Managers, screw the Golden Rule

Don’t treat employees the way you want to be treated. Here’s why.

“Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”

This is The Golden Rule we all learned growing up. As a manager or CEO in a company, you’d think it would make sense to follow it too. Managers should treat their employees the way they’d like to be treated, right?

Not quite.

In a recent interview I did with David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the Creator of the popular web framework Ruby on Rails and Chief Technology Officer at Basecamp, he shared this insight: You shouldn’t treat other people the way you want to be treated because the other person isn’t you.

The other person has different preferences (beliefs, ideas, and experiences) and is going to react to a situation differently than you. You might think something is reasonable or fair, but that’s you thinking that, not the other person. You cannot assume that the way she would like to be treated is the same as the way you’d like to be treated.

David admits to being guilty of this as much as anyone, saying that when he does this, “I’m trying to be empathetic to my own mirror image, which is not actually a very good definition of empathy.”

In fact, it’s self-centered in many ways to assume that if you treat others the way you’d like to be treated, other people will like it too.

One of the most memorable examples for me of this is when I talked with another CEO a few months ago. He told me how his company had implemented an unlimited vacation policy recently. In theory, he thought it was going to work great. It’s what he had always wanted when he’d worked at other companies himself — unlimited vacation, what could be better?

But then something interesting at his company happened: No one in his company took vacation. Maybe a day or two off here and there, but people took less vacation with the unlimited vacation policy than they had in years before.

I was a little shocked when he first told me this. What went wrong? The CEO learned is that none of the employees wanted to be seen as “the slacker” or “letting the team down.” Everyone else was afraid of taking vacation, so no one went on one.

After realizing this, the CEO replaced the unlimited vacation policy with a requirement that people take at least two weeks off of paid vacation during a year. It’s not what he would have necessarily wanted, but that’s not the point. If you’re a great manager or leader, you shouldn’t be operating from the point-of-view of what you want, you should be operating from the point-of-view of what others want.

Instead of practicing The Golden Rule and assuming other people are just like you, what should you do?

The answer is deceptively simple. Ask.

Ask your employees what type of vacation policy they’d prefer or what work environment they’d like to be in. Here are some examples of things you can specifically ask:

  • How do you prefer I give you feedback? In-person or in writing?
  • When you are most productive in a day? During the morning or the afternoon? Or even at night?
  • How much social interaction is important to you? Should we plan more team-bonding outings or have more regular company lunches?
  • How often would you like to get together for one-on-ones? Once a week, once a month or once a quarter?
  • How would you like to recognized for your work? Do prefer verbal praise in front of others, or more privately? Are small gifts or tokens of appreciation a good way to signify gratitude?
  • How much direction or context do you like before kicking off a project? Do you need space to gather your thoughts initially, or do you like having a lot of suggestions from me upfront?

Don’t just assume their answers are the same as yours. Ask, listen, and then act accordingly. The Golden Rule need not apply.


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

How to prepare for a one-on-one meeting as an employee

Many managers say flat-out that their biggest frustration is when employees are not prepared for a one-on-one meeting.

Yikes, really?

Over the past four years, I’ve heard countless of managers, CEOs, and business owners say a version of this to me:

“During a one-on-one, I’ll ask a question and there’s silence on the other end. Or they’ll use it as a complaining session and it’s clear they haven’t been thoughtful about what feedback they’re offering. The lack of preparation just kills me.”

As an employee, this may be somewhat surprising to hear. We often underestimate how vexing it can be for a manager when we don’t come fully prepared to a one-on-one meeting.

I know I didn’t prepare for any of my one-on-ones, six years ago, when I was an employee. Out of fear, anxiety, and a bit of dread for what the conversation was going to be like, I pushed my impending one-on-one meeting out of mind. I didn’t think about what I wanted to say in the weeks (and days) leading up to it. “Was it really worth putting in the energy to do so? Nah…” I thought to myself. So I decided against it. As a result, when my boss asked me, “What do you think could be better in the company?” my answer was vague and not meaningful.

