The Engineering Leadership Podcast · Episode 36

Superpowers, Psychological Safety & Empowering Your Team

with Tia Caldwell

Apr 13, 2021
Tia Caldwell, former Director of Engineering @ Slack, shares different frameworks she’s used to motivate teams and unlock their superpowers! We cover methods to identify, maximize, & balance strengths on your team, how to shift your team’s mindset from drama to EMPOWERED so they can better confront adversity & challenges. Plus we share the explicit conversations you should be having in your first 1:1s to create greater psychological safety!
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SPEAKER

Tia Caldwell - Former Director of Engineering @ Slack, Co-Founder @ Color Code

As a former Director of Engineering @ Slack, Tia led the Monetization Team, a leading global collaboration hub that makes people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive. Over the past 15 years, she has led and managed engineering teams at Netflix and Microsoft, covering a breadth of projects such as Xbox, Office 365 and Streaming Content Delivery.

She serves as a facilitator in /dev/color and is the co-founder of Color Code, a scholarship fund dedicated to future leaders of color in tech. Tia studied computer science at Xavier University of Louisiana and spent her undergraduate years doing research for the Missile Defense Agency.

“You don't need to have this manager game face. I think there's this perception that when you're a manager, you're supposed to be the person who knows the answers to everything… And while a part of the execution piece is really necessary with being an effective manager, I think the other part is relationship building.

You need to invest the time in understanding how people work. Because people will be more open and honest with you, it'll help out with retention for your team and overall happiness. But if you don't… it's not going to go well because you'll be treating people as resources and not humans."

- Tia Caldwell

Show Notes

  • How do you motivate your team? Find their Superpower! (3:05)
  • Tia’s Superpowers (8:02)
  • Knowing your superpowers maximizes strengths & protects against your weaknesses (10:09)
  • How superpower awareness & common language changes how you operate, make decisions, & structure teams (12:31)
  • Why you should balance your team’s superpowers to increase collaboration and be more effective (17:06)
  • “The Drama Triangle” (20:51)
  • How to recognize what role you’re playing in “The Drama Triangle” (28:30)
  • Shift your team’s mindset with “The Empowerment Triangle” (32:45)
  • How to shift someone from “Victim” to “Creator” or from “Villain” to “Challenger” (34:27)
  • Personal operating manuals & having explicit conversations to get the best from your team (39:06)
  • “What’s your grumpiness level?” & other ways to create psychological safety in your 1:1’s (41:37)
  • How to prompt self-reflection and identify how your team wants recognition & feedback (46:03)
  • Why relationships & removing the “manager game face” are your most effective tool (49:20)
  • Takeaways (50:52)

Links & Resources

Transcript

How do you motivate their team? Find their Superpower!

Tia, welcome to the Engineering Leadership Podcast. We're so excited to have you here and really looking forward to the conversation that we're going to get into.

Tia Caldwell: Thank you all so much for having me. Nice to see you again, Jerry and Patrick.

Patrick Gallagher: Absolutely. Tia you've, you've spoken at our community's events several times over the last few years. And recently with the, the last ELC Summit you were nominated for our community's Inspiring Leadership Award for your impact on your team and organization. And in the process of, going through the nomination... what was so special about that experience for us was interviewing different nominators and getting a chance to interview your nominator, Pooja, who shared some really incredible stories about how you impacted her and her career.

And in that conversation, there were really two qualities that she highlighted that, that stood out to us the first was about your authenticity in leadership as the result of both a powerful blend of vulnerability and creating psychological safety. And the other being how you champion and motivate your teams.

And so those are sort of the two elements that we're going to be diving into today about authenticity in leadership and championing and motivating your teams, the first place we wanted to dive into and start with is... When you're working with your teams, how do you approach finding what motivates people?

Tia Caldwell: Yea I would say this is a tough skill that I've learned over time. I think when you're more junior in your career, you try to do this one size fits all style of management and you realize that we're humans. we tend to focus on our weaknesses, but we have to contemplate, how do we know what leadership traits come natural to us and how can that be utilized in a way to help our team excel?

So one of the things that I really had a great time doing when I was at Slack was I used this framework called the super power framework.

And everybody loves learning about super powers because it's all magical. And everybody's a fan of Marvel right now. But SY Partners is a management consultant agency that analyzes leadership strengths between different characteristics of powerful leaders throughout the industry.

And what they did was they created a deck of cards, and an app to help you and your team learn about your team superpowers. And it's supposed to be something that is like innate to you as a person, not like who you want to be in the future.

So how it works is you usually read a scenario card and you choose which one mostly resonates with you. And then at the end, you flip it over and, it'll tell you about your leadership trait and also provide an aid to others on how to work with you. How it can be used for good or evil on a particular team.

Patrick Gallagher: That sounds really powerful. What was the experience like first going through those cards with your team?

Tell us a little bit about what that experience was like.

Tia Caldwell: Yea, actually. So I had set up a team onsite. We were all in a group and what happened was there was like 30 of us in a room. We brought in the learning and development specialist to come in and help facilitate the conversation as well, just to have a backup.

But what was around the room was all of these different traits, but no one understood what it meant. So I had the trait and I had the good and evil definition posted on the wall. And then each person came, sat down and had a deck of cards in front of them and didn't understand like what the heck these cards meant, and you're not supposed to touch them.

