Choosing the right remote talent strategy for your business

It’s definitely NOT a one-size-fits-all

Approach

Building on my personal experience leading distributed organizations, and my deliberate study of highly-remote organizations over the past six months, two key factors informed my approach to strategy development outlined below.

First, this challenge is shared by many organizations. Therefore, having your business come up with a solution from scratch will just repeat old mistakes that others have already made and learned from. Instead, I chose to synthesize their experience and lessons learned focusing on identifying the contextual elements that impact the outcome, so the approach can be adapted to fit an organization’s unique context.

Second, I view organizations as complex systems with emergent properties, where the relationship between cause and effect is not fully known/understood. Therefore, while an initial, directional approach is essential, the plan needs to include scaffolding for learning as we go: creating the space and the method to observe the impact of changes as they are made, and the willingness to adapt both direction and plan based on what is learned.

Step 1: Align on the “why?”

A remote talent strategy offers a diverse set of benefits[1] and challenges[2]. For example, at the organizational level, it offers access to a broader candidate pool but requires deeper intentionality in designing and scaffolding how work gets done. At the individual level, it offers more flexibility in schedule management but requires stronger communication and organization skills to get work done. Your business may have already experienced some of these, as Stripe had through its remote engineering hub[3]. Different organizations choose to pursue a remote work strategy for a host of reasons, placing varying premiums on the benefits they want to capture and the challenges they need to mitigate. This variability leads to choosing different remote talent strategies. Therefore, Your business’ starting point needs to be articulating its specific “why?” — scoring these key benefits and challenges and creating clear criteria to evaluate alternative remote talent strategies.

Step 2: Converge on the desired end-state

Remote talent strategies lie on a spectrum between “fully co-located in a single office” and “work from anywhere” where the extreme ends are the best option only for a minority of organizations. Strategies in between those extremes differ from one another primarily in how much they constrain the location from which work can be done, and how much they constrain the time-of-day in which work should be done synchronously. Quora[4], for example, opted to keep its office, allow employees to work from any country in which they can be legally employed, but defined 9am to 3pm PT as “coordination hours” where most employees will be expected to be available for meetings and impromptu communication, regardless of where they are located. Market research[5] identified additional points along the spectrum that can serve as anchors for different remote talent strategies. Flexibility in location and synchronicity has a varying impact on specific roles based on their unique attributes: providing on-site client interaction, accessing specialized equipment or facilities, the need for supervision and regulatory oversight, reliance on collaboration and interaction, and focus on innovation. Therefore, your business needs to conduct a role-by-role impact assessment of each candidate strategy. Coupled with the weighted criteria defined in Step 1, it will have sufficient insight to converge on the right end-state and determine whether a single end-state can fit across the entire company or bifurcation by role type is required.

Source: BCG analysis

Step 3: Define success and how to measure it

Defining success targets and how they will be measured will heavily influence the way organizational changes will be rolled out to support the strategy.

Success should be looked at through two key lenses: work, reflected in a set of business KPIs, and workforce, reflected in a set of employee-reported data. The specific benefits your business wants to capture and key drawbacks it wants to mitigate with its remote work strategy will determine the selection of specific KPIs and data. Since this strategy heavily impacts the way employees interact and collaborate, those standard success metrics should be complemented with Organizational Network Analysis[6] metrics collected both actively and passively.

Ideally, changes will be rolled out as randomized, controlled tests that will allow your business to isolate the impact of the strategy and distinguish between correlation and causation. Pragmatically, in some cases your business will have to move backward from that ideal, thoughtfully making trade-offs between reducing success attribution and increasing roll-out feasibility.

Step 4: Perform gap analysis and formulate a plan

With a clear end-state and approach to measurement defined, your business can now perform a gap analysis between the present state and the desired end-state to determine the pace by which it can move forward. The analysis explores the same two lenses of success: work and workforce.

Work — effectively working remotely requires deliberately changing the way work in the organization gets done across several dimensions[7]:

  • Routines, tools and capability building
  • Cyber and internal data security
  • Coaching and development
  • Productivity and performance management
  • Senior leadership and culture
  • Recruiting and onboarding
Source: BCG analysis

Workforce — effectively working remotely requires deliberately preparing the workforce to work remotely across several dimensions:

  • Motivation
  • Skills
  • Experience
  • Other needs (childcare, physical space, etc.)

Understanding the current gaps and ways to address them will enable your business to set a realistic pace for the change. Understanding the variability in current gaps will inform whether a uniform pace or multiple paces will likely yield a better outcome.

Step 5: Do → Sense → Adapt. Repeat.

