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InfoQ Homepage Articles Building Stronger Human Teams by Managing the Inner Lizards

Building Stronger Human Teams by Managing the Inner Lizards

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Key Takeaways

  • Beneath our human sophistication, each of us has an inner lizard that frets constantly about our physical, psychological, and financial safety.
  • When our lizards detect unsafe conditions, we lose our ability to think clearly and cooperate effectively.
  • You can't eliminate or suppress the lizards, but you can give them less to worry about by improving the safety of your work environment.
  • You can make conversations safer by framing them with strategic use of pictures and stories.
  • You can make relationships safer by using mental models to identify the sources of misunderstanding and manage them.

Very early in your software building career, you hit the upper limit of what you could accomplish on your own.  You naturally sought to extend beyond the limit by enlisting help from other human beings.  This didn't have to be a formal boss/subordinate relationship.  In fact, it usually isn't.  Maybe it was as simple as asking the person next to you for insight into a technical question, or for a second set of eyes on your code.   Either way, you immediately encountered the problem.  Machines do exactly what you tell them to do.  People, not so much.

People are messy and complicated.  They come with issues, concerns, and hang-ups completely unrelated to what you want from them.  They misunderstand your questions.  They invent reasons to avoid you. They find ways to transform your requests into opportunities to satisfy their needs.   I'm not referring to a few weirdos who fail to conform to your expectations.  I'm talking about everyone.  That includes you.  It includes me.  It includes your product owner, your customers, and your CEO.

You already know this.  You've spent more than six years on the planet and weren't raised by feral cats.  I'm reinforcing your life experience to prepare you for "but it gets worse."  Ready?  Here it is: people come with brains that are pre-configured to scan everything you say for threats to their safety.  Put another way, if you present them with a message that they could interpret in multiple ways, their most primitive mental wiring pushes them toward the meaning that they're about to be fired, or maybe killed and eaten.   Of course, "this person intends to eat me" hardly ever crosses their conscious minds.  The worry stays submerged beneath layers of social training and cognitive sophistication, but it's very real, very powerful, and ready to drive a fight-or-flight response at any moment.

Visualize your inner lizard

What drives ordinary rational people into an animal fight-or-flight mode?  In the middle of the last century, a neuroscientist named Paul D. McLean provided a physiological explanation with his "triune brain" model.   The general idea is that your brain contains a primitive "reptilian" core responsible for base instinctive behavior.  It is wrapped in a somewhat more sophisticated "paleomammalian" complex which, in turn, is wrapped in a "neomammalian" complex which enables you to perform trigonometry.  When you detect a threat to your safety, your reptilian "lizard brain" takes control until the danger is past.  While your lizard brain controls you, you become much better at jumping over obstacles but completely hopeless with abstract concepts like the Commutative Property of Multiplication.  You also tend to see threats and enemies everywhere, whether or not they actually exist.

Despite capturing the popular imagination for decades, McLean's model has fallen on hard times among contemporary psychiatrists.  They see it as too simple to explain the behavior of actual reptiles, but I'm not going to let an academic controversy get in the way of a good metaphor.  

Good metaphors are useful because they help you remember important ideas when you need them.  For example, you're deep in a code review.  You're pretty sure that Chris asked about the lambda on line 148 to trip you up and embarrass you in front of your boss.  You notice your pulse racing and your breath shortening.  You're not having a heart attack.  You're experiencing a physical response to mental stress.  In this state, you're at elevated risk of saying or doing something you'll regret later.  Worse, the same state also drains energy out of your sophisticated brain and diverts it to your legs and your fists.   In the heat of the moment, which are you more likely to remember: a complicated diagram of the human limbic system or a silly cartoon lizard? This is not an academic question.  The health of your team and the trajectory of your career depend on your answer.

Learning to recognize when you're operating under reptilian influence is a great start, but it's only a start.  In the remainder of this article, I'll introduce some techniques to help you manage the lizard within you along with those around you.   First, I need to deliver the standard disclaimer.  I'm an expert in software product development, not psychiatry.  What I'm about to share with you came from reading, discussions, and experience on the shop floor, not from any kind of formal training.  Perhaps most importantly, I'm not a therapist and nothing you're about to read here is intended to equip you to become one either.  I use these techniques to help myself and others manage our human interactions intentionally so we can feel secure in our working relationships and build better software together.

Second, your lizard is a key part of what makes you human and keeps you breathing. If it hadn't warned you about countless dangers over the years, you wouldn't have survived long enough to learn about lizard management techniques.   Even if you could suppress or eliminate your lizard, doing so would be suicidal. The techniques presented here take the opposite approach.  They calm your lizard by making the workplace around it more friendly.

