my newsletter archive

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.

Table of Contents

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:

a list of rules promulgated by the social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

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!

not-so-veiled reference to Ukraine...
Photo by Igor Karimov on Unsplash

From my blog

March 15 was Equal Pay Day

The idea that you are successful because you are hardworking is pernicious… and wrong

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:

  1. Level of pay;
  2. Stable and predictable pay;
  3. Stable and predictable hours;
  4. Control over hours and/or location (e.g., ability to work flexible hours, work remotely);
  5. Job security;
  6. Benefits (e.g., healthcare, retirement);
  7. Career advancement opportunities (e.g., promotion path, learning new skills);
  8. Enjoying your day-to-day work (e.g., good coworkers/managers, pleasant work environment, manageable stress level);
  9. Having a sense of purpose and dignity in your work;
  10. Having the power to change things about your work that you’re not satisfied with; and
  11. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

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.

Okay, onwards!

Toxic culture is driving the Great Resignation

Top Predictors of Attrition During Great Resignation

The MIT article also suggests four short-term actions to foster retention.


Boosting 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:

  1. How would you like to grow within this organization?
  2. Do you feel a sense of purpose in your job?
  3. What do you need from me to do your best work?
  4. What are we currently not doing as a company that you feel we should do?
  5. 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.


Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen

“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

Top photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash


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


And the most popular entries of the year were the following:

There is a perfect number of hours to work every day.

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.

And then there was the Joy Generator. Go ahead and try it. Come on, no one is watching… and I won’t tell.

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.

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)

  • Title
  • Executive summary
  • Background
  • Narrative description
    • Prologue
    • The trigger
    • Impact
    • Epilogue
  • Contributors/enablers
  • Mitigators
  • Risks
  • 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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. “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.
  4. Your ability and effectiveness in hiring well as a manager. Hunter Walk thinks you should up your game. He offers practical tips.
  5. 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

  6. 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.”
  7. “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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

September 2021 – on sabotaging meetings, the timeless and the timely, managing without managers, and rewilding your attention

Also, it’s time to close our inboxes


Can we manage without managers?

In response to an article in The Economist about the need for middle managers:

Just because the ladder has fewer rungs doesn’t mean leadership opportunities are scarce-quite the opposite.  By giving people the ability to gain influence (and compensation) based on accomplishment as opposed to advancement,  an organization ends up with more, not fewer leaders.  And these leaders don’t have to devote their talents and energy to politicking or sabotaging each other in zero-sum promotion battles.

What do you think?

Cliff Hazell:

Building a successful organization is a mix of doing new/novel things, old things, and very old things. I think we usually spend too much time talking about the new and novel as if it’s a silver bullet. Doing the old and very old things consistently and well is overlooked.

I would add an additional distinction: there’s the new/novel and there’s the timeless. There is also the timely: doing things at the right time.

100 recommendations for making meetings more beautiful

Before you join your next meeting, have a read-through. See what the repetition is saying (or not saying). Even better: before you schedule one, ask yourself: does this really require a meeting?

CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual

Here is an 8-point plan for disrupting meetings and conferences. You will probably recognize some of these from your own circumstances:

(1) Insist on doing everything through ‘channels’. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

(2) Make ‘speeches’. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your ‘points’ by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.

(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration’. Attempt to make committees as large as possible—never less than five.

(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

(7) Advocate ‘caution’. Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow-conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

“(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision. . . . It might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”

Cooperative overlapping

It seems self-evident. Starting to speak before another has finished violates their right to the floor. In formal contexts such as political debates, it breaches the rules. In casual conversation, it is simply rude.

But it’s not so simple. As a linguist who studies the mechanics of conversation, I’ve observed and documented that beginning to talk while another is talking can be a way of showing enthusiastic engagement with what the speaker is saying. Far from silencing them, it can be encouragement to keep going.

Food for thought about privacy policies from Doc Searls:

There is no reason why websites and services can’t agree to your privacy policy, and your terms of engagement. In legal terms, you should be able to operate as the first party, and to proffer your own terms, to which sites and services can agree (or, as privacy laws now say, consent) as second parties. That this is barely thinkable is a legacy of a time that has sadly not yet left us: one in which only companies can enjoy that kind of scale. Yet it would clearly be a convenience to have privacy as normalized in the online world as it is in the offline one.

Are you an Asker or a Guesser?

In some [groups], you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

It’s time to rewild your attention

When you read what everyone else is reading, you’re thinking what everyone else is thinking. And you might only be reading what the algorithms are putting before you. It’s time to rewild your attention.

Big-tech recommendation systems (…) pose a (…) challenge for our imaginative lives: Their remarkably dull conception of what’s “interesting”. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

Here’s a simple idea: go to a bookstore or a library, look for a book, and let serendipity (the books around the book you’re looking for) provide surprises and discoveries. Creativity is not about “being creative”. It’s work. And it doesn’t have to be hard work.

Email: the worst form of communication yet devised by humankind?

