Each issue of my newsletter offers links to my blog posts, as well as to articles and research about management, leadership, and strategy. Here are is an archive of all previous issues.
March 2022 – quality jobs, bullshit jobs, the so-called great resignation, and what managers can do about it
the recurring slap: March 15 was Equal Pay day
Many responses to the introductory text on communication in last month’s issue. Thank you. Thank you. It’s worth saying twice. The purpose of these newsletters is to prompt managers to think about their craft. That’s the purpose for you, the reader. The benefit for me is the conversations that ensue. And there were plenty this month. Thank you.
I can’t address all of the conversations here, but I’ll share a quote and answer a question.
The quote was sent by reader Tom who writes
It jumped to mind as I was reading and I wondered if that quote was coming further down in the text.
It didn’t, but it’s a good one, so here it is:
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.1
My response to Tom was that
I was trying to answer the question: How do I know whether people got or understood what I told or wrote them? And I too often observed in my own life and in conversation with managers that the answer “well, I sent out an email” does not ensure understanding.
The question: How then do I ensure that I understood what the other person is trying to say?
A good place to start is Rapoport’s Rules of Argument:
They are meant to help one put together a “successful critical commentary” as well as “be charitable” to the person you are speaking with. Because the context of the rules is a discussion and possible disagreement, Rapaport calls the person you are talking to “the target”. Here are the rules:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything that you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.2
In my work with managers I often invite them to seek confirmation that they understood what the other person is saying by prefacing the “re-express” with phrases such as “If I heard you correctly, …” or “What I’m hearing you say is…” followed by the “re-express” in one’s own words and not simply a repetition of the other person’s words.
Another way of going at it is by figuring out how the other person’s ideas came about. I hear managers say “I know where you’re coming from”. However, rather than ass/u/me that we know, spelling it out allows the other person to confirm that we are indeed correct. Bertrand Russell states it as follows:
It is important to learn not to be angry with opinions different from your own, but to set to work understanding how they come about. If, after you have understood them, they still seem false, you can then combat them much more effectually than if you had continued to be merely horrified.3
In other words, conversation is necessary… and as soon as possible. What avoids the talking at is the quick response that seeks confirmation or clarification. Without that response to the original statement or argument, and a response to that response, we simply do not know whether the other party understands what you are trying to say. Last month, I called this
both parties making themselves co-responsible in creating a shared understanding.
In practice, the way to be co-responsible is to co-respond: to respond to what the other person is trying to say. Communicating is not talking at people, it’s co-responding.
Quote provided and question answered. Thank you for your comments and thank you Tom for the quote!
From my blog
A major study on the quality of work in the U.S.
What is a good job?
It’s not a philosophical question.
We’d rather do work we like, enjoy the people with whom we work, be treated decently by our manager and the company, earn a wage that covers not only expenses but allows for savings for a rainy day… than not.
I’ve shared a few sources about work and jobs in this newsletter before and some studies do not paint a bright picture. To the point of having a category now called “bullshit jobs”.
So I find this Gallup study [this is a pdf download] useful in that it designs the survey around a clear set of dimensions that make up a good job. Here they are:
- Level of pay;
- Stable and predictable pay;
- Stable and predictable hours;
- Control over hours and/or location (e.g., ability to work flexible hours, work remotely);
- Job security;
- Benefits (e.g., healthcare, retirement);
- Career advancement opportunities (e.g., promotion path, learning new skills);
- Enjoying your day-to-day work (e.g., good coworkers/managers, pleasant work environment, manageable stress level);
- Having a sense of purpose and dignity in your work;
- Having the power to change things about your work that you’re not satisfied with; and
- The health and safety of your work environment.
I might not agree with all dimensions and some might be missing. Also, I would love to see a ranking of them.
In any case, I find these dimensions useful on at least two counts:
- They’re a good start. It can help managers and business owners have healthy and challenging discussions about work that go beyond income and benefits; and
- They provide an outline for managers and business owners to review what they are doing (and how well) about these and other dimensions.
Here are the findings:
First, the macro results:
- Less than half of American workers are in good jobs;
- Low-income workers are far less likely to receive employment benefits, from health insurance and retirement plans to maternity and sick leave;
- Older workers, white workers and those with high levels of education are most likely to be in good jobs;
- Among sub-baccalaureate workers, certifications are strongly associated with good jobs;
- Workers in rural areas and small towns give higher job quality ratings despite lower average incomes;
- Workers across income levels generally agree on the most important job quality dimensions;
- Low-income workers are more likely to be “disappointed” with all aspects of job quality;
- Most workers say their pay has improved in the last five years, but other aspects of their job have not;
- Two-thirds of U.S. workers say they are currently in their “best job ever”; and
- Job quality varies systematically by type of job (full time, part time, multiple), organization size, type of work, occupation, and sector.
