What if self-care, but at work?

A bouquet of fall flowers, seen from above against alight gray background

In the U.S., many of us just had a long weekend, thanks to our forebears in the labor movement. Are you feeling refreshed? Did you engage in some self-care activities? Are you feeling some dread about letting that go now that we’re back at work? Today we’re going to dig in on what that care looks like in the context of work.

The kind of self-care that I’m talking about is understanding what you need to be at a base level of “all right” – at the very least, a neutral state where you may not feel your absolute best, but you can handle pretty much anything that’s likely to need your attention – and then doing what it takes to stay at or above that base level as much of the time as possible.

There are two dangerous paths to avoid when thinking about self-care in the context of work. One is path laid out by the industry constructed around the trendy idea of self-care, made up of companies who want to sell the idea (mostly to women) that you can buy a face mask and check off “self-care” on your to-do list. Limiting your concept of self-care to that idea can lead to some extremely un-caring behavior, as we saw in an exposé on the company culture at the luggage company Away last winter:

As the holidays approached, the team had to work around the clock to keep up with customer demand. In December, [a customer support rep] was wrapping up work at 1AM when she saw a Slack message from [her manager]. “Okay everyone! Take a photo with your computer in bed when you get home. Here’s mine!” She was sitting in bed wearing a face mask, still working.

Here’s one important factor in why this doesn’t work: As a manager, your reports will not believe you if you simply tell them that self-care is important and then proceed to ignore your own basic needs. You have to model it and show them that it’s both acceptable and necessary to prioritize their health.

The other dangerous path is assuming that self-care has to happen on an employee’s “own” time, that every second of a day needs to be dedicated to meeting the needs of the company in a visible way or else. Encouraging your reports to take (paid) time off from work is critical; understanding  what they need to do through the course of a regular workday to keep at the base level of “all right” is just as important. In particular, if the work that you do requires a lot of emotional energy – which it often does for mission-driven organizations, since most folks are there because they care deeply about the work – it’s important to recognize that people will often need a quick reset during the day to recharge that energy.

Maintenance and recovery anchors

I like the phrases Jeff Toister uses in his book Service Failure to describe what those things are: maintenance and recovery anchors. The idea behind a maintenance anchor is that it’s something that you do consistently and relatively frequently (at least weekly) that keeps you at a pretty solid level pretty much of the time. Examples might be:

  • Shower and get dressed every day, even when working remotely.
  • Exercise regularly (with goals).
  • Eat well.
  • Drink enough water.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Make your bed in the morning (no, really).
  • Spend (socially distant!) time with people you care about.
  • Read things that aren’t the internet.
  • Write in a journal or draw in a sketchbook.

Recovery anchors are things you don’t necessarily do every day or every week, but they are things you turn to if you need to reset. You should expect your employees – and yourself! – to need to do some of these shorter-term things during the course of the workday. Maybe there’s been a difficult interaction with a customer or a colleague; maybe you’re deeply concerned about something happening in the world outside of work; maybe there are kids at home pulling your attention away from the screen. Some recovery anchors might help you shake it off quickly; some might take more time and give you a chance to make deeper repairs. Here are a few examples:

  • Make a playlist of songs that make you feel better, and listen to it on headphones.
  • Double-check: have you eaten in the last four hours? Are you hydrated? Have you showered in the last 48 hours? If not, do those things immediately. (If you can’t shower immediately, wash your face.)
  • If you’re able, engage in some kind of physical activity: do some planks, pushups, or jumping jacks, take a walk, have a five-minute dance party.
  • Look at puppy GIFs.
  • Take your PTO.
  • Identify whether your most pressing need is to process or to problem-solve; talk to someone who can help you do that: a friend, a trusted colleague, a therapist.
  • Deep-clean your living/working space.

I recommend actually writing a physical list of your maintenance and recovery anchors, because when you really need to reset, you’ll have a ready set of instructions and won’t have to come up with ideas from scratch.

As a manager, I like to encourage my team members to keep this list handy as well. I don’t need to know what’s on each person’s list – if I sense that stress is building to a point where it’s going to negatively impact the person’s work, I can ask them to pick something from the list and take five minutes to do that thing.

Building trust at work: Effective autonomy

Often, when we think of having autonomy at work, we frame it against being micromanaged. Today I want to dig in a bit about why that is, and how we can go beyond “don’t micromanage” and into more compelling ways of providing autonomy to our teams.