Once the plans for closing the gaps identified in Step 4 are set in motion, on-going measurement of the success metrics defined in Step 3 will inform progress and drive continuous adaptation of both the strategy and the plan to implement it.

Putting it all together

For those of you who share my preference for visuals and illustrations, the following diagram summarizes how all the steps fit together: 

End-notes

  1. All-Remote Benefits
  2. All-Remote Drawbacks
  3. Stripe’s remote engineering hub, one year in
  4. Remote First at Quora — The Quora Blog
  5. How companies can make remote working a success
  6. Organizational network analysis — gain insight, drive smart
  7. Remote Work Works — Where Do We Go from Here?
Choosing the right remote talent strategy for your business

True wellness (at work)

Physical, emotional, social, cognitive, spiritual, environmental

Photo by Aleksandr Ledogorov on Unsplash

I’m going to keep it short and sweet this week. 

Wellness is the collective label used in many companies as an umbrella term for projects and initiatives aimed at improving the lives of their employees. It often manifests itself as a set of perks including but not limited to: gym stipends, meditation/yoga classes, healthy snacks in the kitchen, ergonomic workstations, etc. 

But ask an employee or even an HR practitioner about their company’s vision for wellness, and you’ll get something between a blank stare and a fumbling response. 

In the age of pandemic, wellness is perhaps more important than ever, and yet many of the programs mentioned above stop making sense while working from home and doing your best to socially distance. 

In comes Brad Stulberg with a pre-pandemic piece that rings event truer today: 

We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense.

Stulberg lays out a six-point evidence-based wellness manifesto: 

  1. Physical: Move your body and don’t eat crap — but don’t diet either
  2. Emotional: Don’t hide your feelings, get help when you need it
  3. Social: It’s not all about productivity; relationships matter, too
  4. Cognitive: Follow your interests, do deep-focused work
  5. Spiritual: Cultivate purpose, be open to awe
  6. Environmental: Care for your space

This short manifesto seems like a perfect “north star” for corporate wellness programs —  mapping a specific program, training or experience to a particular element in the manifesto. 

True wellness (at work)

The startup heartbeat

Orchestrating product, marketing, sales, and finance

Photo credit: Diuno

In a recent post, David Sacks ex-COO of PayPal (in the “PayPal mafia” days) and founder and CEO of Yammer (acquired by MSFT for $1.2B in 2012) laid out an integrated framework for orchestrating the operations of the four major departments of every SaaS startup: product, marketing, sales and finance. 

The Cadence: How to Operate a SaaS Startup 

While some design elements can be modified to meet the differing needs of non-SaaS startups, this framework is a fantastic starting point, that can save many startups years of discordant operations and cross-departmental friction and missed hand-offs. I’ve taken a stab at summarizing it below: 

Sales

  • In a SaaS context quarterly goals (and therefore, planning) seems to be ideal time-frame. Yearly is too rigid/unresponsive and monthly is too volatile. This dictates the heartbeat for everything else.  
  • The quarter begins with a Sales Kick-Off (SKO) where the sales team receives their new quotas, commission plans, and territories. Learnings from the previous quarter are shared, and Product demos the latest version of the product and reviews the roadmap for the current quarter.  
  • Once the plan is clear and in play, sales leadership focused on pipelines review and support. The sales team is immersed in active sales efforts supported by news, awards, and recognition generated by the marketing team. 
  • The third month is dedicated to heads-down closing and making the numbers with minimal interruptions.

Finance

  • Synchronizing the finance calendar with the sales calendar simplifies and clarifies financial reporting since the numbers then reflect a complete quarter’s sales activity.
  • A fiscal year ending on Jan 31 rather than Dec 31 avoids the end-of-year holiday crunch and disrupts customer expectations around end-of-year discounts.
  • Board meetings occur two to three weeks after the end of the previous quarter allowing for

Product 

  • The product roadmap gets reviewed and prioritized quarterly with external input from the board meeting and a customer advisory board informing the process. 
  • The goal is to align on the “major rocks” of each release, giving individual PMs a lot of autonomy in determining the “pebbles” and “sand” that fill up the overall capacity. 
  • Development projects are scope so that they can be shipped within one quarter. The rule at Yammer (where Sacks was CEO) was that projects would be assigned 2 to 10 engineers for 2 to 10 weeks. This is conceptually very similar to Basecamp’s 6-weeks model and other incremental software delivery approaches. 

