How To Talk To Employees

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Today on Twitter, I noticed this tweet from Dare Obasanjo (aka @carnage4life on Twitter) critical of a blog post by Rand Fishkin, co-founder and CEO of SEOMoz.

Why you shouldnt take lessons from inexperienced managers. Replaces to-the-point email with lengthy BS no one'll read -http://t.co/u1vu8sUS

Dare is one of those folks who is very thoughtful in what he blogs and tweets. Most of what he posts is worthwhile, so naturally I clicked through and read the post. In the post, Rand poses a hypothetical scenario (emphasis mine):

For example, let’s say Company X has been having trouble with abuse of work-from-home privileges. Managers are finding that more and more people are getting less accomplished and a primary suspect is a lack of coming into the office\*. The problem is circulated at the executive team meeting and a decision is made to change the work-from-home policy to provide greater analytics and visibility. An email is sent to the team that looks like this:

Rand supplies the “typical” corporate response:

To: Allhands@CompanyX.com \ From: JoeTheHRManager@CompanyX.com \ Subject: New Work-From-Home Policy

Hi Everyone,

Starting next week, we’re making a change in policy around time working out of the office. Employees wishing to work from home must send an explanatory writeup to their manager. It will be at managers’ discretion whether these requests will be accepted.

If you have feedback, please email HR@CompanyX.com

Thanks very much,

Joe

And here’s his “improved” response. To be fair, he makes it clear that he doesn’t think it’s perfect and he’d spend more time on it if he were actually sending such mail.

To: Allhands@CompanyX.com \ From: RandtheCEO@CompanyX.com \ Subject: Productivity & Working Out of Office

Hi Everyone,

Over the last month, several managers have been concerned about our ability to get collaboration-dependent projects completed. We need a way to better track in-office vs. out-of-office work to help prevent frustration and lost productivity. *If you’re planning to work from home or from the road, please email your manager letting them know. If the time doesn’t work, they might ask you to come in.*

I know many of you are putting in a ton of effort and a lot of hours, and that this extra layer of communication may be a pain. I’m sorry for that. But, as we’ve learned with all sorts of things growing this company, we can’t improve what we don’t measure, so please help us out and, hopefully, we can make things better for everyone (more work-from-wherever time for those who need it, more in-office collaboration so communication delays don’t hold you back, etc).

If you’ve got any feedback, ideas or feel that we’re being knuckleheads and missing the real problem, please talk to your manager and/or me!

Thanks gang,

Rand

The Golden Rule

Before I comment, I should point out that while I have managed some poor souls in the distant past, I’ve never been a CEO or an HR director. I don’t have years of experience in those fields.

But I do have years of experience being an employee. This makes me especially qualified to critique these emails. Let’s face it. They absolutely reek of manager speak.

I’ve had great managers in the past, but there’s one common trait I’ve noticed from many managers. They’re typically self-centered and frame everything from their scope of influence.

The email could be made so much better by practicing a very simple thing. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes.In other words, practice the Golden Rule. How would you react to such an email if the tables were turned and you were the employee and you got this email from management?

I’d imagine you’d prefer to be spoken to as a peer and an adult, not as child who needs to be controlled. These emails feel like classic examples of “Theory Y” as Dan Ostlund highlighted in his FogCreek blog post, Why do we pay sales commissions where he addresses the dual theories on how management views workers:

The tension between these views of workers was described in the 1960s by Douglas MacGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise. He suggested that managers had two views of motivation, and that a manager’s theory of motivation determined company culture. The first view he called Theory X which assumes that people are lazy, want to avoid work and need to be controlled, coerced, punished, and lavishly rewarded in order to perform. Sounds like some sort of S&M dungeon to me. Theory X demands a lot of managerial control and tends to demotivate, generate hostility, and generally make people into sour pusses.

The second he called Theory Y which assumes that people are self-motivated, derive satisfaction from their work, are creative, and thrive when given autonomy.

As you can tell, I strongly subscribe to Theory Y. Perhaps if I was a CEO, I’d change my mind and subscribe to Theory X in a sadistic desire to exert my will over others. Perhaps using a bullwhip.

But I’m not. I’m an employee and I like being treated like an adult. I’m very fortunate to work at a place that is so camped out in Theory Y it’s crazy.

If you do have employees who act like children and only respond to command and control, maybe it’s time to get rid of them.

Attack the Root Problem

So back to these emails. Putting myself in the employee’s shoes, here’s how I might react to them.

If I were working from home productively, I’d be annoyed by the fact that more process is being added to my work day due to the lack of productivity of others.

But maybe I’m one of the people whose productivity has declined. Well I’d probably still be annoyed because the letter misses the point and doesn’t address the real problem.

Note that in the original scenario, I put some emphasis on a phrase:

more and more people are getting less accomplished and a primary suspect is a lack of coming into the office\*.

Both of the proposed responses immediately commit a logical fallacy. Now please, repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation!

The problem is not that people are working from home. The problem is the decline in productivity!

Working from home is only a potential suspect as the cause in this decline. But management runs with this and puts more constraints in place that only serve to annoy employees. That’s putting a band-aid on a problem they admit they don’t yet understand!

The solution is to attack the root problem. Find out what the real cause is and enlist the help of your employees to solve the issue. If I were sending out the email, I’d probably start by sending it to just the managers first (this assumes my company even has managers in the first place):

To: Overhead <managers@CompanyX.com> \ From: HaackTheAllPowerfulCEO@CompanyX.com \ Subject: Productivity & Working Out of Office

Hi Everyone,

Over the last month, several managers have been concerned about our ability to get collaboration-dependent projects completed. We need to better understand the root cause of why our productivity has declined.

I recommend talking to your reports, clearly state the problem, and gather their ideas on how we can improve overall collaboration and productivity. I’m especially interested in what we can do as management to remove any roadblocks that prevent them from being as productive as they’d like.

If you’ve got any feedback, ideas or feel that we’re being knuckleheads and missing the real problem, please talk to me!

Also, whoever used the executive bathroom last, please light a candle next time.

Thanks gang,

Phil

You just might find out that the reason Fred’s productivity declined is because he has a sick child at home and needs to be able to help out at home during the day. But because your company’s culture is so focused on synchronous collaboration, he can’t really make up the work at night. Asking Fred to come into work more often doesn’t solve anything. But improving your collaboration tools and helping foster a culture that can thrive with asynchronous communication just might!

Strike at the root problem my friends and treat each other with respect. That’s how you talk to employees (and ideally, everyone).

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