It gives license to verbiage and turns simple conversations into an exchange of overcrafted essays. It’s time to close our inboxes.

This month last year, this was the most viewed entry of the newsletter:

Creativity and exploration

Meta-analysis of the research on creativity by Francesca Gino in the Harvard Business Review. The whole three-article series is good. Here’s a sample: Five ways in which managers can bolster creativity:

  1.  Hire for curiosity;
  2. Model inquisitiveness;
  3. Emphasize learning goals;
  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests; and
  5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.

Not convinced?

She identifies two tendencies that restrain managers from encouraging curiosity:

  1. They have the wrong mindset about exploration, often thinking that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess; and
  2. They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.

It’s the old exploitation-exploration dilemma. James March’s paper is a classic on this. Knut Haanaes provides great examples in this TEDtalk.

And in closing, here’s a back-to-school parody of going back to the office:


August 2021 – on the difference management makes, 70-20-10, picking up the phone, and a challenge

Don’t be a hero nor a technocrat, be this instead

We’re in times of transition: It’s back to school for people in the Northern hemisphere and it’s the end of Winter and beginning of Spring for those in the Southern hemisphere.

It’s been a long year and a half since the beginning of the pandemic. We are not at a new normal yet, we’re doing the best we can, and it’s heartening to witness managers who get it and treat their people with the understanding that the circumstances demand. It’s not business as usual and saying that it is and demanding that it is is making people miserable, if not depressed.

To the many managers who get it, I say “congratulations and thanks for being human.” And to those who don’t, I say (with a mix of affection and sense of urgency): grow up, acknowledge the damage you might be causing, and start with this.

Longer items in this issue and perhaps more research findings than usual. Enjoy!

This month last year, the most viewed post was:

How do I know people won’t watch Netflix all day?

Netflix isn’t the real danger. The real danger is that without a physical separation between work and the rest of life, people won’t ever stop working—risking burnout, which has huge costs for employees and their organizations. Wise managers address this, rather than worrying that people will slack the second they aren’t being watched.  [Thanks, Rob for the reference]

Survey results from Gallup and excellent questions about creating a hybrid workplace:

  1. Why is hybrid right for our organization?
  2. How will the voice of our employees guide our approach?
  3. Will we phase in gradually or all together?
  4. What determines flexible time in our organization?
  5. How will our managers support leaders in making the shift?
  6. Where will we see costs increase, decrease or shift?
  7. How will we evaluate what works (and what doesn’t)?

Speaking of questions, L.M. Sacasas asks a whole list of them to help people decide how much attention they wish to pay to social media. Well worth the read and the reflection. Here are a few:

  1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
  2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
  3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
  4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
  5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
  6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
  7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
  8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
  9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
  10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?

Here is a challenge: find ways to introduce yourself without saying your title. For example, instead of “I’m the VP of Design” or “I’m the Head of Design for Product X”, try “I’m part of the design team at [company name]” or “I’m a designer working on the [feature name] for [product name]”.

Fabricio suggests that doing so keeps him check, it keeps him honest, it keeps things simple, and it reminds him of what brought him to the work in the first place.

So, hit Reply and introduce yourself… without your title!

I’ll go first: “Hi, I’m Richard. I design and facilitate programs that contribute to team development and organizational change in companies that care for their people and for thoughtful managers who actively pursue the growth of their team members.”

Researchers followed the journals of 30 managers during May and June of 2020 to see how they handled their own emotional struggles at work.

A lot of the emotional experiences were similar but the way they responded were different, particularly as regards negative emotions. They identified three different types:

  1. Heroes: focused on the positive, doing their best to convince their teams that they would get through the crisis no matter what;
  2. Technocrats: ignored emotions altogether and focused on tactical solutions; and
  3. Sharers: openly acknowledged their fears, stresses, and other negative emotions.

They found that Sharers were particularly successful in building cohesive, high-performing teams that were resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Sharing negative emotions can lessen their impact on the leader, build empathy between leaders and employees, encourage others to open up about their own negative emotions, and help others recontextualize and overcome those struggles — ultimately boosting morale and performance throughout the organization.

Sharing can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The article has plenty of suggestions and tips.

From a tweet by @emollick (which you should follow if you’re on Twitter):

Management differences explain a lot more about success than people realize. Using 11,000 interviews in 34 countries, this cool paper found 30% of the productivity advantage of US firms comes from their better management.


I know that the above results are disputable. But let’s not lose the main point: not all management is the same. And good management makes a difference.

Curiosity: being inquisitive, a desire to gain knowledge and information. It drives science, language, and development.

Researchers studied it and concluded that it is made up of five dimensions:

1. Joyous Exploration. This is the prototype of curiosity—the recognition and desire to seek out new knowledge and information, and the subsequent joy of learning and growing.

2. Deprivation Sensitivity. This dimension has a distinct emotional tone, with anxiety and tension being more prominent than joy—pondering abstract or complex ideas, trying to solve problems, and seeking to reduce gaps in knowledge.

