What’s the best way to run an effective all-hands meeting?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution — but there are best practices. Here are 5 recommendations from leaders all over the world on how to hold a well-run company-wide meeting.

“Does my team think this is a waste of time?” The thought slips into your mind as your prepare for your all-hands meeting. Whether it’s the first all-hands you’ve prepared for or your fiftieth, the question inevitably creeps up.

You need to get everyone in your company on the same page. And so, like most leaders, you decided to hold an all-hands meeting.

But, you wonder if the energy in the room will be flat. Are the topics being covered repetitive? Will folks be sitting there, dying to do just anything else than attend the all-hands?

To figure out how to hold an effective all-hands meeting — one that employees don’t dread or feel apathetic about — I posed the question to The Watercooler, our online community of 1,000+ leaders from all over the world: What do they do to make sure their all-hands meeting is not a waste of time?

The answers I received were from companies as small as 10 employees to companies as big as 260, with ideas as varied as their company size.

However, they did agree on these five recommendations for an effective all-hands meeting:

#1: Never shut up about your mission, vision, values, and goals.

Whatever you choose to talk about, tie it back to the bigger picture of what the company is trying to accomplish. Progress motivates employees— so sharing how their progress fits into the company’s progress gives them energy. One Watercooler member remarked: “Because my business partner and I talk about this stuff (mission/vision/values) all the time, it feels like old news to me. But a big part of our jobs as leaders is to never shut up about this stuff.

#2: Pull back the curtain.

Reveal something in the company that is opaque. Unlike status update meetings or quarterly emails, the all-hands meeting is a rare opportunity to shine a light on something most people in the company find confusing or “off limits” to talk about. For example, some companies will walk through their financials at a high-level. Other companies have the CEO share her thoughts on the vision for the company over the next year.

#3: Mix it up, keep it fresh.

Yawn. Watercooler members admitted that all-hands meetings can become, well, boring. Pass around the mic and avoid the potential of CEOs droning on (myself included!). Delegating speaking roles will get everyone involved, and give folks who best know their domain a chance to shine. Consider also mixing up the meeting format each time, as well. You could invite an outside speaker for one meeting, or ask a team to give a presentation for another. When you vary the format, you can better keep your team’s attention.

#4: Don’t make them mandatory.

The minute you make something required, people resent it. Don’t twist employees’ arms or cajole them into showing up to an all-hands meeting. Instead, make it clear what benefits of attending are, and make it optional. Watercooler members noticed that they saw the greatest engagement during their all-hands meetings when they didn’t force everyone on their team to attend.

#5: Invite critical questions.

It can feel daunting to open yourself up for questions to a room full of 80 people. But your vulnerability has an upside: You show your employees you’re open. And, you source insights that you typically might not get. If your team tends to be resistant to asking tough questions, offer a few questions to your team to get the back rolling. For example you could ask:

  • Who in the company has done great work here that’s gone unnoticed?
  • Is there anything we’re behind the curve on as a company?
  • Have you seen a competitor do anything recently that made you think, “I wish we’d done that?”
  • What red tape do you think we can cut at the company?
  • What’s one thing we could do to improve these all-hands meetings?

Ask these questions, and you’ll inspire someone in the room to ask a critical question of their own.

How many of these things are you already doing during your all-hands meeting? If you have yet to try one, give it a shot. Even implementing one of these best practices can be the difference between your all-hands being a waste of time or a good use of it.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Stickers vs. Words: 8 ways to give employee recognition sincerely

I’m tired of gimmicky ways to praise your team. Here’s how to commend your team for a job well done, meaningfully.

My third grade teacher Ms. Mullens had a bulletin board of star stickers in her classroom. On the board, she’d place a star sticker next to your name if you’d cleaned out your cubby, tucked in your chair, and turned in your homework on time.

I liked those star stickers. But what I appreciated even more was what Ms. Mullins wrote on my report card: “Claire is a conscientious, caring individual…

I still remember that decades later. Her words mattered, not her stickers.

When it comes to employee recognition, we seem to have forgotten this. These days, we care about the stickers — not the the words.

