So it was a four-week global program all over video and it has just been… who knew that a pandemic could really bring to the surface some really important business decisions for me going forward.
MATT: And also for anyone listening, they can get in touch with your website, right, Wherewithall?
LARA: Yes, Wherewithall.com, two Ls. Thanks, Matt.
MATT: Perfect. Well no, I think obviously we’ve been a customer in the past and hope to be one again in the future.
So we’ve talked a lot about the self-awareness version of the BICEPS and asking the questions. You refer to some of these questions for asking others. So if I’m a manager and it feels like someone I work with is really having a reaction that doesn’t seem rational or that’s not moving things forward, what should be my first thing to do? Because normally telling someone to calm down or something would be counterproductive.
LARA: Yes. Any time someone has told me to calm down I think it has had the opposite…
MATT: Right? [laughter]
LARA: My amygdala is like, oh yeah? See this?
MATT: Just relax.
LARA: Yes. [laughter] So when I’m a manager my choice here will be dependent upon my relationship with this person. Either we have worked together a bunch in which case they are familiar with the BICEPS core needs list or they are someone who I think would be cool talking this through.
I find that handing them this list, showing them the website, or showing them a handy link, it actually does this beautiful job of bringing someone’s prefrontal cortex back on line because what you’re doing is asking them for a second to do a little bit of a problem-solving exercise, like it’s a puzzle. Like, okay, which of these six things is it? It’s a beautiful practice in getting your prefrontal cortex back online.
So if they are already familiar, if I think they’re going to be interested in the brain science stuff, I will describe these core needs and just have a very frank conversation. I will say let’s read through these together and as we do this start to think about which one or maybe multiple of these might feel really true for you right now?
But let’s say I don’t know them that well or it doesn’t feel like this is a time to go into the brain science part or to walk through this acronym together because sometimes that can feel a little cheesy, like here’s this management framework. So in the other case I’m just going to ask them one of these really short, open ended questions that starts with the word ‘what.’
Okay, let’s just take a step back. What feels really motivating to you right now? Or, cool, I just want to at a high level start to think about what’s the number one most important thing on your list? What’s your north star right now? What are you optimizing for? I will pick maybe max two of these questions and ask them after giving them lots and lots of space to unload and process out loud.
Usually from that I will start to then reflect back what I’m hearing, like, okay, so it sounds like if you had had more choice here or if you could have made this decision yourself, that would have felt better. Do I have that right? And then they’ll say yes or no and we’ll go from there. That’s me pinpointing what this might be. And hopefully down the road we can actually have a more fun chat about BICEPS core needs but even if we never get there at least I can figure out okay, let’s creatively address this core need for this person.
Because they can’t get it.. In the corner office example, you were moving into the basement eventually. You couldn’t have controlled that. But as your manager I might have said, okay, where can we get you some more choice here, or where can we create some more significance for you here?
MATT: It seems like the interrupt there is almost like that pause and question and reflection.
LARA: Mhm, yes. It’s pretty magical. One of the things that I learned in coach training that I would have never realized was happening until I saw it firsthand was the act of giving someone space to share what they are thinking and not responding with what it means to you, not responding with ‘oh yes, and also this.’
And not coming up with the next thing you want to say while they’re still speaking but actively listening, actively hearing them, and then reflecting back what you just heard them say is this really bizarre, beautiful thing that happens. It is just so rare that we have someone actually listen to what we are saying and then triple check that they have it right. Yes. I can’t describe how powerful it is.
MATT: I feel like I can do the more often than not if I’m in real time with the person having a conversation. But often with asynchronous work, I arrive at the scene hours or maybe even days later. What would be a way to apply that in an asynchronous manner?
LARA: That is a great question. I think that a lot of this too is going to be dependent upon what you’re optimizing for, what your core need is. If my amygdala is hijacked there is no amount of intention I can put into it to be a good active listener.
So I think from a distributed community perspective, checking in with yourself and making sure that your prefrontal cortex is active as you’re reading through messages or as you’re getting ready for whatever your next thing is, triple-checking that your amygdala isn’t super active and online but rather you’re feeling pretty chilled out can help to be a centering moment before your start to read these messages.
Now it is a super natural thing to read a message and say okay, how does this relate to me? Okay, how does this impact the thing that I want to do? Or, what are they trying to ask of me right now? Those are all very ‘me’ focused, which is by the way normal. That is a normal human thing that I think is appropriate. It’s just about what is the impact that you want to have.