3. Stress Tolerance. This dimension is about the willingness to embrace the doubt, confusion, anxiety, and other forms of distress that arise from exploring new, unexpected, complex, mysterious, or obscure events.

4. Social Curiosity. Wanting to know what other people are thinking and doing by observing, talking, or listening in to conversations.

5. Thrill Seeking. The willingness to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences.

And upon treating these dimensions as part of a single profile, they found evidence for four types of curious people:

1. The Fascinated: high on all dimensions of curiosity, particularly Joyous Exploration

2. Problem Solvers: high on Deprivation Sensitivity, medium on other dimensions

3. Empathizers: high on Social Curiosity, medium on other dimensions

4. Avoiders: low on all dimensions, particularly Stress Tolerance

I hope this helps and… which one are you?

This a little more macro:

How do directors view their work on corporate boards? The popular belief is that they are supposed to keep the CEO in check, re. Enron, Theranos, etc. Researchers asked a sample of directors. Their answer? Our job is to support managers, not to monitor them. Accordingly, they rarely seek to vote down management decisions.

The take-away: Don’t count on board members to monitor for fraud or corruption. They don’t see it as their job.

This just in: As of two weeks ago, the U.S.-based stock exchange will now require all listed companies to have at least two directors from underrepresented groups. The new rule also calls on companies to publish annual diversity data on the composition of their boards.

70-20-10 is a model that is often discussed in the world of development. Often used “and widely misunderstood”, according to Byron who does a good job at clarifying the basics.

First, effective workplace development includes different elements:

  • the 70% denotes learning through experience on the job;
  • the 20% represents learning through others; and
  • the 10% represents development through programs, courses or content.

Second, the 70-20-10 percentages do not relate to the actual time spent on development but rather on how employees learn things related to their work. It’s not a description of time spent, but “the percentage chance of a development activity sticking.”

Third, of course you need all three and they align as follows:

I hope this is useful when you think about the development of your team members. In other words, sending them to a training is not enough. The other two pieces need to be in place as well.

People choose to send email or text messages because they believe a phone call would be more awkward. They are wrong.

Research finds that interactions including voice (phone, video chat, and voice chat) created stronger social bonds and no increase in awkwardness, compared with interactions including text (e-mail, text chat). Misunderstanding the consequences of using different communication media could create preferences for media that do not maximize either one’s own or others’ wellbeing.

July 2021 – on management domains, Agile (yeah, I know), premortems, and the silent pause

things to do: doing nothing and slacking off

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Doing nothing and being bored can be invaluable to the creative process. Doing nothing is a great way to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination. Unconscious thought processes can generate novel ideas and solutions more effectively than a conscious focus on problem solving. Suggestions on how to slack off.
  5. It works in negotiations. And it works in conversations: the silent pause.
  6. Research identified five different profiles on the continuum between Burnout (the most negative experience) to Engagement (the most positive). The three intermediate profiles were DisengagedOverextended, and Ineffective. Each profile has distinct relationships with various worklife factors.
  7. The above factors point to the need for not only personal wellness but also organization-level interventions.
  8. The organizational impact of the pandemic will be profoundly disruptive for companies, but not in the way you’d expect. Many of them have been agreeably surprised by the way technology has enabled them not only to keep functioning, but in many cases to thrive. The penny that hasn’t yet dropped is that surviving the lockdowns by using technology indicates that their pre-pandemic ways of doing things need comprehensive re-examination.
  9. Premortems and backcasting can help you look into the future and understand why you may or may not achieve a goal.
  10. Here is 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” 😉

June 2021 – on handling the return to the office just right, making your team more resilient, working the perfect number of hours, and playing outside!

I hope that Canadian readers had a good Canada Day (July 1st) and that U.S. readers had a happy 4th of July.

In most conversations I have with managers these days the topic of returning to the office is on everyone’s mind… and also on their calendars! It’s also all over the news, the virtual water cooler, and the research. Expect a few references down below.

I’m going back to a more telegraphic style this month. Ten links… plus one.

  1. If you’re experiencing anxiety or dreading the return to “normal”, you’re not alone.
  2. Mental health professionals recommend that the return be slow.
  3. In line with an earlier book update, research finds that companies who pay scant attention to their employees’ psychological health might leave them at higher risk of depression.
  4. Paying more than scant attention might start with, and be as simple as, checking up on their kids.
  5. If the last eighteen months had you wonder about quitting your job, it turns out you are not alone. As per three different reports, so did 40% of your colleagues.
  6. Want to make your team more resilient? This paper suggests embracing on-job learning and (shock!) letting your employees express their views.
  7. You’re struggling to develop one of your team members? Consider this: you might first have to help them become more coachable.
  8. There is a perfect number of hours to work every day.
  9. There’s a minimum amount of time you should spend outside in nature.
  10. To come full circle with the return-to-work topic, here’s a simple way to obtain a mental-health benefit: commuting.

And, as a bonus, because you deserve it, you can always use the Joy Generator. Go ahead and try it. Come on, no one is watching… and I won’t tell.