And how we got it set up was once we talked about like, why is leadership important to a team? What do we all bring to the table? We went into the exercise of trying to figure out what was our innate leadership trait. And so that's kind of how we got it set up.

Patrick Gallagher: What was your innate leadership trait or did it vary between the scenarios that you faced?

Tia Caldwell: So the funny thing is the scenario cards... I took this training, I want to say three times. And during the three times I got the same card twice and I got different card one time. I don't know, maybe it was depending on the day, it's actually a lot in the same family.

So my experience was this... So this is how it starts off you flip the card over to understand your superpower. And the card that I got was this. "The team is full of talent, but despite all the rock stars, they aren't making music. They need to be more than the sum of their parts. They need someone who could bring out the best in each of them. And the best in the team overall."

And then the question that gets posed is "why they need you?" So I resonated with this card because this one, the category was "Harmonizer."

So I am definitely a harmonizer and that is kind of like my innate leadership trait, where I can see a lot of people working together, understand what they bring to the table and then help them align and flow in a better way.

The second one that I, this is the other card that I got the most was... "the team is in the midst of a big push and are not done yet. The work is getting closer, but it requires more effort, more attention, more elbow grease. They need to keep pushing. They need perseverance, which is why they need you."

So this card aligns to the "Grit" trait in the superpower card.

And so I kind of cycled between harmonizer and grit, everything in how I approach life is usually like trying to figure out that perfect blend, and how to give everything my all. And that's kind of like the two traits that I want to work with the most.

Tia's Superpowers

Patrick Gallagher: When you look back on some of your experiences as an engineering leader, are there a couple of scenarios in your mind that stood out to you where "Harmonizing" or "Grit" were sort of at play? Like, do you have a, Oh yes, there was at play, there was my power?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. I think this comes into when you have to pick different projects. So previously my team was working on a project that required us to migrate our system from one payment provider to another.

And one of the things that I realized is that we had a lot of people we had just formed. I would say my team was a mix of a couple of senior folks, a lot of junior folks. And how do you help get everyone aligned and moving on the right track to let them know why this project is really important?

So the first thing I did was set out some initial goals to say, "Here's what you want to do. Here's how we're going to define our mini milestones in between. And let me tell you why it's important just to get everyone on the same playing field."

But then as we started working together a little bit more, you started seeing different traits come out from different people. Like you had the people who were super down in the weeds, wanted to understand every little thing. Versus the people who are more high level and wanted to understand more about "Here's how this piece fits into this. Let's draw it out first. Let's take our time..."

So you kind of had that juxtaposition at play. And my job as the harmonizer is to try to figure out how can we utilize this in the right stages to help prioritize what is important so that we're not just standing still and figuring out how the system works overall versus what can we immediately do now to kind of satisfy both spectrums of people.

So that's one example.

Jerry Li: Is that something that came to you very naturally when you faced that situation?

Tia Caldwell: I would say that it's definitely something that feels like it comes natural. I usually am always cycling through all of the one-on-one notes where people are saying

"Here's how I want to get to the next level or here are things that I like to do here are things that I don't like to do."

And that kind of plays a part into how I put people on certain projects while also trying to stretch them. Because even if they say like, "Hey, I'm not, I suck at this, so I don't want to do this..."

You still have to give them a little bit of leeway or maybe they're not the main leader, but they can co-lead certain projects to help move the project

along.

Jerry Li: That's the fun part of being a manager, because you have doing all those bridge making or try to map everyone in the different places within your your map.

Knowing your superpowers maximizes strengths & protects against your weaknesses

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, I one hundred percent agree. So if you don't have another question I could tell you about the side of like, once I got my harmonizer card how that kind of played into the good versus evil unless Patrick, you were going to say something...

Patrick Gallagher: Please dive into that! That sounds awesome.

Tia Caldwell: All right. So once he flipped over the card, I know that I had the Harmonizing card or the Harmonizer card. And what I supposed to do is go around the room and find the one that aligns to this. And this will tell me about the good versus evil.

So when you look at this, the Harmonizer instinctively knows how to channel the team's energy and talent. This is what it tells you. And with equal skill and communication and organization, Harmonizers will try to make sense of everyone on the team to find a way for them to play to each other's strengths. With a Harmonizer on the board, the team finds its rhythm.

So this is just like the overall alignment piece, which I felt like was pretty natural for me.

Now, the part that it also goes into is like, it helps me understand a little bit more about my superpower. So it says, if this is your superpower, you can usually get a professional performance out of an amateur team. But if your efforts are repeatedly stalling, take another look at the composition of the team to see if there are important missing skills. Don't forget to consider growth opportunities to make sure that the team is optimized and don't fall flat and try to make the same person fill the same shoe over and over again.

And it also gives you a another section on the good versus evil and like "here's how you can deal with them, if you have to work with a person who was of that trait."

And I think the biggest thing there, or the most insightful thing is try to be as open and honest and transparent as possible because when you are open and honest, that helps that person see the gears moving and helps them understand how to get you aligned and in the right place.

Patrick Gallagher: The part that stands out to me a lot about Harmonizing was you're talking about being able to get the right notes out of people or to identify some of the gaps in your team and make adjustments.

Because I think what's so powerful about looking at when you know, your superpower, you can start to figure out how do you protect against the risks, but also maximize the strengths of that superpower.

How superpower awareness & common language changes how you operate, make decisions & structure teams

When you became aware of Harmonizing being your superpower, how did that change or inform some of the decisions that you were making with your team?

