The BICEPS model is one of my top three all-time most useful manager tools. Here’s how I use it to prevent blowups and debug conflict—without needing to be anyone’s therapist.
How I found it
Becoming a manager for the first time is never easy. Your role changes, often in poorly-defined ways. You may or may not have guidance. And your relationships to your closest coworkers must change overnight in ways that can be awkward to navigate.
I had to do it in hard mode. Not only did I need to figure out the basic mechanics of the role, but right off the bat there was substantial conflict and big feelings about how the change had been communicated.
It wasn’t my doing, but if I didn’t repair it, no one else would. We were trying to talk about it rationally but we were going in circles.
Out of ideas, I cast around for support. One of the first people I called was Lara Hogan. We’d talked shop about management and leadership before. I knew I shared her values and trusted her judgement.
“What should I read?” I said. “Is there any chance I could talk you into writing a book for me, like, uh, tomorrow???”
“Well,” she said, “I already wrote it! It’s coming out in a few months.” She very graciously let me strong-arm her into sending me an advance copy (thank you!) and it was exactly the manual I needed in that moment.
The BICEPS model
In particular, I found the BICEPS model so useful that it’s one of two articles I make every direct report and coaching client read. It outlines six core needs at work and in our personal lives:
As a helpful example, Lara wrote more about how leaders can use it, and how it might show up in something as mundane as desk moves.
How I use it, in practice
“Why are they so upset?”
Sometimes there’s an event that only makes me sigh and shrug, but makes one of my colleagues very upset. They may have rational reasons they can verbalize, but it’s not always clear (to either of us) why this is pushing their buttons so intensely. Addressing the verbalized reasons doesn’t usually get us anywhere without also understanding the underlying unmet core need. Going down the BICEPS list can give me some ideas where to tactfully probe.
One important note: my guesses are usually wrong! Make sure to stay open to being surprised. When appropriate, I prefer to hand them the list and ask them which feels most relevant to the situation. The list gives them helpful language, which has the dual benefit of deescalating emotions and pinpointing where we might go from there.
“Why am I so upset?”
I’m a pretty reflective and articulate person, but sometimes something just gets my goat and I don’t really understand why it’s bothering me quite so much. Going down the list is a helpful checklist to identify and articulate that need, to either better push for change or be able to let it go.
“How might this change upset people?”
I’ve also successfully used it as a checklist before making major announcements. This helps you avoid preventable, high-cost misunderstandings.
For example, we had a couple people do an internal transfer onto a team I was managing. There were timing and logistical reasons why I had to announce this by email. Though the transfer itself wasn’t going to be a surprise to the team, email was still not my preferred medium. I wouldn’t be there to see faces or address questions immediately.
To increase the chances of it going smoothly, I drafted my email to the team, then went down the BICEPS list as a checklist to anticipate preventable core need button jabs:
- Predictability: what would happen next? When would they join? How would we work them into our workflow? Would our team’s mandate be changing to encompass their previous workstream, or were they leaving it behind?
- Equality/Fairness and Status - we’d just rolled out a big re-leveling—where would they be leveled compared to the existing data science team, and how?
I added a couple sentences addressing these questions and hit send. I was braced but it went over really smoothly!
Would it have without those extra sentences? Maybe. But it cost me five minutes, and a single button push of just one person’s buttons would have cost way more time—mine, theirs, and anyone they talked to about it.
That’s a high-leverage use of five minutes.
Never underestimate the need for Predictability
If I could snap my fingers and have every leader on the planet understand one thing, it would be this. People will rarely think to complain about it, but uncertainty will waste SO MUCH of their time and energy wondering and worrying.
I want to emphasize how preventable this is. You don’t have to eliminate change itself. That’s not reasonable. You just need to be thoughtful communicating the change.
This is why it’s maddening to work for a boss that changes her mind often—it’s hard to build anything if you’re waiting for the ground to shift again.
And this classic line ever come out of your mouth? “There are big changes coming, I’ll share more details about them later.”
Your intentions are good. You want to give people a heads up so they have time to prepare. But without the crucial details about what will happen next, they can’t actually prepare. You just push that Predictability button and let them sit in that state until they get the rest of the info.
So I prefer to give less lead time in favor of having more specifics. Change is always going to be difficult, but this balance seems to cause less distress for less time.
If it’s not reasonable to wait until the details are figured out, I try to emphasize the things that are figured out: we may not know who is going to do New Responsibility X, but we’ll make sure to either hire someone external or do an internal hiring process (read: leadership knows we need someone doing it full time, and no one will get “voluntold” to do it).
Likewise, it can be helpful to emphasize what’s staying the same.
Status is a hard one for people to admit
A lot of people have been socialized to not openly ask for visibility and recognition, and to not admit they want status. I’ve never actually had anyone name it as a button. But that doesn’t mean the need has gone away. There’s no need to push people to admit it—just keep an eye out for it.
Improvement is a slow burner
Improvement/Progress is a sleeper one. It rarely causes big angry blowups, but it absolutely causes people to gradually get bored and quit. If you don’t have a clear career path, or if you don’t give high performers adequate challenges, they’ll gradually disengage.
A lot of times this can look like burnout. It can be hard to tell the difference, even for the affected person. If cutting back isn’t helping, sometimes the solution isn’t less work—it’s different work. Talk to them (gradually!) about a new, meaty, important challenge that would be a healthy stretch for them and see what happens.
Ambitious people have a strong need to check a thing off, and then “thank u, next” on to the next thing. They struggle to stop long enough to reflect and look around. This leads them to do great things—while steadily grinding themselves down.
So the strongest leaders and performers I know figure out how to make progress visible. They celebrate incremental steps. They explicitly reflect their direct reports’ growth back to them. They build this into their teams’ daily lives before they get to the boredom or flameout moments. Done proactively it acts as a flywheel, accelerating morale and cadence.
- Think back to the last time you got really upset at work. Which of these core needs buttons was pushed in you?
- Are you about to lead your team through a change where this would be useful as a checklist?
- What similar tools have you found helpful?