In the moment, it felt like the safe and comfortable thing to do. But truth is, I only hurt myself. I bungled my opportunity to influence real change. And, I only further frustrated my boss, who was perplexed that I seemed dissatisfied but never vocalized my concerns outright.

Eventually, I left the company. But I dearly wished I’d approached those one-on-one meetings differently — with less passivity and more positivity. I wish I would’ve seen those one-on-one meetings as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. I wish I would’ve seized those one-on-ones as a moment to engage and dig deeper with my manager, instead of using them to create distance and fester in apathy.

In the six years since being an employee, now as a CEO myself, I’ve since learned the power of preparing for a one-on-one. It’s not just managers who should be preparing for them, but employees too.

Knowing what I know now, here’s what I wish I would’ve considered when preparing for a one-on-one meeting with my then boss…

Share what’s been most motivating to you.

Managers crave to know what they should be doing to help you do your best work. After all, a manager’s ultimate job is to create an environment that enables you to tap into your own intrinsic motivation. During your one-on-one, make sure you share what tangibly has been most motivating to you while at the company: What’s been your favorite project? Who was someone you really enjoyed working it? Why was what you were working on so invigorating to you?

Reveal what’s been draining and demotivating to you.

As an employee, it’s always tough to bring up a critique of the company— especially if it’s about your own manager’s habits and actions. You’re worried it’ll be misinterpreted as “complain-y,” that your manager will take it personally, and that it could affect your career progression. Or perhaps worst, you’ll put in all the effort of sharing your feedback and nothing will happen. While all of those scenarios might be possible outcomes, what we must remember is that if we don’t talk about it, our managers will never know about it. The little things — whether it’s your manager interrupting you during meetings or always asking you to stay late — add up. They gnaw away at your ability to feel energized about your work. If you don’t say something, then who will? When you do speak up and vocalize tough feedback, look to approach the conversation with care, observation, fallibility, and curiosity. It’s a hard, delicate path to travel. But it’s a worthwhile path if you want your work environment to become better.

Explain how you want to stretch and grow.

Your one-on-one with your manager is your chance to let her know how you’d like to be further pushed and challenged in your role (or outside your role). Take time to reflect on what you’d like to improve or work on professionally. Perhaps it’s something more broad, like learning to be more patient and strategic in your thinking. Or maybe it’s much more about gaining a specific skill, such as becoming a better writer. Suggest potential projects for how you’d like to grow in those areas, and see if your manager has any ideas around it. Ask your manager for advice on what books, classes, or people you should be talking to help you pursue the greater learning you’re looking for.

Highlight what you’re grateful for about the company, work environment, or how your manager has treated you.

Giving feedback during a one-on-one isn’t just about zooming in on the bad. It’s the perfect time to point out the good, especially the good things your manager has done or said. Think about what your managers does that your previous manager at another company never did. What are the things you want to make sure she knows you don’t take for granted? Be specific, and say thank you. Not only will it help boost the morale of your manager (who needs the positive support, as being a manager can be a thankless job in some ways), but it helps guide your manager to double down on the things that you appreciate.

Consider what’s been confusing or concerning to you in the company.

Are you concerned that the company is growing too fast, and losing some of its original culture? Are you confused why the company decided to change its vision midyear, when things have been going so well? Consider leveling with your manager about what uncertainty is weighing on your mind during the one-on-one. It’s much more challenging to try to bring it up those questions outside of a one-on-one meeting — so take advantage of the fact you have dedicated time to discuss bigger questions about the state of the company with your manager.

Suggest one thing you see as your greatest shortcoming, and what you want to do to actively compensate for it or improve on it.

