This is Kommon People — the newsletter from Kommon which highlights stories about people, organisations, and technology to help you be a better manager. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
When we speak to first-time managers about the challenges they face, one of them is almost always some version of:
‘I just don’t know whether I’m doing this right.’
Not only is good management hard to measure but it can also be a jarring difference from other roles where your performance can be more easily assessed.
It’s why we really liked a recent article by John Cutler, Head of Education at Amplitude, where he summarised his thoughts on the signals he sees as evidence of healthy and high-performing teams.
He looks for:
It's not the whole answer, but chances are that if your team is exhibiting most of these characteristics, you’re doing a lot right.
If you’re missing some, perhaps have a think about whether these could be areas to improve upon.
“I am fearful, or suspicious, of generalizations... They cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about particular individuals.”
So said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg on hybrid work.
At least half of that last sentence was true.
But if she had said it about hybrid work, she’d also have been right.
As others have pointed out, every company, job, and individual is different, which makes generalizing about whether working in offices is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pretty meaningless. But that hasn’t stopped people trying.
For example, one recent narrative had various CEOs claiming that offices are more likely to foster spontaneous collaboration and creativity. This was punctured by a recent New York Times article highlighting research showing nothing of the sort.
“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation. But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever.” Ethan Bernstein, Harvard
As we’ve said before, the only way to work out the best working arrangements for your company is to consider the specific work that needs to be done, and the specific needs of your employees.
But there’s more to it than falling into the trap of generalising when you should be focussing on the specific. There’s also the signals it sends about who your company is optimising for.
Because generalisations about the future of work aren’t really generalisations. When someone says that the office ‘fosters creativity’, what they really mean is it fosters creativity for a certain type of person.
As debates about the return to the office have become more sophisticated, surveys have highlighted the reluctance of many groups for whom it may not represent an environment for them to do their best work. This includes working mothers, individuals with disabilities, and certain racial groups, to name but a few.
According to recent research by the Future Forum, only 3% of Black knowledge workers in the US want to return to full-time co-located work, versus 21% of their white colleagues.
In another study from Future Forum, Black workers reported a 50 percent increase in their sense of workplace belonging and a 64 percent increase in their ability to manage stress once they began working from home.
The New York Times piece had a telling quote from Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow. He was talking about how ‘the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation’ are because ‘that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many’:
“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias...And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?’
That is not to say remote or hybrid work is the answer for everyone. It can also be exclusionary. For example, for those who don’t have good internet, or the right equipment, or space to separate their work from their private life.
So when you’re talking about the future of work for your team, try to avoid generalisations about what does and doesn’t work.
At best, you’ll apply an irrelevant framework to your own team’s work patterns. At worst, you could end up alienating team members by describing a version of ‘good’ that they don’t recognise at all.
Instead, try and stay specific - to your work context, and how your team feels they can work at their best.
This was the title of a recent newsletter by Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale at Raw Signal Group, a Canadian leadership consultancy.
Whilst the whole piece is worth reading, a lot of it’s power is captured in those five words. You could write them in giant letters on every internal HR memo on mental health.
And there have been a lot of these memos recently. Widespread pandemic burnout has been extensively covered in the press and it’s likely a topic of discussion in your workplace.
Those five words are an important reminder that when we do discuss it, burnout is almost always an organisational issue. Although, as the newsletter acknowledges, some may not want to see it that way.
‘When someone on your team says they're burning out, it's a little bit tempting, in your inside voice, to feel like you've identified a person who can't cut it.’
But actually, when someone tells you they’re burnout out, what they’re really telling you is:
‘This is a company that burns people out."
It’s likely a problem that requires structural solutions, not a mental health webinar or a yoga class.
This is evident from the Maslach Burnout inventory, a psychological assessment of burnout as defined by the World Health Organisation.
As Cate Huston recently summarised, according to this framework, the six causes of burnout are:
Most of these factors are outside the control of the individual employee.
So if burnout is an issue on your team, listen carefully to those signals. Don’t focus on the individual, and try and work out where the organisational pressures are and what role you can play in alleviating them.
As anyone who has worked or interviewed at Amazon knows, they care a lot about their 14 Leadership Principles.
With titles like ‘Learn and Be Curious’ and ‘Hire and Develop the Best’, the principles are meant to hold all Amazon employees accountable and guide their actions in the workplace.
Well, in the same week that Jeff Bezos leaves his post as CEO, the company has realised it was missing a further two all this time and has just added the following:
Now the cynic might say that the honest accompanying guidance to these two might read something like the following:
But the actual wording of how Amazon is going to ‘strive to be earth’s best employer’ covers a lot of bases for what it means to be a good manager.
‘Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.’
It’s a bit wordy if we’re being honest, but the last line is spot on: