Discussing a team member’s career should be a valuable conversation which gives managers the context they need to set someone up for success.
Instead, when a manager says, ‘we should talk about your career goals’, the subsequent discussion is often awkward and difficult.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We break down why these conversations go badly, and propose a better way.
Last week, Kelly Ellis, a principal software engineer at Mailchimp, the marketing automation company, publicly resigned in a series of tweets which accused the company of gender discrimination and harassment.
The tweets lay out a painful pattern of exclusion and discrimination at work, which made her deeply unhappy and ultimately leave. Mailchimp for its part has described the allegations as “unsubstantiated” (we’ll get onto their response in a moment).
We’re reporting on this because, as Ellis herself says, she actually wanted to stay at the company! Besides being an indictment of the treatment she received, her story is a giant warning sign for managers of how you can lose talented employees who want to work for you.
Business Insider obtained the email that Mailchimp’s Chief People and Culture Officer sent to staff in the aftermath of Ellis’s departure, so you can read the company’s response in full.
Unsurprisingly, the company doesn’t want to get into specifics, so the response is unsatisfying. It spends most of the time focussing on the pay equity issue, referring to an external review which concluded that the company pays equitable salaries. Interestingly, White acknowledges “we know many of you are looking for more transparency around employee pay” so it may be a more general issue.
All the other issues we’ve highlighted which led to her leaving are swept under the broad rug of “confidential” and “unsubstantiated”. Which we guess leaves it to pieces like this to highlight some of the lessons that others might learn.
Trust in teams is good. As a manager, it’s nice to be trusted and to have people you can trust. So far, so obvious.
But just how important is it? A recent article explored some of the costs when it doesn’t exist, and they’re significant.
In short, if trust doesn’t exist between you and a team member, its absence doesn’t just create a void where everyone’s sad about the lack of trust on the team and moves on. Instead, rather than operating through trust, formal processes will start to creep in to govern your relationship.
For managers, this most often manifests in checking on employees to make sure they’re doing their tasks, and other forms of micromanagement. For team members, this in turn leads to the pressure to be always on and to look busy. At best, this monitoring is a vast waste of everyone’s time. At worst, it can be severely detrimental to mental health.
Last year, the Harvard Business Review reported on a survey which found:
“For those workers reporting low levels of monitoring (less than 2 on a 5-point scale), 7% were often or always anxious when doing their job. But for those reporting high levels of monitoring (more than 4 on a 5-point scale), 49% were often or always anxious when carrying out their job.”
So although it might seem intangible, ask yourself how much you trust your team? If the answer isn’t as high as you’d like, you’re probably compensating with a range of behaviours which could have a negative impact on your team’s performance and wellbeing.
So what’s the solution?
Shane Parrish, who wrote the original article, puts it pretty simply:
“If you want people to trust you, the best place to start is by trusting them. That isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’ve paid the price for it in the past. But it’s the best place to start. Then you need to combine it with repeat interactions, or the possibility thereof.”
We’d agree, but it also depends on regular communication. Tobi Lutke, the CEO of Shopify, has this metaphor of a trust battery which he uses with those he works with.
“I can have a conversation with someone saying, “Hey, you made a commitment to ship this thing, and you did. That's awesome. That's a super big charge on the trust battery, but you’re actually late for every meeting. Even though that's relatively minor—like it decreases 0.1% on your battery—you should fix that.”
Lutke’s not formally keeping track, but just letting people know that trust is important and when something has positively or negatively impacted that.
Kim Scott, author and management coach, described how after making several new hires, the first question one CEO asked her was “How can I build a relationship with each of them quickly, so that I can trust them and they can trust me?” We should all be asking similar questions.
Angie Jones is an expert automation engineer, currently working as a Senior Director of Developer Relations at Applitools. She recently told some stories from her career in a piece for Github’s ReadME project, which aims to amplify voices in the open source community.
She recounts her career from college, through IBM and her current work, pausing at various points to reflect on her experience as a Black woman as she made that journey. The whole piece is excellent but we wanted to focus on one particular story from when she joined IBM. Her account contains valuable lessons for managers on creating inclusive spaces where all voices can be heard, and the costs of not doing so.
In Jones’ words:
I was born and raised in New Orleans and went to an HBCU (historically Black college and university) for undergrad. So I was surrounded by people who looked like me until I went to IBM, which was predominantly white males.
It was a culture shock and caused me to constantly second-guess myself. In collaboration meetings, I kept my ideas to myself because they were so different from the ideas presented by my colleagues, so I figured they weren’t good. While I completed all of my assignments ahead of schedule, I received a bad review because my manager felt I wasn’t showing initiative. I disagreed, but at the end of the day, perception is reality.
So I told myself, “You have to share your goofy little ideas or you won’t make it.” So I did. And to my surprise, no one laughed. In fact, my colleagues were wowed by the ideas and considered them unique and innovative. I gained newfound confidence and actually started patenting the ideas through IBM. Now I have 26 patents.
Not all managers will have team members like Angie Jones who despite that environment, still speak up. It’s a salient reminder that if we don’t create inclusive spaces, we miss out on potentially ground-breaking ideas. Even if it’s not 26 patents. Even if it’s not 1 patent. Even if it’s just one time that someone feels they can’t speak up on anything because their voice isn’t valued, your team loses.
So take this story as a point to reflect on whether the same dynamics might apply on your team, and if there’s anyone whose voice would be raised a little higher if the space was created for them.