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Navigating Team Friction | Lara Hogan

Apr 3, 2018 | An Event Apart 2018

April 3 @ 11:30am
An Event Apart Seattle 2018
Lara started as a developer, then a few years later became a manager, and then she managed all of development at Etsy, and then was a VP at Kickstarter… it’s been a journey.
Now she helps project and engineering teams get healthy. Along that journey she’s worked with teams of 2, 20, and 200. Teams of people are amazing. 
Groups of humans working together are often more than just the sum of our parts. 
She’s learned a ton about the variety of ways humans can interact with each other – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
She’s seem teams accidentally take down a website for a few hours. She’s seen a team ship something amazing. She’s seen teams fall apart over being required to move their desks to a different part of the floor. She’s seen teammates send someone flowers because of the loss of loved one. It’s a privilege to be able to work together towards a common goal.
Bruce Tuckman’s 4 stages of groups:
  1. Forming – comes together in its new state. Has a name and understanding of their goal but other processes or patterns that need to be ironed out.
  2. Storming – a necessary part of team dynamics. You have to feel some confusion and clashing to make it to the next stage.
  3. Norming – things start to iron out. clarify is introduced, you start to feel your groove.
  4. Performing – that flow state. You’re communicating, producing, shipping.
This is a cycle. Any time a manager joins, the mission changes, etc,
Storming  = friction
If your team is storming, that is super duper normal and healthy. The likelihood of you feeling friction with your teammates at some point is pretty high, and it could be for a lot of reasons. Generall friction is a common and necessary part of team growth. Sometimes it can get to an unhealthy stage so it’s important to be equip to handle it and help your team move out of it. Team friction is a distraction and it impacts yoru coworkers, company and users. So of course it’s going to impact the work.
It costs a surprising amount of time and lost focus before the time where a manager even NOTICES enough to step in, so what can YOU do to address that friction to move out of Storming and into Norming?
So let’s get real world for a second and talk about The Hulk. He’s known for getting angry and turning into a crazy big green version of himself and smashing things. THIS IS REAL IN ALL OF US.
Let’s look at the brain:
Prefrontal Cortex
  • Develops between 20-24
  • Fully engaged when you’re problem solving
  • Processes fear and anxiety responses
  • Half of its job is to constantly look out for data in our environment that could be bad news and categorizes data as either THREAT and REWARD.
  • If it senses a threat it goes into fight or flight mode. 
Our amygdalae are activated by so much more than threats to our physical safety.
In the modern workplace there are 6 core needs that our brains work hard to secure beyond the need of physical nourishment and shelter.
Here are the 6 core needs for humans:
  1. Belonging (community, connection, the need to belong to a clan) Social rejection is considered a high threat situation by our Amygdalae! Social acceptance has been guaranteeing us access to our physical needs. Adult lemurs sleep in group hug-naps, and a lemur rejected is in physical danger. The last time you felt rejected, it’s likely your amygdala was awake.
  2. Improvement/Progress (progress towards a purpose or goal, in your personal life or improving the lives of others) 
  3. Choice (flexibility, autonomy, decision-making) The ability to make a choice in your own life and work. Imagine you’re a seasoned professional and are used to having a large amount of flexibility in your work. Then a new VP is hired and schedules weekly meetings to be hands on and review every piece of your work. Your amygdala is freaked out because your autonomy has been hijacked. 
  4. Equality (the world is fair and people are treated as they should be, everyone has equal access to resources and info). When people feel their needs aren’t met they take to the streets and riots – the same thing happens in companies when there is a perception of lack of fairness. 
  5. Predictability (if every moment was 100% full of surprises, what would that feel like? Most humans need some balance of predictability and surprises. Too much surprise and we’re overwhelmed. Too little and we aren’t stimulated enough and become demotivated. This can be a hard balance to find in our modern workplace. 
  6. Significance (status, visibility, recognition) Someone’s amygdala can feel threatened if their work feels not valued or useless to the team / project. 
Acronym: BICEPS
These core needs at work are crucial to health of your business / team. 
But not all of these needs are equally important to everyone. Getting to know the core needs of the people on yoru team is a shortcut for making them feel valued and understood.

