On being rested

Orchids on display at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in December 2021.

As you might know, I’ve spent the last three months between jobs following my second COVID-era layoff. I’m starting up a new role on Monday, and it feels like a good moment to think about what these last few months of very little work have meant for me and for how we can get our teams what they need in even “these times.”

I should start by saying that I’m extremely fortunate that my cost of living was covered by unemployment insurance, and I have a pretty reliable financial safety net with no one else depending on me financially. So this is all in the context of a confidence that I’d be able to pay for housing and food even if I didn’t get hired for several months. Also, the job market felt radically different this time than in March of 2020: companies were reaching out to me, lots of jobs that aligned with my skill set were getting posted, more companies understood how to make a remote interview work (though let’s be honest – lots of places have still got a long way to go there). I had the support of a broader network and more friends who weren’t also unemployed.

Under that radically different job market is – yes – the Great Resignation, a catchall term that stands in for those who have left the workforce because work can’t support their families or their dignity; those who can no longer work because COVID made it impossible; and a staggering death toll that we continue to gloss over. But under it is also the Great Unionization (are we calling it that yet?): victories of workers coming into their collective power, demanding better working conditions and management who can take a longer, more sustainable view of what makes a company AND the people who comprise it thrive.

So that radically different feeling, coupled with vaccinations, meant that while there was and is plenty to be broadly anxious about in the world, I could let go of much of the personal anxiety that characterized April and May of 2020 for me. I could be confident that I would be okay. I could let myself read books and give more volunteer time and look at art and take on a couple of interesting freelance projects.

Now, three months into that space, I finally don’t feel like I’m under the thumb of burnout that was pressing for so long and that frankly couldn’t be lifted during the early months of the pandemic, no matter how many novels I inhaled. I feel, at some level, ready to return to finding and solving new problems, ready to be a practicing manager again without worrying that I will constantly need to protect my team from my own feelings.

It took all this to get here. It took three months of relative security and confidence that I would be okay, with most of my time being able to be spent on things that energize me.

That’s all very swell for me as an individual, but it’s also so far from the norm right now as to be almost laughable. Like the lesson here is “have enough money.” Very useful information, Hands.

So the obvious next question for readers of this blog is: how can we, as leaders of companies and teams, systematize the benefits of the kind of experience I’ve had over the last few months? How can we normalize and support people taking sabbaticals from everyday work where the focus isn’t caretaking or producing? While we are actively working, how can we make sure there is room in our lives for the things that energize us, if work isn’t serving that purpose? (And let’s face it: it’s a rare job that doesn’t take more energy than it gives.) How can we set goals that match our capacity to sustain the effort they require?

The answer to most of these questions will require a lot of listening: listening to your teams, listening to what your own feelings are telling you (because feelings are not facts, but they are data!), listening to workers in and outside your particular industry, who face different kinds of identity-based challenges, and being brave enough to make changes that serve the long term even if it means not making that short-term goal.

My wish for all of us for 2022, fellow managers, is that we continue to listen and act and listen again.

Owning your power as a manager

View from Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. A boulder is visible in the foreground with some pine trees below it, and trees in autumn colors and ponds are visible in the distance. The sky is blue with wisps of clouds.

Recently I’ve noticed a pattern of managers having a hard time admitting or accepting that they hold power within their organization – specifically, that they hold power over others. I want to take a little space here to talk through why that’s hard, and why I need you to own the power you already hold. And I’m using the word “power” intentionally here – sometimes it manifests as influence, which is a more comfortable word for some people, but it’s crucial that we maintain awareness of power dynamics that exist whether we want them to or not.

I’ve heard arguments that managers, especially middle managers, don’t really have power because they are beholden to so many other factors: your organization’s culture can override your personal influence, other people can override your decisions, company policy is set by someone else, etc. Here’s the thing: power doesn’t have to be absolute in order to exist. Even boards and CEOs have limits on their power, even if the space between those limits is bigger than for someone managing a small team within a larger org.

What does that power look like?

Recognizing our power is easier when we have specific things to look out for. Here are a few that are common to most managers:

  • Literal hiring/firing responsibilities.

If this is part of your job description, it’s the most obvious/direct power you have over a person: at some level, you control their access to their current job and influence their ability to get other jobs in the future.

  • Performance evaluation responsibility.

This is bigger than it looks at first glance. No matter what the shape of your current organization is like, you are part of a broader culture where an awful lot of people put an awful lot of their personal self-worth into their ability to do their jobs well. I do think this is starting to shift for the better, but a great many of us are still stuck in it. That means that we managers have a responsibility to be aware of the power dynamic that creates: we have the ability to impact not just their work environment, but what reports think of themselves by virtue of our responsibility to evaluate their work.