During your one-on-one, your manager is bound to share some constructive feedback in an area you could get better. While intimidating at times, it’s a good and helpful thing — and something to prepare for. To help make the conversation easier for you both and to show that you’re actively looking to improve, offer some thoughts yourself about moments you wish you would’ve handled differently. This could come in the form of goals, such as, “I want to find ways to ask more questions when interacting with customers,” or observations of areas you want to strengthening, such as, “I have a tendency to rush some of my projects, and I want to find ways to focus more on quality instead of speed.”

Prepare 3 to 4 questions to ask, to help you better understand how to focus your efforts going forward.

In case your manager doesn’t ask questions that cover everything you’d like to cover, you’ll want to have a few questions prepared. Here are some examples of questions you can ask that’ll help you better understand how you can improve as an individual contributor, and help your manager understand what she can be doing better as well:

  • Do you see any untapped potential in the work I’m doing? An area you think I could be pressing a bit harder in or exploring deeper?
  • What’s been frustrating or confusing about working with me? Where do you see the greatest opportunity for me to improve?
  • What’s the biggest challenge you feel you face as a manager? In what ways can I be helpful in overcoming or facing that challenge?
  • What worries you most about the team?
  • What are you most proud of the team having accomplished?
  • In what ways have I saved you time or made your job easier? What can I be doing to do more of those things?
  • Where do you see the team or company a year from now, and what I can do to help make sure we achieve that vision?
  • What are the biggest challenges you foresee the team or company facing in the upcoming year?

This may feel like a lot. I might recommend taking 30 minutes or so to reflect on some of these items, and even writing out some questions, yourself.

But keep in mind that the more you put into a one-on-one, the more you can get out. While a thirty-minute or one hour meeting doesn’t seem like much, it’s an opportunity to create a better relationship with your manager, to improve the work environment around you, and be plain happier in your job.


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

How to influence culture when you’re not the CEO

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

But is that really true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissent is a responsibility.

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

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

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

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

Give space, grace, and gratitude to leaders.

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

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


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

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


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

How to influence company culture

“How do you actually influence company culture?”

This is the big, hairy question I often get asked by CEOs, managers, and employees alike. The other week, I posed it at the end of my most recent piece, The Culture Cliché.

In that piece, I shared how the fundamental, core element of culture are our basic underlying assumptions. That is, the things we actually believe — but might not always say or outwardly show — are what determines our company culture.

As a result, the key to influencing culture is tapping into those basic underlying assumptions: Listening to them, responding to them, and acting according to them.

But what does that tangibly mean? Can you affect or influence others’ basic underlying assumptions, to begin with?

Yes and no.

Yes, basic underlying assumptions can be affected.

But no, they can’t be outright changed. You can’t manipulate someone else’s basic underlying assumptions. Employees are not malleable objects for leaders to shape. Each person has her own intrinsic, worthwhile desires and beliefs — and that’s not for you as a leader to try to mess with.

Instead, what you can do is to focus on creating an environment where employees can choose to shift their basic underlying assumptions in line with what feels right to them.

Let’s talk about what this practically looks like.

There are three parts to creating an environment where the kind of basic underlying assumptions you want — and ultimately, the kind of company culture you want — can come into fruition:

Personal accountability

You must model the behaviors and basic underlying assumptions you want to be true. One of the greatest shortcomings of a leader is wanting others to do something when she doesn’t practice it herself. For instance, a manager often doesn’t admit her own weaknesses, but expects employees to be upfront and forthcoming about mistakes that happen in the company. See the disconnect? Whatever basic underlying assumptions you desire to be deeply rooted in your company, you must exhibit those basic underlying assumptions yourself, first.

As the leader, you should be the living embodiment of the basic underlying assumptions you want your culture to have. You should be consciously and intentionally speaking and acting in a way that shows people, “This is important to me.”

Consistency

Your desired basic underlying assumptions won’t be made true unless they are consistent. Basic underlying assumptions are solidified when you act consistently upon them.

Say you want honesty and transparency to be a basic underlying assumptions within your company’s culture. You decide to hold an all-hands meeting every month where you cover high-level financials, company goals, accomplishments, and answer employees’ questions. Seems like it’d be an effective initiative to establish that honesty and transparency are a basic underlying assumptions within the company.