Rocket ship emojis in the Slack “kudos” channel, employee recognition software with “badges,” and Amazon gift cards awarded at all-hands meetings — this is the new norm for CEOs and managers who thank their employees. Now I love a perfectly-placed, underutilized emoji (and Amazon gift card!) as much as anyone. But some of the most meaningful moments of my career have not been because someone gave me a thumbs-up badge. I’ve felt most valued when I did one small thing that really helped someone I worked with, and that person let me know in a sincere way.

Employee recognition is about saying something, and meaning it. If a heart emoji or a free lunch are the only ways you say “thank you” or “good job” in your company — you’re missing the point. If you want to say something sincerely, say it with words.

We rely on stickers, gadgets and trinkets to express our gratitude because, often times, we don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it.

So I asked our leadership community of 1,000+ managers at The Watercooler what advice they had for managers who struggle to give praise in a sincere way. Here’s what they had to say:

#1: Don’t force it.

Praise is useful for encouraging your team — but it should be organic. If you find yourself struggling to come up with praise for an employee, pass on it this time around. Better to not say anything at all than to say something you don’t 100% believe is true.

#2: Share a customer review.

If you find it hard or awkward to let an employee know how they’re doing, try sharing feedback from a happy customer. One Watercooler member admitted: “Frankly, it makes praise easier to give and more genuine when it comes from customers.”

#3: Focus on recognizing individuals, not just teams.

As managers, our default is to “thank the sales team” or “thank the design team.” Yet, if applied too broadly, the benefits of that praise can stagnate. Studies have shown individual-based recognition systems tend to be more effective than team-based recognition systems (particularly in Western countries).

#4: Remove the buzzwords.

“You’re a rock star who’s killing it.” Yuck. Anytime you use a trite phrase, you erode the sincerity within your comment. Don’t depend on hyperbole to communicate your praise. Take a moment to be specific. Say what you mean.

#5: Praise people during one-on-one meetings.

There is nothing more sincere than commending someone face-to-face. They can hear your tone, read your body language, and look you in the eye. In these settings, you can also go into greater of detail why you value their work, and the impact of this person’s contributions to the company.

#6: Don’t be afraid to praise publicly, in front of everyone.

When you’re in a group, you can highlight and publicly praise individuals who have made progress since your last meeting. This helps establish what “good work” looks like to the entire team, and inspires other team members to step up. In fact, studies show that other team members benefit when a top performer is recognized (this is known as “recognition spillover effects.”)

#7: Make sure praise comes from peers , not just managers.

Encourage your team to praise one another. Getting recognition from you as a manager matters, but it’s also helpful to know peers appreciate hard work. One Watercooler member offered an example of a weekly tradition where people take a few minutes out of their day to give praise to their peers. “It’s optional… Not everybody gives and gets thank you’s every week, which keeps it from feeling forced or inauthentic.”

#8: Use your stickers sparingly.

Tangible gifts can backfire. A 2009 global survey conducted by McKinsey observed that non-cash incentives are more effective than cash incentives — including performance-based cash bonuses. And, they can offend some people who find them transactional. In this situation, it’s wise to ask people what they prefer on a individual basis. Also be wary that a “kudos” system in a digital communication channel (e.g. Slack) can come across as disingenuous for some teams. Ask your team if they’d enjoy it, or test it out before committing fully.

Not sure what specific words you should use when giving praise?

If you’re stuck on the words themselves, here are some ideas Watercooler members shared for things to say when you’re not sure how to praise people:

  • I like the way you’ve been showing up lately. I don’t care about the mistakes; you already know what they are. I appreciate how you’ve been taking accountability for them.
  • Thanks for helping me with X. I had no idea how to execute all of it, and I would have been up a creek without you.
  • You taught me something I didn’t know today.”
  • You’re making this job so much easier for me lately.”

There are, of course, more than these ways to deliver recognition for a job well done. The most important piece — no matter how you decide to deliver praise — is not to get lazy. Don’t use stickers. Use your words. And mean ‘em.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How can you tell if you have a disengaged employee? Ask these 11 questions.

Employee motivation isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Ask these questions to get to the bottom of it.

“What really motivates employees?” A CEO asked me this recently, quite skeptical of the deluge of books and articles on what influences employee engagement and performance.

It’s managers! It’s career opportunities! It’s learning and development! It’s employee recognition! It’s all of the above!

What “the experts” say is dizzying. The truth is simpler.

