There are 5 reasons your boss is micromanaging you. Here’s how to manage up, and around them.
I’ve heard the phrase, “I have a micromanaging boss,” more times than I can remember.
I heard it again, just last week. This person asked me, “What do I do? Is there anything I can say to a micromanager? How do I manage up?”
Here’s what I recommended to him…
First, identify the reason. (Yes, there is a reason.)
People do things for a reason. No one is a micromanager because they want to be a micromanager. No one hears that word and goes “Oh yeah, I want to be that.” In fact, for most leaders, to learn that we’ve become a micromanager is a sour, disheartening realization that sloshes around in the pit of our stomach.
So, if your boss is micromanaging you, ask yourself, “What might be causing them to act this way?”
Typically, your boss is micromanaging you for one (or several) of 5 reasons:
Reason #1: Worry
Your boss is worried about the outcome of the work and doesn’t think you’ll get it done.
Reason #2: Fear
Your boss’s butt is on the line, and they can’t have you make them look bad.
Reason #3: It’s All They Know
Your boss has only always had a micromanaging boss (or this is their first-time being a manager) — so they don’t know any other way to manage.
Reason #4: Past Experience
Your boss has been burned before by a prior employee who slacked off and didn’t produce results — and so this is their way of compensating.
Reason #5: You 🙂
You’re doing something (or not doing something) that is causing them to overstep and keep a close eye on things.
I want to be clear: These reasons do not excuse your boss’s behavior. Rather, they illuminate that micromanagement is not random, without reason, or out of malice (usually!). When you reflect on what’s driving your boss to be a micromanager, you can better calibrate how to work with them.
Also note that people are complex, and motivations are not neatly categorizable. The reason your boss is micromanaging might not perfectly fit into one (or any) of these reasons I listed above. However, having a hunch —a probable reason for why your boss is a micromanager — gives you wind in the sails to help change their direction.
Second, defuse the reason.
Once you’ve considered the reason behind why your boss might be micromanaging you, now you can take action. You can ask questions and take steps that loosens whatever is causing them to grip so tightly onto you and your work.
Based on what the reason is, here’s what you can do:
#1: If your boss is worried about the outcome of the work… Have a conversation about what success looks like.
Yes, this means defining what metrics or deliverables should be achieved. But equally critical are specific examples of what quality work looks like. “Quality work” is subjective, and as a result, what a leader is most concerned about. To get on the same page about success and quality of work, you can ask your boss: “What’s a previous project I did that measured up to the quality of work you’re looking for? When have I fallen short? What do you think is the best executed project you think the company or team has ever done? Why?”
#2: If your boss’s butt is on the line… Make it clear that you understand the stakes.
Your boss is likely more stressed than usual, and you don’t want that stress to be off-loaded onto you. Ask, “What can I do to relieve any pressure on your end? Is there any reporting you’d like me to do that would help make things more visible or consistent? Is there a crucial stakeholder I’m unaware about who I should consider? Is there a timeline I absolutely have to meet that we haven’t yet discussed?” Show that you’re in this critical situation together, and you’re willing to do your part.
#3: If your boss doesn’t know any other way to manage… Suggest alternatives.
This sounds intimidating, surely, but you can have this conversation in a non-threatening way. How? In your next one-on-one meeting, offer up “working styles” as a potential topic. Then when you sit down to chat, say, “I’d love to talk about our working styles and preferences, and how we each work best. How would you describe your working style and how you work best?” Then after thoroughly listening, ask, “Do you mind if I share mine?” You can also be straightforward and describe what changes in behavior you’d like to see. For example: “Ideally, here are things I’d like to see different. What can I do so you feel comfortable with those changes?”
#4: If your boss is acting based on a previous experience… Draw contrast to how you and this situation is different.
This is probably the trickiest of situations to really defuse well. Ask your boss, “What’s the best work experience you’ve had? The worst?” Then share yours. This will prompt a conversation about expectations and preferences — and what’s influenced those expectations and preferences. It also gives you a chance to learn how to adjust your own actions. You’ll learn that oh, your boss really didn’t like it when their former team member didn’t communicate decisions — and now you know to make decisions extra clear.
#5: If your behavior is causing them to micromanage you… Well, start doing things differently 🙂
This may be hard to admit, but sometimes our own behavior invites someone to micromanage us. We recently conducted a survey of 355 people and learned that the #1 piece of information that managers want to know is the progress that’s being made on a project. So it could be that you might not be sharing enough of the progress you’re making day-to-day or week-to-week. You can get to the bottom of this, by asking your boss: “How can I give you more visibility into my work or decision-making? What part of the job do you think I’m most shaky at?”
As they say, habits die hard. Very hard. You may not be able to kill their micromanaging tendencies completely, nor overnight.