May 2021 – On what it takes for people to perform, invisible transitions, hiring well, and toxic workers

Success without community is meaningless.

What contributes to a person’s capacity to do their job most effectively

In a recent survey of 14,500 U.S. workers, employees report working to their full potential when:

  • They are clear about what they are expected to do.
  • They are willing to ask questions and feel safe doing so.
  • They are not overwhelmed with rules about how the work has to be done or with unproductive meetings.
  • Their organization supports creative problem solving (e.g., implementing employee suggestions for improvements) and provides rewards and recognition for jobs well done.
  • Supervisors notice and acknowledge employee feelings, understand how their decisions will impact employees, and help them manage their emotions.
  • They see purpose and meaning in their work and are committed to their organization. (HBR)

Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe

A high-octane post from Graham Duncan on hiring. Two samples:

The more I’ve done it, the more I realize that what most people think of as the hard parts of hiring—asking just the right question that catches the candidate off guard, defining the role correctly, assessing the person’s skills—are less important than a more basic task: how do you see someone, including yourself, clearly?

Seeing people clearly—or at least more clearly—matters not just when finding the “best” hire, but in identifying the best role for them.

Hiring can be an art form. When you see people clearly, you see the transcript of their conversation with reality up until that moment of your meeting, and you glimpse the horizon that stretches out ahead of them. And then sometimes you can help them overhear themselves and overhear what the world wants from them, whether or not that includes working in the role that you had initially imagined for them.

There are three parts to expanding your ability to see people more clearly: seeing your own reflection in the window, seeing the elephants in the room, and seeing the water.

Well worth reading… and pondering.

Some transitions are invisible

This is an important distinction that is too often overlooked. Any discussion about change should include this and all one-on-one performance conversations should address it.

Leadership transitions are either formal, with a change in job title and sphere of authority, or informal. Examples of formal leadership transitions include vertical transitions (promotions to a higher rank), lateral transitions (moving to a different part of the business), and geographic transitions (moving to a different country or market).

But managers often go through invisible leadership transitions, with additions to the nature or scope of their leadership roles without any changes in their official positions. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 crisis, with organizations under immense pressure to launch new business models and leaders taking on new tasks and obligations.

Job transitions have skyrocketed, and, for many, substantial role changes have taken place without changes in their job’s title, description, or authority. Transitions have become increasingly informal and invisible. (MIT)

If “less is more”, why do we overdo so much?

Leidy Klotz from his book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less:

In one study, recently published in Nature, we challenged participants to modify a sandwich-like structure made from Legos so that it was strong enough and high enough to hold a masonry brick above the head of a stormtrooper figurine. Each participant received a structure consisting of parallel horizontal Lego panels connected by a vertical column that narrowed to only one block wide where it connected to the top panel. We asked participants to: “Improve this project so that it can hold a brick above the storm trooper’s head without collapsing.”

And we offered an incentive: “You will earn one dollar if you successfully complete this task. Each piece you add costs ten cents.”

The best solution is to remove the single block forming the thin part of the column. The top panel can then be attached to the larger section of the column, which stabilizes the structure and still leaves enough clearance to avoid the storm trooper getting squashed by the masonry brick.

Subtracting one block was the fastest way to solve the problem. Plus, only subtracting allowed participants to earn the full dollar. And yet participants were still more likely to add than subtract. This was evidence that people add to their detriment—at least when trying to modify a Lego structure so that it can hold a brick safely above the head of a stormtrooper.

To try to override the greater accessibility of adding, we also gave some participants subtle reminders, or cues, that subtraction was an option. If those who received the cue subtracted more often, then that would indicate that those who didn’t receive the cue were overlooking subtraction.

The experimenter said to all participants, “You will earn one dollar if you successfully complete this task. Each piece that you add costs ten cents.” Participants randomly assigned to the cue condition heard one more instruction from the experimenter: “but removing pieces is free and costs nothing.”

In the no-cue group, 41 percent subtracted a block. In the cue group, 61 percent subtracted. Those who were cued took home an average of eighty-eight cents, 10 percent more than those who didn’t get the cue.

The simple and subtle eight-word cue showed people a profitable solution that they had otherwise been missing. It sure seemed like people who didn’t receive the cue were missing the subtractive option not by choice but because they couldn’t see it.

Speaking of subtracting… toxic workers

While there has been a strong focus in past research on discovering and developing top performers in the workplace, less attention has been paid to the question of how to manage those workers on the opposite side of the spectrum: those who are harmful to organizational performance. In extreme cases, aside from hurting performance, such workers can generate enormous regulatory and legal fees and liabilities for the firm.

A top 1 percent worker might return $5,303 in cost savings to a company through increased output, but avoiding a toxic hire will net an estimated $12,489. And that figure does not include savings from sidestepping litigation, regulatory penalties, or decreased productivity as a result of low morale.

The conclusion of this study of over 50,000 workers across 11 different firms:

Avoiding a toxic worker (or converting [them] to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker.