Research shows that employee motivation boils down to one thing: Progress. A 2010 study published in Harvard Business Review describes how making progress on meaningful work is the number one indicator of employee engagement.

When employees make headway toward a significant goal, overcome obstacles in a reasonable timeframe, and feel supported in their work, their motivation is the strongest. When they feel their wheels are spinning, run into preventable roadblocks, or notice the end-goal is constantly changing, their motivation wanes.

Given this, if there’s only one thing you should be focused on as a manager, it’s progress. You want to be relentless about discerning, “Are employees making progress on meaningful work every day?” With limited time and competing priorities, you don’t have to make employee engagement more complicated than this.

To best distinguish how your employees feel about the progress they’re making, I’ve pulled together 11 questions from the data we’ve collected through Know Your Team over the past four years, specifically designed to tune into an employee’s sense of progress.

You may be wondering, “Why can’t I just ask my team, outright, ‘Do you feel like you’re making meaningful progress on the work you’re doing?’” Absolutely, you can. And you should. But pose that question enough times, over time, and fatigue sets in. You’ll notice your employees starting to answer “Yes” out of knee-jerk reaction, not genuine reflection… or, to just to get you off their backs.

Instead, these questions below will bring into your view invaluable insights that an employee might not always divulge: The root cause of why they feel the project is quicksand, who on their team is the pain-in-the-ass nitpicker causing unnecessary friction, and what you can do about it.

Here are the 11 questions to figure out if employees feel they’re making meaningful progress — and what we’ve found most employees say in response:

#1: Is there anything you worked on recently that you wish you could do over?

Dissatisfaction should always cause your ears to perk up — and this question is particularly effective at unearthing it. You’ll learn if an employee was dissatisfied with the outcome of a project because of team dynamics, or because it was rushed, or because there wasn’t enough direction given. Either way, the answer to this question will point to how you can better support an employee on certain projects. Notably, 67% of employees who we asked this question to throughKnow Your Team  said, “Yes, there’s something I wish I could do over” (877 employees responded across 137 companies).

#2: Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?

To uncover what blockers someone is facing, we tend to rely on stock questions like, “What challenges are you facing?” or “Are you struggling with anything right now?” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those questions, because these questions tend to be overused, you may not always get the honest answers you’re looking for. Rather, asking what is holding them back helps you triangulate more specific challenges an employee faces, while avoiding routine answers. In fact, we found 58% of employees said, “Yes, something is holding me back from doing my best work” (1,027 employees responded across 124 companies) when asked through Know Your Team .

#3: Do you feel like customers directly benefited from the work you did this week?

Progress feels most meaningful when you can see the impact that you’re making. So knowing whether or not an employee feels like customers benefited from their work is a useful proxy for progress. The good news too is that when asked, we’ve found that 90% of employees say, “Yes, I feel like customers directly benefited from the work I did this week” (1,114 employees responded across 134 companies).

#4: Do you wish you could be working on a different project right now?

Affinity toward a project can signal an employee’s sense of progress. Someone may purely be intrinsically disinterested in the subject matter of the project, while others could be sick of tolerating bad blood on a team, or an employee might feel the work you assigned to them is a mismatch of skill. In all situations, there’s more to poke around and learn more — and this question helps lay that bare. Nearly a third of employees we surveyed (29%) said they wish they could be working on a different project right now (1,942 employees responded across 148 companies).

#5: As a company, do you think we’re behind the curve on anything in particular?

For employees to feel they are making progress, they need to feel the company as a whole is making progress. This question reveals that. It’s disheartening as an employee to pour their best work into their team, but feel the company doesn’t prioritize areas that it should be ahead in. Perhaps most fascinating is that the majority of employees say, “Yes” to this question: 65% of employees think their company is behind the curve on something in particular (1,267 employees responded across 190 companies).

#6: Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?

“Overworked, scattered, drained” — these are all hints that an employee doesn’t feel she’s making sufficient progress. Not to mention, overworked employees report more health problems, and as a direct consequence are less productive and use more sick days. Yet, it’s rare an employee will come up and tell you outright: “I’m overworked.” However, asking if someone feels “spread too thin” is a much more palatable to answer. It doesn’t have an employee feeling guilty or wondering if their work ethic will be in question. We found that 36% of employees (slightly more than a third!) said they feel spread too thin right now (2,173 people responded across 179 companies).