When we feel micromanaged, we usually feel like our autonomy is being limited in an unnecessary or unproductive way. We feel like we aren’t trusted to handle the fundamentals of whatever it is we’re doing, and that lack of trust feels unfair. We feel instinctively that it’s bad because several of our core needs at work, as defined by trainer, speaker, and equity and inclusion expert Paloma Medina, are threatened: we lack choice, improvement is difficult, our significance feels diminished, and the dynamic feels unequal. It’s so impactful that it’s often quite clear to the person being micromanaged that that’s what’s happening.

It can be a lot harder to identify micromanaging behavior when you’re the one doing it. For a deep dive into how to recognize and avoid your own micromanaging behavior, I recommend checking out the resources the team at The Management Center has shared on how to avoid micromanaging and on developing the skill of delegation generally. Pay close attention to those delegation resources: developing effective delegation skills is the best defense against accidental micromanagement.

But you don’t have to stop there! Effective delegation is the right foundation to build on; from there, you can build up more challenging, interesting ways to establish autonomy for your team without sacrificing the effectiveness that you’re accountable for as the manager or the support your team needs from you.

Understand your team members’ key questions.

The best balance of autonomy, support, and effectiveness leaves a team member feeling like they have control over the areas they’re best at, and clear guidance in the places where they need it most. That’s different for every person and every project, so when you set out to create that balance as a manager, it’s important to start by understanding your team members’ working styles. I like to use the framework Carson Tate puts forth in her book Work Simply, in which she describes productivity styles partly in terms of what questions you tend gravitate toward without prompting, and which questions you have to be consciously reminded to pay attention to.

In Tate’s framework, I’m a Prioritizer/Planner, which means questions that start with “What” and “How” are naturally going to be at the front of my mind at any new project. It also means that I have to consciously remind myself to pay attention to questions that start with “Why” (a key question for Visualizers) and “Who” (a key question for Arrangers), or I’ll present a variety of risks to the success of the project: difficulty collaborating with my colleagues who have other productivity styles; outcomes that miss the mark for key stakeholders; or elegantly crafted solutions that don’t get at the ultimate desired goal.

Because I gravitate toward “what” and “how” questions, as an employee, I tend to feel motivated when given autonomy in answering those questions, not just because I see those as my own strengths, but also because I default to seeing those answers as important to the success of a project. (Who and Why questions are important too! It’s just that I need more active reminders about them.) In Medina’s BICEPS terms, if I sense that my manager trusts me to answer my key questions, it feeds both my Choice and Significance core needs at work.

For a senior-level employee who already has lots of autonomy in the area of their key questions, the next step is to help them frame their work against the key questions of others on your team, on the board, or in leadership. This can be tough emotionally: when you have answered your key questions deeply and thoroughly, interrogating the work from another angle can feel like a challenge to your expertise. Letting go of that defensive feeling and allowing yourself to ask those other questions opens up all kinds of possibilities for effective collaboration, and if you can enable that effective collaboration as a manager, you’ll be doing your most valuable work.

Building trust at work: Vulnerability

So far in this series we’ve talked about a bunch of ways that you can show your team that you’re trustworthy, but we’ve yet to talk about one of the most important: showing that you trust them.

Vulnerability as a leadership principle is a big topic – Brené Brown has a whole book about it – and I won’t pretend to encapsulate it all in one blog post. I also want to be super clear: this isn’t something I consider myself personally good at. In that sense, this blog post is as much a reminder for myself and the ways I want to show up for my teams as it is advice for my fellow mission-driven managers of the world.

How do I know that I’m not good at it? Because generally, when I tell people directly about the things that make me feel unsure or unsteady at work, their reaction is some version of “I would never have guessed that.” And, almost unilaterally, they’re better able to trust me for having seen me display my trust in them. My goal in writing this post is to enable you, and me, to understand what’s at stake in showing that trust – that is, to name the fears that underly our failure to fully show up for our teams. As Brown writes:

The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.

Our vulnerabilities, as managers, are often rooted in a few specific kinds of fear that we have to find the courage to work through. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it represents the conversations I have with fellow-managers most often when we’re feeling uncertain about our work, and starting points for handling these fears.

Fear of losing control.

This is a counterintuitive one for many first-time managers: the loss of direct control that you experience when you move from an individual-contributor role to a manager role is often unexpected and startling. Many of us become managers because we’re exceptionally good at the individual-contribution work that our teams are responsible for, and the moment we become managers, how good or bad we are at our jobs is contingent on other people doing that work we’re so proud of. Agency you may not have consciously felt before you were a manager suddenly appears obvious: other people can just choose not to do it your way! (If this is something you’re up against right now, check out Molly Graham’s metaphor of giving away your Legos as a way to frame this fear.)

Fear of losing influence.