If the impact that you want to have is to move a project forward then it’s totally okay to have your own perspective and to be thinking about how it relates to you and the project. If your intention is to make this person feel really supported or really help them grow, that’s when it’s really important to have that reflecting back, make sure that you’re actively hearing what they are saying and not thinking about how it relates to you.
MATT: Is there a version of this that could improve Twitter?
LARA: [laughter] I can’t imagine. Because Twitter is all about the one-to-many voice. It’s not about active listening. I find that with Twitter the thing that helps me a lot is tweeting questions instead of statements. I found this especially when I try to enact some change. Because then it’s like I’m trying to communicate a statement via a question, not a leading one, not saying what if we tried blah, blah, blah. But rather saying okay, in this moment…
Let’s pretend what I’m trying to do is get everybody to start to think about their BICEPS core needs. Instead of saying, hey, here is this really cool framework, here is how it has worked for me, you should all check it out, I might say, hey, what is most motivating to you right now? Just a rhetorical question. Just take two minutes and think what is most motivating to you right now or what is terrifying for you right now? Then compare and contrast to this link and see what you think. It’s actively asking a question that prompts an introspective response that I think can be real valuable.
But yeah, I don’t think that Twitter is usually the medium for enacting huge amounts of change. That’s my opinion.
MATT: What’s interesting is our internal blogging system, or email, often has elements which are public, it might be public to a smaller audience, but… I find that people can… When you have that amygdala reaction and that becomes memorialized in a written thing there starts to be an identity that you end up defending it a bit more or being attached to it than you might if it were just part of a conversation.
LARA: Absolutely. And the creators of the character The Hulk really tapped into this. Bruce Banner and The Hulk are the same person but we know more about The Hulk. We can associate The Hulk, we think about that character so much more I think than most of us think about Bruce Banner.
So if all that’s documented is your Hulk version… And by the way, The Hulk is just literally Bruce Banner’s amygdala growing three sizes. When we get amygdala-hijacked we turn into different versions of ourselves, versions that we’re not proud of. So if what’s documented about us is our Hulk version that’s what we’re going to be known for.
And honestly, any time that stuff is memorialized, you’re totally right, I’ve got amygdala triggers, I know what they are. If anybody brings up the hills that I’m going to die on, my Hulk version of myself is going to be right near the surface.
MATT: Hmm, I definitely have got to think about that. I have heard myself in recent months, in conversations, where I was trying to be open and vulnerable but the person on the other side of the tweet screen I felt like was the opposite.
MATT: And that can be challenging. And probably the best thing then is just to walk away, or at least what I’ve tried to do.
LARA: Yes. A lot of my workshops and coaching sessions that are focused on these things are all about developing a back-pocket script for yourself. To end a conversation with a promise to return to it once everybody’s amygdalas are chilled out but to end it in a way that doesn’t escalate it, to actually end it in a way that feels safe and can help everybody chill out.
I like to have something really short that feels natural to say and then a really quick, like, here’s the next time we can check in about this. Mine, because I work with so many people who I talk about this stuff with, mine is literally I’m so sorry, my amygdala is really hijacked right now, can we talk about this at our next one-on-one, would that be okay?
And for people who know me those are real, natural words that I would say. And so it’s easy for me to pull that out of my back pocket and it’s a signal to everybody, like, oh, one or both of our amygdalas is on fire right now, you’re right, let’s chill out for a bit.
MATT: You have a great moment in the book where you talk about tapping into the best qualities of your colleagues like a management Voltron.
LARA: Yes, yes.
MATT: I’m liking a little bit of a comic book theme here.
LARA: [laughter] Yes. It harkens back to the 1980s television show, Voltron, where you have a group of super heroes that come together and form a giant super robot, à la Captain Planet or any number of television shows.
MATT: Power Rangers?
LARA: Yes, Power Rangers, exactly, they come together and form a giant thing. So the idea here is we as individuals, we often rely on our manager for their support and their coaching and their mentorship to learn and grow but that manager is just one person. We all are just one person that has a particular set of skills and experiences and ways that we can help each other. So your manager can’t be your everything. I think to the managers of my past and how each of them always had some things I could learn from but not all the things that I needed. [laughs]
So the Voltron idea is that you shouldn’t just lean on this one person to support you as you grow but you should amass a Voltron of different kinds of people each of whom have a different set of experiences and perspectives and skillsets who can come together and be your ideal manager. And that’s going to be custom to the individual.
Like what I need from my manager is probably very different than what you would need from a manager. So it’s important to think about what are the things that I need in order to grow or based on where I am in my career or the kind of company that I worked for. When I left Kickstarter and started doing more consulting work, I got to experience so many other kinds of companies that were not primarily public benefit corporations or mission-driven organizations but totally different kinds, different ages, different sizes.