Since the original study was is from 2019, we also have comparative results from 2020 [this is a pdf download], that is, after covid-19 hit:
And the micro results stated as “more predictive than income or benefits”:
- At work, my opinions seem to count;
- At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day;
- There is someone at work who encourages my development;
- I have the opportunity to learn new skills that will be valuable to my career;
- I am expected to be creative or innovative at my job; and
- I take risks at my job that could lead to new products, services or solutions.
These micro results are definitely in the realm of the day-to-day responsibility of managers. If you’re a manager, you can reflect on what you do (and do not do) that might have a direct impact of these specific dimensions.
For example, in line with my definition of communication, rather than ask yourself “Do I tell the people on my team that their opinions count?”, the question should be along the lines of “Can my team members recognize their opinions in the way I deal with them, the tasks I entrust them, changes in protocols and procedures based on their observations and suggestions, how much I delegate, etc.?”
Why they quit in 2021
Much is being said about the Great Resignation and we are still speculating on the reasons why workers have been exiting en masse.
A Pew Research Center survey records the answers of 9,000+ respondents on why they left a job in 2021:
- Low pay (63%),
- No opportunities for advancement (63%) and
- Feeling disrespected at work (57%).
At least a third say each of these were major reasons why they left.
I often hear that “people don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers” but I have never found any research that supports that assertion. However this survey suggests that it certainly is one of the reasons why people leave companies.
I realize there are a lot of data to process this month, but I think the job quality dimensions and the results from 2019, 2020, and 2021 offer a lot of food for reflection on your management practice. Once you’ve given it some thought, drop me a line on what conclusions you draw from it all and what changes you plan to implement.
I’m sending this on the 2nd to avoid any misunderstanding of a possible April Fool’s prank.
See you next month!
The quote has recently been attributed to George Bernard Shaw. Apparently William H. Whyte should get the credit
Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013).
Bertrand Russell, The Art of Philosophizing and other Essays (1942), Essay I: The Art of Rational Conjecture.
February 2022 – toxic culture, boosting retention, FOMO, and employees thinking like owners
Dialogue or violence. There is no in-between
It’s good to be back in the saddle and to have found my way to your Inbox again. If you are wondering whether you missed the January issue of this newsletter, wonder no more: I didn’t send one.
We are a few days into the invasion of a sovereign country by another sovereign country… and the senseless deaths that ensue. I’m not one for pronouncements but if we can learn anything from history it is this: if we don’t discuss our differences, if we don’t talk, then the only alternative is violence. This is as true internationally as it is domestically. Technology has only exacerbated this fundamental human tendency. The only way to prevent violence is to learn to express one’s differences and learn to hear and understand the differences of others.
“Communication” is not about how eloquent or smart or well-spoken one is. It’s not about the clever tricks of rhetoric or the slick slide deck. My work as a consultant and a coach has been to invite people (I work mostly with managers) to approach communication as
a process by which all parties make themselves co-responsible for the creation of a shared understanding.
I am responsible not only to express my ideas clearly (which requires that they be clear ideas to start with), but I am also responsible to ensure that the other party has understood what I was trying to say. Conversely, it is also my responsibility to ensure that I have understood what the other party is trying to say.
This is impossible without dialogue: not only my telling you something and you telling me something, but also my asking you if I got you right and your asking me if you got me right… with the purpose of creating a shared understanding — that the outcome is that we have both understood the meaning that each other is trying to convey.
People or parties talking without the express work of creating a shared understanding are at best engaging in turn-taking monologues. They are talking at each other. They are not necessarily talking to each other. There is no dialogue.
And while listening is important and one can learn to do that better, nothing replaces the premise of effective listening: a genuine interest in what the other person has to say. If you know it all, if you’re the most experienced person in the room, if you’re the most senior person in the room, the smartest person in the room, if you think you have forgotten more about this topic than the other person will ever know then you might be far removed from having a genuine interest in what the other person has to say.
Back to my original point: Dialogue or violence. There has never been any in-between in human history.
I also want to acknowledge that we are almost two years into the Covid pandemic. And I want to celebrate the many managers who have had the humility/humanity to be aware of how much of a toll this has taken on their own lives and consequently have had a fair amount of understanding for their team members.
Toxic culture is driving the Great Resignation
The MIT article also suggests four short-term actions to foster retention.