Because as managers, the degree of control we exercise over our team’s work is contingent on our ability to influence others, anything that feels like it can take away that influence is something that can make us afraid to act. That can mean admitting we’ve been wrong or don’t know about something. It can mean not being able to advocate successfully for something our team has asked for. It can mean learning that someone else’s approach to our team’s work is more effective than ours. It can mean anything that we think will reduce our stature in the eyes of our team.

The gag here is that pretending we’re never wrong, that we know everything, that we’re all-powerful doesn’t work. Our teams know that we are human people with human limitations, and occasionally they want to see that for themselves so they know that we know it, too.

Fear of misusing power.

I’m not going to tell you to try to overcome this one. This is an important fear. Listen to what it tells you about what you’re doing. And remember: like all feelings, it is not a fact, but it is data.

It’s especially common among those who are impacted by or see the impact of power structures on societally marginalized groups. Keep this fear healthy, but don’t let it keep you from having the hard conversations your team needs in order to be effective.

Fear of doing it by ourselves (AKA loneliness).

Generally speaking, being a manager comes with fewer built-in peers than other roles on a team. No matter how transparent your team culture, there will be things you can’t talk about with your team members. You need to be able to talk safely with others who at least understand facets of your situation, if not the whole situation. Management coach Lara Hogan suggests building a manager Voltron – a group of people to help you sift through work issues that may or may not include your direct manager (if you have one). If you don’t have a direct manager yourself, it’s even more important to have this kind of group around you. (Side note: I include my therapist in my manager Voltron, and I recommend it highly.)

Okay, now what?

All of this is very easy to type in a blog post and very difficult to name and improve in our everyday work. My own goal is to make sure that when I’m feeling resistant to acting or speaking candidly with my team, that I’m taking a moment to identify whether any of these fears are at play and to what degree I need to work through them.

In our next post we’ll talk about one way to work through some of these fears: creating space for autonomy on your team.

Building trust at work: Predictability in unpredictable times

Garden scene with thick, visible tree roots in the foreground

In school, we’re taught to put our faith in the scientific method. That is, we’re taught that the core of our ability to trust the results of scientific experiments is their repeatability. Repetition, consistency, predictability – these aren’t always words that leaders wants to hear applied to themselves, but in the context of trust-building within your organization, they’re foundational.

The most straightforward path to building trust is, as Anil Dash puts it, “being boring. That is, being incredibly, mind-numbingly consistent.” In many areas of our lives at work, there are clear ways to do that: establish a pay schedule and stick to it; create evaluation rubrics that help people understand what’s expected of them and how to do “a good job”; keep meetings running on schedule; and so on.

However. We are living in wildly unpredictable times, and that makes it even more important for us as managers and leaders to create patterns of consistency wherever possible. (If you haven’t yet read through all of Lara Hogan’s writing on creating predictability in times of crisis and generally leading through difficult times, I invite you to carve out an hour over the next week to read through them and think about what actions those ideas might prompt you to take with your team.)

And I fully believe that doing that work now will pay off in the long run, not just in moments of extreme difficulty: if you’re able to create a measure of predictability and consistency with your team now, you’re going to be able to build on that foundation of trust to do incredible things when your team is operating at full capacity.

So how do we approach creating those patterns of consistency?

In times and industries where “the only constant is change,” the real constant for managers and leaders is decision-making. The more you can create predictability around your decision-making process, the easier it will be for your team to understand your likely responses to change, and to trust you to lead the team through change in a way that enables them to continue to do their best work. If you don’t yet have a clear sense of what drives your decision-making process, here’s where I recommend getting started:

Articulate what’s most important to you.

Now is a great time to have your organization’s mission, vision, and core values front and center in your workspace. It’s (always) likely that you can’t make everything happen that you’d like to; assess the priority of your various projects and day-to-day work based on what keeps you closest to your mission, creates motion toward your vision, and aligns with your core values. Having a clear sense of what’s important – and ensuring that “the health and well-being of our employees” is high on that list – will help you make decisions that have a clear, predictable pattern.

Overcommunicate the “why” behind your decisons.

Once you’ve articulated that set of priorities to yourself, it’s time to communicate them to your staff. That means not just holding an all-hands meeting where you share that you’ve been doing this thinking – although I recommend that! – but also establishing that communication as a pattern by constantly sharing why you’re making decisions, even on judgment calls that feel small or inconsequential. Yes, sometimes you need to make quick, time-dependent calls, but the more you can articulate the reasoning behind your decisions, the more your team will be able to 1) anticipate your decisions based on those reasoning patterns and 2) see the consistency in your approach to change.

Your team won’t always care about the “why” in the moment. That’s fine – it’s still important for you to share, not least because it holds you accountable for understanding the motivation behind your own decisions.

When you change your mind, share the “why.