Like, is there an example of where you were able to with awareness, be like, "okay, my strength is Harmonizing. Here's how I'm going to apply this to this situation with my team."

Is there a moment where you were able do that?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, I think this is the beauty of the whole process, because not only did it allow for our team to have a framework, since we all kind of are able to identify what are different traits. But it allows you to understand like the positive aspects and how to bring that out in a team and also like what you bring to that team in, in reverse. So, I think this comes across, I would say every quarter.

So how our team, our company works is that every quarter we have projects that we need to present in like an OKR format or a team roadmap for the quarter to say, "Here are the set of projects that we're going to do. Here's the people who are assigned to them. Here's the risk level and provide you with details on, if we feel like this project is going to be a risk because of resourcing,

And I think the biggest thing is like, how do you try to align people to those projects and make sure that they're working on the most impactful projects for their career.

I feel like I'm a broken record, but I feel like this happens all the time when you're director or a manager, because you have to always constantly be picking like the main person for this particular project, or say you have an incident... who's the person that you want to pull off to help out with this important incident that needs to get resolved right now?

And so these scenarios come into play where you're like, "okay, if there's an incident, I need a person with some Grit. Let me figure out the people who have the most Grit on the team and can come in and, you know, get their hands dirty and not, be afraid to get deep on a particular issue.

And this is not an excuse to say "Hey, I don't want to pull in people who don't have that characteristic..." But I think it is an opportunity to partner and pair people who are like even opposites to help find the right balance.

Patrick Gallagher: How do you think about how you put people onto different teams or projects that may on paper be quote unquote "out of their ability" but really is going to be a great opportunity for them to push and stretch themselves beyond their current capabilities?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, I think you kind of look at it as a collaboration and like the overall team dynamic or project dynamic. You look at the players of who's working in a certain situation. And what I do is I always try to partner or pair up people who are maybe a little bit more tenured with people who are more junior, because it provides a good role model example for them to see "Here's how this person is executing, and maybe I don't need to be a hundred percent coming up with all the ideas, but here's my like clear, structured area for something that I can grow in."

And so when I think about that, I think about people who are more senior in staff who need to exude leadership, because that's a part of our career ladder anyway. When you become a more senior and advanced person, you're all about leadership.

But then as a junior person letting them know, "Here's something I could aspire to." And not that you just get a free ride and you do what you're told, it's how can we make this, the more supportive environments that you are able to fail and learn at the same time.

And that's kind of the framework I use when I apply people to different projects.

Jerry Li: Do you reference the superpowers when you have for example conversation and with your team members during one-on-one or doing other scenarios now that the team has a common language. How do you leverage that?

Tia Caldwell: Well, yeah, I think the funny part about all of this, that we were all going around yelling out our superpower. So another one was "Ingenuity" or "Gap Detector!" and there's all these different traits that people realize that they had which were natural for them.

And we now in our one-on-ones or in a team meeting, we'll be like, Oh, here comes the Gap Detector...

it provides a funny language, but it helps people understand, like here's where I'm coming from. And it takes away a lot of the stress and anxiety of someone feeling challenged or not pushed in the right direction when you realize this is just how I think. And it takes away a lot of that anxiety that you would get from a person who was making the wrong assumptions about you.

So I see this come up all the time, whenever we're in our group discussions where say for instance, we're presenting architectural diagrams and that's like the perfect window for people to come in and ask lots of questions.

This is a great place for a person who is a Gap Detector, because they can come in and they can challenge other individuals thinking... you know, as long as it's respectful. So I'm there as the Harmonizer making sure that things are moving smoothly, moving along, people are able to get all of their questions out and concerns. But then you want people to come in and not just go with the status quo. You want people to push back. And so you'll see that play out a lot throughout the team.

Why you should balance your team’s superpowers to increase collaboration and be more effective

Jerry Li: This framework reminds me of when I first learned design patterns. It created a meta- language, so that the bandwidth of communication suddenly increased a lot, because, you know, you have concrete concept to reference and everyone knows about it. So being able to have communication on that level... I can imagine how effective it can be.

And and also it's fun. It looks like!

Do you have scenarios where you can play a different role? Play a different superpower?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, I think that's a great point. I cycle through this all the time. So my inate trait is harmonizer, but for example, my team is going through a really large data migration of our financial system and requires like a lot of precision, teamwork, cross group collaboration. And a lot of focus.

And the team right now has three engineers. At first I started off with two engineers and they were all about the Grit; these engineers had nothing but Grit. And when I would come in and I've asked them, "Okay, well, tell me, how long is this project going to take?"

They would first say super ambitiously "It'll take a month. It'll take a month. We'll get it done in a month. No worries!"

I'm like, "okay, got it. Sounds a little strange..."

And I start poking holes. So I turned into the Gap Detector where I'm like, "Tell me why it takes a month. Can you help me understand? How did you come up with this timeline? What are going to be the success metrics that we're going to hit? Or have you thought about how the deployment strategy is going to go for a certain thing?"

And then that'll make them increase their time. And what we realized when we did that, when I was just having this, conversation on blind spots because they were so concerned about one particular part of the system being migrated properly it didn't actually allow for them to see the bigger picture.

So I brought in a person on the project who could be a dedicated gap detector who can come in and say, "Hey, you all, this looks like we're doing these 10 things and we're going super deep, but we're not making progress on X and Y. So how can we prioritize what are the most important things and agree about that, that upfront, so that we're always, hitting the core milestones before going a little too deep and getting lost."