But here’s the missing piece: Is it consistent? Do you hold those all-hands meetings every month, regularly? Or has the frequency of those meetings tapered off so now it’s every 2 or 3 months…or just whenever you remember to have them.

If it’s the latter, you’re falling short of creating an environment where those basic underlying assumptions can be strengthened.

Consistency determines whether or not this tenet of your culture is fleeting, or here to stay.

Richness

Being consistent alone in how you demonstrate your basic underlying assumptions isn’t enough. You must think about the richness of how you’re communicating these basic underlying assumptions. Are you using a variety of channels, means, and mediums to show that this is something that’s important for the team to embrace and embody? Or are you just relying on one?

For example, it’s not enough to just hold the all-hands meetings and assume that’s the only way to foster honesty and transparency within the company. Consider that some people might not feel comfortable speaking up in front of the rest of the company… so you’ll want to make sure you’re also doing one-on-ones. But don’t also merely assume that a one-on-one is enough of an opportunity for someone to speak their mind. Perhaps that person doesn’t always feel comfortable directly addressing that particular manager. Make sure you provide other opportunities for your employees to speak up, be it at group lunches, coffees get-togethers, CEO office hours, or an all-company survey.

The richness of how you communicate, the varying formats and mediums, helps dictate if the basic underlying assumption is truly what it should be: foundational.

Now this is no grand formula by any means for creating the culture that you want. Shaping a company’s culture and tapping into a team’s basic underlying assumptions is more art than it is science.

But consider these three elements — personal accountability, consistency, and richness — in how you’re upholding the basic underlying assumptions you want to make more real.

Pick one, commit to it, and see progress build over time. Slowly, but surely, you’ll see the difference.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

Cereal Day

Something as small as breakfast cereal– yes, cereal — can improve employee engagement. Here’s why.

The executive director of a prominent nonprofit called iMentor Chicago reached out to me the other week. Her name is Halleemah Nash.

“A question I asked my team a few months ago really caught me off guard,” Nash shared with me.

“I thought it was honestly kind of a silly question — something I’d never answer myself, personally. But I thought, ‘Oh what the heck, let’s ask it and see what happens.’”

The question was:

“What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?”

She asked this question to her staff, expecting nothing much to come of it.

The opposite happened. Almost every single person on her staff responded — enthusiastically, humorously. It got the whole office talking, laughing, joking with one another.

Nash took notice. She saw the collegiality it spurred, and wanted to encourage that positive spirit even more.

Once a month, she decided to plan a “Cereal Day,” when she’d bring in everyone’s favorite cereal. She had “Cereal Day” take place on the day of her team’s monthly strategic planning meeting — no doubt a tough, intense day for the staff.

Her staff absolutely loved it. Nash was stunned. “Who knew that cereal would get people pumped for a strategic planning conversation,” she wrote to me candidly in an email.

While it’s endearing to think that breakfast cereal is “the thing” that flips a switch for a team’s employee engagement, there’s something deeper going on here. Nash’s “Cereal Day” works as a means to boost her team’s morale for specific reasons.

Here’s what we can all learn from it as leaders:

Great leaders bring levity to a team, not just the load of work.

Let’s be real: Work feels serious a majority of the time. Everyone’s busy, there are deadlines flying around, a thousand decisions to be made — it’s easy to get your head stuck in the weeds of work. We all need a break, at some point.

Nash understands this, and so intentionally chose her strategic planning meeting day as the day to hold “Cereal Day,” as a result. She knew how in moments of stress or intensity, people do better work when they can step away, have a laugh, and just lighten up a bit.

As a leader, yes, it’s your job to press the gas pedal to make sure folks are focused. But you also want to give people permission to be people — to have fun, be silly, be expressive. Don’t get frustrated if you notice your team members cracking jokes during a meeting. Don’t be bitter when an employee takes an extra long lunch with a co-worker. Take it as a sign that they might need that levity. Like Nash, if there is a particularly tense time of year, use it as an opportunity to bring lightness to that meeting or season.