Establishing predictability and consistency is often hardest when we need to reverse a decision we’ve shared with our team, something that feels constant right now but happens regularly even in the best of times. Sometimes you’re going to make one decision that’s the right one based on the information you have at the time, and then you’ll get new information that requires you to change your mind. That’s “expected behavior,” as we say in tech.

Those moments are perhaps the most crucial for you to share the “why,” both of the original decision and of the new direction. As long as your team understands what drives those decisions, they will be able to trust your ability to lead through change, which in turn bolsters that ability for you.

One final note here: What I’m asking you to do here is to be vulnerable with your team, to show that you don’t always have all the answers, to let them in on your thought process. That kind of vulnerability is both very difficult and essential to leading through moments of difficulty. More on that in our next post.

Building trust at work: Focused transparency

Rocks and blue sky reflected in still, clear water at Joshua Tree National Park

Transparency, as a management principle, is complicated. In its simplest form, it’s just sharing information with your team. A policy of total transparency would mean that you hold no information back from your team, regardless of how small the detail and regardless of how much potential it has to change over time. It’s related to clarity and to trust, but there are important distinctions between all three.

I think of the difference between transparency and clarity as being essentially a matter of focus. To illustrate what I mean by that, think of a pair of prescription eyeglasses compared to a pair of fashion glasses with no prescription in the lenses. Both are transparent; only the prescription eyeglasses have a goal of increased clarity. Your goal as a manager is to be the right pair of prescription glasses for your team: some individuals will need a stronger prescription (more help focusing within the range of information that you’re being transparent about) and some will need less (just give them the facts, they’ll extrapolate for themselves).

Focused transparency is one of the raw materials needed to build an infrastructure of trust, because it helps a team understand what they’re trusting their manager to do. “I trust you” is a complete sentence, but in a work context, a more complete sentence is “I trust you to [verb].” That can be as general as “I trust you to act from our company’s core values” or as specific as “I trust you to catch any grammatical errors when reviewing my marketing copy,” but it’s always tied to some kind of action.

Building trust on a team requires that a manager is transparent about several categories of information:

What the team’s goals are

The statement you want from your team here is “I trust my manager to keep our focus in the right place.” If the team doesn’t know what its overall goals are, no one on the team can tell whether or not they are doing a good job, nor can they trust the direction that you’re leading them in (because they don’t know what direction that is). It’s the manager’s job to communicate the team’s goals, and to do it clearly and consistently. In a remote environment, having the goals recorded on a document that’s shared, easily accessible, and referenced often can help to bake this into an organization’s process. For example, if you have a shared meeting agenda, keep your high-level goals written at the top of the document and review them, along with any progress that has been made toward them, at the start of each team meeting. It’s also helpful to ensure that the team understands any major obstacles that need to be cleared in order for those goals to be met.

How each individual’s work ties back to the team’s overall goals

An individual who knows how their own work connects to the overall team goals will have an easier time trusting that their manager has a clear vision for their work. They’ll be able to trust that the manager is including them in the overall team strategy, and that the manager sees them as an integral part of the team. You can create this understanding by framing each new assignment with its potential impact on team goals (The Management Center has a great delegation guideline to help you make this framing a habit). Follow that up with regular check-ins in your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports, and reinforce it by bringing the team’s attention to high-impact individual accomplishments in a shared online channel or during team meetings.

How the team knows if their goals are being met

Now that the team goals are clear to everyone, being able to see for themselves when an overall team goal is being met is the next step in effective, transparent communication. Quantitative goals can be tracked through easily accessible (though maybe not easily editable!) reports in your team’s database, a well-placed pivot chart in a shared spreadsheet, or regular updates in a shared team channel. While it’s possible to track progress against a qualitative goal with regular team conversations, surveys, and individual check-ins, it’s worthwhile whenever possible to find quantitatively measurable/trackable questions that can act as proxies to indicate you’re reaching that goal (a “key result” in the “objective/key result” or OKR framework) that you can use to report on progress toward that goal over time. For more on OKRs, check out Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus.

How an individual’s work is evaluated

We’ve talked about the importance of a consistent feedback framework when you need an employee to change how they’re working; similarly important is a clear set of expectations around how an employee’s work is evaluated. We’ll dig into the value of clear evaluation rubrics in a future post.

When to limit transparency

There are also some forms of transparency that can negatively impact a team’s ability to work together. Just as important as sharing the information above, a manager sometimes needs to build trust on their team by keeping certain kinds of information confidential, only sharing with those need to know in order to do their jobs effectively:

  • Information about interpersonal conflicts
  • Personal or medical information a team member has disclosed because it’s affecting them at work
  • A team member’s status relative to any disciplinary action at work

There are also some areas where opinions and cultural norms vary widely regarding how transparent one should be at work, and whether you choose to be open about these will depend on your situation.