  • The ability to decide what other people do (delegation)

Yes, delegation is a pretty limited power. But your ability to assign certain kinds of work to your team members, and to do it in a way that either enables them to feel successful or sets them up to flounder, impacts the quality of their day-to-day work life.

  • Influence over decision-making processes and resourcing

Whether you’re gathering data to show what your team is capable of and where you need more help, advocating for raises, or identifying processes that can be streamlined, you’re exercising power over the way the organization is run.

  • Holding a unique perspective within the organizational system

(Psst… everyone has this, not just managers.) We often forget that the folks above us in the org chart don’t automatically know everything we know and then some. If you have a boss or other authority that you report to, you have information about the way the organization is running that they don’t have… unless you give it to them. You know what challenges your team is up against and if you can share how those things are keeping the organization from meeting its bigger-picture goals, you’ve got a much better chance of solving or simplifying those challenges. (Yes, I’m talking about managing up – check out Lara Hogan’s excellent blog for more on that.)

  • The ability to facilitate career growth

Whether you’re coaching, mentoring, or sponsoring your direct reports, you’re in a position that enables you to facilitate their career growth in and out of your team.

All of these are directly tied to the amount of trust that you’ve built with everyone around you.

I think this is the part that makes people uncomfortable. We often associate the word “power” with brute force, assume that exercising power means pulling rank, making people do things they don’t want to do “or else.” There’s a general undertone that power is unfair. This association means that we feel like exercising power means exploiting the trust that we’ve carefully built with our teams. In reality, our jobs are a constant flow of building and relying on trust with our teams, and we’re doing that within the framework of a power dynamic that can either bolster that trust or diminish it. (There could be an entire blog post on the difference between exploiting trust and relying on it, but for now let’s just acknowledge that there’s an important distinction).

What if you don’t acknowledge your power?

  • Your ability to do your job diminishes: Your team loses faith in your effectiveness, which in turn reduces their ability to be as effective.
  • You miss opportunities for real positive impact at every level that you interact on: chances to advocate for individuals, to enable your team as a whole to work better together, to influence the culture of the organization in ways that align with your values.
  • You avoid necessary difficult conversations because you assume you don’t have what it takes to solve the problem.
  • You lose opportunities for your own growth. If you don’t believe you hold power, you’re less likely to take risks or try new things that can lead to real improvement.
  • You burn out because you don’t feel effective at what you’re doing.
  • Maybe most importantly: Your power manifests in ways you didn’t intend, which can hurt people unnecessarily.

What happens if you do?

  • You start to be able to use it intentionally and with integrity.
  • You become conscious of what actions build your power (hint: they’re mostly the same things that build trust) and what actions rely on the power you’ve built.
  • Your ability to use your power effectively reinforces your team’s trust in you, creating a positive feedback loop.
  • You find the edges of your power, which gives you space to create impactful alliances with others when your power isn’t the right kind for the task at hand. (This is why superheroes come in teams.)
  • You’re better able to create boundaries around what you do and don’t expect of yourself. You can say: here is where my power is, and within that I expect excellence of myself. Here is where my power isn’t, and if I don’t have the kind of impact I want over that area, I can still sleep at night.
  • You’re better able to identify when identity-based power dynamics at play: maybe you’re a white person with authority over BIPOC folks, maybe you’re not disabled but have reports who are, maybe you’re cisgender and have reports who are trans. When you’re cognizant of your power, you can be honest with yourself about when you’re doing right by those communities and when a misuse or neglect of your power is harmful to them.

When we’re managing well, we’re operating more from the trust we’ve built with our team than we are from a sense of authority conferred by our title. To keep managing well, we have to stay cognizant of the fact that that trust is a form of power, and accept both the responsibility and the possibility that comes with that.

Navigating the Great Resignation

Hi y’all. It’s been a minute since I’ve posted here! It’s good to see you.

A few weeks ago I posted something on LinkedIn that seemed to resonate with folks:

The Great Resignation is going to be, at best, a really unsatisfying game of musical chairs if employers and managers don’t take a hard look at ourselves and start treating the root causes of the burnout everybody’s hitting.

And of course, leaders and managers are burned out too. The hard work of addressing systemic issues in our organizations can only happen if we’re willing and ready to put our energy behind that work. So to you, my fellow leaders and managers: what are you doing to recharge that specific bank of energy and put it toward taking better care of your people?

Based on the comments on that post, the leaders I know are struggling. The best we can come up with on our own is often “take real time off” which is important! But let’s be honest: it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, it just separates us from it.