However, you will be able to create some space. It might not be a lot, but it’ll be more than before. Over time, as you build more rapport and history with your boss, that space will grow.
You don’t have to silently absorb the incessant Slack pings or random taps on the shoulder asking, “Have you done this yet?” That’s not the only way to work.
You can have a healthy, productive relationship with your boss. You can help your boss not be a micromanager. Start here.
P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
Here’s what 1,000 managers in The Watercooler said their employees enjoyed most as a team-building activity.
Team bonding — known to some as “forced fun” — can bring feelings of dread and resentment to many employees. And who can blame them? When thinking of team bonding, many people picture awkward trust falls or hours spent with a facilitator asking corny questions.
However, a team does need to feel connected in some way. You can’t work well together if you don’t trust each other — let alone, know each other. And getting to know each other, while that can happen organically over time, only gets harder the bigger the team gets or the more spread out your office is.
Particularly for new employees, an effective team-building activity can go a long way. It’s rare, dedicated time for folks to not talk about work, relax, and just have fun.
I asked members of The Watercooler, our online community of almost 1,000 managers, what their most successful team bonding events were. Below were the top four mentioned. Feel free to tailor these ideas to fit your own team dynamics and preferences.
Work ‘n Travel
Few experiences are as memorable and unique as traveling somewhere novel. For the past couple of years, one Watercooler member’s company spends a week together as a team, working remotely and traveling. So far, they’ve been to Lisbon, Portugal, and Poland. (And they already have their destination picked out for next year!) For them, it’s been a perfect way to spend high-quality time getting to know each other, while also getting to have a common shared experience of traveling.
Contributing to the community around you, together with your team, is a fantastic, non-cliché way for everyone to feel more connected. One Watercooler member’s company volunteered at a local food bank when everyone was in town for a company meeting. They spent the day providing thousands of meals to people in need while also bonding as a company.
3+ Lunch Fridays
Possibly the most common team-bonding event that teams seem to do is to sponsor lunch outside the office on Fridays. Several managers in the Watercooler mentioned how their company will cover the cost of lunch for groups of three or more employees if they go out to eat on Fridays. This in fact incentivizes folks to get out of the office and socialize a bit with one another.
It sounds odd, I know. But a Know Your Company customer and Watercooler member shared how surprised she was that a seemingly insignificant team-bonding event had such a big effect on her team’s morale. Every month, she brings in a box of everyone’s favorite cereal to one of their most intense days of the month: The strategic planning meeting. It was a small, quirky move — not any big grand gesture – and it was a big hit with her team.
Are you a manager who’s looking for more ideas to develop your team? Check out The Watercooler — our online leadership community with almost 1,000 managers — where we share advice, suggestions and best practices on topics just like this. We’d love to have you join us.
P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
How to know when you’re no longer being a good manager
No one sets out to become a bad boss. Yet, slowly but surely, it’s easy to become the bad manager we all dread.
Times are stressful. You’re trying to make things happen. You notice your team isn’t as engaged as they should be. You can feel your patience getting shorter and shorter. You feel stuck and exasperated about leading your team. The more you do, the worse it seems to get.
Then, a sinking feeling hits you: You might be becoming a bad manager.
I’ve had that sinking feeling in my own stomach before, too. Especially in the early days of running Know Your Company, I was plagued with self-doubt. “Am I doing this right?” I wondered. “Am I falling into the trap of doing things that I’ve hated in other bosses?”
Since then, I recognized the early signs of a bad manager — the kind of manager I dreaded working for. Now, I’d like to share these signs with you, so you can hopefully avoid these pitfalls and get back on track to being the good manager you want to be.
Sign #1: You think an employee “should already know that.”
When you’re a leader, you benefit from having all the information. Yet we forget that the rest of the team does not have that same information. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that employees “should already know that.” Instead, consider why your team doesn’t have the information they need, and own that shortcoming yourself. Good leaders know it’s on themselves to make sure the team knows what they need to know.
Sign #2: You find yourself saying “No” more often than “Why not?” or “Could this work later?”
In times of uncertainty, we as leaders have a bias against creativity. A great leader understands this, and adjusts for this bias. She knows that good ideas and suggestions take many forms — and saying “no” to something right away could be shortchanging your team. Not to mention, it’s demoralizing for your team to always have their ideas constantly turned down. Consider: Are you becoming a bad manager because you’re too closed off to new ideas?
Sign #3: You ask an employee to stay late without staying late yourself.
True leadership starts with walking the walk. Our actions set the example for our team. So if you ask someone to stay late at the office, but you don’t stay late yourself — that’s not a small, trivial thing. It’s a statement to your employee that you don’t value them or their time. Reexamine if you’re modeling the behavior yourself that you’d like your employees to exhibit.