CASE STUDY: Desk Moves
She’s seen the largest displays of human emotion during desk moves!
When you’re asked to move your desk, how might your Belonging core need be threatened? You’re worried about losing the community / connection you had to your group, or being left behind.
A Desk Move can also threaten the Progress core need because it’s a surprise and seems like it could hurt the progress of the team’s goal or their goal
If you weren’t given a Choice over the Desk Move your autonomy was threatened. You might also see it as a signal of more loss of control to come.
The Desk Move may also seem unfair (Fairness need) because some placement is better than other. Some people may have input in the choice of where to sit and others might not. This can totally flair up the Fairness core need.
The Predictability need may be threatened because we now have a difference routine and a different place to sit. When even one small thing in a routine shifts, it can be challenging.
It can also threaten Significance – maybe you sat next to the CEO’s office before or had the corner office or the best view and now that’s been taken away!
It’s important to figure out the underlying core need that’s being threatened when someone is having an issue so you can address it.

We can turn Resistance into Data.
Resistance is just data when someone is threatened.
What are the most common ways that resistance manifests in other around us:
  1. Questioning / Doubt – they’ll create protective space by doubling down / playing the Devil’s Advocate
  2. Avoidance – they might check out in meetings or totally avoid eye contact, say they’re too busy to help or show up for something
  3. Fighting – not physically. Creating arguments against the thing that’s happening, or they might say nothing but refuse to do anything (like the dog that refuses to go for a walk and goes totally limp)
  4. Bonding – run to friends and peers to discuss the issue with others. Look for others to match their way of thinking when in a threat. 
  5. Escape-route – see how to get out like quit or look for a new job to just get out of the problem. 
So look at these data points of resistance and figure out what are the ones affecting your team. 
When you see a sign of resistance, take a step back. It’s easy to get judged or frustrated when dealing with these. Step back and try to see these signs as data. Getting frustrated by someone whose amygdala has been hijacked is not helpful. Try not to feel threatened by these yourself. 
When you spot resistance, ask open questions! 
When you ask questions, it stimulates dopamine in the brain! Top negotiators and salespeople spend double the time asking questions than their less successful counterparts. 
Closed questions can only be answered in yes/no, and aren’t powerful like open questions.
We as humans think we know all there is to know. We map something out and think ‘there’s no way we could have missed something.’ But we know we have blind spots!
Try to ask open questions that give someone room to provide more context that you don’t yet have. Like, “what feels most upsetting about this?” This type of information can be used to help address the core needs that are being threatened.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to mention what’ going on to the manager because they likely have more experience and context they can bring to the solution.


  1. Level up your open questions game by thinking about the spirit with which you ask them. 
Think about speaking with kindness, openness, and compassion. This opens up people’s brains to be more responsive and calm.
Be mindful of your audience. Consider who’s in the room, how they may take your question, and how it will affect them. Understand how each person may digest what’s happening.
Be aware of your medium like choice of words and body language. Being efficient with your words might come across as being cold.
Seek out ways to be inclusive with your wording so it addresses everyone in the room.
Consider the room’s power dynamics. Like maybe someone is in the room who has the ability to fire someone else, or maybe you are a stakeholder and you don’t realize how powerful your words can be.
also ask yourself if this person is even in a position to take action your’e suggesting? If not they’re going to be very frustrated.

  1. Make sure what you bring to the question actually ELEVATES it. Remember to be constructive and productive. Aim to make something better rather than tear it down.
Meet Transparency with Responsibility.
Honesty is NOT constructive if it’s cruel. We’re working to get toward the performance stage, but that’s only possible.

  1. Assume the best intentions.
Assume everyone is coming to work to do the best they can. We’re all playing for the same team and you probably all want to help make the situation win.

Ask yourself what’s going on with a person. What you’re seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t ask for personal information they don’t want to share, but remember something else may be going on for that person.
Stay genuinely curious.
Listen to learn, and prepare to be surprised. BE EXCITED TO HAVE YOUR MIND CHANGED!

Summary: These are the 4 tactics of “Mindful Communication”

Mindful communication in code reviews

However, Mindful Communication will not solve all of your problems. There will be times when you need to give actionable feedback to your teammate (and that you’ll need to receive some actionable feedback). You’re helping your team move forward through those stage of team dynamics.
Humans are mostly BAD at giving feedback, and preparing to RECEIVE feedback.
Most of us are paralyzed by the fear of having these difficult conversations.
Or we go out of our way giving general non-factional feedback…
“Hey you look really great. You really screwed up that thing on Friday. But your’e really smart!” That’s a compliment sandwich and please never do that.

Overcome your fear of giving and receiving feedback
It will help your team AND it’s necessary for your own growth.
When you hear, ‘hey, good job!’ that feels good for like 1 minute and then you wonder what about what your doing is good, you want more specific feedback.