So that kind of scenario played out a lot. And so between all of them but then key thing is how can you make that person see and make them a little bit more aware and add that person. Even though it creates a little bit of friction, that amount of friction and tension is needed to help the project land properly.

Jerry Li: Yeah, that's a very interesting and very valuable perspective for an engineering leader to have now. Look at team composition besides looking at their skill sets, but also their innate traits.

Tia Caldwell: I think this framework is also very useful for when you're doing hiring. So at the end of this, the conclusion of this whole experiment what we did was like, we realized what traits the team had in general, like what our team brought to the table.

And there was key ones that we saw that were missing. So we realized that there were a lot of people who had Harmonizing and Grit and Empathy. And that might be because one, our company values Empathy a lot.

So when we go through our hiring process, we want to make sure that we're hiring folks. Who have Empathy. When we look at Harmonizing, maybe I'm hiring people that are like me. And so it's easier to bring somebody on who is similar in mindset. And what I really realized that I needed people who were more of the opposite. I wanted people who were more on the Challenging side.

We had a lot of people who not saying they didn't take initiative, but it was like, If I say, this is what we're going to do, they would do it without kind of pushing back and having that Challenging mentality.

So giving people the ability to to lead autonomously and then feel like they have the support to question my thoughts and views is kind of the, I would say the Holy Grail we finally realized like what we unlocked and we use that as a supplement for hiring.

Not saying that was the only thing that we looked for, but we were trying to figure out, "Hey, when we look for people, are they asking the right set of questions? Are they pushing back?" And all of that stuff, could I help us find the right teammate?

Patrick Gallagher: That's awesome. Yeah. Thank you.

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, no problem.

"The Drama Triangle"

Patrick Gallagher: To extend the superhero metaphor a little bit, I think all superheroes face conflict or challenges and that's oftentimes what makes them a superhero. In addition to helping your team identify their own superpowers, what else are you looking out for as a leader?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. So I was actually introduced to this really cool framework called the "Drama Triangle" through my career coach. I was in a career coaching session with three other people, and it was a career coach from the Conscious Leadership Group. And they have way more details about it in the book called 15 Commitments to Conscious Leadership.

And as part of our goals there it was trying to figure out when a situation comes up, with a lot of drama or you're facing conflict, how do you operate "above the line." And what that means by above the line is like, how do you not let the drama interfere with your actual work? And you come from a positive place in how you approach issues or drama that comes to your team.

And sometimes it can be caused by you or this can be caused by others, but your response into how you deal with the drama is really critical for modeling the right behavior for your team.

So, despite all of the focus that we've had on superpowers and finding your strengths, you also need to figure out like when something, a problem, or issue does arise, how can you recognize those traits to diffuse the situation in the right way.

Patrick Gallagher: The next question I wanted to ask would be... can you help us understand like, what are some of the default modes that people fall into and how can people become more aware of them?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. So in the drama triangle, which was created by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s, it has three different sides to this. So the first person that you will see... and this is the one that resonates with me the most... is the Hero or the Rescuer. And that person takes responsibility for other people's problems and makes it their own.

You'll typically see questions come in like, "if that person did what, what I said, they'd be happy!" or "Oh, look at that poor soul. I'm nice. I'll help them."

And so I, a hundred percent by default go into this mode in my personal life and professional life. But once I explained the other two, you'll see how this is a, is a bad triangle to just be around in general.

The next one is the Villain or the Persecutor. And this person usually comes in and they'll say "that person will get what's coming to them."

Or "I'm right. They're wrong. They just need to do what I say."

And this person can feel super frustrated and self-righteous, but they must win at all costs. We've all had somebody that we've dealt with like that.

And then the third part of the triangle is the Victim. The Victim feels hopeless and powerless. They'll usually feel like "this always happens to me" or "why can't I just get a break? And it allows for that victim mentality to play out, when drama like comes knocking at your front door.

So the huge epiphany that I had with this framework was that I realized that I allow people to come into my life and play the victim all the time. Somebody will come in and tell me a sad story. And me being a people pleaser, will immediately go into "fix-it mode!" Like, how can I fix this for you? Or, Hey, you're having an issue. Let's talk about it. And then I will go take on that issue as if it was my full-time job"

And I thought this was like a good trait, because you want to make sure that, you know, you're keeping your friends happy. You're keeping people happy. You feel like you're solving problems. But you don't realize at the end that you're causing a huge drain of energy to yourself and you're kind of perpetuating the problem.

You're not allowing that person to identify the issue or a solution on their own versus you coming in immediately, with a solution. And then they come back to you a week later saying like, "Here's a new problem" and now you have to go solve it.

So, this is just something that was a huge epiphany for me. I had the conversation... I showed this drama triangle to my, mom and my sister, and they all agreed. They were like, "Yes, you play this role!" But then they also acknowledged that they play the victim or the villain in certain cases. And they know how to either get me to come to Sacramento, or get some money out of me... just because of the way that I typically just baby, my friends.

Patrick Gallagher: For me, I'm like, I'm looking at the victim, hero, and villain and I'm thinking about, man I definitely identify with different ones at different times. Is that common for people to play hero in one scenario? Or play the victim in another?