Why it pays to notice emotions in the workplace

Emotional acknowledgment is the simple act of noticing a nonverbal emotional cue — like a frown or grin — and mentioning it. This mention can be a question or a statement such as “You look upset,” or “You seem excited.” (…) this small act can have a powerful effect because it is read as a sign of genuine intentions.

In a work environment, a supervisor who shows concern for others’ emotional state is signaling a willingness to get involved in a potentially messy situation. “A leader could very easily see someone in distress and choose to ignore it,” Yu says. “But only a leader who truly is benevolent and cares about employees would risk getting involved by voluntarily acknowledging the distressed employee. Thus, employees might take this as a signal that this leader is someone who can be trusted with their well-being.”

In research across six studies, (…) participants reported higher levels of trust in people who engaged in emotional acknowledgment than those who did not.

This result aligned with the theory

Asking someone who seems unhappy about their emotional state engenders higher levels of trust because it is riskier and involves a greater investment of attention, time, and effort than asking someone who seems happy.

There was, in addition, an unexpected finding:

Acknowledging an employee’s emotional state is more powerful than only acknowledging the situation that produced the emotions. “It turns out that saying something like, ‘You looked upset after that meeting. How are you feeling about it?’ lands better than saying something like, ‘It looked like the meeting went poorly. How are you thinking about it?’ Yu explains.

“People trust the person who acknowledges the emotion directly more than the person who acknowledges the situation. There’s just something special and unique about emotions — they are really core to a person’s inner experience and sense of self. So when we acknowledge emotions, we humanize and validate the person being acknowledged.”

And another unexpected finding: you don’t even have to get it right

The trust-building effect of emotional acknowledgment is not always dependent on correctly interpreting emotions, particularly when positive feelings are misread.

But emotional support is not part of my formal job expectations as a manager!

If leaders want to signal care and build trust, they need to meet people where they are. The worst thing leaders can do when employees are feeling badly is to do nothing. Our research suggests one way to do that is by proactively engaging in emotional acknowledgment because it grants employees the space and license to share their emotions.

Thanks for reading!

Please share your thoughts by hitting Reply. I always appreciate reading your take on the items that I post as well as on the Book Updates.

I added the subtitle quote (“Success without community is absolutely meaningless”) at the last minute after seeing Jeremy Lin’s Class Day address. The end of that quote is “Getting somewhere without being able to bring someone up with you isn’t worth it.” Lin also said, as students get bombarded after graduation with questions asking what they’re going to do next,

The better question to ask yourself is, ‘Who are you going to be? Why do you do what you do? And who are you going to bring up with you along the way?’

I think the quote and the questions are excellent prompts for the thoughtful and discerning professional.

See you next month!


April 2021 – on relaunching your team, more distinctions, languishing, and thinking about thinking

Mind your peripheral vision

Sundry links I posted on my blog:

How Patagonia Learned to Act on Its Values – Patagonia’s path toward living up to its own commitment to sustainability has involved decades of acknowledging flaws, solving problems, and finding ways to bring along suppliers, employees, and customers. But by highlighting values and using environmental constraints as a source of innovation, the company has found profits.

The Pandemic Conversations That Leaders Need to Have Now – It’s time for leaders to rebuild the bonds that COVID-19 has shaken. First step: Start talking.

Self-awareness is what makes us human – Because of our ability to think about thinking, “the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater than the one between amoeba and ape.”

Building Better Work Models for the Next Normal – Office-return planning offers a rare opportunity to transform lessons learned during the pandemic into a more sustainable work model.

Leader, know thyself – To improve executive performance, thinking about thinking is a really good idea.

Adam Grant in the NYT about the blah you’re feeling

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

It might be. You might also have chosen to be in a holding pattern, to hibernate or to be dormant.

Speaking of distinctions, actor Mads Mikkelsen in Vulture on stepping stones v. a career

My approach to what I do in my job — and it might even be the approach to my life — is that everything I do is the most important thing I do. Whether it’s a play or the next film. It is the most important thing. I know it’s not going to be the most important thing, and it might not be close to being the best, but I have to make it the most important thing. That means I will be ambitious with my job and not with my career.

That’s a very big difference, because if I’m ambitious with my career, everything I do now is just stepping-stones leading to something — a goal I might never reach, and so everything will be disappointing. But if I make everything important, then eventually it will become a career. Big or small, we don’t know. But at least everything was important.

If you’re interested in football – the one they play with their feet – here’s a recent case reminding us that we should always listen to our fans/customers.

A breakaway European Super League (ESL) was announced with six Premier League (U.K.) clubs among its 12 founding members.

The suggestion was that traditional home-based support is perceived by some club owners as a poor relation to an overseas armchair fanbase or “fans of the future”, as BBC Sport reported.


it was no secret that those clubs agitating to form a football cartel have become increasingly concerned at getting larger shares of broadcast rights and recognise the untapped potential of global markets.

That is essentially what the ESL was about – maximising profits through global expansion with like-minded invitation-only clubs. But at what cost? There was a gross underestimation of how big the backlash from politicians, governing bodies, sidelined clubs, and of course, fans would be.