 Marketing

  • The overall marketing approach should be event-based — orienting around a central quarterly event that can combine launch announcements and demos of new features with news about customers, financing, market share, metrics, or other milestones.
  • There’s a benefit to tying the product and marketing calendars together so the externally committed deadline can become a motivating factor. A lot has been said about the delicate balance that’s required in order to avoid the downside of this coupling. The product approach outlined above (projects’ scopes + release planning) is one essential component in enabling that coupling. 
  • Not all four quarterly marketing events have to be big ones. An annual user conference + three smaller webinars/city events can sufficiently drive the desired discipline around product delivery. 

Putting it all together 

Shifting to this orchestrated heartbeat starts with determining the fiscal year (Dec 31st. vs. Jan 31st, etc.) which derives the fiscal quarters. Sales plans are then lined up with the fiscal quarter, deriving the timing for SKOs and quarterly closing. Scheduling the marketing event in the middle of the quarter offsets the marketing calendar from the finance and sales calendar by 45 days, positioning the surge in marketing activity to best support on-going sales efforts. Lastly, the product cycle is aligned with the marketing calendar to hit the event deadlines. 

The coordinated heartbeat creates natural opportunities for internal “all-hands” meetings (not all should be used): after the books are closed, after the board meeting, before/after the launch event.  

This is another example where a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, the final picture looks something like this: 

The startup heartbeat

The best kind of CEO shadow

This program for top performers is a true win-win

Photo by Daniel Polo on Unsplash

The shift towards distributed/remote is causing many companies to revisit their core HR programs with the realization that simply “doing what we did before, but virtually” is not a long-term solution. In particular, engaging, developing and retaining top talent has been top of mind for many leaders since this shift unlocks new opportunities for these individuals, creating a critical “shields down” moment. 

 Luckily, this is another area where many companies can (should?) take a page out of GitLab’s handbook (pun intended) and consider implementing a CEO shadow program for their top talent: 

GitLab’s CEO Shadow Program 

In typical GitLab fashion, the link above describes their CEO Shadow Program in full transparency and almost-excruciating level of detail, resulting in an 8,5000-word document. Below I’m hoping to do my best in highlighting the key design elements that are worth considering when implementing a similar program elsewhere, using 95% fewer words. 

Goal 

The goal of the program is to help participants globally optimize their work by gaining a deeper understanding of how GitLab works, and what it aims to accomplish, as well as building cross-functional relationships with other members of the program’s cohort. For the CEO, it’s an opportunity to build a personal relationship with team members across the company and learn about challenges and opportunities through their unique perspective. 

Eligibility & Application

In addition baseline tenure (at least 1 month, preferably 3) the eligibility criteria aim the program at employees on the managerial track with large spans of control, senior individual contributors, cultural leaders and under-represented groups (both minorities and geographies). The application process is driven by the employee, requesting a particular slot on the schedule, highlighting how they meet their eligibility criteria and providing confirmation from their manager that they meet the criteria.  

Rhythm 

The program runs on an on-going basis with a few rare exceptions (CEO PTO, etc.). Participants shadow the CEO for two weeks with one week overlap, so during the first week a participant is trained by the outgoing person and during the second week, they train the incoming person. This is a good place to highlight the extra consideration that GitLab made for parents — highlighting specific “parent-friendly” slots in which full week participation is not required or the weeks are inconsecutive, and paying for childcare while parents participate in the program. 

Prep-work

Participants are expected to prepare for their time in the shadow program by connecting with co-shadows and program alumni, preparing a formal onboarding program (off a template), and getting up to speed on the work currently in-flight (projects and calendar) and the CEO himself. 

Format

The format is pretty straight forward. Participants are expected to perform a set of small administrative/operational/documentation tasks that can be completed during their time in the program and be part of almost any conversation that the CEO is having with a very small subset of explicit exceptions. Detailed guidance is available on everything from what to wear, through how to present yourself and act during meetings, to how to navigate the CEO’s home office (aka “Mission Control”). Of note is the awesome expectations to “speak up when the CEO displays flawed behavior” which probably merits a post of its own. The specificity in both describing them and validating/inviting the way you can respond to them is truly inspiring. 

In Sum

A CEO shadow program can be a phenomenal opportunity to help retain top talent. If you’re considering starting such a program in your own organization, the GitLab handbook page is a comprehensive jumping-off point that can help ensure that you got all your bases covered. You can refine, modify and iterate from there.

The best kind of CEO shadow

Does your team discuss the undiscussables?

The 4 types of team undiscussables teams should start discussing more 

Source: MIT Sloan Management Review

A neat piece by Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux expanding on element from the psychological safety piece from a few weeks back: 

It’s Time to Tackle Your Team’s Undiscussables

Tackling undiscussables, a set of issues that are holding the team back but the team is reluctant to discuss, is a good example of taking an interpersonal risk in support of the greater benefit of the team. The reluctance to discuss them often stems from fear that doing so will sap the team’s energy, surface unresolvable issues, or expose the person to blame for the part they played in creating the issue. Where in fact, it is often the case where tackling the undiscussables brings relief, boosts the team energy and generates team goodwill. 