Simple techniques to establish safety

Frame the context with a story

You might have noticed that I opened this article by telling a story.   Stories can be fun and interesting in their own right, but the art of strategic storytelling enables you to establish the tone of a discussion and define its meaning.  My intent behind the opening story was to frame this article as a discussion about ideas with peers and to set a safe, casual tone.   Did it work for you?  If not, you can take my failure as an opportunity to construct a better story, or perhaps to think of a more effective frame.  Both of us could use the practice.

I didn't announce that I was about to tell a story with an obvious signal like "once upon a time" or "the strangest thing happened on the bus this morning."  Depending on your intent and your audience, decorations like these could be helpful but they are unrelated to what makes stories so powerful.  A good story reminds us of who we are and who we aspire to be.  It reinforces what we value.  At a more tactical level, it defines what conversation we're having.  You will find this kind of framing particularly important in situations where you are at risk of being misunderstood.  This turns out to be nearly every time you open your mouth, as I'm about to illustrate -- with stories, of course.

Take visible risks

Lizards don't respond well to slogans or sermons.  You must show them that they are safe.   One way to demonstrate their safety is to take the same risks that terrify them and make it obvious that you were not hurt. For example, one morning you might announce "my mind isn't letting me focus on work so I'm going on a hike instead."  Then actually go out.   If you're persistent, people will follow your example.  In fact, this technique establishes cultural norms so effectively that you could create negative side effects.  Craft your example with care.  Your goal is to demonstrate that it's safe to be honest about human frailties, so it's important to explain yourself clearly before you leave.  Your goal is not to give people license to behave irresponsibly, so the way you manage your commitments on the way out matters a great deal as well.

Here is another example, one from real life. My company has a "Fail Hat" tradition.  If I do something stupid, I earn the right to wear a silly hat.  The hat invites my colleagues to stop by my desk and ask me what I learned.  My corporate Slack photo shows me proudly sporting the Fail Hat so I can keep talking about the day when I face-planted into my own premature optimization mess.  Instead of hiding my mistake, I advertised it and got to be the teacher for a day.   More importantly, plenty of nervous lizards saw that nothing bad happened to me and felt just a little safer about exposing their own mistakes.

Listen actively

If you know what you're looking for, it's easy to spot a human operating under the influence of a lizard. They show signs of physical stress.  They divide the world into "good people like us" and "bad people like them."  They have trouble understanding your words but become hypersensitive to your tone.

When you're face-to-face with a lizard, the worst thing you can do is argue with it.  Lizards are immune to reason but excel at detecting insults.  Whatever you were trying to accomplish with the human before the lizard took over isn't going to happen.  Trying to make it happen will only annoy the lizard, prolong the situation, and tempt your lizard to join the fray. 

Appearances aside, the lizard isn't trying to be destructive.  It's a frightened animal that needs to feel safe so it can back down and let the human talk to you again.   One technique to help the lizard feel safe is to give it your undivided attention with your mouth closed and your ears open.  Listen without any hint of defending yourself, offering advice, or passing judgment.   Any response from you should be some variation of "I hear you and am interested in what you have to say."  The lizard will be more likely to believe you if you're telling the truth.  Above all, treat the other person's lizard with the same respect that yours requires.  You might find the roles reversed tomorrow.  

If you find this topic interesting, Marshall B. Rosenberg provides some excellent material in Nonviolent Communication.   

An advanced technique: use interaction models to control misunderstandings 

Messy and complicated people naturally develop messy and complicated language. Fresh material promises to keep poets and comedians occupied for generations to come.  It also creates endless opportunities for a lizard to misinterpret an ambiguous phrase as a mortal threat.

In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien uses natural language as a trap to illustrate just how naive Hobbits can be.   Bilbo sees a grey-cloaked stranger.  He makes the mistake of shouting what he intends to be a cheerful greeting: "Good morning!"  This leads the old man into a convoluted discourse about all possible meanings of the two words.  He settles on the interpretation that suits him, "You mean you want to get rid of me and that it won't be good till I move off."  Apparently, wizards have lizards too.

Even assuming two speakers native to the same region with the best of intentions and flawless physical execution, the path from the mouth of one to the mind of the other is so long, twisted, and treacherous that it's a miracle we ever communicate effectively.  If you look closely at what happens when we do, you'll see a dance of attempts, guesses and error corrections until the idea in one mind is a "good enough" approximation of the idea in the other.  You have to look closely because much of this dance involves subtle cues in parallel with the explicit words.  We messy people learned this dance when we were very young by applying the same ad-hoc methods that taught us everything else about being human.  Don't ask for the rulebook governing this dance. There is no such thing.  Nevertheless, the dance works surprisingly well --  until it doesn't and a simple communication error creates an opportunity for a lizard war.

When a misunderstanding does occur, a formal interaction model can help you understand what went wrong and devise a strategy to repair the damage.  A model can also help you prevent misunderstandings by showing you where errors are most likely to occur and suggesting strategies to avoid them.