The owners claimed the ESL was being created to “save football”.

Paradoxically, the league was killed within 72 hours of its unveiling.

As one journalist observed

Paradoxically, the performance standards required on the field are rarely matched by football executives. The failure of ESL owners and executives to command a basic understanding of those at the heart of their revenue model, fans, is staggering.

Speaking of distinctions 2: Complicated v. complex

Although a mechanical approach works well in situations with high stability and low complexity, such as a production factory, it has a number of characteristics that make it ill-suited to CASs. For instance, it assumes linear interactions and straightforward cause-and-effect relationships while ignoring higher-order effects, and it suppresses adaptive learning by minimizing tinkering and deviations from prescribed processes.

Mechanical management is becoming less and less effective in today’s business conditions, in which global competition and rapidly advancing technologies make both companies and their business environments more complex and less predictable.


To succeed over the long run, business leaders must not rely only on the traditional “mechanical” approach to management, which seeks to direct a company toward desired outcomes by engineering processes and controlling the behavior of its various components. They must also learn a “biological” approach, which acknowledges the uncertainty and complexity of business problems and so addresses them indirectly.

This “messy” form of management is informed by the following principles:

  • Pragmatism (rather than Intellectualism);
  • Resilience (rather than Efficiency);
  • Experimentation (rather than Deduction);
  • Indirect (rather than direct) Approaches;
  • Holism (rather than Reductionism);
  • Plurality (rather than Universality).

Reductionism here might be the biggest hurdle here, that is, a manager’s tendency to want to see things as simple and straightforward – that “it’s not that complicated”.

Re-launch your team. Every six to eight weeks

Launches and relaunches have long been established by pioneering sociologists as the way to start a team in the most effective way. (…) [W]hen you launch a team the right way -meaning you set it up- you are actually creating the conditions for that team to be effective. In fact, this will increase the likelihood of success for teams by 30 percent, which is significant.

The idea of relaunch is to make sure that we are realigned, focused on our shared goals, very clear about our capabilities, our contributions, our resources, and our constraints; that the norms we had established are still working for U.S., so that we can revise and update given the dynamic nature of all of our lives; and to ensure that there is psychological safety (…) in the work team.

I recommend you do this every six to eight weeks or so in a remote team because it’s so easy to get derailed when you’re not co-located. (McKinsey)


The New York Times on companies that laid off thousands of workers in 2020 but managed to double their CEOs’ pay. This follows a growing trend of CEOs leaving failing or economically crushed companies and still walking away with big payouts, like Gamestop’s CEO exiting the company with $290 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times and Fortune react to Basecamp banning political talk in their offices, echoing a similar move made by Coinbase last year.

Remote work is here to stay

  1. Because surveys report people do not want to go back entirely to what was.
  2. Particularly because of the expanded talent pool it gives employers.

According to researchers, a true purpose is one that is both personally meaningful and also makes a positive impact on the lives of other people—your family, friends, neighbors, city, country, or even the whole world.

How strong is your sense of purpose? To find out—and discover steps for strengthening it—take this quiz put together by researchers at Claremont University.

As per a new research briefing from the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, companies in the midst of digital transformation should aim to create and track three types of value:

  • Value from operations. Companies can benefit from digitizing business operations through reduced costs and increased efficiency and speed. Examples include developing modular components, automating processes, and becoming more agile.
  • Value from customers. Firms can create increased revenue from customers through cross-selling — selling different things to an existing customer — and new offerings. Companies also benefit from increased “customer stickiness” as digital initiatives allow firms to expand their knowledge about customers and offer them more choices.
  • Value from ecosystems. Companies create digital ecosystems by partnering with others to offer customers a single go-to destination. Value comes from digital connections and access to ecosystem data, the researchers wrote, noting that firms in their study were about 30% effective, on average, at creating value from ecosystems.


According to a survey by MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant of more than 4,200 managers and executives, only 25% of respondents strongly agreed that their organizations are as purpose-driven as their leaders believe them to be.

Now, for something completely different

Healing Grid is an optical illusion. If you stare at the center of the image for several seconds, the broken edges start to “repair” themselves in your peripheral vision.

March 2021 – on doing nothing, asking the right questions, being a zoom zombie, and working from anywhere

What makes a great manager isn’t the problems they solve, but the questions they ask

From the common-sense department

In a survey of remote workers, 54% said that even a small gesture such as a consistent “thank you” would make them feel less stressed about their performance, 31% said that it would make them more motivated, and 25% said that it would make them more productive.


Nearly a year into remote work, some companies have moved past happy hours and other non-work-related Zoom meetings as ways to build morale and asked their leadership teams to deliver trophies, bonuses, or other notes of appreciation to employees’ homes.

Adverse context

Since April, 35 states have seen increases in the number of parents who have dropped out of the workforce because of issues with childcare. In those states, the average increase is 36%, making childcare the third-most common reason why people are out of work behind layoffs and furloughs.