Toegel and Barsoux offer a taxonomy with 4 types of undiscussables, differing in their source, the way they should be approached, and the sequence in which they should be tackled: 

  1. You THINK but dare not say — risky questions, suggestions, and criticisms that are self-censored out of fear of the consequences of speaking. Often due to past erratic or uncharitable responses from team members. Beginning the fix: leaders can explicitly acknowledge they may unwittingly have created a climate of fear or uncertainty, invite discussion about sensitive issues, draw out concerns, promise immunity to those who share dissenting views, and lighten the weight of their authority in the room.
  2. You SAY but don’t mean — spoken untruths. Discrepancies between what the team says it believes or finds important, and how it behaves. These issues are often left undiscussed not based on fear as much as on an unquestioned and distorted sense of loyalty to the team, its leader, or the organization. The intent is to maintain the team’s cohesion, even if that cohesion is based on a shared illusion. Beginning the fix: leaders need to make the hypocrisy of saying but not meaning explicit and acknowledge their part in the charade. Collecting anonymous examples of empty proclamations (“We say we want to…, but in fact, we….”) and challenging the overprotective mindset that inhibits the airing of criticism can kick-start the fixing process. 
  3. You FEEL but can’t name —negative feelings that are difficult for team members to label or express constructively, often failing to see the difference between manifesting one’s anger or resentment and discussing it. At a more basic level, they are not discussed because the antagonists experiencing negative emotions don’t test their inferences. Based on their own worldviews and self-protective instincts, they presume they know why the other party is acting in a particular way and let that drive their behavior. This leads to escalating tensions. Beginning the fix: help the feuding parties investigate the differences — in personality, experience, and identity — that sustain and fuel their apparent incompatibilities, rather than ignore the feud and the negative emotions associated with it. Enable them to share their experience while staying on their side of the net.  
  4. You DO but don’t realize — collectively held unconscious behaviors, such as instinctively developed defensive routines to cope with anxiety. Beginning the fix: Warped interaction patterns may be readily discernible to outsiders. A trusted adviser or an external facilitator can be invited to observe the team and give feedback on their communication habits through humble inquiry

Toegel and Barsoux recommend tackling the “SAY but don’t mean” undiscussables first, as the gap is between two elements that are visible to all team members — the things we say and the things we do. And leaving the “Do but don’t realize” undiscussables for last, as they require outside intervention that will predicate on enough internal goodwill being built by tackling the other undiscussables first. 

Lastly, Toegel and Barsoux offer a lightweight diagnostic tool, to help identify what type of undiscussables may be present in a certain team, based on the most common symptoms and team patterns: 

Source: MIT Sloan Management Review
Does your team discuss the undiscussables?

HEY, it’s about time we reinvented email

Basecamp’s new email client is a tour de force of the “jobs to be done” approach in all aspects but one

source:hey.com

I rarely cover specific products in this publication, but decided to make an exception this time for the following reasons: 

  1. It’s a collaboration product, and collaboration is a core organizational need.
  2. It’s quite transformative in the way it approaches some big challenges with the existing solution (email). 
  3. Many of the issues it’s addressing and the approaches that it’s taking to solving them apply to broader collaboration mediums that extend beyond email.

You can check-out the feature-by-feature overview here or watch this tutorial video. I’ve decided to take a stab at organizing the features by the challenges that they are addressing. 

Screen and triage

Emails from new senders arrive at a “screen queue” where they can either be rejected or accepted and triaged to one of a few “work queues”: 

  • Imbox (default)
  • Reply later — non-urgent emails that require a response.
  • The feed —newsletter and other non-urgent recurring communications.
  • Set aside — short-term reference: information about an upcoming event/meeting, document that needs to be reviewed, etc. 
  • Paper trail — long-term reference: receipts, reservation confirmations, etc.