  • Salaries or salary ranges (my personal preference is to be transparent about salary ranges for every role, at a bare minimum)
  • Upcoming potential changes that aren’t confirmed, or not certain yet (in particular, this can negatively impact folks who have a tendency to be anxious about change – which is a lot of people! – without providing them with anything they can use to make a decision)

Although we’re rarely in a position to provide 100% transparency to our team, it’s incumbent upon us as managers to provide context to our teams to help them understand the relationship of their work to the effort of the team as a whole. Understanding that context helps team members understand what they’re trusting their colleagues to do, allowing them to reinforce and maintain that trust when they see the results of everyone’s work.

Building trust at work

That trust is an essential building block for functional and equitable teams might feel like it should go without saying. It’s the invisible infrastructure that enables clear, candid communication among team members, and like my beloved local subway system, it requires constant maintenance. A solid infrastructure of trust also supports you, the manager, in creating the space you need to do the work you’re uniquely situated for:

  • Setting goals for your team and communicating them clearly and constantly
  • Identifying and removing obstacles to your team’s effectiveness
  • Synthesizing your team’s work
  • Connecting the people with the right skills to handle different parts of a project
  • Helping your team recognize when they’ve achieved a goal together.

In other words, in order to do their best work, your team needs to trust that the goals you’re setting will get you where you’re collectively trying to go; that your primary motivation in making system changes is to enable them to be as effective as possible; that you have a clear understanding of the impact of their work (if not the details of how to do it) and what their skill sets are; and that you can both identify when a goal has been met and show that you value that effort.

As a leader in a mission-driven company, you’ve likely got a built-in scientific advantage in the drive to establish deeper trust in your team. Research in the neuroscience of trust has shown “that having a sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production [in the brain], as does trust. Trust and purpose then mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release, which produces happiness.” In a mission-driven organization, your team is more likely to be there because they share a commitment to your mission, which can provide a more direct sense of purpose… but you’ve still got work to do to keep that mutual reinforcement cycle humming along.

In an article for First Round, a website focused on resources for tech startups, Molly Graham describes the process of developing trust in your team as “giving away your Legos.” Often, new managers are in that position at least in part because they excelled at their work as an individual contributor. If you’re accustomed to getting praise for your work because of your ability to write an excellent blog post, provide outstanding direct customer service to your patrons at the box office, or capture the hearts and dollars of major donors, it can be difficult to adjust to a role in which the value of your work is measured in other people’s effectiveness. There’s a strong impulse to keep as much control over your team’s output as possible, often to the point of doing much of the work yourself. This can be effective behavior in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. To expand your impact, you need to be able to give away your Legos – which requires you to build your infrastructure of trust.

At the same time that you’re developing trust in your team, you need your team to develop trust in you. In each direction, that trust is driven by transparency and reinforcement, and it’s demonstrated through autonomy and vulnerability; over the next several weeks, we’ll dig into each of those and how they play out in a management context.

Handling difficult conversations

A single orange rose

We’ve talked a bit about some of the reasons that corrective feedback conversations feel scary to people: we worry about how our feedback will be received, we worry that they’ll take it personally, we worry that we don’t have the full picture and therefore don’t have the “right” to deliver the feedback. Other kinds of difficult conversations carry their own fears: fear that we’ll undermine the other person’s trust in us, fear that we’ll lose credibility if we admit that we messed something up, fear that the information we have to share will negatively impact their lives… the list goes on. Adding the word “manager” to your title doesn’t mean you lose those fears, and it doesn’t mean you can ignore them, but it does mean that you don’t get to let the fear have the last word.

As an example of a difficult conversation that isn’t necessarily about corrective feedback, let’s talk about money. Most managers, especially in impact-driven organizations, will need to have a difficult conversation with a report about money within the first year or two of being a manager. Sometimes, that’s responding to a prospective hire who’s disappointed with the initial salary offer when you don’t have much flexibility; other times, it’s letting an existing employee know that the raise or promotion they requested isn’t going to happen.

Thinking about that kind of conversation might have already made you feel a little uncomfortable. That discomfort can make it really tempting, particularly when you’re dealing with an existing employee, to put the conversation off as long as possible. You might worry that telling your report that you weren’t able to get them the salary they’re looking for will make you look ineffective. You might even hope that the problem will resolve itself eventually.

Here’s how that problem will resolve itself if you don’t address it directly: your employee or prospective hire will get frustrated and lose faith in your ability to get things done. You will look ineffective. Not only that; you will be ineffective. Your report might start looking for other jobs, and your prospective hire will likely lose interest. It’s imperative that you, as a manager, initiate tough conversations when the need arises.