Many parents are struggling to find affordable childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic: even pre-pandemic, over half of parents relied on family or friends for childcare because of the cost, and during the pandemic, costs have increased by 47% at childcare centers and 70% for home-based care, often resulting in higher prices for families.

Is this being discussed and worked on in your place of work?

Survey: less than 30% of employers said that their caregiving and well-being programs have effectively supported employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. They identified stress and burnout (54%) and poor mental health (40%) as the biggest challenges.

Hit Reply and let me know how, how much, and by whom.


Study: nearly 90% of organizations said they are open to negotiating salary with a job candidate, but only 42% would negotiate bonuses and 32% would negotiate benefits with a potential hire.

We’re becoming zoom zombies

In part because webcams are not good enough. Here is a pretty thorough review that might help you find a good camera.

New Citigroup CEO says Fridays are zoom-free

Jane Fraser is banning internal video calls on Fridays, encouraging staff to set boundaries for a healthier work-life balance and instituting a firm-wide holiday.

The blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our well-being. It’s simply not sustainable.

Since a return to any kind of new normal is still a few months away for many of us, we need to reset some of our working practices.”

While Zoom meetings with clients and regulators will still happen on Fridays, employees will conduct meetings over the phone to give workers a break from nonstop videoconferences.

Ford Motor Co.

Told about 30,000 of its employees worldwide who have worked from home that they can continue to do so indefinitely, with flexible hours approved by their managers.

Beyond WFH is WFA

A case study from Spotify that launched their own Work From Anywhere program.

It’s early days for big reflections on how successful the program is overall, so we can’t speak to that at the moment. What we can share is a bit more around our thinking and the data that we used to inform us before we took the decision to become a distributed-first workplace, offering our employees more flexibility in the way they work.

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?

A reminder from prize-winning architects Lacaton & Vassal

When you go to the doctor, they might tell you that you’re fine, that you don’t need any medicine. Architecture should be the same. If you take time to observe, and look very precisely, sometimes the answer is to do nothing.

I say management should be the same also. Choosing to do nothing is doing something.

February 2021 – on the difference between a habit and a routine, drawing distinctions, and the Mars landing

By far the most substantial piece of content I read in the last month is from Jay Rosen. He is a press critic who writes about the media and politics. He is a professor at the School of Journalism at New York University.

Here is how it starts:


And here are some of the distinctions he draws in this Twitter thread:

  • Public vs. audience
  • Journalism vs. the media
  • Truth-seeking vs. refuge-seeking
  • Political vs. politicized
  • Issues vs. troubles
  • Ritual vs. transmission
  • Expect vs. predict
  • Subscription vs. membership

He says that

For distinctions to work, the terms have to be sufficiently close that prying them apart clears space for thought. If I write, “bending is not the same as breaking,” well, who said it was? That one is going nowhere. But “naked is not the same as nude” is an idea with legs.

It’s not just semantics. Well, it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a show of clarity of ideas in your field of endeavor. In his case, it’s media and politics.

And it occurs in all fields.

Just last week, I bumped into a few more instances:

  1. My friend and colleague Ed Carvalho invited us to draw a distinction between intelligence and intellect;
  2. And then this one in the Harvard Business Review between habit and routine:

When we fail at forming new patterns of behavior, we often blame ourselves, rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.
A habit is a behavior done with little or no thought, while a routine involves a series of behaviors frequently —and intentionally— repeated. A behavior has to be a regularly performed routine before it can become a habit at all.
The problem is that many of us try to skip the “routine” phase.

There are other distinctions that Rosen does not discuss in his thread, including

  • Lying vs. bullshitting
  • Experience vs. expertise
  • Exit, voice, and loyalty
  • Information overload vs. filter failure

Anyone who took part in one of my leadership development programs will have heard me discuss exit, voice, “loyalty”/conformity, and sabotage as a way to distinguish how different people react differently to finding themselves in conflict situations.

The take-aways from this piece?

  1. When in doubt, draw a distinction;
  2. Doing so is a way to manifest that you are a thinker – that you don’t take things at face value but you do reflect on them and come out with your own thoughts;
  3. Drawing distinctions is also a manifestation of where you put your attention, that is, what your field of endeavor really is.

And since a lot of readers of this newsletter are managers then it begs the question: are your distinctions mostly about the domain of expertise that preceded your becoming a manager or are they about management itself?

Hit Reply to this message and let me know.

Exciting news!

Twitter avatar for @NASAPersevereNASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover @NASAPersevere

Your front-row seat to my Mars landing is here. Watch how we did it. #CountdownToMars


Go ahead. Call me a geek. I won’t mind.

And, a propos of nothing, feel free to make a distinction between a nerd and a geek 🙂

January 2021 – on managing digital transformation, failing at failing fast, a new Marshall Plan, and words with consonants

You really should fire yourself

MIT survey about managing digital transformation

MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant surveyed 4,296 global leaders to explore shifting attitudes about the future of leadership during a challenging time worldwide. It captures insights from over 20 industries. Seventy-five percent of the respondents were from outside the United States.