Speaking of which, a recent Gallup study and a Harvard Business Review article align on the need to boost retention. Perhaps addressing these five questions with your direct reports might prevent the urge to leave:
- How would you like to grow within this organization?
- Do you feel a sense of purpose in your job?
- What do you need from me to do your best work?
- What are we currently not doing as a company that you feel we should do?
- Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
I don’t know that I would be able to answer these five questions thoughtfully and thoroughly in a single conversation. It seems to me that addressing these questions frequently might be the way to go.
How do we get employees to think like owners?
It’s the perennial question: How do we get employees to think like owners?” This company thinks it found a solution. And it’s a pretty good one.
In the last 5 years, we’ve paid $3.9 million in profit sharing to the ConvertKit team. While most companies hope to return money to shareholders in a moonshot acquisition, we’ve created a unique model to help our team think like owners. Here’s how our compensation model works:
“Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity”. But we have fallen for an enormous delusion.
The average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. “They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.” (…) You have to remember what you were doing before, and you have to remember what you thought about it. When this happens, the evidence shows that “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.”
This is called the “switch-cost effect”. It means that if you check your texts while trying to work, you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend looking at the texts themselves – you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which turns out to be a huge amount.
Individual abstinence is “not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep certain effects at bay, but it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.” He said that our attention is being deeply altered by huge invasive forces in wider society. Saying the solution was to just adjust your own habits – to pledge to break up with your phone, say – was just “pushing it back on to the individual” he said, when “it’s really the environmental changes that will really make the difference”.
What to do?
To give one example: there is strong scientific evidence that stress and exhaustion ruin your attention. Today, about 35% of workers feel they can never switch off their phones because their boss might email them at any time of day or night. In France, ordinary workers decided this was intolerable and pressured their government for change – so now, they have a legal “right to disconnect”. It’s simple. You have a right to defined work hours, and you have a right to not be contacted by your employer outside those hours. Companies that break the rules get huge fines. There are lots of potential collective changes like this that can restore part of our focus.
A different article suggests that there are limits to the “right to disconnect” and that businesses are the ones that can best help employees disconnect from work. It offers a good review of the research as well as some practical suggestions.
What I think should be the real FOMO
Food for thought
“The idea that you are successful because you are smart and hardworking is pernicious and wrong, because it means everyone who is unsuccessful is stupid and lazy.” — Michael Sandel
“People who think they have climbed the greasy pole on their own misunderstand how much luck had a part to play and how society, directly or indirectly, also helped them rise.” — Minouche Shafik
December 2021 – Year three in review
Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday
I hope you have had as good a year as you could given the circumstances.
The first issue of the newsletter went out in February 2019. So this is the end of year three. I played around with the format again this year (longer write-ups, shorter ones, none at all), but I pretty much kept the content to about ten entries every time.
The most opened emails this year were the months of
- August – on the difference management makes, 70-20-10, picking up the phone, and a challenge,
- June – on handling the return to the office just right, making your team more resilient, working the perfect number of hours, and playing outside!, and
- April – on relaunching your team, more distinctions, languishing, and thinking about thinking.
And the most popular entries of the year were the following:
Performance evaluation does not tell the whole story. Nor does personality. Managers operate in four domains. Each domain has its own set of demands. They should be revisited periodically.
Management can at times seem like staring down a large block of marble. And most management advice tends to focus on tackling the biggest chunks — but sculpting a magnificent piece of art also relies on the finer chiseling work that tend to be overlooked. First Round asked its community for “the small things a great manager has done that have stood out to you across your career”. They retained 25 tactics and organized them around 8 topics.
Some companies are better suited to Agile than others. Those who aren’t a good fit and yet shoehorn themselves into the model risk burning money as well as upending organizational culture with little to show for their effort. Some questions to ponder.
It works in negotiations. And it works in conversations: the silent pause.
A back-to-school parody of going back to the office:
Something you can do at the office when you get back. Let’s call it the Curiosity Activity. It’s simple: just create a sign like the one you’re seeing below and place it in the most conspicuous in the office. The other tools required for this activity to work will become apparent once you watch it. And, yes, you will have to “lead by example” 😉
What makes a great manager isn’t the problems they solve, but the questions they ask.
Wade foster, CEO of Zapier, recommends we start with these 16 questions.
My faves (and the first ones to ask):
- What’s at stake here?
- What would happen if you didn’t do anything at all?
You’re struggling to develop one of your team members? Consider this: you might first have to help them become more coachable.
Mental health professionals recommend that the return be slow.
Thanks for reading! And thank you for your comments and suggestions as well as the conversations that have ensued. As long as the newsletter serves its original purpose and leads to enlightening conversations, I will continue to publish it… in 2022 and beyond!