So. In an effort to help us connect and hold each other accountable for addressing the systemic issues that got us here – and keep our new hires from cycling right back out the door – I’m setting up (hopefully) affordable office hours through my employer, Now IT Matters, every Friday at 3:30pm ET/12:30 PT. Come once, come every week, whatever you need – it’ll be confidential, with no more than 7 people so we can really dig into what folks are facing, and I’ll be there to offer advice, guiding questions, and resources so that we can continue making our workplaces more equitable and effective. You can also book me for 1:1 coaching – I offer hour-long or half-hour-long sessions.

(I also owe a shoutout to Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s excellent workshop on leading through burnout, which I was lucky to attend a previous session of – if you’ve got the budget, I highly recommend registering for the upcoming session on 9/15. Not an ad, just an endorsement.)

Whether you’re new to managing or a seasoned leader, chances are pretty solid that you’re facing some brand-new challenges right now. I know I am. We don’t have to face them alone.

Update: Since writing this post I’ve separated from my former employer, but the above link will still work to book group coaching or office hours with me. Take care of each other.

Recognizing remote overwork and burnout

A joshua tree is growing bent over sideways in the foreground of a desert landscape.

Like most managers, I’ve spent time staring down some major burnout. At one point, I was directly managing 15 people who worked shifts that covered more than 100 hours per week. I felt that in order to be a good manager, I needed to be available to everyone at all times… but that wasn’t translating the way I expected. I was working all the time, but we weren’t meeting our goals by just about any metric. I knew I needed to make some significant changes to the way the team and I operated, if we were all going to continue doing this work for much longer.

I wasn’t alone in struggling to find the right balance of what to work on, when, and how much. There are those who insist that nothing can be accomplished in less than 80 hours per week; others posit that you only get a few hours of productive time per day and it’s pointless for knowledge workers to spend more than that trying to get things done. In our current environment of shelter-in-place orders, there are even more variables at play: who has to spend their time caring for kids or other loved ones? Who is navigating personal grief? Who has to manage deep anxiety without the in-person help of their usual therapist? How, and when, does the attention required for work fight through the ambient stress of one’s household and the internet?

Often, those extolling the virtues of long hours (or, now, turning quarantine into an opportunity to build a side hustle) have viewed that time as a proxy for dedication and commitment. Dedication and commitment are, in turn, considered morally virtuous. This is a trap that mission-driven organizations are especially prone to: look at all the time I dedicated to the cause, all the sacrifices I made, often for little or no money! I must be a good person. In fact, I must be a better person than my colleague who stopped working at 5 sharp every day.

It sounds absurd when I put it that way, but many of us have felt it; it’s often easy to see when other people have fallen into the overwork trap, but it’s harder to identify from inside.

How do we know if we’re in the trap?

Think about what this looks like when you see it in your friends: In work that involves communication – whether that’s writing grants, creating marketing copy, or answering customer service questions – we can see others start to lose the cohesiveness of their thoughts when they’re overworked. We can see others tend to lose empathy when they’re tired or hungry, and how that makes it harder to connect with the people they work with, which in turn makes them less effective and can even damage their relationships. In work that requires attention to detail, we can see when someone’s pushing past the point where focus comes easily, and we anticipate how much extra work they’re about to create for themselves.

In remote environments, it becomes even more critical to be able to identify these red flags in yourself – you can’t rely on your colleagues seeing it in your face or your posture. It’s a lot easier to dismiss each other’s effort, assume ill intent, or simply ignore each other when we aren’t physically present together. Identifying the signs that we’re in the trap becomes essential to maintaining the team’s trust in the long term.

Okay, so then how do we get out?

Pulling ourselves out of the overwork trap isn’t easy. When we’ve connected the idea of our value as a person to the idea that we spend most of our waking hours “working,” reducing that working time can carry a lot of guilt. Back when I was managing that 15-person team, I had to be able to see for myself that the work I produced in fewer hours – with a focus on outcomes, not inputs – was better and more useful than what I was doing before. It wasn’t until then I was able to shake the sense that I “should” be working in a moment when I knew I wasn’t focused enough. It took me too long to recognize that by simply trying to be available all the time, I was preventing myself from giving my team my best at any time.

To get out of that pattern, I had to make it my job to ensure that they would have the resources they needed to keep things running smoothly if I shut off my phone to watch a movie or cook a nice dinner with a friend, if (in the Before Times) I went camping in the mountains for a weekend, or even took (gasp) an actual vacation. I had to come to terms with the fact that if my team struggled when they were on their own, the thing standing in their way wasn’t my lack of constant availability, but a lack of clarity in how they were supposed to be doing their jobs – and creating that clarity was my responsibility. Providing more of that clarity, in the form of documentation, clear evaluation rubrics, and structures for improvement, removed the whole system’s apparent reliance on one key node (me) and made it a much more sustainable operation in general. In future posts we’ll go deeper into what it looks like to create clarity for your team; for right now, let’s just do a quick check: are you hydrated?