Tia Caldwell: It is definitely common. And it also just depends on the power dynamic. I think when you are with a close friend or you are with a family member, they know how to take advantage of you so to speak. I know that sounds terrible, but it is true! Where you can say like, "Hey, I'm in victim mode, but then when you talk to somebody who is a little bit more higher up, or has more authority... you turn into this victim mode because you want to look like this person needs a lot of help.

And so we do this all the time. It just depends on the person.

Patrick Gallagher: Yeah. Well, the family example you shared really resonates. I definitely play the hero when it comes my family and taking responsibility for their problems, but then I'm also looking at like some of the conversations Jerry and I have, and I'm like, "well, I play victim real hard!" Where I'm like a hopeless powerless, especially when it comes to like time management or project management or like, "Oh, we have this deadline to meet"

And I'm like, "Oh man, I'm never going to be able to get any of this done. I feel so hopeless..."

So, that's really interesting to see all of that at play.

Jerry, which ones do you resonate with?

Jerry Li: I think I've played all the roles at different times. And, after hearing what Tia just shared, I just came to me that a better sense of awareness. There are things I should have, uh wided or ways I can probably be more valuable in terms of not solving people's problem, but probably better to help them to solve problems for themselves.

So, not realizing that in the past I think it's a waste of a lot of opportunities for personal growth for myself and also of the team members.

How to recognize what role you’re playing in “The Drama Triangle”

Tia, in a second, I know we'll talk about how to, reverse the drama cycle, so to speak. But along the lines of awareness and how this helps increase awareness, do you have any questions you ask yourself or ways that you help yourself become more aware of maybe what role you're playing within the drama cycle?

Is there a way that helps you stay aware of the different moments or practices that you employ for that?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. So I think the biggest thing is active listening. When somebody comes to me with a problem, I let them first say like, here's what they're going to talk about. And I'll ask explicitly "Do you want my opinion on X? or is this just a vent session?

And so what will typically happen with my friends is they'll say like, "Hey, this conversation is just going to be a vent session. We don't have to solve anything. And that's great."

And I think I now have the framework to know, like when they're in venting mode, is this something that I need to just sit there and listen, or is it something where they want to brainstorm a solution? And if they are brainstorming a solution, if they do want a solution and say they did answer and say like, "Oh, I need some help with this."

Putting the ball in their court and actually understanding from this drama triangle, how would they go about solving it versus me offering my opinion first.

And I think this plays out a lot when you're a manager, because when you provide your opinion, your opinion kind of carries a little bit more weight when you're talking to your team.

And so having the team, and how I approach just like meetings one-on-one, I'll ask them for their opinion first, before I give mine. I'll typically reserve mine for the end, just to make sure that we can play off of the... THEY are coming up with solutions versus me being the first person to come up with it.

Patrick Gallagher: Is there an example of where, when you asked the, the team member you were working with to come up with a solution that changed the result or came up with a different idea that that made a big impact?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. So one of the examples that I will say is that first you have to make sure that you shift your mindset to be more outcome based versus the personal piece. So you have to figure out how, when a person has explained to you a problem, how to remove the personal piece to become more outcome-based.

And one of the problems, our products that I usually hear a lot, which is like annoying, but it happens all the time... is person X let's, call person X Jane. Jane always gets to work on the cool projects. And is it because she's your favorite? It's because she's the most Senior?

And you have to recognize that this typically happens a lot when it's coming to performance season. You'll see people who want to work on the, the shiny project. And then they instantly get jealous because they feel like this person's project is going really well. And they want to be a part of that success.

And so me being in Hero mode all the time, my response would typically be something like, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. Let's see if Jane can use an extra pair of hands!"

Or something, just to make sure that that person stays happy or are whatnot. And I'm not thinking about what message it's sending to the team, how it's going to impact the current project that that person is on. And will it be a setback for the product that they're currently on?

And so this kind of scenario typically happens a lot during performance season. And so you want people, you have this guilt trip where you're like, okay, well I want them to get promoted... is that the right thing to try to push them on?

And so I had to figure out how to shift my mindset from being the Hero to a Coach. Where I started approaching things to be a little bit more I would say I would inquire more about like, why is that product so important? Or like, why is that project interesting to you?

So instead of saying like oh let me take you off that project and see if Jane needs an extra pair of hands. And I go talk to Jane and we figured out how to get this person on the project.

But I would typically do, is say. "What is it about Jane's project that excites you? Could you explore something similar in this area, in your current area? Do you want to brainstorm some ideas on how to pitch some idea, you know, products in this particular area, if if that's your true interest.

And so when it comes to like the next quarter, when we do project planning, you'll have your pitches ready and we can have that conversation. But putting the ball in their court versus like me doing all the work is kind of the big shift that I had to do.

And there's a great framework for this. So I know I talked to you about the Drama Triangle, but the framework is called the "Empowerment Dynamic" where you empower others to find positive alternatives, to shifting how they can get the most out of themselves to avoid the drama triangle.

Shift your team’s mindset with “The Empowerment Triangle”

Patrick Gallagher: Can you give us breakdown of what the Empowerment Triangle is? The switch you, you shared just created such a powerful psychological shift in terms of the questions you were asking that person and really changes the whole conversation. So, well give us the breakdown? What's the Empowerment Triangle.

Tia Caldwell: So the Empowerment Triangle I'll talk about the Hero first, cause that's my, default trait.