Short version: many business leaders worldwide are out of touch with what it takes to lead effectively in the digital economy.

The study reveals four key insights:

1.      Organizations are not offering workers the sense of purpose they crave.

72% of respondents strongly agree it is very important to them to work for an organization with a purpose in which they believe. Still, only 49% strongly say that they believe in their organization’s purpose. Even fewer (36%) strongly agree that they believe in their organization’s ability to advance its purpose, and a mere 25% strongly agree that their organizations are as purpose-driven as their leaders believe them to be.

2.      Organizations with a clear purpose outperform their peers when it comes to diversity and inclusion practices.

64% of respondents affirm that top management is prioritizing diversity and inclusion practices. Respondents from highly purpose-driven organizations agree at a higher rate of 84%.

3.      Leaders are also failing to invest in and develop their digital competencies.

While 93% of respondents say being digitally savvy is essential to performing well, and 88% state that digitally savvy leaders matter to their organization’s ability to succeed, only a fifth of respondents strongly agree their leaders have the right mindset to thrive in the digital economy.

4.      Most companies fail to adequately address the erosion of work/home boundaries.

Only 36% of global survey respondents say they establish a hard line between when they are working and when they are not.

Only 28% of respondents agree their organization has policies about when and how to communicate outside traditional business hours, and fewer (24%) agree that their organization adheres to these policies if they do exist.

Before you move into a new position…

Ask yourself:  “What would my successor do?

After all, if you think you may be replaced, you might as well replace yourself (with your new-and-improved self) and get your boss thinking about how you are the answer to his prayers rather than the cause of his problems.

Firing yourself isn’t easy.  Over time we have a tendency to shape our organizations in our own image.  Problems that were easy to spot when new to the job become almost invisible.  Similarly, relationships that were full of promise in the beginning evolve into static roles and routines founded on assumptions that, good or bad, are difficult to change. But you have time on your side.

And if you do move into a new position…

Consider how you can help prepare your successor to thrive in the role you are vacating. This involves passing on knowledge and connecting them to the right resources to establish a successful path in a new rolethe very things you’ll need when you step into a new position.

If experimenting is so valuable, why don’t companies do it more?

There’s no lack of lip service to “failing fast” but it doesn’t always happen. And when it does, it’s not always consistent. Stefan Thomke in a Harvard Business Reviewarticle:

After examining this question for several years, I can tell you that the central reason is culture.  As companies try to scale up their online experimentation capacity, they often find that the obstacles are not tools and technology but shared behaviors, beliefs, and values.  For every experiment that succeeds, nearly 10 don’t – and in the eyes of many organizations that emphasize efficiency, predictability, and ‘winning,’ those failures are wasteful.

The article discusses several key characteristics of a successful experimentation culture, including cultivating curiosity, insisting that data trumps opinion, democratizing experimentation across the organization, being ethically sensitive, and embracing a leadership model that will follow test results wherever they lead.

The critical difference? Management.

One takeaway from examples and research is the perhaps unsurprising idea that management counts; that is, when managers actively encourage experimentation, the culture invites experiments.  And when ‘failure’ is understood as contributing to learning (i.e., not punished), experimentation is encouraged as well.

The future of work: the dissolution of the employee-employer relationship?

From an article in the MIT Sloan Review:

Leaders need a new operating system for work — one that better supports the high degree of organizational agility required to thrive amid increasingly rapid change and disruption, and that better reflects the fluidity of modern work and working arrangements.

In our last two books, we’ve argued that this new system must enable leaders and workers to increasingly — and continually — deconstruct jobs into more granular units such as tasks, and that it must identify and deploy workers based on their skills and capabilities, not their job descriptions. Deconstructing work is essential to implementing new options for sourcing, rewarding, and engaging workers, and to understanding and anticipating how automation might replace, augment, or reinvent human work.

It is couched as “workforce ecosystem” but it’s a top-down, “leader”-driven deconstruction process that is as old and tired as transaction-cost analysis that sees the world on a continuum from markets to hierarchies. The all-knowing “leader” organizes man and machine in the most efficient fashion… from its own limited and bounded rationality. I’m not sold. Ecosystems need to be adaptable, not predictable nor optimized.

Required: a new Marshall Plan

This is a little more macro. Something to include in your environmental scan. From the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Today’s economic challenge is very different, but it is clear that economic recovery will require a coordinated global strategy at least as ambitious as the Marshall Plan after World War II. The challenge before us entails rebuilding economies after a virulent pandemic, and at the same time also rebuilding the biosphere after decades of rapacity and neglect.

But the challenge is not just environmental. There is also a pressing need to address growing inequalities, support social cohesion, and restore faith in public institutions. Around the world people are expressing the strong desire not to return to business as usual. Lockdowns forced people to reconsider what matters to them.


If you’re considering learning a new language and are looking for a challenge, you can try Ubykh. It has two vowels and 84 consonants, including an unvoiced labialized pharyngealized back dorsal uvular ejective stop (yes, that’s a thing). And let me know how it’s going.