Sign #4: You feel like you’re irreplaceable and are the only person who can do a certain part of the job.
Feeling like you’re irreplaceable isn’t a badge of honor — it can be your greatest downfall as a leader. Why? It’s often the reason we micromanage others or don’t delegate projects. When we accept that others can do parts of our job better than us, we are more willing to share responsibility, delegate tasks, and not breathe down our team’s neck. Wil Reynolds, Founder of SEER Interactive, has admitted how he’s fallen victim to this himself.
Sign #5: You think asking certain questions can be dangerous or a giant waste of time.
You’re worried that asking what an employee thinks about your benefits or compensation package are just huge distractions. While in the short-term this may feel like the case, the reality is that employees have feedback for you already, whether or not you ask about them. So by not asking questions, you’re simply letting a problem fester. If you want to be a good leader, you’ll gather the courage to ask questions and hear answers you may not want to hear. It’s better than not knowing the answer at all.
Sign #6: You think emotions have no place in the workplace.
Emotions are facts — the way we feel about our work affect how well we do our work. So we must accept our team’s emotions, just as we do our financials or design projects. Work is often seen as a logical, rational place, so considering people’s emotions can feel burdensome and complicated. But great leaders embrace that their team will feel a range of emotions, and that’s part of the day-to-day process of working together.
Sign #7: You think doing something yourself is easier because you can’t trust anyone else to get it done right.
Your reluctance to hand things off to your team is a telling sign that you’re slipping into becoming a bad manager. A great leader knows that the crux of teamwork is equipping others with the ability to do things right and trusting that they will. As the African proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Sign #8: You think some people deserve your trust more than others — and you act on those hunches.
Few things turn a manager from good to bad as quickly as playing favorites.As unwilling as you might be to even call your actions “playing favorites,” the fact that you give some people on your team more leeway or grace than others is a recipe for resentment. Fairness is a critical trait of the best leaders.
Sign #9: You feel that you need your team to be close by or in the office in order for people to get work done.
You might find it strangely comforting to see an employee in front of a computer, at the office. That means they’re being productive, right? What a farce that is. Watching people get work done doesn’t mean the work actually gets done. Realize that your desire for proof of the work, instead of caring about the result, is a crutch and an attempt to control others. If anything, your desire to see people doing work is a burden to your team.
Sign #10: You think that if an employee has a problem, issue, question, or concern, they’ll simply come to you with it.
Open door policies in companies simply don’t work. We forget is that there is an inherent power dynamic when we’re the manager. When we’re “the boss,”we’re seen as the ones “in control” and with power. As a result, an employee is concerned with how she’ll come across to you, if you’ll treat her differently, or even fire her. There’s no incentive for her to be honest with you, if it’s not what you want to hear. So you’ve got to ask what problems, issues, or questions your team might have — you can’t expect them to come to you.
Sign #11: You “test” employees to make sure they’re prepared and working hard.
You catch yourself asking questions during meetings just to “make sure employees are paying attention.” Or, you assign small tasks just to make sure your team “is on their toes.” Stop. Trying to “test” your employees is counterproductive. You’re draining their morale, not building it up. If you’re ever tempted to try to test your employees — resist the urge. Ask yourself, “Why do I feel the urge to test them? What am I not doing to create an environment where they can perform their best?”
Sign #12: You spend more time thinking about trying to eliminate distractions in the workplace than trying to give people a reason to feel excited about coming to work.
As a manager, it’s tempting to focus on what your team should stop doing. They should stop taking such long lunches, or stop wasting time on Facebook. Rather, the best managers take an opposite approach: They focus on what they can to give their team so they feel motivated and engaged. For instance, instead of being preoccupied with how long your team’s coffee breaks are, consider, have you made it clear how their work is connected to the bigger picture?
All of us as leaders have fallen victim to one of these 12 signs, at one time or another. The key is to recognize it, when it happens. Don’t give yourself excuses for why it did. And don’t beat yourself up about it, either! Simply accept it, decide what you’d like to do differently, and move forward.
Being a good manager is hard for everyone. I only hope learning these 12 signs can help you, as much as it did me.
A simple framework to help give tough feedback to a coworker.
The most common question I get asked by a manager who doesn’t want to become a bad boss is: “How do I give negative feedback to a coworker?”
Giving honest feedback is the most deceptively difficult thing for a manager to do. A survey of nearly 8,000 people, in fact, found that 21% of managers avoid giving negative feedback entirely.
In our heads, it seems straightforward enough. We know it’s the right thing to do. We know it’s important. We should just get on with it.
