When you pause to think about it, one of the most valuable things we do as managers is provide context.
Context is the information which enables our team members to understand the actions we take. The right context keeps people informed, motivated and productive. Insufficient context does the opposite.
We were reminded of this when reading a recent post by Dave Rensin, reflecting on lessons learned during his 6 years at Google after he recently resigned as their Senior Director of Engineering. Particularly this part:
‘If you don’t understand why your manager (or SVP or whatever) has made a decision you don’t like, ask. If it seems illogical/stupid to you then that almost always means you are lacking context. You still might not agree, but once you have context you are far less likely to think badly of the decider.’
‘When one of my reports would bring up a complaint about someone else, say, a coworker who never seemed to listen to his suggestions, I’d try to help him see the other side—maybe she doesn’t know you feel this way. Maybe you’re missing context. Have you tried talking to her?’
Both these comments show the value of context. Without it, it’s easy for team members to feel out-of-the-loop, disoriented and in some cases, hold grudges.
It’s your job as a manager to try and get on the front foot and proactively provide your team with the information you think they’ll need and want, before they have to ask you for it. Whenever you hear something useful for someone on your team, make sure to pass it on.
"My educated guess is that 50% of my job as a manager is information acquisition, assessment, and redistribution. It is my primary job and the efficiency with which I do this is a direct contribution to the velocity of the team." Michael Lopp, Engineering Leader, Apple
This is a hard practice to get into, and sometimes you won’t always get it right. But at least now, the next time you see tensions bubbling, ask yourself whether the relevant parties have all the context they need? You might be able to solve a lot of problems through information you already have, but just haven't managed to share.
There’s a quick coda to this story...
To ensure his team members had the context they needed, and to promote transparency, Rensin held ‘Beat Dave Up’ sessions where his team were encouraged to ask him really hard questions, following this method:
We are NOT recommending this for every team (not least because a lot of context is best delivered 1:1 rather than in a group setting). But it’s a good example of one manager thinking creatively about ways to ensure his team has the context they need to do their best work.
It’s worth every manager thinking critically about that question, even if they come up with a very different answer.
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We’ve compiled a list of questions you can ask your managers and team members to identify the challenges they face, and help you pick the right solutions.