Managing Expectations, Giving Advice, DEI Consultants, and Paying Attention
June 3, 2021
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.
In this Issue
How to manage unrealistic expectations: we highlight a framework for keeping you and your team members on the same page and avoiding tensions.
How to give advice: as managers, we (should) often get asked to give advice. We look at one crucial way to make sure you’re doing it right.
Your company has hired DEI consultants, now what: your company might have hired, or be considering hiring, consultants to help with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. What exactly do they do?
Why your team’s not paying attention in meetings: one of the largest studies of remote meetings finds that 30% of people don’t give them their full attention . Here’s what that means for how you run your meetings.
How to Manage Unrealistic Expectations
If managing underperformance is one of the greatest challenges for first-time managers, then dealing with unrealistic expectations might be its frustrating younger cousin.
In some cases, it’s even harder to pin the problem down.
With underperformance, it’s often due to a specific behaviour you can point to and work on. His internal communication isn’t good enough which means we’re missing deadlines. The quality of her analysis isn’t sharp enough so clients aren’t getting value from our products. These are things that you can try and fix.
But ‘I’m unhappy because this job isn’t what I thought it would be’. That’s harder.
It can also translate into disgruntled team members trying to drag otherwise happy colleagues into their well of disappointment. Things can get pretty toxic. We’ve seen it happen.
Often by that point it’s too late.
This is one of the lessons from the latest blog post by Katie Wilde, a VP of Engineering at Buffer. In it, she reflects on where misaligned expectations between her and certain team members about their role led to toxic situations and ultimately resignations.
She pinpoints four areas where you can work to get on the same page:
Recruitment: this is your first opportunity to set expectations. Yes, you want to promote your company and attract talent, but you also want to make sure you’re not over-selling, particularly in areas where there might be friction. Wilde says she asks what frustrates people at work, and if some of those dynamics exist at Buffer, she’s open about it, so the candidate can make an informed decision if that’s a deal-breaker for them.
Onboarding: if you want to help a team member successfully navigate your organisation, you’re going to need to tell them about any messy parts, and the workarounds people use to get stuff done. Onboarding is a good time to do this. For example, Wilde says she’s been open with new hires about a reorg that’s going on and how to work through that.
Setting boundaries: letting people know what behaviours are and aren’t appropriate on your team can be difficult and could take up a whole post on its own. If you’ve hired well there won’t be too many of these conversations, but you may have to intervene if you see something that’s not ok. Wilde uses the example of a team member constantly using team meetings to vent publicly about her issues. In these instances, timely feedback to set boundaries is essential.
Teaching ‘disagree and commit’: as a manager you won’t always be able to solve every problem for every team member, or agree with them on every issue. You have multiple team members’ interests to balance with those of your company. When an issue is beyond your control, or you’ve prioritized someone/thing else over a team member, you need to be clear about it, explain why, and ask them to commit to moving forward. Or if they can’t, consider whether the team/company is the right fit for them. Continually disappointing someone by failing to solve issues beyond your control, or letting those issues fester, is a recipe for disaster.
How to Give Better Advice
‘Could I ask for your advice on something?’
You probably get asked this question reasonably often by members of your team. You might even think you’re quite good at giving it.
For her, good ‘advice’ is a myth. It’s based on the idea that you can offer guidance without a foundational awareness of someone’s strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and position in life.
‘It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions. In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact… real assistance requires contact.’
For Callard, we should be aiming for either ‘coaching’, which is informed by this awareness, or simply ‘instructions’, where we offer task-specific guidance.
For some, that might sound a bit like playing with semantics, but we think her basic point is right and very relevant to your experience as a manager.
When a team member asks you for help, do you know enough about them and their circumstances to genuinely coach them to improve, or do you only know enough to give them some quick ‘advice’?
If the answer is the latter, then next time you’re asked for advice, before you jump into solving the problem, pause to consider whether you know enough about the person to offer meaningful help.
If not, you may wish to ask a few questions of your own first before responding to theirs.
Your Company has Hired DEI Consultants, Now What?
Consultants to assist organisations with their diversity, equity, and inclusion are in high demand.
You might work somewhere which has already hired some. Or is thinking of doing so.
You might even be sitting there thinking something like this:
‘When your clients are these companies that are desperate to do anything and don’t quite understand how this works, ineffective DEI work can be lucrative. And we’re seeing cynicism pop up as a result, that DEI is just a shitty way in which companies burn money. And I’m like, Yeah, it can be.”
Not the words of a sceptical employee with one eye on a job at Basecamp, but Lily Zheng, a San Francisco-based DEI consultant.
As she acknowledges, these services are evolving rapidly, it’s not clear what they include, and there’s limited industry oversight:
‘Anyone can call themselves a DEI practitioner’
So if your company’s about to hire one, what should you and your team expect?
Zheng’s quote comes from an excellent recent article by Bridget Read exploring the diversity consulting industry and what companies are buying when they purchase these services. It explores the history of the industry, and the various strategies, good and bad, used by different agencies to effect change.
It’s also fiercely well-written, as Read takes us through various cycles of ‘death, protest and corporate spending’ via the white male CEO who said “I think I handle colored people all right” and the executives who were puzzled when putting a black square on instagram ‘didn’t work’.
If you’re interested in learning more about what your company might have just bought, we’d recommend giving it a read.
Why Your Team’s not Paying Attention in Meetings
If you bother to organise a meeting, ideally you want people to be paying attention.
But as all our meetings have become virtual, if you scan the ‘room’, there’ll almost always be someone whose eyeballs are flicking from side-to-side, betraying the fact that they’ve chosen a far more interesting article on cat NFTs than your update on monthly product usage statistics.
We think there’s several key takeaways for managers in how we organize our meetings so our teams get the most out of them.
If you see people not paying attention, it’s probably because:
They have too much work: in 39% of responses, people mentioned that they multi-task in meetings to catch up on their other work. If you find people prioritizing their work over your meeting, you perhaps need to have a conversation about their workload or question whether attending the meeting is the best use of their time.
It’s not relevant enough: in 17% of responses during the study, people mentioned that they multi-task in meetings they find irrelevant or have a lack of interest in. So if you find people consistently tuning out, it may be worth asking whether they find your meeting useful in the first place.
It’s a large meeting: the study found that as more and more participants were added to a meeting, the more likely people were to multi-task. Now, this may be because participants could genuinely get value out of the parts of the meeting that were relevant to them, and tune out for the rest. But we bet that there are many in there who would have got more value from not attending the meeting at all.
It’s a recurring meeting: the study found significantly higher rates of multi-tasking in recurring and scheduled meetings rather than ad-hoc meetings. Again, this likely reflects the heightened relevance of ad hoc meetings, rather than recurring ones. If you see people switching off in your recurring meetings, again consider whether the meeting is needed at all or whether you should try shaking up the format.
It’s in the morning: approximately 30% of those studied were emailing during virtual meetings. Generally email actions peak in the morning. If you want your team to be less distracted by email, then it follows that you should arrange meetings in the afternoon. (We appreciate that different teams have different operating cadences and this won’t be relevant for everyone).
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