My best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!
p.s. And until we together overcome this virus and its variants, please get your shots (I meant your vaccines) and be like the girl with a pearl earring…
November 2021 – on pay for performance, what makes a good manager, Oops write-ups, and team autonomy
November has been a month of challenges and surprises for me. So this will be a shorter issue.
How much do you know about how your team works?
On average managers either did not know or could not remember 60% of the work their teams do. In one extreme instance, a manager in our study could describe only 4% of their team’s work.
Autonomy does not always help team performance: teams allowed to choose both the composition of their groups and the ideas they work on perform substantially worse than those who are only allowed to choose either teammates or ideas (but not both).
On making decisions
Here’s a simple list of questions: What are the five big decisions on your desk right now? Would others in your position have a different list? How much of your day is spent learning what you need to know to make those decisions? And can you make them all by Tuesday? (Seth Godin)
Roger Martin thinks it’s time to accept that pay for performance doesn’t work: research, a discussion, and two examples of how to do it differently.
A consultant asked the managers they work with: “What qualities did your best managers have?”
Here’s a summary of the responses:
- Empathetic. Supportive. A real person. Has a good sense of work/life balance
- Clearly defines goals and strategy. Understands the team’s needs and wants. Advocates for team and team members
- Invested in team members’ professional growth. Cares about you personally & shows you respect
- Good teacher & coach. Challenges people by giving them feedback and also being open to receiving feedback
- Keeps communication lines open. Leads with consistency & transparency
- Isn’t judgmental. More likely to ask “what can we learn from this?” You can fail and know you’re not going to be punished
- Can sense when you’re struggling or down. Asks “how are you doing? How can I help?”
- Deals with everyone a little differently. Understands what gets different people excited about their work
After 21 months of covid asking “How are you?” might be just a little too existential. Try these instead:
Netflix started the OOPS project to encourage engineering teams to self-report when they encounter an operational surprise. This writeup contains a narrative description of the events that led to surprise, and identifies contributors, mitigators, risks, and challenges in handling.
It’s a process of accountability and learning that certainly applies beyond software engineering.
Here is the structure of one engineer’s write-up
based on the OOPS template that has evolved over time inside of Netflix, with contributions from current and former members of the CORE team.
My personal outline looks like this (the bold sections are the ones that I include in every writeup)
- Executive summary
- Narrative description
- The trigger
- Challenges in handling
This month last year, the most popular entry of the issue was
For a little self-reflection: How do you know if your career is your calling?
October 2021 – on hiring well, your team’s weakest link, collaboration, and re-onboarding
People who are preoccupied with success ask the wrong question
- Microsoft studied the impact of remote work on collaboration among its information workers: “The shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves. The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure to become less dynamic.” How does that compare with your own experience? Hit Return and let me know.
- Companies are more likely to promote top salespeople to sales management. And as we discuss in my leadership development programs, what makes you good at the former is not necessarily makes you effective at the later. A research paper.
- “Organizing data is a hard problem, but organizing people is an even harder one. And until we solve it, I don’t think we will live in the harmonious data world that we all desire.” Bryan Offutt offers some principles.
- Your ability and effectiveness in hiring well as a manager. Hunter Walk thinks you should up your game. He offers practical tips.
- A team’s collective intelligence can transcend the individual intelligence of its members. Naturally, it requires interaction. Collectively intelligent groups are those in which the least socially sensitive group member has a rather high score on social sensitivity. In other words, one insensitive member can ruin it all. A research paper.
People who are preoccupied with success ask the wrong question. They ask, “what is the secret of success” when they should be asking, “what prevents me from learning here and now?” To be overly preoccupied with the future is to be inattentive toward the present where learning and growth take place. — Karl Weick
- Speaking of social sensitivity, Subbu Allamaraju argues that we should “dispel the perception that you can’t be nice if you want to be effective. Being nice is essential to being effective.”
- “Many groups begin meetings with a “check-in,” a round of brief comments by each member on a range of topics, such as how they’re feeling, a recent experience, or what they hope to accomplish. Checking in can serve a number of useful purposes.” And Ed Batista thinks that it’s not only about the speaker.
- High turnover, the shift to hybrid work, and continued uncertainty about the future mean that your workforce might be feeling unmoored. Liz Fosslien thinks it’s time to re-onboard everyone.
- It’s in the news and Ted Gioia is not impressed: “Meta is for Losers. Mark Zuckerberg is betting his company on a new idea—but this is a wager he will almost certainly regret.”
Also in the news is the death of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is best known for the concept of flow. He also wrote a book called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and he made a list of “paradoxical traits” of creative people.