Read and respond

Each work queue supports a slightly different workflow for handling the emails in it: 

  • Imbox — split between “new for you” (unread) and “already seen”. A “read together” feature opens all unread emails in a single screen enabling the batch review of all unread emails together. 
  • Reply later — offers a “focus and reply” feature, with similar UX to “read together” but adding a reply box to the side of each email. 
  • The feed — a news feed view with the most recent email at the top offering a preview of each email and an ability to expand (“show more”) the whole email. 
  • Set aside and Paper trail — a Pinterest board view with a visual digest of each email 
HEY “focus and respond” workflow

In addition, email threads have the following additional features, impacting only the particular user (not all thread recipients): 

  • Rename the subject line.
  • Merge threads of the same topic.
  • Notify when new responses are added to the thread or when an email is received from a specific sender. (notifications are off by default).
  • Clip (save for later) a portion of the email. 
  • Add a “note to self” to the thread — “response” that only the user can see.
  • Add a “sticky note” to the thread that shows up under the subject line in the various work queues. 
  • Send large files. 
  • Unfollow (mute) — feature parity with existing solutions.
  • Labels (tags) — feature parity with existing solutions.
HEY “note to self” feature

Retrieve  

Finally, recognizing that email is also used as an archiving system, HEY added the following features: 

  • “Paper trail” queue (discussed above).
  • List of all the content clipped from emails. 
  • Contact view showing all correspondence that involved that contact, surfacing files separately.
  • Files-only view 
HEY contact view surfacing files separately and supporting granular notifications

There’s also a neat privacy feature proxing all images and therefore preventing unauthorized data collection using a tracking pixel

There is, however, one area where HEY misses the mark and fails to extend the “jobs to be done” approach into a critical element of the user experience: migrating work into the service. It is unlikely that users will rush to leave their native email address and immediately start using they @hey.com address. For many of us, our email addresses serves as a better unique identifier than our physical address. We change apartments more frequently that we change our email address and therefore this change is associated with non-trivial switching costs. While HEY does support auto-forwarding of email from your native email address, it does not (as of the writing of these lines) support defining a different “reply from” email address. Therefore, email responses from HEY will go out from the @hey.com email address, creating a confusing and discontinuous experience to the email recipient. 

In sum, HEY creates a transformational email experience by acknowledging three deep truths and building them into the user experience:

  1. Different emails, different use cases — users engage with different types of emails in a different ways. We engage with an email from a good friend, a newsletter and last month’s internet subscription receipt differently. Therefore, the email client should support different workflows.  
  2. Different users, different preferences — traditional email forces complete symmetry in the way two people view the same email thread. HEY breaks that symmetry and allows users to modify and annotate the threads in a way that makes sense to them. 
  3. Communicate AND document — building on the framework I covered here, while email is primarily used to communicate, it’s a sufficiently good system of record for documenting/archiving some critical content. Supporting that secondary functionality needs to go beyond good indexing and a search box. 

If we zoom out, these truths apply to other non-email collaboration tools such as chat and discussion boards as well. Therefore, considering similar approaches to addressing them in those other mediums opens some thought-provoking opportunities. 

One of the beautiful things about HEY is that it’s a “dumb” email client from a technical standpoint. There’s no AI/Machine Learning involved in any of the features I listed above. It screens the emails you tell it to screen, it triages emails to where you tell it to put them, it notifies you about emails you tell it you want to be notified about. 

On the one hand, it’s an incredible testament to how far just deeply understanding what your customers are trying to do with your product can take you. 

One the other hand, it may also be HEY’s biggest business risk. A HEY subscription currently costs $100/yr. But if HEY starts getting serious traction, how hard would it be for Gmail to catch up? 

HEY, it’s about time we reinvented email

Community of Practice twofer [Webber, FabRiders]

This is one of my rare twofers combining two posts that only loosely share a theme, and don’t justify a standalone post individually. 

The first is Emily Webber’s research:

Social group sizes, Dunbar’s number and implications for communities of practice

Through not-the-most-scientifically-rigorous method (a survey on Twitter) Webber collected ~150 responses on different communities of practices capturing information about their community size, number of leaders and frequency of meetings. The results are captured in the following graphs: 

  • Business communities of practice mimic natural social communities, sharing a similar fractal distribution of size. The intuition of drawing on insights from natural social communities when addressing issues with business organizations have existed for a while and provides some additional evidence for the validity of that analogy. 
  • There’s a notable community threshold at about 40 participants. Below that threshold it’s more likely to see purely democratic (leaderless) communities and they meet fairly frequently (monthly or less). Above that threshold it’s more likely to see more definitive “leader” roles and meeting frequency increases substantially. 

The 40 person threshold was interesting to me as it’s notably smaller than the Dunbar Number that’s estimated to be around 150. While it’s not discussed in the article, I’d hypothesize that the looser nature of the business community leads to the need to introduce structure in order to maintain them sooner (at smaller scale). 


The other piece I want to cover today is by FabRiders titled: 

What are we building: communities or networks?

It notes the recurring conflation of terms between “community” and “network” and posits that the short longevity of many efforts to create self-sustaining peer expertise exchanges is a result of unrealistic expectations for having those networks become real communities.