So how do you go about working through that discomfort and making the situation clear for your direct report?

There’s a common customer-service approach for times when a customer has asked for something you really can’t deliver: start by sharing what you can do for the customer to meet the same set of underlying needs, even if you can’t do the specific thing they’re requesting. I find it helpful to approach difficult conversations with the same framework: understand the set of needs that the employee is hoping to meet with a higher salary, and see if there are ways that you can help them meet those needs in another way.

You don’t have to guess at what those needs are, nor does your employee have to tell you specifically why they need more money; the end goal is “more money,” and that’s clear enough to make a plan. As you prepare for the conversation, it can be helpful to come up with a few ideas of how to make things work and be open to considering other ideas they might have. Think of some questions you can bring to the conversation (not all of these will be appropriate for every money conversation, and some of them are trickier than others, but they’re a start):

  • Do they need to build a certain skill set to be a good candidate for a promotion to something that’s in line with their salary needs?
  • Are there professional development opportunities like classes or conferences that you can help them identify/take advantage of at lower cost to the organization than the salary raise?
  • Would changing some of their responsibilities make their current salary feel fairer, or would that feel punitive?
  • Do they need a little more flex time to work on a side gig?
  • Are their personal growth goals better suited to opportunities outside your current organization?

As you ask these questions, be ready to apply your active listening skills so that you can fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

For the sake of clarity, it’s important to think about the first thing you say in the conversation; you don’t want them to shut down before you go into problem-solving mode. You could start the conversation with something like “I want to talk about the raise we discussed last week; while I can’t make the (full) raise happen, I’d like to talk about what we can do to make your compensation work for your needs – whether that’s an adjustment of hours, more flexibility, a different set of responsibilities, or something else that I haven’t thought of yet.”

If you’re still feeling apprehensive or fearful about the conversation, I’d encourage you to examine that fear and identify, as specifically as you can, what you’re afraid of. That’s not to say “there’s nothing to be scared of” but rather, “identify what you’re scared of, because that can help guide the way you approach the conversation.” If you’re afraid of not being clear, you can write down what you need to say ahead of time. If you’re afraid of seeming callous or “corporate” in delivering bad news related to money, practice the conversation with a friend, or better yet, a therapist. (They’re confidential and usually emotionally perceptive.)

I promise there will still be hard conversations. But you’ll be better equipped to feel in control of the situation if you can approach the conversation from a reliable framework, and from a problem-solving or problem-mitigation perspective. In fact, this isn’t really all that different from the feedback structure we talked about in an earlier post:

Initiating difficult conversationsInitiating corrective feedback
Clearly present the issue.State the behavior.
Be explicit about wanting to identify and solve for (or at least mitigate) the underlying problem.Discuss the impact of the behavior. (The impact is the underlying problem you’re trying to solve!)
Identify some ways you could use your existing resources to address the underlying problem.Identify some possible requests for future changes to the behavior.
Allow space for the other person to identify solutions you hadn’t thought of.Ask questions to gain additional context.

Perhaps more importantly, you’ll be better equipped to handle difficult conversations equitably for all the members of your diverse team, which in turn will lead to more equitable growth opportunities and increased effectiveness – in short, to a better team.

Ending the vague use of “potential”

It’s well-documented that people from underrepresented backgrounds are promoted at lower rates than white, cisgender men. The Kapor Center, for example, has gathered research on the impact of bias on advancement opportunities in the tech industry and beyond. Today I want to zero in on one factor that contributes to this lower promotion rate: the vaguely defined concept of “potential.”

It’s very common for hiring and promotion decisions to be based on someone’s perceived potential to be good at that job, rather than on past indications of performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It gives people an opportunity to grow into a new role that they might not have otherwise had. But in order for those decisions to be equitable, you need to clearly define what “potential” means for any given role. As I’ve written elsewhere, if it’s not carefully defined, the word “potential” can be a not-so-subtle stand-in for “reminds me of myself at that point in my career,” and that leads to promoting mostly people whose identity is close to your own. This leads to homogeneous leadership teams that are limited in their ability to identify problems that your organization should be solving, holding back both talented individuals and your organization as a whole.

Defining potential for a job means looking at the skills required for the role and being open and flexible about the way those skills could be developed. In particular, think about the “conventional” ways that job skills are often thought about as developing – often through expensive higher education or industry-specific experience that requires personal connections to establish. For example, if your most recent job posting for a particular role says that you require a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself:

  • What is the specific skill or experience that the Bachelor’s degree signifies that relates to someone being qualified for this job?
  • Is there another way that skill or experience could be attained?
  • In what ways am I using the idea of a Bachelor’s degree as a shortcut for asking for the skill or experience I want from someone starting out in this role?
  • Can I reasonably ask for the skill or experience instead of the Bachelor’s degree?