Great leaders find a way to connect everyone, not just some.

“Cereal Day” was effective at bringing together Nash’s team because, frankly, it’s unlike a lot of other team-bonding events: It involved everyone. Think about it.

At a happy hour, typically the same folks congregate and talk to one another. During a one-on-one coffee conversation, you only get to know that one particular person. It’s rare to have moments in the company where everyone gets to interact with everyone else — but that’s what “Cereal Day” did. Nash’s “Cereal Day” is the antidote to the silos that pop up in organizations.

Take an honest look at your own company’s current team-bonding events and see if they’re a common touch point for everyone, or just for some. You may be accidentally reinforcing the silos in your company you’re working so hard to dissolve. You may have to get creative — or even better, ask your employees about their personal tastes and interests — so you can tailor company outings, events, and activities to be a shared, common touch point for everyone.

Even if it’s about breakfast cereal — the fact that it’s something everyone can participate is what matters.


Whether you try to engage your employees as a leader with cereal or not, that’s totally up to you. But “Cereal Day” is an important reminder for us as leaders that employee engagement isn’t just about the big, grand gestures of extending vacation time or big pay raises.

True employee engagement is about caring enough to ask even the seemingly small, trivial questions to your team — and paying close attention to the answers.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

Exciting! We’re launching The Watercooler

An online community for leaders looking to become better

“How do I become a better leader?”

I’ve spent my entire working life trying to answer that question. The answer, unfortunately, has never been very clear. I found books to be one-sided, conferences require you to be there in-person, and mentors who I trust not always available (nor do they always have the experience or answers I’m looking for!)

So we built “The Watercooler” — an online community for founders, CEOs, owners, executives, and managers to talk candidly about our struggles and our successes. No matter where you live, no matter where your company is located in the world, we now all can support each other on the path to becoming better leaders.

Who The Watercooler is for

  • Business owners who don’t have the time (or have never been interested) in attending leadership seminars, but crave thoughtful discussion around how other folks think about leading teams.
  • Managers who are having a tough time transitioning into their new role, or feel like they haven’t learned any of the “leadership stuff.”
  • Founders who’ve been hiring quickly, and scaling and managing a rapidly growing team is starting to feel overwhelming and a little perilous.
  • People who believe that great leaders never stop learning, and continually ask themselves: “How do I become a better leader?”

What we talk about at The Watercooler

At The Watercooler, we chat about things like…

  • Company culture — Organization structure, goals, employee handbook, values, mission.
  • Individual performance — One-on-ones, feedback, reviews, career growth, check-ins, promoting people.
  • Hiring & Recruitment — Best practices, salary range, job description, interviews, hiring committee.
  • Tough Conversations — Inappropriate behavior, body odor, harassment, firing people, conflict.
  • Benefits — Healthcare, 401ks, paid time off, flexible hours, equity/options, profit-sharing.
  • Remote Companies — Challenges of building a great remote environment.

And more: Growing the business, product strategy, work-life balance, social events.

Who makes up The Watercooler Community

At The Watercooler, we value leaders who have a shared commitment to becoming better — those who come from a place of humility and honesty. Upholding those qualities are important and is the only way we can ensure an open dialogue on sometimes tough and personal topics.

As a result, we have a strict review process for members. You can either be referred to The Watercooler by a current member, or you can apply for membership here.

About two weeks ago, we invited current Know Your Team account owners as part of a private beta… and it’s been amazing to see the conversations, honest insights shared, and helpful advice exchanged in only 14 days. We’ve discussed topics like “how to let someone go” and “how we run our all-hands meeting” and “how to create fairness between locations in a distributed company.”