But it’s never that simple. We don’t want to demotivate an employee with our feedback. We don’t want an employee to think we’re out to get them. We don’t want our feedback to backfire.
All is not lost. It’s possible to give honest feedback and not feel stressed — and not have it blow up in our face. Here are the four things that good managers do when delivering negative feedback:
Come from a place of care.
You’re giving feedback because you care. You deeply care about this person’s personal and career growth. You deeply care about the project’s success. You want both the person and the company to thrive. Communicate these things. Ask yourself: “What can I say to let this person know that this feedback is coming from a place of care and helpfulness? How do I let this person know I have good intentions, and that I’m not trying to spite them or be rude?” As you deliver the piece of critical feedback, make this clear.
For example, you could say something like: “I’m saying this because I believe in you and I want you to succeed…” or “This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…” or “This matters to me because I only want to ensure that we perform well as a team…”
Come from a place of observation.
We’re often worried that the person is going to take any negative feedback personally. This is a big reason why we avoid giving feedback or sugarcoat our feedback. It’s to say, “Hey look, I don’t think you’re a bad person…” or “I don’t want you to be mad at me…” Instead, look to communicate your feedback more objectively. Come from a place of observation. Focus on the actions and the situation of what happened — what you observed — and not the personal attributes or characteristics of the person.
For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few careless mistakes that seemed sloppy.” See the difference? The former makes it about the person, while the latter makes it about your observations on what has happened.
Come from a place of fallibility.
Your feedback is not infallible. Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. You could be wrong. Be willing to admit that your feedback, while it’s something you strongly believe in, is colored by your own personal lens. Ask yourself: “How can I remind this person that this feedback is only my opinion ? That this isn’t the word of God, that mistakes happen, that there may be information I’m missing?”
A few examples of how you can do this is to say directly: “I might be off…” or to ask, “Is there any information that you think I might be missing?”
Come from a place of curiosity.
When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback also as a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. Be curious. Consider: “How does this person feel about my feedback? Was there anything I might have misinterpreted or overlooked? Is there anything that I can be doing better to help support the other person?” You want to invite the person to give their side of their story.
To do this, simply ask after sharing your feedback: “What do you think?”
When you’re curious, you’re signaling that you value hearing their perspective on what happened. You’re not mad, upset, or resentful. You see the moment of giving feedback as an opportunity to learn and get better as a leader, yourself.
Sure, all the tactics I’m describing are a little more nuanced than other ways you might be familiar with to give feedback — especially the catchy “Shit Sandwich” moniker, in particular. And yes, they require a bit more intention and thought prior to do well.
But when you come from a place of care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity — it makes for a much more honest and productive conversation. You’re going to get a better result.
The person on the other side is going to feel like you’re really trying to help them. And that’s the whole point of giving feedback, after all.
P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to shareso others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
From data of 15,000+ people, and studies over the past few decades, I pulled together best practices for sharing info (e.g., decisions, institutional knowledge, progress, vision) in a team.
Dear manager or individual contributor who wants their team to work well together,
People can’t do good work unless they have the context to do the work well.
The big question is, “How?” What are best practices for sharing info within a team— without taking too much time and bogging them down?
To answer this, I pulled data from 15,000+ people who use Know Your Team, sourced conversations from almost 1,000 managers who are a part of our Watercooler leadership community, conducted an in-depth survey on sharing information with 355 employees and managers, and researched studies from the past few decades. The result are these guides.
In these guides, you’ll learn…
The tangible advantages to sharing info in your team well
The most important info to share and not share in your team
3 best practices for sharing your team’s vision
7 helpful considerations when sharing progress across your team
5 ways to communicate and share decisions within your team
6 ways to document and share institutional knowledge effectively
How transparent you should be with your team as a leader
Delivering negative feedback is hard — especially when you’re seen as a “the positive person” on your team. Here’s how to start doing it more regularly.
“I need to right the ship.” A member of The Watercooler, our online leadership community, admitted this a few months ago. He shared how he’d long delayed giving critical feedback, and it was causing team chemistry problems.
“I think it will seem out of character for me to go from ‘positive nice guy image’ to ‘critical feedback,’ so I’m trying to think of best approach,” he revealed.
His admission prompted a wonderful discussion in The Watercooler: How do you start giving difficult feedback, especially when you haven’t been doing so regularly? Here’s what other Watercooler members recommended…
Ask for permission.
Set aside time to have a discussion, instead of just dropping the feedback on the person unsuspectingly. Everyone processes news differently, and you don’t want to bombard someone in the middle of their work day. You could say, for instance, “Have a moment to chat about some feedback I have about the last client meeting?”
That being said, still do it right away.