Additionally, defining “potential” means thinking about what you’re prepared to train someone on and what you need them to already know, or be skilled at, coming into the role. Often, we write a job description with an eye toward what someone who is already succeeding in the role will be able to do. How important is it that the person be able to succeed at those things right away? Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What resources exist internally to help someone learn to do this role?
  • What industry resources exist outside our organization to help someone develop these skill sets?
  • How much time and money can I budget for training?
  • What do other roles in my organization require that would help someone succeed in this role?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role on their first day?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after three months?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after a year?

Having the answers to these questions will not only enable you to fairly assess a wider range of candidates – it will help you establish clear expectations and enable the person hired to be more effective in the role.

One more note on this: As a manager, you probably have a high degree of control over these things on your own team. You also have the power to advocate for your team members’ advancement into roles that you don’t personally manage. When you’re advocating for a colleague from an underrepresented background to advance into a role that someone else manages, talk to that manager about what they see as potential. Asking them these questions can help them see your colleague as a possibility where they might have previously dismissed them, creating space for a more equitable team to thrive.

Active listening for managers

a purple echinacea flower in a vase, seen from above, a clear focus of attention.

In last week’s post, we talked about the importance of cultivating empathy and curiosity as foundational principles of an inclusive team, and we discussed the fact that one key skill that enables people to act out empathy and curiosity at work is active listening. This week I want to go deeper and get practical: how do you go about exhibiting that key skill to your team?

In remote settings, making it clear that you’re listening requires some intention and preparation. Before your next meeting, take a look at your setup and identify your most frequent distractions. (If your most frequent distractions are other humans currently quarantining with you, I am the wrong person to give you focus advice, and the next couple of paragraphs are probably going to sound ridiculous – but hopefully they’ll help you develop some good meeting habits that you’ll be able to stick with in days when a more controlled environment is feasible.)

In my remote-meeting setup, I generally have two monitors, one where I keep my video meeting at full-screen (tip: make this the monitor with your webcam on it for a better “I’m paying attention to you” experience for your colleagues) and the second where I’m taking notes, presenting slides, or keeping reports handy for reference. If I have my email or chat apps easily visible on the second screen, I’m likely to get distracted by incoming requests, typically things that aren’t actually urgent or important to deal with in that moment. Most of us are now conditioned to pull our attention immediately to any sort of notification icon; arrange your notification settings and browser tabs to minimize their impact on your physical and virtual meeting space.

I’m also a fidgeter. If I’m not taking notes, I’m likely to be messing with whatever object is nearest my keyboard or kicking at fidget devices at my standing desk. For the other person in the meeting, it looks like I’m not paying attention if they don’t know that it’s a focus tool for me. To preempt that feeling that my fidgeting can bring up, I try to remember to say it explicitly when I start meeting with someone new, and I try to keep my fidgeting out of frame as much as possible. Because I know this about myself, I also try to keep my phone in a place where it isn’t likely to be “the object nearest my keyboard” so that I don’t turn it into my fidget device; engaging with my phone will actually take my attention away from the meeting.

Once you’ve established an environment that allows you to pay attention to your colleague, create space for them to tell you what’s going on by asking open-ended questions. By this, I mean questions that don’t lead your colleague to any specific answer, that ideally give them a chance to describe a situation in detail, and that prompt them to say more than “yes” or “no.” (Yes-or-no questions often contain a hint at the answer you expect. Sometimes you need to do this to nudge someone toward a solution! But that’s not “active listening” mode, which should be your default.) 

The goal of your open-ended questions is to get at issues underlying any challenges or obstacles that your team member might be facing. Often, that will mean that you need to (gently) push them to consider the challenge in a new way with questions like “What do you think is causing that?” (This is a wordier way of asking “Why?”, which can sometimes make people feel defensive; “why do you think that is?” also works here.) In a relationship where you have some measure of trust already built, and the element of defensiveness is less of a factor, you can go to the “toddler tactic”: continue asking “why?” until you get to the thing that feels like the real root of the problem. (You’ll sometimes hear this described as “the Five Whys” method, generally attributed to Taiichi Ohno, the author of Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production.)

As your report describes a situation, you may identify moments where you think there’s more to be said. Listen to your instincts there; the phrase “do you want to say more about that?” is my go-to when I want them to elaborate, without inserting my interpretation of what they mean. I’ve often made a guess about what they mean before asking them to say more; asking in this way allows me to check my guess before it becomes an outright assumption.