With 130+ folks who joined our initial private beta, here’s what a few folks have told me about The Watercooler so far:

“The Watercooler has become one of my internet pitstops, providing a daily dose of inspiration on how to build great businesses, straight from those doing it every day.” — Sean Conner, Managing Director of Marketing at Guerrero Howe

“It’s easy to feel isolated in leadership. The Watercooler is a daily reminder that we’re in this together and can help each other.” — Chris Powers, Director of Engineering at Sprout Social

“I’ve only been signed up a couple of days and already I’ve found some good ideas that I’m implementing, and some inspiration for things I’d like to do.” — Chris Lilley, Director at Black Pepper Software

How much The Watercooler costs

The Watercooler is just $20/month to join (or $200/year if you’d like to save 15%). This is to cover our maintenance costs and ensure we have a high-quality, moderated community.

Hope to see you at The Watercooler!

As a CEO myself, reading the threads in The Watercooler has been energizing. It’s made me feel like, “Phew, I’m not alone!” and helped me think through my actions and thought-processes on certain topics. I’d love to include you in the conversation. And, please feel free to share it with friends and colleagues who you think might benefit and add value to the community.

I look forward to learning from you at The Watercooler. See ya there!

Apply for membership to The Watercooler today.

PS: Please 👏 this post if you’d like others to benefit from The Watercooler. Thanks so much (and please say hi at @clairejlew!)

The Culture Cliché

If you’re looking to shift your company culture, it starts with understanding what culture is in the first place.

“Culture” has become the ultimate buzzword these days.

Everyone wants to “improve their company culture.” I see the word frequently littered across the headlines of countless of articles, book titles, and conference talk topics. Leaders also seem to talk about it all the time: CEOs say company culture is their first or second most-important priority as a leader.

Yet for as much we seem to talk about it, do we really know what culture is?

If we want to influence our company culture, we have to start with a keen understanding of what culture actually is.

What is company culture, really?

“Culture is the way we do things around here.”

You may have heard this before. It’s how prominent organizational consultants Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy defined culture in the 1980s. Culture is the thing you can’t necessary touch and feel — it’s the invisible binds and unspoken rules that enforce “how people do things around here.”

However, this definition can be insufficient at times. “The way we do things” feels awfully vague and amorphous, especially when it comes to thinking about how to intentionally create a company culture we’re proud of.

As a result, our attempts to influence culture get muddled. We conflate culture with surface-level relics, confusing culture with “Things To Make People Feel Good.” Think ping pong tables and happy hours and free lunches. Sure, those are part of “the way we do things” — but it doesn’t explain why you’re doing those things. Culture includes that why.

Let’s take a look at culture a few levels deeper.

Three levels of culture

Edgar Schein, another prominent organizational scholar, defined culture as having three levels:

Artifacts

This is the level of culture closest to the surface. Artifacts are things you can see, touch, smell. Ping pong tables, happy hours, and free lunches. It’s also the office layout, the logo rebranding you just did, and your company holiday party. This is typically what we think of when it comes to company culture.

Espoused values and beliefs

One level deeper are your espoused values and beliefs. These are the things you think you believe and say you believe. It’s the mission statement you wrote together as a company, the code of conduct that’s in your employee handbook, or the six core company values your CEO talks about during your all-staff meeting.

Basic underlying assumptions

This is the final, core layer of culture. Basic underlying assumptions are the things you actually believe. For example, at Know Your Team, we have a basic underlying assumption that we must be honest, regardless of the personal cost. So when we made a big mistake a few years ago, we proactively shared it with our customers, even it meant risking losing them. Our basic underlying assumption steered our decision-making and how “we do things around here” — ultimately, driving our culture.

Our basic underlying assumptions are the foundation of culture. If we can influence our basic underlying assumptions, we can influence culture.

Why this matters

More often than not, there’s a misalignment between this final layer — the basic underlying assumptions — and the espoused values and beliefs and artifacts. The things you actually believe, versus the things you say you believe and the things you do to show it.