After providing a few “classical” formal definitions of community, they make a minimally compelling case for “network“ being a better framework for thinking about these groups than “community” arguing that:

We should not have expectations that a group of people coming together to share expertise will form a community, and in particular, that it will become self-sustaining… [peer expertise networks] provide an ability to establish connections that can deliver knowledge sharing in ways that strengthen the communities we are aiming to serve.

While there’s definitely some merit in this argument where the knowledge gain through that group is often used elsewhere, earlier in the post Paul Jame’s definition of a community is also covered: 

It is a group of people who are connected by durable relations that extend beyond immediate genealogical ties, and who mutually define that relationship as important to their social identity and practice.

For many of us, our professional identity plays a big role in our overall sense of identity. While the criticism of it playing an outsized role is mostly justified, the activity that we spend such a large portion of our waking hours engaged in should play a meaningful role in our identity. 

So while other references to “communities”, for example around certain product brands, easily fail both tests, the professional community seems more complex. 

The distinction between a peer expertise network and a community is helpful, and I wish that the authors had provided clearer definitions of each. Yet as the article does point out, regardless of how the group is labeled, a clear and focused group purpose will be essential to its success. 

Community of Practice twofer [Webber, FabRiders]

What Psychological Safety actually means for teams [Snow]

Psychological safety is one of the hottest terms in the People field in recent years, yet there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what it means and how to create it. Shane Snow took a good stab at advancing this conversation in: 

What Psychological Safety actually means for teams

Snow starts off with Edmundson’s definition of “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

A big chunk of the ambiguity around psychological safety stems from the various ways in which “safe for interpersonal risk-taking” can be interpreted so he offers two powerful distinctions to make reduce some of it: 

  1. Safety is not comfort (and discomfort is not danger)— You can be safe and uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, those are the required conditions for growth experiences. He illustrates that using the 2×2 above and offers a simple example of working with a personal trainer at the gym — you’re safe, but uncomfortable. Conflating the two terms leads to an overly broad definition of safety which reduces psychological safety: you view other’s disagreement with you as risking your safety, and/or are afraid to voice your disagreement in order to not jeopardize the safety of others. He references Haidt and Lukianoff’s work which discusses the downsides of mistaking cognitive friction for violence at length. 
  2. Not all interpersonal risk-taking is good — interpersonal risk-taking for the sake of interpersonal risk-taking is not helpful. Intentionally not delivering on a commitment, or shouting down someone who says something uncomfortable requires taking an interpersonal-risk, but it’s not taken in support of the overall benefit of the group so it’s not helpful. Suggesting a new idea, or voicing your disagreement also requires taking an interpersonal risk. But that risk is taken in support of the overall benefit of the group. 

From there Snow goes to explore the relationship between psychological safety and trust: 

I’m not sure that I’m bought into this distinction where trust is an attribute of the relationship between two people and psychological safety is an attribute of relationship between the whole group, since the relationship between the whole group is the sum of the relationship between every two people in the group. However, exploring that analogy does lead him from what psychological safety is to how it gets created, and the critical role that a benevolent or charitable disposition plays in that process. 

But as we think about the behaviors that suggest high psychological safety, a charitable disposition seems to be insufficient. Here, I want to add and extend Snow’s work and I think the hint for the missing ingredient can be found in Google’s definition of psychological safety: “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other”. A charitable disposition gives you guidance on how to respond to others, but doesn’t provide you with much guidance on how to engage/show up yourself. This is where vulnerability and the importance of personal disclosures come in. 

If I was to sum up the behavioral guidance for creating psychological safety, it would be: show up vulnerably; respond benevolently and charitably

Rephrasing some of Snow’s examples, this is how it’d look like: 

  • Admit your mistakes; don’t hold others’ against them personally.
  • Speak up if you think something is wrong; don’t use others’ speaking up against them. 
  • Ask for help when you need; support others when they ask for it.
  • Confess when you’ve changed your mind about something; applaud others’ intellectual humility when they change theirs. 
  • Weigh the best interests of the group when making a decision; trust that they do the same. 
What Psychological Safety actually means for teams [Snow]

Self-Engagement [Murphy]

source: leadershipiq.com

This piece turned out to be trickier to write than I initially envisioned, since it required a delicate balancing act of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Since it’s a highly insightful “baby” and there’s quite a bit of “bathwater”. 

Following one of Mark Murphy’s Forbes articles, I came across this more detailed blog post: 

Employee Engagement Is Less Dependent On Managers Than You Think

The study

The team at Leadership IQ analyzed results from ~11,300 responses to uniquely-designed engagement surveys, exploring the correlation between an outcome engagement metric and two groups of engagement drivers: 

  • Traditional engagement drivers —  which focus on the support provided to the employee by their manager and the organization: “my manager recognizes my accomplishments”, “my job responsibilities are clearly defined”, etc. 
  • Self-engagement drivers — 18 outlooks and attitudes over which employees have direct and personal control: “I expect that more good things will happen to me than bad things” (optimism), “I will succeed if I work hard enough” (internal locus of control), etc. 