Part of active listening is getting comfortable with moments of silence in a meeting. While your report is talking, avoid the temptation to formulate your response in your head; thinking about what you’re going to say next while someone else is talking is inaudibly talking over them. Give them space to finish talking, allow a moment or two of silence while you formulate your own response, and then continue the conversation. Nodding while you do that is a subtle way to indicate that you’re still engaged in the conversation, and I also like to be explicit that a little silence in a meeting is a good thing and doesn’t mean you’re wasting time.

One last key component of active listening as a manager: once you have the root of a challenge, work with your report to identify action items, and make sure that they happen. There are contexts where simply listening to someone is enough to support them; a manager/report relationship is not one of them. You need to take action to help them address the issue. If you plotted “behaviors of a good friend” and “behaviors of a good manager” in a Venn diagram, it would have a lot of overlap, but would not be not a circle, and listening just for the sake of listening would only land in the “behaviors of a good friend” section.

Modeling this skill is a critical part of your work as a manager of an equitable, effective team. As a leader, your organization has placed an implicit value on you and your behavior; modeling active listening as a means to empathetic, curious collaboration shows your team that those behaviors are valued in your organization and encourages them to do the same. In addition, think about how you can ask them to show this skill in their own work and measure their progress against it. (That’s a sneak preview of next week, where we’ll talk about ways to measure your team on skills that can show “potential” for more senior roles or increased responsibility.)

Cultivate empathy and curiosity among your team.

One of the central operating principles that makes diverse teams work successfully – what makes them effective – is the effort they make to get to know one another’s experiences. Approaching collaboration with empathy and curiosity is what enables those efforts to succeed.

What do I mean by empathy?

There are different ways of thinking about empathy, and to illustrate them I like to use the example of Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (If you’re not a Trek nerd like I am, hang with me here – the metaphor should still make sense.)

The character of Troi is from a planet where everyone is an empath, which means she’s able to sense the feelings of others, a valuable trait in a ship’s counselor. When she does her most effective work on the Enterprise, she’s aware of the feelings of others (even over a video call), but she isn’t experiencing those feelings herself, at least not to the same degree. She’s able to identify what’s going on for the other person emotionally, and advise Captain Picard on how to take that into account in his actions.

There are times when Troi does experience the feelings of others deeply. Those are, generally speaking, not good times for the Enterprise, nor are they good times for her. The intensity of the emotions she’s taking on prevents her from being able to take action to address the underlying issue – and at work, we have to be concerned with addressing the underlying issue. Unless we are trained therapists, we don’t have the expertise or authority to really address the experience of those feelings themselves, and to try to do so from your position as a manager will cross a personal boundary for most employees.

So, when I say that you need to cultivate empathy among your team members, I’m talking specifically about empathetic awareness. (You don’t have to be Betazoid to develop that kind of awareness!) It’s not important that your team members feel each others’ frustration and joy as if it were their own; it is important that they understand how to identify others’ emotions and take those emotions into account as they act.

Or, as I often say, feelings are not facts, but they are data. We can and should learn what the data tell us, and take those learnings into consideration as we make decisions at work. (It’s also important to note that the feeling-deeply sort of empathy is not accessible to everyone – but the good news is, you don’t need it to be.)

Curiosity drives empathy. Listening supports both.

One of the most valuable assets just about any employee has is their curiosity. A constant push to know more, to explore ideas, and to understand others’ perspectives is at the foundation of successful collaboration, and following that curiosity creates the space for empathetic awareness among your team members.

You might be thinking “how can I cultivate this on my team? Aren’t empathy and curiosity are traits that adults either have, or don’t?” And it may in fact be easier for people to work together on a diverse team if they come onto the team already inclined toward those approaches. But as a manager, you can identify the specific behaviors in which curiosity and empathy manifest on your team, and make those behaviors part of your employees’ job description.

For example, in a program management role, you might expect the employee to find ways to regularly listen to the needs of your constituents and adapt the program to better meet those needs.

You can also help to cultivate the underlying skill that lets employees enact their curiosity and empathy at work: active listening. In next week’s post I’ll talk about ways that you can model active listening for your team.

How does this tie back to equity and inclusion? One of the main obstacles that people from marginalized groups face at work is that people with more identity-based privilege lack an understanding of the unique challenges that one encounters simply by being of a particular race, gender presentation, or disability status. By creating an expectation that acting with empathy and curiosity are core to doing their jobs well, you establish empathy and curiosity as core to your work culture. By creating a work culture that emphasizes enacting empathy and curiosity through active listening, you open up space for people who face those obstacles to be heard and taken seriously, and for their more privileged colleagues to join them in solving those problems together.