There’s never an ideal time to give feedback. One Watercooler member remarked how “I don’t wait to give feedback, I give it as soon as possible. This removes any stress worrying about it. Additionally, the details are fresh in everyones mind and it’s relevant and topical vs. after the fact.”
Give yourself small “feedback” goals.
Challenge yourself to find three things every day on which you could give feedback. This helps train your mind to see everything as a opportunity to give feedback, instead of dismissing your own observations.
Explain “the why.”
Share context of why you’ve decided to start giving more feedback. Are you motivated to become a better leader? Were you inspired by a recent book you read? Providing background about why you want to start giving more honest feedback will help employees see the big picture.
Acknowledge your own mistakes.
When you admit how you yourself were wrong, you help create a safe environment for people to make mistakes, learn and grow from them. It also shows that just because you’re the boss, you’re not infallible to critical feedback, yourself.
Invite critical feedback about yourself.
Feedback is not a mandate — it’s a conversation. You should actively ask specific questions about yourself to get critical feedback on your own performance and management style. It’s the only way for a team to grow together. If feedback is only one-way, your team will never progress as much as it could or should.
Anytime you feel intimidated by giving critical feedback, remind yourself that this is in the best interest of your team. Being a good leader requires hard and uncomfortable conversations, and as unnatural or painful as it might seem, you’re doing the right thing by telling the truth.
P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
You’ve just been promoted… Now what? Here’s what 700+ leaders across the world had to say about what a new manager should do during her first 2 weeks on the job.
A friend of mine was recently promoted to being a manager for the first time. It’s a slightly terrifying thing, for those of you who remember it (or are going through it now!)
Naturally, I invited her The Watercooler, our online community for leaders, and I sent her a few pieces I’d written for managers (I’ve shared them below, as well). But it got me thinking…
What should a new manager do in their first two weeks in the role?
I posed this question to the 700+ leaders from all over the world who are a part of The Watercooler. Here’s what they had to say.
#1: Go on a “Listen and Learn Tour”.
Before anything else as a new manager, you must first earn your team’s trust – and that starts by listening to what your team members have to say, not telling them what to do. You’ll gain an understanding of your team’s problems and concerns, and from there, create the right environment in which the entire team can succeed. Said one Watercooler member:
“You’re going to be able to see how the team can improve with your fresh eyes, but your first step is to gain the team’s trust, and that is done by listening and getting a deep understanding of the team’s problems so that you can work on creating the right environment for that team to excel in.”
This was by far the most emphasized piece of advice. Many leaders even suggested doing this “listen and learn tour” for even longer than just the first two weeks.
#2: Ask specific questions to each team member, one-on-one.
The only way you’ll know what the current state of the team is and what should be done is if you ask. Don’t make assumptions that something is broken or people are feeling a certain way: Ask first.
Leaders in The Watercooler strongly recommended asking these questions to each team member individually, one-on-one. Specifically, you can ask questions around “how did they get to that job, their aspirations, their dreams, their doubts and frustrations, their visions for them in the company,” You can also ask about more tactically about the work, as to what tools they use — one leader suggested this as a way to start thinking about how to help build a more productive environment for them.
#3: Interview fellow leaders in similar positions in the company.
Your peers who are also managers might just be your greatest ally as a new manager. These can be leaders in the same division — or even from other parts of the company, but who run a team that is similar in structure (for example: a similar amount of people, similar time zone distribution etc.). Ask if you can get their advice for 30 minutes, and find out about how they run their teams, what works, and what doesn’t. Here are some possible questions that one Watercooler member suggested to ask:
How do you organize your week?
Which tools do you use and what challenges do these tools solve for you?
Looking back, what was the one thing you’d do differently if you became a manager again?
What is it you most enjoy as a manager?
What is the most difficult task? How do you make it more bearable?
By chatting with peer managers from your own company, you’ll gain a unique insight into the company’s idiosyncrasies, and best practices for successfully manage up and down. On top of that, these conversations will help you build rapport with people who find themselves in a similar situation with yourself. Perhaps one day, you can repay the favor to them and help them in an area they might need a hand with.
#4: Say, “I don’t know” if you don’t know.
Leaders are not supposed to have all the answers — especially when you’re new. You’re not an island, and you have a team for a reason. Ask the subject-matter expert on your team rather than attempt to provide an answer based on your best guess. And, when you don’t know simply say: “I don’t know.”
Many Watercooler members remarked that not doing so is a mistake that new managers make all the time. One leader added: “[New managers often] try to B.S. the way into an answer. This erodes credibility fast.”
#5: Sit on your hands.
Don’t be compelled to make significant changes just because you’re the manager now. You’ll have plenty of time for that. More often than not, you’ll need much longer than just your first two weeks of digesting the firehose of inputs before taking any action. While there might be certain things that could be sharpened for a variety of reasons, resist the urge to change things just because you can. Be patient, observe, absorb — and know the changes can come later.