#7: Do you think we’re doing our best work right now?

Ask this question to get an idea of if your employee thinks the team is holding itself to a high enough standard. If she feels good about the quality of the work, then you can likely deduce she feel good about the progress of work being made. Encouragingly, we found 59% of employees surveyed said, “Yes, I feel the company or team is doing the best work right now” (1,073 employees responded across 160 companies).

#8: Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?

When an employee feels like they could be doing more, it’s probable that she is discontent with the rate of progress that she could be making in her current role. Ask this question to recognize out what other projects, skills, or knowledge domains an employee wants to dive into — or if there’s more growth opportunities you could provide them with in her current role. This will help you figure out how to ensure they’re motivated. Take notice that an overwhelming majority — 76% of employees — surveyed said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees responded across 135 companies).

#9: Are you being forced to do something that you think is a waste of time?

Nothing feels more depleting for someone’s motivation than wasting time. Asking this question will draw your attention to the excess baggage weighing your team down, or pointless bottlenecks holding up your team. We found that 25% employees said, “Yes, they’re being forced to do something that is a waste of time” — which is not insignificant (852 employees responded across 113 companies). Ask this question to accelerate progress for your employees.

#10: Are you working on a project that you feel like has gone on too long?

When a project drags out forever, an employee’s motivation to see it through naturally diminishes. You’ve most-likely felt this way in your own career, feeling dejected or peeved when a project stalls for a reason outside your control. Now as a manager, you’ll want to detect within your own team who is feeling this way. We discovered a surprisingly high number — 37% of employees — feel that they were working on a project that had gone on too long (615 employees responded across 94 companies). Identify which projects those are, so you can help remove barriers to progress.

#11: Is there any red tape you’d like to cut at the company?

Policies that are no longer necessary, procedures that you’ve even forgotten were there in the first place — this all slow down the rate of progress. Fortunately, as a manager, it’s within your scope to trim this fat. Remember how freeing it is for yourself to operate without impractical constraints. And, keep in mind that 24% of employees said “Yes, there is red tape I’d like to cut at the company” — so there is ample opportunity for you to slash the red tape that is preventing your team’s progress (591 employees responded across 105 companies).

Here’s the best part of all of this: 80% of the answers will expose things that you have control over. You have control over what the policies in the company are, what projects are assigned to which employees and when, the goals of a project, the deadlines set, the amount of support that’s being given, and the sense of direction.

And for the things you don’t have control over —a difficult client you can’t fire right away, or an incompetent team executive who doesn’t report to you— knowing the impediments to progress can inform your decisions to a clearer path of progress.

Employee engagement isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Progress is the linchpin. Asking these questions can help you secure it.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Avoid this leadership mistake: Your team listens to your word too closely

When the boss speaks, people listen… too much. Here are two phrases to counteract this common leadership pitfall.

Watch the ears perk up. The boss says something, and folks become extra attentive. It’s not a leadership mistake they’re making on purpose – it’s the unintentional by product of being the boss.

All of sudden, someone underlines a phrase in their notebook because the boss mentioned it. Another person make a mental note that project X, which the boss briefly touched on, should get bumped up in the priority list.

Whether we realize it consciously or not, the owner’s word weighs a ton, as precisely put by Basecamp CEO Jason Fried.

What’s most frustrating as a leader, is trying to figure out what you should do about this. It’s not a leadership mistake you’re making on purpose – it’s the unintentional by product of being the boss. How do you get your team to understand they shouldn’t heed your word so mightily — without undermining your own point of view, or handcuffing yourself from being candid in what you say? Does this mean you can never vocalize a strong position, or ask a pointed question?

Laura Roeder, CEO of MeetEdgar (a company she bootstrapped to $4MM ARR in 2.5 years) wrestled with this herself, firsthand. She admitted to me:

“It can be easy not to realize how powerful a side comment from me as the leader/CEO/founder going “Oh, I don’t know about that,” to someone else can read as “Laura has vetoed this, this will never happen,” when maybe I mean like, “Why don’t you flesh that out more?” But I need to say that explicitly.”

For Laura, this was her biggest leadership lesson learned: As the boss, your word is often interpreted as the word of god. And, the best way to offset the weight of your word is to explicitly tell people know what your word is not.