The baby

First, the outcome (dependent) metric they chose really resonates with me: “working at my company inspires me to give my best effort”. 

While there’s no perfect way to describe engagement, this definition which focuses on discretionary effort maps neatly to the “Will” component in Andy Grove’s equations of: 

Effectiveness = Will + Skill (more on that here).

If we are gearing our working on work efforts towards a specific end-state, a state in which we are all giving our work our best efforts fits the bill a lot more cleanly than an eNPS metric (“How likely are you to recommend your company as a place to work?”).

Second, despite some analytical shortcomings (more on that soon), their results provide some compelling evidence that several self-engagement drivers (optimism, internal locus of control, resilience, assertiveness, and meaning) correlate with the engagement metric more strongly than some traditional drivers (receiving recognition, openness to ideas, supervisor trustworthiness, teamwork, clear job responsibilities). 

Third, the team does not view the internal outlooks and attitudes as fixed, but rather as elements that can be honed and changed through training and coaching. 

Fourth, the team does not advocate for replacing the traditional view of engagement with the self-engagement one. It advocates for taking a holistic approach that addresses both traditional and self-engagement drivers. 

The bathwater

There are a few critical gaps in the way the study was conducted that, on aggregate, reduce its overall level of rigor below the threshold that will automatically receive my stamp of approval.

First, there are places where the distinction between traditional drivers and self-engagement drivers get murky. For example, “I trust my immediate supervisor” is considered a traditional driver that’s purely a factor of the supervisor’s behavior, ignoring the way the employee’s overall trust disposition may mediate that perception. 

Second, the decision to look at the correlation between the engagement metric and each one of the drivers in isolation is rather peculiar. A more insightful and rigorous analysis would regress all drivers against the engagement metric, and ideally, perform some factor analysis on drivers ahead of that to address any shared unobserved factors. 

Third, the partial presentation of the results, discussing only 10 out of about 30 drivers, and constructing a narrative in which a specific traditional engagement metric is compared head-to-head against a specific self-engagement mertic, raises concerns around cherry-picking the results in a way that best supports the overall narrative. 

Conclusion

It’s sad that the shortcomings in analysis limit the insights that can be drawn from the study. Yet, nonetheless, the following can be stated with a high degree of certainty: 

  1. Self-engagement drivers have a significant impact on overall engagement outcomes, namely our willingness to exert discretionary effort in doing our work. 
  2. Engagement surveys/reflections that leave out self-engagement drivers will reach partial insights that can only drive sub-optimal actions.
  3. The criticality of self-engagement outlooks and attitudes coupled with their plasticity, creates an opportunity to strategically align learning and development efforts with the overall organizational effort to improve engagement. 
Self-Engagement [Murphy]

Shopping for Confirmation [Green, Gino & Staats]

I’ve featured Francesca Gino’s work on this blog before, and this is another one of her fascinating studies. This time, in collaboration with Paul Green Jr. and Bradley Staats:

Shopping for confirmation: how disconfirming feedback shapes social networks

Since many of you will not have the patience to read through a 68-page paper, below are the key highlights from this study. 

The overall premise 

The team starts off framing the challenge: various empirical studies have found that feedback interventions designed to illuminate employees’ blind spots don’t always yield the desired outcomes. Feedback from others is intended to motivate improvement but it often has a demotivating impact, even to high-performing employees. One meta-analysis found that one-third of feedback interventions actually resulted in lower post-feedback performance.

Academic research of the reasons for the mismatch between intention and outcome has centered around a few mediating factors: 

  1. Poor design of the instruments/programs — for example, utilizing performance review for both compensation changes and developmental purposes leading to positively skewed feedback. 
  2. Poorly executed feedback — the feedback itself is not captured/delivered effectively: the content itself is garbled or confusing, numerical ratings without behavioral guidance on how to improve, etc. 
  3. Contextual features affecting the feedback — things that are happening outside of the feedback itself, such as the organizational culture, or level of trust, or even things outside the organization such as the external economic environment leading to distorted feedback. 

While these three factors do offer paths for improving feedback effectiveness, in aggregate there is little evidence that feedback interventions, even using some of the best practices on these fronts, have systematically led to organizational level benefits.