#6: If you must act, go after the small wins first.
If you do feel you need to take action in your first two weeks as a new manager, focus on the small wins first. Leaders in The Watercooler talked about how accomplishing smaller items that have been looming are an effective way to show that you won’t be just all talk.
Keep in mind that two weeks is a short period of time really make your mark as a new manager. So don’t rush it. Know that what matters most is consistency. Sure, it’s great if you listen to your team during the first two weeks… But what about two years from now? The best leaders are the ones who know that your team will support you, believe in you, and perform the best if they see your actions consistently, over time.
Start with these actions in the first two weeks, and build on it from there.
Curious what resources I shared with my new manager friend on leadership development? Here ya go…
Our most popular recommendations for team-bonding, regardless of the distance separating yourremote 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 Company, 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:
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.
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.)
Why sharing bad news makes you a more effective leader.
Sharing bad news is a good thing.
As a leader, you might not think it, at first. But it’s true. Leaders who are honest about the bad — just as much as the good — are better leaders.
But it’s not just me saying this. Research proves this.
In a 2013 study discussed in Forbes, researchers found that leaders who gave honest feedback were rated as five times more effective than ones who do not. In addition, leaders who gave honest feedback had employees who were rated as three times more engaged.
Employees yearn for this honest, corrective feedback. In a study shared in Harvard Business Review, 57% people preferred corrective feedback to purely praise and recognition. When further asked what was most helpful in their careers, 72% employees said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.
In other words, people don’t just want to be patted on the back and told, “Good job.” Employees want the truth. They want to know: How can I be better? What can I change or improve?
I call this “The Bad News Advantage.” When you share bad news and honest feedback, you gain three advantages:
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Leaders who understand these benefits of “The Bad News Advantage” have a leg up over others.
However, despite how helpful sharing bad news and honest feedback can be, we as leaders avoid it like the plague.
In two other surveys published in Harvard Business Review, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. Twenty-one percent of managers avoided giving negative feedback entirely.
Sound familiar? 🙂 You may have found yourself avoiding giving negative feedback or sugar-coating your words to an employee, at some point. I know I have. Giving honest feedback can feel critical, unnatural and just flat-out uncomfortable.
Des had entered a one-on-one meeting, prepared to give honest feedback to an underperforming employee. In fact, he’d written down notes beforehand of what he wanted to say.
Then, he went into the meeting to deliver the feedback.
Upon leaving the meeting, Des looked back at his notes and realized he’d said the complete opposite to the employee. He’d minced his words, and dramatically softened what was supposed to be pointed feedback.
The employee walked away thinking he didn’t need to change anything he was doing — which was not what Des was thinking.
In that moment, Des, like many of us, had forgotten “The Bad News Advantage.” He’d forgotten that when you give difficult, honest feedback…
You become a better leader.
You engage your team more.
You’re saying what your employees want to hear.
Des is an incredibly self-aware leader to have recognized this himself. He clearly saw the lost opportunity to improve things with an employee, and has since made delivering honest feedback — no matter how bad it is — a priority as a leader.
As a creative leader who’s worked with everyone from Apple to ESPN, Dan shares his biggest leadership lessons on servant leadership and how to ensure teams work well together.
Every two weeks as part of The Heartbeat❤️, I asks one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect. This week, I interviewed Dan Mall, Founder of SuperFriendly and CEO of SuperBooked. Watch & read what she has to say here…
Claire: Hi everyone. I’m Claire Lew and I’m the CEO of Know Your Company. Today, I’ve got a good friend of mine with me that I’m so excited to have on The Heartbeat. His name is Dan Mall and he’s the co-founder of SuperFriendly which is this amazing design collaborative. They’ve done work with in everyone from Apple to Time Magazine to ESPN…kind of the dream client list.
But not only is Dan just this amazing creative designer and leader, bringing creative teams together, but he also recently founded SuperBooked which is this really cool app that helps people find creative work. So, Dan’s been a leader in the design field on a lot of different respects. He also runs a nine-month apprenticeship program who teach people who want to get into design how to do so, make a career in that.
Claire: All right, you ready? Let’s do this. So, the question I’d like to ask you Dan is…
What’s one thing you wish you would have learned earlier as a leader?
Dan: That’s a good one. That’s a tough one.
Claire: It doesn’t have to be one thing. Some people are like, “Oh boy.” All right. Yeah. We can start anywhere.