Perhaps the most glaring case has been Uber. A company that no doubt had artifacts as “proof” that they valued their employees — lavish office parties and state-of-the-art offices. A company that had 14 cultural values it touted, including that employees should “be themselves.” And yet the basic underlying assumption persisted: Win at all costs, by any means necessary. We saw this in countless of examples of questionable ethics and sexual harassment issues ignored. At its core, Uber’s culture was rooted in this aggressive, toxic mindset — and that manifested in how they treated their people, regardless of what superficial artifacts or espoused values they trumpeted.

If you’re looking to truly shift your company’s culture, you have to zoom in on this last and final layer: Your basic underlying assumptions. What you truly believe — not always what you say or outwardly show — is what drives your company’s culture. This should be your focus as a manager, CEO or employee.

Changing your company culture is not about just changing the artifacts. Getting beer taps installed in the kitchens doesn’t make your culture more friendly. Nor does building an onsite gym mean your culture all of sudden cares about employees’ health and well-being.

Changing your company culture also isn’t about just changing the espoused values and beliefs. Saying at all-company meetings, “We believe in honesty and transparency” or writing “We believe in diversity and inclusion” on your career website doesn’t automatically make those things true.

Changing your company culture is about tapping into the core beliefs of each individual, understanding what their basic underlying assumptions are, and creating an environment where those can be listened to, brought together, and reacted to.

How do you exactly do this? That’s a whole ‘nother topic I cover in a separate piece here.

Until then, I hope we can take a minute to look past company culture as not a cliché — but an opportunity to use it as a precise, perceptive lens to examine how to make our organizations better.

If we can understand company culture, we can improve it.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

Excuses we tell ourselves as leaders to avoid honest employee feedback

I was on the phone with a CEO the other week. He wanted my advice for how he could cultivate a more open, transparent company culture for his team.

This CEO seemed to be already doing a lot of the right things. He held monthly all-hands meetings to get everyone on the same page. He also regularly asked questions to his employees about what could be better in the company.

However, when I recommended one question that he ask his employees, he was a bit taken aback.

“You want me to ask my team: ‘Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you think we should?’ Hmm, I dunno, Claire,” he told me.

This CEO assured me that he welcomed and valued feedback from employees. But asking about company benefits? And asking about them so publicly? He started to feel nervous about it.

“I don’t want the feedback to be a distraction,” he shared. “There’s so much we already do around benefits — I think this could set the wrong expectations and derail people from getting their work done.”

He continued:

“And, I don’t think we’re ready to act on that feedback. If we ask that question, it implies we need to implement something. But it might not be cost-effective. If we can’t do it, I don’t want to let people down.”

I get it. I’m a CEO myself. No CEO wants her employees to be distracted. No CEO wants to make false promises.

Here’s the reality, though: If you dig deeper, those two statements are actually excuses that are keeping you from building the open, transparent company culture you’re keen on.

Let’s take a look.

Excuse #1: “I don’t want feedback to be a distraction.”

Any feedback your employee might have already exists, whether or not you choose to ask about it. If someone has an idea to improve company benefits, that’s an idea that they’re already thinking about in their heads. So if you don’t ask about it — if you let that feedback sit and fester — it becomes a distraction. The longer you ignore it, the longer you don’t ask about it, the greater the distraction balloons. The way to nip the distraction in the bud is to ask about it. When you ask a question like, “Are there any benefits we don’t offer that you think the we should?”, you have an opportunity to clear the air, and help an employee feel heard. Asking for feedback isn’t the distraction — pretending that your employees don’t have feedback is.

Excuse #2: “I’m not ready to act on feedback.”

Popular management wisdom tells you that,”You shouldn’t ask for feedback unless you’re ready to act on it.” Sure, if you don’t do something with the feedback, you’ll look like you’re not following through on your word. But acting on feedback doesn’t necessarily mean implementing the actual piece of feedback. You can thank the person who gave you the feedback. You can explain why you’re not enacting the feedback, and provide context for the decision. Both routes show you’re listening, and that you value your employees’ feedback. Oftentimes, that recognition and explanation is all an employee is looking for. They’ll take notice.