Theory

The team, therefore, proposes a fourth driver which they set out to explore: the discrepancies (blindspots) identified by the feedback are demotivating. The discrepancies, the gaps between the way the person views themselves, and the way they are reflected through the feedback received from others, represent threats to recipients’ positive self-concept. Because the self-concept is maintained and evolves through interactions with others, feedback recipients will try to avoid these threats by minimizing the way they collaborate with peers who provided them with disconfirming feedback, often in ways that lead to a reduction in performance (which heavily relies on effective collaboration). 

The theory can be illustrated as follows: 

To explore the theory in more detail, the team formulated the following hypothesis: 

  1. People are likely to perceive disconfirming feedback as more threatening to their self-concepts than feedback that is not disconfirming.
  2. People are more likely to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing disconfirming feedback than they are to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing feedback that is not disconfirming.
  3. The perceived threat to one’s self-concept mediates the relationship between disconfirming feedback and the elimination of a discretionary relationship.
  4. The greater the number of a person’s obligatory reviews are disconfirming, the greater the negative change in future constraint.
  5. Eliminating discretionary relationships with individuals who provided disconfirming feedback is negatively associated with subsequent performance.
  6. Decreases in constraint in response to disconfirming feedback by obligatory relationships is negatively associated with subsequent performance.

For simplicity’s sake, I would describe the “decrease in constraint” mentioned in #4 and #6 as a change to the collaboration pattern between the recipient and the individuals who provided the feedback. 

Experiments

The team ran two experiments to test their hypothesis, a field study, and a lab experiment. 

Field Study

The team tested hypotheses 2,4, 5 and 6 using data collected from “a vertically integrated food manufacturing and agribusiness company located in the Western United States”, which given additional details about the way the organization runs, revealed it as The Morning Star Company.

Morning Star uses a fluid organizational structure where every season each employee signs a “Colleague Letter of Understanding” (CLOU) with the employees that they’ll be collaborating with during the season. These data, providing insights into the dynamic changes in collaboration patterns across the organization by applying Organizational Network Analysis techniques, was the critical piece connecting the more standard inputs (feedback data) and outcomes (bonus allocations as a proxy for change in performance). 

Lab Experiment

The team tested hypotheses 1,2 and 3 through a well-crafted lab experiment. 

Filtering for people who value creativity and view themselves as creatives, participants were invited to perform an online assignment in which they’ll be paired with another participant and randomly assigned to be either the writer or evaluator of the task. However, all participants were assigned to be writers, with the software playing the role of the evaluator.

In the first task, participants were given 5 mins to write a creative short story that is at least 200 words. There were then assigned to one of the two conditions, receiving either confirming or disconfirming feedback. They were then presented with the second task, answering 10 trivia questions under time pressure. If both they and their partner will answer both correctly — they’d be given a bonus payment for their participation. 

BUT they were also given a choice: whether to stick with their current partner or be randomly assigned a new one. 

Results and Conclusions

The field study found a strong positive relationship between disconfirming feedback and the likelihood that the individual receiving the negative feedback drops the relationship in the subsequent year (Hypothesis 2). And the greater the number of an employee’s non-discretionary reviews that are disconfirming, the lower that employee’s constraint in subsequent periods (Hypothesis 4). The results suggesting that the greater the extent to which individuals engage in the practice of dropping discretionary relationships that provide disconfirming reviews, the lower their performance will be in the subsequent year, were not statistically significant, therefore rejecting Hypothesis 5. The team did find evidence that decreases in constraint in response to disconfirming feedback by obligatory relationships were negatively associated with subsequent performance (Hypothesis 6).

The lab experiment showed the participants did find the disconfirming feedback as more threatening (Hypothesis 1, an average score of 2.7 vs. 1.5 on a 7-point scale), and were more likely to switch partners for the second task (Hypothesis 2, 30% vs. 9%). Finally, the perceived threat mediated the relationship between disconfirming feedback and the elimination of the discretionary relationship (Hypothesis 3).

The team articulates the conclusion from their study succinctly 

Feedback processes are nearly ubiquitous in modern organizations. Managers employ these processes naively, assuming employees will respond to them with dutiful efforts to improve. But we find that disconfirming feedback shakes the foundation of a core aspect of employees’ self-concept, causing them to respond by reshaping their networks in order to shore up their professional identity and salvage their self-concept. This reshaping of employee networks contributes to lowered performance — a result ironically at odds with the ultimate goal of performance feedback. Our research offers an expanded view of social capital in interpersonal settings, and suggests that organizations must finds ways to fulfill employees’ need for a socially bolstered self-concept — that developmental feedback in the absence of this self-confirmation offers little hope for improving performance outcomes.

Shopping for Confirmation [Green, Gino & Staats]