The Hero, as I explained before, usually intervenes on behalf of the Victim, tries to save everyone and takes the world on their shoulders. But the goal to flipping that into something positive is to empower people through inquiry, to help them gain clarity.

So that's where you really want to go into Coaching mode, where you ask a series of questions, you put the ball in their court versus like you try to take on everything at once.

Now, the Victim is person who we talked about earlier is they like to pretend, or maybe they aren't pretending, I don't know! But they are typically the people who resonate with being powerless because of a certain circumstance.

You want to take them from being a Victim and into a Creator. And a Creator focuses on the vision and desired outcomes. They take full responsibility for initiating the action to achieve the desired outcome.

So once you realize somebody's in Victim mode or like, and they're venting... how to get them to shift their focus into Creation, usually drives the conversation in the right direction.

Now, the final person I left out was the Villain, where they must win at all costs. You know, they control everything and others through blame and criticism. You want to actually have them flip to being a Challenger. You want them to spark learning by challenging assumptions and the status quo. Focus this on the improvement and development by holding people accountable for taking action.

So that's kind of the reverse of the triangle in a more positive light to help you get from that low place to like the higher side.

How to shift someone from “Victim” to “Creator” or from “Villain” to “Challenger”

Patrick Gallagher: I'm going to ask this question on behalf Jerry, because I'm sure, based on what we shared about beforehand, he would love for me to shift from the Victim to the Creator... So how do you, how do you help somebody make that shift to go from Victim to Creator?

Jerry Li: Patrick you're a mind reader...

Patrick Gallagher: This may be the, this may be the million dollar question I think for everybody. But I think what I just really admired Tia was the way that you changed your questions to go from Hero to Coach, totally changed that conversation. And so I'm looking for the secret recipe to figure out how can you shift Victim to Creator to be more empowering?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, I think the first thing is like, with a Victim you have to one make sure that they feel comfortable and then actually showing them the Drama Triangle is a great first step.

So one, everybody on my team actually had a copy of this Drama Triangle, but I explain it to you today. So that we all know the role that we have to play.

And then when they do come to me with a situation. Like, "Oh, you know, this is always happening!" Or blaming everybody else...

I'll say "Let's stop for a second. Put a pause in this conversation, because I feel like you're playing the victim. How can we actually shift you into creation mode? Because you should be responsible for coming up with the vision. How would you go about solving that particular problem if you were in there in that situation? Removing all of the other circumstances on the outside...?"

And that kind of you know, it startles them for a bit, but I think once they have this framework in place and they know that I'm coming from a good place of like, "Great, now we have this, we put this on the table. How do we get to the next thing?"

And I think that, will... obviously over time, help them to shift from Victim to Creator mode.

Patrick Gallagher: Well, I think, you know, I resonate with that because I think we so often as human beings get so wrapped up in our own stuff and our own stories. And the ability to sort of depersonalize away from your issue helps create that freedom and space to then I guess, as the creator does, create! A, because I'm thinking and like there's some other, practices of like, "how would that other person solve that problem?" Who has maybe aspirational characteristics or qualities that you want to better embody being a really powerful tool to do that?

So how do you change the Villain to the Challenger? I would love to transform my Villains into Challengers. That would be great!

Tia Caldwell: That one takes some work because they are a little bit prickly. And if you looked at the triangle, they are the opposite of my innate trait too, which is being the hero. So there will be a tension between the two, just because Hero and Villain, who wants to be in that, group to try to figure that out.

But I think the biggest thing is like, letting them know that... "What you're saying adds value, if you reframe it a different way."

And so I think once you have them realize, like "this would be supportive or this would be helpful for the team to know, but if you asked it in a different way, it will help resonate with your team more."

And once you realize that, that kind of pulls at the heartstrings and helps them kind of reverse their actions into being less of a like, "Hey everyone, is bad or not as smart as me" into like, okay, well this person...

This is a, this is another scenario... I'll have a person who will say in the Villain state, "I don't want to work with this person. they're too junior..." or... "they're just gonna slow me down on a project. I can really just do it all by myself."

And that could be a person who's it doesn't want to work with anybody, knowing that the new person coming in has not had as much experience, but how could that be a coaching moment for them and helping them learn.

Like you want to help share the bigger picture for not just them, but for the other person. And then that'll usually get them hooked in. If there's any sort of I would say mutual, benefit for them. You have to make sure that that person has kind of aligned to like impactful products. Then helping them also say like, "it's your responsibility to help others grow as well."

And so that's kind of how I did that shift.

Jerry Li: What I see in common of all the three transitions is open up new perspectives to people that otherwise would not be open to or would not adopt.

So I think that in essence, it's ability to influence. And having the tools like this, it just make that a lot easier.

Tia Caldwell: A hundred percent. I agree with that because I really wish I had these tools when I first started off in management because I got it wrong a hundred percent of the time. And I didn't have these epiphany or aha moments until like two or three years ago. And I've been managing for a really long time.

But it just provided a framework or like a way to have this conversation with your team and having a team that's open. But you have to model the right behaviors, right? Like you have to model this, you have to model the psychological safety for your team to even want to have these conversations. They have to be bought in if they're not, it's just not going to work.

So the hard part for me was when new people join they're like, "Okay, well, our first one on one, shouldn't typically be about superpowers and super traits you know, and all these different traits and Drama Triangles..."

But you do want to understand, when you first meet somebody, how do you get them onboard to a team has kind of already been operating in this fashion.