It’s a deceptively simple solution — but it works. Your team internalizes your word so strongly because you aren’t telling them otherwise. The default assumption they’re operating under is, “My boss’ word matters.” In many ways, it’s a good, respectful, even admirable thing. But because it can be dangerous when applied blindly, we as leaders have got to make things clear: “My word isn’t the word of god. It’s one perspective, one person’s thought. My word as a leader should not matter as much as you think it does.”

We can’t expect folks to infer that an opinion of ours is, well, just an opinion. We’ve got to say outright, “This is an opinion.” That’s it.

Here are two phrases that Laura rigorously uses, in particular, to avoid the leadership mistake of her word being leaned on too heavily:

“Make this decision without me.”

“Make this decision without me,” encourages your team stop looking over their shoulders, circling back to you for approval as a knee-jerk reaction. When you state this clearly, you give explicit permission to make the call without fear of repercussion. You can follow this up by saying “I don’t need to see this” or “Don’t show this to me” to further emphasize that it’s your team that should be owning a specific decision — not you.

“This is not urgent.”

This second phrase, “This is not urgent” is handy when you’re curious about something random, say a report or a statistic. Laura told me that when she asks off-handedly about a report or statistic, she’ll even write, “THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT! THIS IS NOT URGENT!” in all caps in the email. While seemingly hyperbolic or over-the-top in the moment — it’s effective. Laura said how doing so has truly helped make sure her team doesn’t prioritize things they shouldn’t. You’re providing the context your team needs to figure out where your request fits in the broader scope of what they should be focused on. Without it, they assume you mean “ASAP.”

Both phrases slow down your team’s impulse to react to your word on a whim. While the perking up of the ears and underlining in the notes may still happen, you put the decision back in the hands of your team when clarify the weight of your word.

Make this decision without me” and “This is not urgent” help your team calibrate your word accurately. Unless you’re explicit about it, your team will assume otherwise. Don’t mislead them.


P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Small, but effective: 6 commonly overlooked actions to increase employee engagement

From icebreakers to arguments, here are some of most frequently missed things we forget to do as leaders to encourage our team to be more engaged.

Meaningful work, open communication, a sense of direction… In our heads, we seem to know a lot of what helps maintain employee engagement. However, in practice, keeping our team engaged can be a challenge. We notice teammates zoning out during meetings, missing deadlines, or not bringing up new ideas as often as they used to. How do we course-correct when we notice our employees’ engagement level and energy starting to slip?

Our research — collected from 15,000+ employees in over 25 countries — reveal a few small things that can make a big impact on your team morale. Here are six of the most frequently overlooked actions we can take as leaders to improve employee engagement:

  1. Say what you’re struggling with. We often believe being an effective leader means being stoic and unflappable. However, you can be steady as a leader, while still inviting honesty from others around you. The best way to do this is to go first: If you want to know what others are having a hard time with, share what you’re having a hard time with first.
  2. Ask about cereal. Don’t be afraid to have fun. Great leaders bring levity — not just workload — to their team. Pose a light-hearted question or share a little-known fact about yourself with the team. Believe it or not, even something as seemingly innocuous as breakfast cereal can have a positive impact on your team’s morale.
  3. Argue. It can feel counterproductive, but once you move past the initial discomfort, you’ll soon realize that arguing is a sign that you (and your employees) care. Not only that, but you’ll be presented with more options from which you can make even better decisions as a leader. Don’t shy away from disagreements: Lean into them.
  4. Do a double-take when someone says, “It’s fine,” to you. This one phrase that signals your employee might be disengaged — so if you hear it, perk up your ears. You need to dig more, and get to root of understand if things are truly fine, or if it’s an answer they are defaulting too, because there’s more below the surface.
  5. Remember, you’re the boss. This means that a seemingly casual comment from you might be interpreted as a strict mandate from you team. This means that when you show up to a meeting, people aren’t going to feel as comfortable sharing “real talk” for how things in the company are actually going. The more you’re aware that there’s a power dynamic that exists, the more you can understand the best ways to support and interact with your team.
  6. Don’t skip one-on-one meetings! Yes, they are time-consuming. Yes, you seem to be scheduled at the most inconvenient times (when you’re crazy busy, naturally). Yet, one-on-ones are potentially your most powerful tool as a leader for unearthing potential problems and issues your team my be facing. If you’re unsure where to start, here are some tips to help you make the most of your one-on-ones.