Dan: What I wish I would have learned earlier as a leader is that leaders, the stigma of leaders tends to be at the top of the org chart, right? The leader is the one at the very top. What I’ve learned recently that I wish I’d learned earlier is that the leaders aren’t the ones at the top. They should be the one at the bottom. They should be the one supporting everyone else. So, I heard the analogy that when you think about the general of an army, in movies, they’re the ones all the way in the front. They’re the ones leading the charge, but actually generals are the ones in the back. They need to have purview. They need to be able to see everything. They need to be able to support people. They need to be able to orchestrate.
I like the idea of flipping the org chart to say that the leader should be the person at the bottom, supporting everyone moving the pieces up, holding everybody up if they can’t support their own weight.
So, I wish I would have learned the idea of servant leadership which is becoming more and more popular now. It’s a fairly new concept to me over the last couple years. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about it, but I wish I would have learned that earlier.
Claire: Absolutely. I think the “general” metaphor in particular actually kind of hit close to home. My grandfather, actually on my dad’s side was a four-star general in the Korean army.
Dan: Oh wow.
Claire: Yeah. So, when I think about leadership I actually think about him first and foremost. Forget folks in business — I think about my grandfather. I think you’re so right. That we have this preconception in our heads that leaders, they’re at the top. The triangle is kind of like this and they’re at the top of that chart. And you’re so right, it should be flipped the other way. I think that’s brilliant.
So, for you Dan, you said that you’ve been feeling this and learning this rather recently. So, has something happened? Did you read something? Did you have an experience with your team where you went, “Oh boy. I gotta start thinking about this differently?”
Dan: So, for me it was definitely a book that I read that I didn’t expect much out of. So, Simon Sinek wrote a book called Leaders Eat Last. Everyone knows Simon Sinek by his TED Talk and by his Start With Why book and that seems to be the most popular one, which I read and loved. Then I read Leaders Eat Last and I loved it way more. I hadn’t heard as much about that book so less spoilers for me I guess. When I read that book, just if I can give the premise of that book. It’s about the physiological things that happen when good leaders enable their teams. So, there’s a lot that happens in your body chemically that actually are imbalanced in typical workplaces, especially in tech where people don’t get the support that they need and so they act a certain way.
So, he goes through kind of the science of leadership and of team building and of being on a team and how good leaders can actually enable the right chemical makeup on their teams. It’s really fascinating. When I read that book, it kind of changed my perception of what a leader is supposed to do evolutionarily and chemically and things that I never would have occurred to me. So, that book was really impactful for me in thinking about leadership.
Claire: That’s awesome. I’ve actually heard nothing but good things about the book I’ve still yet to read it. Obviously respect Simon Sinek a lot. So, then, have you maybe tried to put some of these practices day to day, whether it’s SuperFriendly or SuperBooked?
You’re in a really unique leadership role for folks who don’t understand the work that you do with SuperFriendly is that these are folks who are not … It’s sort of like the best of of a team that you’ve assembled, but they don’t necessarily work for you and yet you’re the leader. So, whether it’s that, whether it’s in building your own piece of software, how have you tried to put those words into actions or those ideas into action?
Dan: So, there’s two ways. One comes from that and then one comes from another book which I’ll tell you about in a minute. So, the first way is the way that I’ve tended to start all my projects recently is get everybody in the same room physically if we can or if not, on video chat at least. Just ask everyone what would you like to do on this project? Devoid of your role, if you’re a developer, it doesn’t have to be development. If you’re a designer, it doesn’t have to be about design, but what do you want to grow in?
I try to make clear that my job on the project is to help you grow in that thing.
So, if you’re a designer and you want to learn more about Angular, cool. Let’s use this project as an excuse to learn Angular or if you’re a producer and you want to do more illustration work, great. Let’s find and opportunity for this project on this project for you to do illustration work. My job as the director on the project or as the creative director or whatever my role is is to make the space for that and make it okay if that doesn’t actually work out. So, yeah. You want to learn Angular. If you decided Angular’s too difficult for you or you just don’t like it, that’s fine. No harm done to the project and my job is to kind of protect that.
So, that’s one piece. The second piece comes from the book Turn The Ship Around by David Marquet which I just read recently. It is an excellent book.
The thing that I’m trying to put into practice now is the idea that the people with the most knowledge is where the authority should go.
So, often leadership is flipped where authority is at the top of the org chart and the knowledge is at the bottom of the org chart, right? The “worker bees.” They have the knowledge but they don’t have the authority to make decisions. So, in that book a lot of that book is about how you shift the authority to the people who have the knowledge and David Marquet gives a bunch of examples of how he’s done that being a Navy captain.
So, one of the things I’m trying to practice more and more which is more difficult is who are the people that have the knowledge and what can I do to say, “No. No. You make the call and whatever call you make, I’ll support you in that.”