So it was a challenge, but it was great. It worked out beautifully in the end.

Personal operating manuals & having explicit conversations to get the best from your team

Jerry Li: How do you do it? Get a new person familiar with this and also be open to it?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. So one of the things that I do is I share a personal operating manual. So I don't know if you all have heard about these. I don't know if anybody talked about this before on the podcast, but they're like short, short and sweet explicit documents on like, here's how, how to work with me. Here's what I value.

And usually that will include the team's values too. I don't just have mine, but I'll say like, here's what I care about the most. Here's what the team is caring about the most. And when somebody joins my team for the very first time within like the two weeks of them joining and going through onboarding, I have them write their own personal operating manual and we share it as a team to make sure that we have explicit conversations, the key word there being explicit, like explicit conversations on here's how to work with me.

And in that doc, I actually list out my super power. So everyone in my team has their superpower listed along with a link to their, you know, the good versus evil side so that people understand a little bit more on how to work with them. And so when it's time for them to fill this out, we do a similar exercise just to make sure that they have this for their personal operating manual.

Jerry Li: That sounds really powerful...

Tia Caldwell: A lot of discipline!

Patrick Gallagher: I want a person. I want one!

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. It's just a lot of discipline. Um, but I feel like if perfect to do it initially in the beginning where there's like low stakes, you know, people don't have these crazy perceptions of like what they need to be. They don't get influenced by a lot of other people it's like literally just fresh pair of eyes, joining the team or the company for the first time. "Here's how to work with me. And you're like, here's my like innate superpower. And here's how it could be like useful for the team."

Jerry Li: That should be a separate and they're like episode about that.

Patrick Gallagher: Yeah! We'll have to... Tia we'll have to table that for a part two to dive deeper into how do you build your own personal operating manual and build your team's personal operating manual? Because that sounds incredibly helpful in terms of building awareness, increasing communication, making more effective collaboration and therefore like the overall output of the team is exponentially better.

And people probably are probably... I'm imagining... way more happy.

Tia Caldwell: Yes, super happy with this. And it takes away a lot of the guesswork, which is like always the best thing. Usually we learn about these things through trial and error, and by having these frameworks in place, it helps have explicit conversations that will benefit the team dynamic for a long time, which, you know, increases like engagement, happiness, retention, all of those great things.

But the most important thing is psychological safety because you actually know how to work with that particular individual.

“What’s your grumpiness level?” & other ways to create psychological safety in your 1:1’s

Patrick Gallagher: Tia, you had mentioned psychological safety. And so one of the super powers that Pooja your nominator for the inspiring leadership award mentioned, was about your authenticity as a leader, your vulnerability and ability to create that psychological safety for all of the different folks on your team. And so I was wondering if you could share a little bit more about the practices or principles that you apply or what this looks like as a leader?

Tia Caldwell: The reason why I harped so much on psychological safety is because I recall there was a study called "Project Oxygen" done by Google in 2015, where they talked about like the key traits of a successful team or a high capacity team. And one of them was psychological safety. And the way to do that was having dependability, a structure, clarity and trust. Which usually helps the team have the key ingredients into making a successful psychological safe team.

And so the reason why this is super important to me is because it helps shape the power dynamics and the culture of the team.

And to get over, like, to make sure that we're having like a lot of authentic and real conversations the first thing I do is I use this framework that was created by Lara Hogan which is like a power for one-on-one framework to reduce some of the anxiety in like our first one-on-one questions.

And I'll ask questions around like grumpiness level, like "What makes you grumpy? How will I know? How can I help?"

I know it sounds silly, but it is very true! Like when you're a new person joining a team, how do you know what your grumpiness level is? And how do I know how to engage with you?

The second thing is feedback and recognition, because you want to make sure that you do this as a manager and as a person on the team. How does that person like to be recognized? How do they like to receive feedback and how often? And do they want it in public versus private?

Sorry, can you all hear my dog barking?

Patrick Gallagher: A little bit.

Tia Caldwell: Okay. Just one second. Alright, sorry about that y'all!

Patrick Gallagher: No worries. So to bring us back, you were talking a little bit about how you were applying the framework you learned one-on-ones and talked about grumpiness level and feedback. What makes you grumpy Tia?

Tia Caldwell: I think... People who don't try that really like gets under my skin. And people who complain. I don't know, its kind of like on the same vein. But I think when people feel like helpless all the time or just feel like they can't do anything that really gets me pretty grumpy. And I don't like being dictated. I don't like having here's exactly how descriptive you have to be or let me just tell you exactly step by step. I like to lead and learn through autonomy.

And so, those are a few of my grumpiness traits... that I shared with my manager! Which was really helpful because she knows not to do that.

Patrick Gallagher: Jerry, what makes you grumpy?

Jerry Li: Well,

some pet peeves, for example not being able to follow up and close the loop and leave an open end. This is one of the things that it just makes me grumpy.

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, Patrick, but we have to hear yours after that.

Patrick Gallagher: I know I'm like, "Man, what are the things that make me grumpy?"

I think, well, the, the last point that you shared Tia really resonated because I feel like autonomy, but also... and this kind of happens a lot of the times when my mom gives me a phone call... is like making an assumption of," I want something in one way" and like not having sort of the inquiry or questions to be like, "well, what do you want with this?"

And that tends to happen sometimes when my mom and I chat. So that frustrates me definitely makes me grumpy is assumptions, and lack of curiosity, for sure.