If you’ve ever caught your own manager — or yourself — saying the above two excuses, then here’s my tip: Stop.

While you may mean well, you’re hindering yourself from creating the open, transparent company culture you’ve always wanted.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

Stop asking your employees this one question — it’s hurting them

Trust me, it surprised me too.

“How can I help you?”

You’d think this would be a great question to ask your employees. Surely, I’ve asked this question, as a CEO myself, to my own team countless of times.

Turns out, I’m wrong.

The question, “How can I help you?” hurts employees more than it helps.

Let me explain.

The other week, I ran a workshop. One of the participants — a CEO — was struggling to get feedback from a particularly quiet employee at his company. He asked the other folks in the room for advice about it.

“What if I asked the employee, ‘How can I help you?’ Do you think that’s a good question to ask him to encourage him to speak up?” he pondered.

A few other executives nodded their heads. “Yeah that seems like a good idea,” they said.

Another workshop participant spoke up.

“I hate that question,” she shared candidly (and a bit sheepishly). “When my own direct manager asks me that, I never know what to say.”

Everyone was perplexed — myself included. How could asking to give help ever be a bad thing?

But as she explained, it clicked for me. Despite being well-intentioned, here are three reasons why “How can I help you?” is a terrible question to ask your employees:

It’s lazy.

When you ask, “How can I help you?” you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be more helpful. Rather, you’re relying on the employee to do the hard (and delicate) work of figuring out how you need to improve as a leader. Expecting that an employee will tell you what you should be doing better without presenting any thoughts on it yourself is, well, lazy.

It puts pressure on the employee.

Can you imagine how daunting it is to tell your boss what she needs to be doing differently? That’s what you’re doing when you say, “How can I help?” You’re asking for holes to be poked, for flaws to be exposed… And the employee can’t tell if you’re really ready or not to hear it. Anytime you’re speaking truth to power, it’s intimidating. We cannot underestimate as leaders the power dynamic that exists between an employee and an employer. There isn’t any incentive for an employee to critique or say something that might be perceived negatively by their boss. As a result, “How can I help you?” puts pressure on the employee to give a diplomatic response, instead of an honest one.

It’s vague.

Now the employee is forced to quickly think through all the potential things that you could provide help with… On what project? On what area of the business? Should they mention communication? Should they talk about about timelines and deliverables? Should they bring up that thing that happened during that meeting last week? Or is the boss asking for something more high-level and strategic? It’s tough to know exactly what you’re asking for as a leader, when you ask the question, “How can I help?”

So what should you ask instead?

If you genuinely do want to know how you can help and support an employee, try this:

Ask about something specific that you can give help on, first.

Point out your own potential flaw, instead of waiting for your employee to point it out. Offer a critique of your own actions, instead waiting to see if it’s something your employee brings up.

The more you go first and share what you think can be better, the more room you’ll give your employee to give you an honest response about what they think could be better.

Here are some examples of specific questions you could ask…

  • “Do you think I’ve been a little micromanaging with how I’ve been following up on projects?”
  • “Have I been putting too much on your plate and do you need some breathing room?”
  • “Am I giving you enough information to do your job well?”
  • “Could I be doing a better job outlining the vision and direction for where we’re headed?”
  • “Have I not been as cognizant of reasonable timelines, like I should have?”
  • “Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”

I guarantee an employee will feel more encouraged to give you their honest take on how you can help if you ask, “Am I interrupting you too much during the day?” rather than just asking “How can I help you?”

Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

The Bad News Advantage

Telling your employees the truth — even when it’s bad — makes you a better leader. Here’s why…

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:

  1. You become a better leader.
  2. You engage your team more.
  3. 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 Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, knows this feeling, too. I recently interviewed him, and he candidly admitted how he’d found himself in this situation…

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…

  1. You become a better leader.
  2. You engage your team more.
  3. 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.

But that’s just Des.

How about you?


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.