Models are a lot like diets. Most of them work if you accept them on their own terms and don't expect them to solve all of your problems.  If your journey resembles mine, you'll discover that the discipline you learn from systematic application matters a great deal more than which model you choose.  In that spirit, I'll present two popular models of human interaction for you to consider.  Each looks at the same set of problems from a different point of view.  Each rests on its own body of psychological work so extensive that you could study it for the rest of your life, but our business is software development.  We apply models where we find them useful to improve the interpersonal dynamics on our teams.  Instead of asking "Is this correct?" we ask "Does this help?"

In 1964, a psychiatrist named Eric Berne made a big splash with a small book called Games People Play.  It popularized a school of thought called "Transactional Analysis" (TA) and launched a movement that saturated American culture for the next two decades. Among other impacts, TA provides a model of human interaction that you might find useful.  According to the model, each of your discussions is a theatrical production.  Everyone involved plays a role and reads from a script.  If you become aware of which role you're playing and which script you're performing, you gain insight into the nature of your conversations.  This knowledge empowers you to select a different role or a different script and produce a different outcome.

For example, suppose a tester approaches a developer and announces, "I found a bug in your code."  This opening statement frames the discussion as a dialog between Enforcer and Violator.  The statement is also the first line of a script that Berne includes in his book.  He classifies the script as a game because the players are using the technical discussion to mask a social dynamic.  On the surface, you see two professionals discussing the product. Look behind the mask and you see something more reptilian: a struggle over who is more virtuous and who gets to dominate the relationship.  To help us remember the game, Berne slaps a colorful label on it:  "Now I've Got You, You Son of a B****!"   If you become skilled with the model and recognize the game, you gain the power to stop playing.  When you break free from the game, you can switch to a more straightforward discussion about the topic that interests you.

You can get another perspective on the same interaction by applying a different model.  Virginia Satir, the influential therapist, spawned a family of overlapping interaction models. You can find variations floating around the Internet and in books by various authors.  What Did You Say?  The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback by Seashore, Seashore, and Weinberg makes extensive use of Satir's thinking and provides an excellent starting point.  Satir models message interpretation as a lightning-fast chain of mostly subconscious stages.  

The chain starts when the tester's message enters the developer's ears and ends when the developer decides how to respond.   Variations of the model differ in the number of stages and the purpose of each, but they share a key insight.  If you divide processing into stages, you can think systematically about how the message might get distorted along the way.  This enables you to identify where and how communication broke down so you can develop a strategy to repair the damage.  It also enables you to prevent misunderstandings before you open your mouth.  If you know where and how someone is likely to misunderstand you, you can adjust your message accordingly.  At the very least, you can prepare yourself to check for misunderstandings and correct them.

The developer hears "I found a bug in your code." Using a simplified Satir model, the developer guesses what the tester is thinking: "As the hero of this story, I rescued the project from your error."  Next, she considers the implications to herself.  Her lizard brain highlights the most threatening: "This tester could embarrass me and get me fired."  She jumps to a defense, filters it through rules about consequences and social acceptability, and responds. "That's not a bug.  I did exactly what the product owner told me to." 

Neither model describes the interaction with perfect accuracy, but both are useful.  From different vantage points, they show how a discussion ostensibly about a software product is actually about the relationship between messy humans.  The models also suggest a path toward clarifying the intent behind the message and improving the relationship.

A concluding mental image

The techniques presented here are only words on a page until you experiment with them and discover how to make them useful in the real world.  That's when their most ironic property appears.  If they work magic in your hands and you start to consider yourself an expert, they lose their effectiveness and may stop working altogether.  The reason is simple: they derive their power from humility and openness.  When they're working well, they produce more of the same and create a virtuous cycle.  Inversely, nothing shuts them down faster than someone who already knows the answers.

According to legend, every triumphant Roman general would be accompanied by a slave with just one job.  As the great man strutted his stuff, preceded by vanquished enemies in chains and surrounded by lackeys eager to do his bidding, the slave whispered a critical admonition in his ear: "Remember you are mortal."   Maybe the picture portrays actual historical events.  Maybe it's a load of anachronistic poppycock.  Like the lizard in your head, the accuracy of this picture is entirely beside the point.  It provides a useful reminder.  Despite your sophistication and accomplishments, you are subject to the same physical laws as dirt and the same psychological ones as reptiles.  Maintain genuine humility and you're well on your way toward fostering the kind of environment where even lizards can thrive.

About the Author

Mike Duskis sold his first software product in 1989 and has played nearly every conceivable role in projects ranging from children's entertainment to safety-critical medical devices.  He currently plays director of quality at CyberGRX, a young company on a mission to modernize third-party cybersecurity risk management.

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