Tia Caldwell: Oh, gosh. Yes. That is it. Thank you for summarizing perfectly.

Patrick Gallagher: That's the, question of working in action.

Tia Caldwell: Exactly. Yes! So having this framework is super helpful because not only , you hear about your grumpiness levels, but you hear about feedback and recognition. And how do people like to be praised? What about if it's bad or controversial feedback, do you want it to be in private?

And so having these things written down, I usually keep a OneNote with the questions and responses that they give and then that'll help me for when I have conversation with them in the future, I'll follow up.

It's kind of like a journal, like on that particular person, where I'll start off with these things and then I'll keep adding over time as we meet and like a more monthly bi-weekly basis and go from there.

The third one I left out was goals and support. one of the things that I always ask is how can you help? So that we can be aligned and what are their goals in the next month, three months? What do you need from your team, your peers, your manager? How can we make one-on-ones the most valuable for you?

And this kind of gets people on the right track to just have us have an open conversation and be a little bit more explicit about like how they like to approach their work.

How to prompt self-reflection and identify how your team wants recognition & feedback

Patrick Gallagher: One question that occurred to me as we were going through this Tia. Was for somebody who may be, early in their process of defining the answers to these questions. Do you have a way to help them out? In terms of beginning to think about and define for them what they prefer or what they need in these different areas?

Tia Caldwell: So I try my best not to define for them because I feel like was me being in the hero mode again. But what I do typically do is I'll share these questions with them in advance and they'll have time, I'll give them like a week, like here are the questions that we're going to ask and if they don't have that, we can come back.

And the next, one-on-one to discuss "Okay, well, let's talk about this a little bit more. Now that you've been here for a month, do you feel like you're getting the right support? It allows for you to do quick check-ins.

And then that definitely makes people feel good. Cause it feels like you're listening. You're following up on of the things that helps them understand how to make them tick. And that usually gets the conversation going in the right direction.

Patrick Gallagher: I really appreciate the giving them notice, giving them a week to prepare and think about it, but then revisiting it because that helps them sort of pressure test their assumptions about, "Oh, this is my preference. For me, I'm thinking about , like, Oh, if someone asks me that question on the spot, that's probably not the right answer. And I would definitely want to change it in a couple of weeks..."

Tia Caldwell: Yes, yes. That is exactly it. So this creates a fun lighthearted way to just get those initial awkward first one-on-one conversations out of the way. But yes, it is definitely up to you to make the investment and the follow-through, like Jerry was saying, to make sure that we are in alignment and if you do want to change things that's completely fine. That's what we want. We're all human. And I think that, will just show them that you care.

And so a funny story or a true story that happened when I had shared this framework with someone on my team... I had a new member joining and I asked her these questions and she started at the end start crying and I was like, what's wrong?

And she's just like, "I've never had a manager who treated me as a actual person. I usually just get treated as a resource. The first thing they ask is, 'Well, here's this product I'm going to put you on it Go!'

No one's ever taken the time out to actually understand me. And it actually made me do a lot of self reflection. So thank you!"

And I just could not believe it that it was just like basic questions and like "What makes you grumpy?" Or, you know, and all of that.

So she was like, after that, she told other people like, "Hey, you gotta join Tia's team because she really cares."

But yeah, I'm happy to have these kind of breakthrough moments for people, which is great.

Patrick Gallagher: And that is life-changing for that person. Oh my gosh.

Tia Caldwell: Yeah, totally. So when I met Pooja, I think a similar thing was... I didn't go in at first, ask me like here your first one on one questions. I think when I met Pooja, who thankfully nominated me for this award, It was her being a new manager and helping her understand and navigate how to be an effective manager at Slack.

I didn't want her to come in and not have any guidance. So I was just like there as a sounding board for her. And so providing that you know, safe space to say, like, "Here's how we did things at my old company. Here's how I'm seeing things done at this new company. Am I thinking about this the right way?"

And she was really great about being honest and vulnerable as well. But me even saying like, "Hey, here's how I would approach it." Or... "You tell me! Let's brainstorm to a solution so I'm not always being the hero, you know? And that, that really helped form our relationship and bond for the later weeks and months and years.

Why relationships & removing the "manager gameface" are your most effective tools

Patrick Gallagher: Wow. Well, we have a couple more topics on our list that may probably take us another 30 to 45 minutes to dive into. So I wanted to see if there was a way where we could wrap all of this up and maybe save some of those for, a future conversation...

Do you have any final words of encouragement or inspiration or motivation for an engineering leader at any phase who may be is trying to find the next way to help support their team or empower their team.

Do you have any final words of encouragement or advice to help them turn some of these ideas into action?

Tia Caldwell: Yeah. I think the advice that I would share is... you don't need to have this manager game face. I think there's this perception that when you're a manager, you're supposed to be the person who knows the answers to everything and you have to be super stoic and just get your job done and come in and execute.

And while a part of the execution piece is really necessary with being an effective manager, I think the other part is relationship building. Like you need to invest the time in understanding how people work.

And the results will vary. Like if you spend a lot of time on this, this is great! Because people will be more open and honest with you, it'll help out with retention for your team and overall like happiness.

But if you don't, and you make these wrong assumptions, it's not going to go well because you'll be treating people as resources and not humans.

So my final word is just take the time to make the investments in the people and show that you care by followup and follow through in action.

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