6 ways to get the employee feedback you need to hear

Are you struggling with how to unlock honest feedback from employees? Here are six ways to get the employee feedback you need to hear.

Feedback is critical to getting great work done. When you get honest feedback, it helps you make better decisions, it helps employees do their best work, and it helps you be a better leader.

Yet the same time, it’s far from easy to always unearth the employee feedback you really need to hear. Here are some tips to help get you started:

  1. Dive in first. You’re the leader. You can’t expect coworkers to be open and honest with you unless you’re open with them first. If you open with something you’ve been struggling with, you set the tone that employees, too, can share areas where they may need some help.
  2. Use key words. We’ve found that asking for “advice” unlocks honest feedback. Interestingly enough, asking for specific “feedback” doesn’t have the same impact as asking for advice. Keep this in mind during your next one-on-one.
  3. Zero in on targeted questions. As a leader, asking specific questions is your most underrated management tool. Unless you want to hear the response, “fine,” don’t ask “how’s it going?”
  4. Ask these four questions. You can’t get good feedback without asking good questions. Here are four to ask every employee, whether that means during a coffee chat or incorporating them into your next one-on-one.
  5. Handle the truth,” or, at least, get a handle on the truth. Having an honest, open one-on-one conversation with an employee is the most effective way to get to the truth.
  6. Avoid the temptation to solicit anonymous feedback. In fact, avoid it at all costs. Anonymous feedback can easily backfire, it breeds a culture of distrust and it’s difficult to act on.

Breaking the (remote) ice: 5 tips for icebreakers in distributed teams

Our most popular recommendations for team-bonding, regardless of the distance separating your remote employees.

Believe me when I tell you that I adore running a remote company. It’s enabled me to hire and work with folks I could’ve never have hired locally. It’s helped me work with fewer distractions and greater focus. It’s given me more flexibility to see my family and spend time on side-hobbies that bring me joy… I could go on 🙂

But, I’ll admit: Being geographically disparate can also be isolating. As a remote company ourselves at Know Your Team, we don’t pretend that there are zero difficulties to running a remote team. There are quite a few — and one of the biggest is making team members feel welcome and connected to the company when they live on the other side of the country.

Think about the last time you started a new job. Do you recall feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from your coworkers? Now imagine that you’re facing all the same pressures and uncertainty but from a few hundred (or thousand) miles away.

For all the upsides to remote work, those benefits can be hampered by the loneliness that some folks can feel if they don’t get to interact with other team members on a regular basis.

Here are some tips for creating great icebreakers to help build a better sense of connection within your remote teams:

Ditch the dull general questions in exchange for specific questions.

How many times have you been asked, “What do you like to do on weekends?” or “What are your hobbies?” Eye roll. So many times. The questions feel rote, so the answers become rote. Just as when you’re seeking out meaningful feedback about the company, you’ll want to ask meaningful social questions to get meaningful social responses, too. Unsure where to start? Check out the 25 specific best icebreaker questions to ask.

Get folks face-to-face when you can.

Where were you the last time you participated in an icebreaker activity? It probably wasn’t from your home office. Just like in-office icebreakers, remote teams’ icebreaker conversations should happen via video chat, or (ideally) in person at a company retreat. One of our remote clients, Balsamiq, is known for their all-team retreats that focus getting everyone, face-to-face together to have a good time.

Schedule in the time for socialization.

Nothing happens unless you carve out the time to do it. That’s something Paul Farnell, co-founder of Litmus (another one of our customers), emphasize. He’s said that you have to “make time for socialization.” At Litmus, he describes how “a few times a year, we have company get-togethers and smaller teams meet in-person more often. Week to week, we get Coworker Coffees, drink beers on Skype, and play video games online. And we invite local employees to the office every Thursday.” Schedule in time for folks to break the ice — or else it just won’t happen.

Assign a buddy, and switch it up.

Another way to keep icebreakers feeling fresh, especially in a remote team, is to switch up who is getting to interact with who on your team. At Help Scout, another client of ours, they organize 15–30 minute coffee breaks between randomly assigned team members called Fikas. By assigning someone a buddy for a period of time, you take the hard work (and sometimes awkwardness) of leaving it up to the employees to figure out who they should get to know better. And, switching up the assignments keeps the getting-to-know-you process from becoming stale.