And so to have a perspective from someone else who understands those kinds of organizations, who can share with me their ways of operating or their opinions or their frameworks, has been invaluable. And that list of people needs continue to grow as you grow.
MATT: How do you walk the line between realizing when other people’s amygdalas might be hijacked and trying to deescalate or come back to the conversation with something like a tone policing, or something you would normally encourage people not to do?
LARA: Absolutely. I think it is really important to state your goal. Because without stating a goal, people might perceive your action as shutting them down. So saying something like…
Like, in the feedback example, now when someone comes up to me after I give a talk, if it’s in person, which who knows when that will happen again… [laughter] But in the past if someone came up to me after a talk I gave and was like, “Hey, great presentation, can I give you some feedback?” I have learned to say, “I would really love to hear your feedback, I just know I can’t right now, do you mind sending me an email?” Which is my way of stating the goal — I am interested in hearing this feedback or I am interested in continuing this conversation, I can’t.
You don’t have to say my amygdala is hijacked. And you don’t have to say that the other person’s amygdala is hijacked. You can just say hey, I really deeply care about us coming to a good solution here, or I really want to make sure both of our needs are met in this one.. It feels like now is not the right time for our brains. It’s so important to me though, when can we chat about this next, maybe when we have had some time to chew on it?
MATT: And how has that gone?
LARA: Oh, so well. Who is going to be like, no? [laugther]
MATT: I need it to be written. Well, probably not someone who you want to hear from.
LARA: Right. It’s actually been really funny because I had this one person come up to me after a presentation and ask me that question, I said… I didn’t actually say even you can talk to me later, in this case I just said “no thanks,” because there was something about the situation that just didn’t feel right, didn’t smell right.
And he took a step back and he was like, “whoa, I was always taught to say that but I’ve never actually had someone say no before.” And I was like, “cool. What else do you want to talk about?” And so we started talking about something else and then maybe five minutes later he was like, “oh, whoa, I see why you said no.” As in like, “we needed to chat first.” It was almost like the act of me saying no opened up this whole new world of possibilities for him about the way that these conversations could go. [laughs] It was really cool.
MATT: Really beautiful. I’m glad that went that way.
LARA: Yes. But contrast that… I was playing a video game the other night with a group of people and two people got really amygdala-hijacked and one person tried to wrap it up, tried to be like, okay, let’s reconvene, let’s do this raid later, we shouldn’t be doing this right now. And they were both in such an amygdala-hijacked state that neither of them could hear it.
And so I think in those situations, no matter how polite you are, how clear you are, how whatever you are, sometimes our Hulk moments will continue to play out. In that case, I tell people to take the space that you need, do what you need to be safe, to keep your brain and your body safe. Exit that situation.
MATT: It seems like video games are also where you’re going to be riled up.
LARA: Always. It’s amazing to me.
MATT: That’s kind of the purpose in some of them.
LARA: Yes. Well, there’s a lot of studies about it. And coming back to the core needs at work, there’s this brilliant study about belonging where they ran this experiment where some people weren’t chosen as players in a video game and the same parts of their brains lit up as if they were experiencing physical pain. Again, belonging. All of these core needs are core to how we have evolved. Like any time we feel left out… So yes, video games are absolutely… Just all of these things can totally threaten our amygdala.
MATT: What video game should all managers play?
LARA: I think every manager should get practice leading a raid group or leading a guild of some sort and trying to corral a group of six people around a section of a video game. It teaches people so many management skills, it’s amazing to me. [laughter]
MATT: That’s cool.
MATT: Which ones do you like? I’m not as into… or current on video games. What do you recommend?
LARA: I can’t say that I can safely recommend them but the ones that I am currently playing, the one in particular is called Destiny. It’s just lots of aliens… keeping the solar system safe from some aliens. It’s nice to be able to be vegetable-mode after my amygdala and prefrontal cortex have had a long day, to just check out. Video games have definitely been a safe place for me to recuperate.
MATT: That sounds like a lot of fun and I will take that as some homework as well and try to make some time for that.
MATT: Thank you so much for this conversation. I learned a lot and I really appreciated that you’re taking the time to share your experience and your learnings with a wider audience.
LARA: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a pleasure.
MATT: All righty. This has been Distributed with Matt Mullenweg. And Lara, where can people find out more about you, Twitter, websites, etcetera?
LARA: People can come find me at @Lara_Hogan on Twitter or on Wherewithall.com.
MATT: That sounds good. I encourage everyone to do so. We will also include links to these questions that you mentioned and more in the show notes. So check that out at Distributed.blog.