That’s tough for me because running a consultancy, it’s my name and my reputation on the line so it’s hard to relinquish that and say, “Oh, no. No. You make the call. It’s totally fine.” Especially because I’m the kind of guy who thinks that I know everything and I know best. So, it’s hard to relinquish that, but it’s something that I’m trying out. So far, it’s been really great in the instances that I’ve tried it. So, I’m going to try to do it more and more.
Claire: You, me, and everyone else, Dan, trying to relinquish that control. It is hard. It is easy to read it in a book. It is compelling in a book and it is so hard in practice. I want to go back a little bit though to what you had mentioned in the first part which is this question that you like to ask your team before you kick off a project which is: “Where do you want to grow in?”
I think that question is one of the most overlooked questions for managers and leaders in thinking about that really the greatest source of motivation for employees is them making progress on any work and so asking how do they want to make progress? How do they want to grow in? In this case, someone who, again, they’re not working for you technically in this situation. So, I love that insight.
Then, yeah. You talking about relinquishing control. Man. You said a little bit of you have a tendency to not want to give up that control in that your name’s on the line. What do you tell yourself in that moment when you feel like do I want them to make the call? Should I just step in? What sort of thing is going through your head at that moment?
Dan: So, I’ve got a really good privilege on my side which is that I’ve worked on a lot of projects.
So, I’ve been doing what I’m doing for 15 years or 18 years or whatever it is. I’ve lived through every kind of project. Really terrible ones, really good ones and the common thread is how happy we were on projects.
That’s the thing that how did I feel on the project? How did my team feel? If we felt great, then it’s a successful project regardless of the quality of the work. So, I’ve always thought that the quality of the work is what counts. I think that there is a lot to be said for doing work at the highest quality or at the best of your ability. I think that’s how people grow is by stretching themselves in that way, but I also think that it’s about working with people.
It’s cliché, but on my deathbed, I’m not going to be like, “Man, those Photoshop files weren’t that good,” or I think-
Claire: Really? You sure?
Dan: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve never been on my deathbed so we’ll see. I’ll tell you if it changes, but I think that I’ve had the best time on projects when we are having the best time. Regardless of the work that we’re doing. Then as a coincidental side effect, when we are having the best time, we do the best work. So, I forget the name of the study that they did, but I think Google’s team did a study on what makes for the best teams. I think this was five years ago. The thing that came out was psychological safety. It didn’t matter the talent of the team. The talent level or the tenure or the experience or any of that. It’s just matters if people feel safe on teams.
Dan: If they feel safe on teams, they will do their best work period. It was pretty conclusive results there. So, I’ve really tried to take that to heart.
Let’s just make a good space for each other. That includes clients. I do client service. Let’s make a good space for each other. I don’t want to work with clients that abuse me or my team. I don’t want to abuse them. I don’t want to have an us and them mentality. I know a lot of client and vendor relationships start antagonistically. Like it’s just, “Oh, they’re a client. They’ve gotta be bad.” I don’t like that. I think that if we approach it in a different way and we are more open minded about it, we’ll have better collaborations and we’ll do better work together.
So, I try to start off my projects … I’m in a lucky position now where I’m in control of these projects so I can actually shape them the way that I want to.
Dan: So, I find that I have the best time. It seems like my teams have the best time when we start with, “What do you want to do?”
One last thing. One last thing from that book Leaders Eat Last, there was one anecdote that he shared where there was a company that basically said you will not get fired. No matter what you do unless you do something against the code of conduct essentially at the company we’re not going to fire you. He said that that changed the dynamic of the company so much because when somebody does poorly, the response is not, “Well, they’re going to get fired.” Their response is, “What can we do to enable their growth?” Have they not learned a particular thing that we can get training for them or do they need more support in this area? But when you take firing someone off the table, it changes the dynamic of the whole team.
So, that was something that kind of stood out for me was like, “Okay. If I think about I’m not going to get fired or I can’t fire someone or this person is not going to get let go, how does that change how I actually work with them? It really dawned on me. That’s family. I can’t fire my brother if I’m upset at my brother. I can’t fire my dad or my wife or my kids. I have to learn how to grow with them. So, if we’re really going to talk about how to work together, at some level I spend more time with my coworkers than I do my kids some weeks. So, how do I treat them like my work family and how do I treat them in a way that respects them as people and not just as coworkers or talents or roles or whatever? I feel like that really enables growth for them and for me too.
Claire: Absolutely. I think the point you make about the way that you feel about your work affecting how well you do your work. If you have safety, if you have happiness, if you actually are just feeling good, that everything else falls into place. Yeah. If you don’t have this anxiety that you’re going to get booted and so creating an environment like that as leaders, I love that reminder to do that. So, thank you so much for your time, Dan. This is awesome. Love getting to chat with you.