Keep it light.

Icebreakers are supposed to be fun — so don’t overthink them, or be too intent on “this needs to build trust in my team.” A overly forced icebreaker is never fun. Rather, reflect on your team’s personalities and interest, and consider how you might give people a reason to laugh, joke, and feel a bit more connected with one another. The best leaders know that injecting some levity in an otherwise intense work week can make a big difference. A light question such as, “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?” yields surprising levels of engagement.

While team icebreakers can seem like a “nice to have,” in a remote team they are “must-haves.” Since your team isn’t interacting face-to-face every week, the miscommunication, trust issues, and poor team dynamics that can bubble up are only exacerbated if you’re not findings ways for your team to connect regularly. So give one or two of these tips a try, and remember how beneficial team-building icebreakers can be for a remote team.


4 things you’re doing that unintentionally hurt your healthy corporate culture

Here are some of the most counterintuitive leadership mistakes I’ve fallen victim to.

Making a mistake as a leader is never fun. You unintentionally embarrass a co-worker in front of the team. Or you brush off what you thought was a minor issue… only to watch it balloon into something huge weeks later.

I’ve been there. Haven’t we all?

But perhaps the leadership mistakes that hurt the most are the ones that you keep on doing, over and over, because you have no idea they’re actually hurting — not helping — your team.

Over the past four years, here’s what I’ve seen to be the most overlooked and surprisingly leadership mistakes to make. They’re ones I’ve been guilty of myself 🙂

Learn from my mistakes. Here are four things to change now

Do not ask, “How can I help you?”

Ever catch yourself saying that? I know have — it seems like something a leader should ask to promote a healthy corporate culture. But resist the urge. It’s lazy, it puts the pressure on the employee and it’s vague. Instead, shape a specific question, such as “Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”

Break your addiction of measuring employee engagement.

Do you want insight and truth, or numbers and graphs? If you want to know if people are unhappy, ask them. If you want to know if people are getting along with their manager, ask them. Stop wasting time trying to quantify your company’s corporate culture. Just ask.

Kill your culture of “nice”.

Yes, really. A company culture of “nice” dilutes the truth. You don’t hear bad news until it’s really bad. You wait to recognize a problem only after it’s festered and ballooned into something serious. As a leader, you’re charged with embracing and showing that honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive.

Stop relying on anonymous feedback.

Anonymous feedback is counterproductive and dangerous for your corporate culture. The whole point of feedback is to do something about it. If you don’t know who gave the feedback, then how can you act on it? How can you change anything you were doing previously if you don’t know the specifics of what you should be changing?

If you can avoid doing these four things, your company culture — and your employees — will be in much better shape. You won’t be accidentally holding back your team, when you’re trying to lift them up.

Our 10 most popular leadership tips

Compiled from 4 + years’ worth of data, advice, and insights

Over the past four years, I’ve written a fair share about how to be a good leader: I’ve offered leadership tips in our blogs, pulling personal examples of what I’ve faced and learned. I’ve compiled leadership advice from, The Watercooler, where over 500 leaders have shared in our online community what’s been working (and not working) for them. And, in our Knowledge Center, I’ve written guides and resources based on 4+ years of data and insights on how to avoid becoming a bad boss.

But what’s been most popular? Here are our 10 most sought-after leadership tips, compiled from years’ worth of data, advice, and insights…

  1. Uncover your blind spots. Leaders are often the last people to know what’s going on. Knowing that you have blind spots — and how to see past them — is an important step in uncovering employee disengagement.
  2. Know when you’re slipping into the territory of becoming a bad leader. No one sets out to be a bad boss, yet somehow it happens. Here are 12 signs you’re becoming a bad manager.
  3. Stop feeding shit sandwiches and do this instead. This is the most deceptively difficult thing for any manager to do. We offer four techniques to master the art of delivering difficult feedback.
  4. Know how to ask for feedback and have effective one-on-ones with employees. Can you handle the truth? No really, can you? If you can’t, here are six ways to get honest feedback from employees during your one-on-ones.
  5. Take charge of these 10 things.. What does being a good leader actually mean? Hint: It starts with knowing the purpose of your role.
  6. Build a strong team and a healthy corporate culture with icebreakers. Read our most popular icebreaker questions, which are backed by four years’ worth of data.
  7. Ask the right questions. Good feedback starts with good questions. When seeking feedback, ask every employee these four questions.
  8. Argue! It can feel draining and counterproductive, but here’s why you should argue with your employees and embrace internal conflict.
  9. Avoid these qualities of a bad leader. Every CEO, founder, owner and manager must be aware of the power dynamic in every situation involving employees.
  10. Ask these five questions. “It’s great working here,” say all of your employees. But is it really? Here are five questions to ask to honestly and effectively gauge the health of your company culture.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @cjlew23.)

How to influence company culture from the bottom-up (not just top-down)

A better company culture can start with you – not just the CEO.

“Culture starts from the top,” it’s often said.

But is that really true?

Surely, it is easier to influence company culture when you’re at the top. As a CEO, founder, or business owner, people are already looking to you for example and guidance around what’s important within the team. (I wrote a bit about how you can influence culture as a leader here.)

However, being a leader in the company is not required to influence company culture. If you’re an employee or a middle manager and you’re frustrated with the status quo in your company, all is not lost.

Culture has nothing to do with what your job title on your business card says.It has everything to do with your beliefs, words, and actions as an individual.

Culture is made up of people after all — people who decide what artifacts, espoused values and beliefs, and basic underlying assumptions are true for a team. Any one person can influence culture, not just the CEO.

Regardless of what position you hold in the company, here are few ways you can create an environment for the culture you want to take form:

Model what you’d like to be true of your team.

Let’s say your CEO isn’t great about being responsive to emails and showing that she’s listening. If responsiveness is something you think should be a part of your company’s culture… the question is, how well do you respond to your own emails? When in a one-on-one or a meeting with your team, do you yourself do a good job yourself of listening to and responding to others’ requests? Look at yourself, first and foremost, as a starting point for the kind of company culture you aspire to have.

The power of modeling what you’d like your company culture to be is two-fold: (1) You make it known and visible what can be improved. And (2) if things start going well and your colleagues are really loving what you’re doing, someone — the CEO, founder, or business owner — is going to notice. She’s going to say, “Hmm maybe we all should start doing what you’re doing.”

In other words: Show what you’d like to better in the organization — don’t just wait for it to happen.

Dissent is a responsibility.

If there’s something you think could be better in the organization that the team should adopt to improve the culture, speak up. As an employee, dissent is a responsibility. Voice it respectfully, especially when the opportunity to give feedback presents itself. For example, in your last one-one-one meeting, when your manager or CEO asked you what could be improved, did you share a thoughtful answer?

Culture can only be intentionally shifted if it’s intentionally talked about.

It’s important to do this in private — no leader likes to be “blasted” in front of the company about what you think she is falling short of. (You can read more about how to give difficult feedback to your boss here.)

It’s also important to share your suggestion in the context of the team — and not just your own individual interests. For instance, it’s easy to say that you think the culture should be more open, especially around financials, because you think it’d help you better negotiate a raise. But instead, if you can share why transparent financials would help everyone on the team feel more bought on to what the company is trying to accomplish, the likelihood of others embracing what you’re looking to change increases.

Give space, grace, and gratitude to leaders.

It may take time for the rest of your company to catch on to how you’re trying to influence the company culture for the better. You may even get questions or resistance for why you’re doing things a certain way. Don’t be deterred.Understand that change takes time — especially cultural change, not to mention change that happens from the bottom up. Understand that your leaders are juggling many priorities, and that it may take repeated action for them to take note.

You can also thank your leaders in the meantime for the things they do that already reinforce and support the kind of culture you desire as an employee.There’s a lot of talk of the importance of employee recognition — but manager recognition is just as important. Leaders aren’t thanked very often, so it goes a long way to help solidify the culture you’re want to have, when you show appreciation for the things you already think are headed in the right direction.

Influencing culture from the bottom-up, and not just the top-down, is possible. Though, it may be more difficult and take more time to manifest, it’s an important route to seek as an employee or middle manager. If you can slowly yet steadily put energy behind shifting the culture, you not only make things better for yourself, but for others as well.

As an employee or middle manager, a better company culture can start with you.