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.

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Three’s company

Three is lucky enough.

At Basecamp, three is a magic number.

Nearly all product work is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s two or one — not four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chisel problems down until they can be tackled by three people, at most.

We rarely have meetings at Basecamp, but when we do, you’ll hardly ever find more than three people around a table. Same with conference calls or video chats. Any conversation with more than three people is typically a conversation with too many people.

What if there are five departments involved in a project or a decision? There aren’t. Too many dependencies. We don’t work on projects like that — intentionally.

What is it with three? Three is a wedge, and that’s why it works. Three has a sharp point. It’s an odd number so there are no ties. It’s powerful enough to make a dent, but also weak enough to not break what isn’t broken. Big teams make things worse all the time by applying too much force to things that only need to be lightly finessed.

The problem with four is that you almost always need to add a fifth to manage. The problem with five is that it’s two too many. And six, seven, or eight on a team will inevitably make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Just like work expands to fill the time available, work expands to fill the team available. Small, short projects become bigger, longer projects simply because all those people need something to do.

You can do big things with small teams, but it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to do small things with big teams. That’s a disadvantage of big teams! Small things are often all that’s necessary. The occasional big thing is great, but most improvements come as small incremental steps. Big teams can step right over those small moves.

Three keeps you honest. It tempers your ambition in all the right ways. It requires you to make tradeoffs, rather than keep adding things in. And most importantly, three reduces miscommunication and improves coordination. Three people can talk directly with one another without introducing hearsay. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to coordinate three people’s schedules than four or more.

We love three.

What the best leaders do

10 things I’ve tried to keep in mind as a CEO these past few years…

“This is somewhat terrifying.”

I remember thinking this when I became the CEO of Know Your Team back in January 2014. Sure, I’d started two companies beforehand — but one was with close friends, and the other was by myself. With Know Your Team, it was the first time I was to lead a team of people who weren’t friends of mine.

At the time, I hired one programmer part-time to help me out at Know Your Team. And while he was just “one direct report,” it was imperative to me to be the best manager and leader to him, as possible.

Here’s the first thing I noticed in this process: Being a manager feels different than being an employee. And, it feels very different than working by yourself.

Your words carry more weight than before. Your actions are watched more closely. You aren’t accountable just for your own results, but also the results of others. How you handle tough decisions sets the tone for “This is How We Do Things.”

It can be a bit terrifying. If you’re currently a manager, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a new manager, brace yourself 🙂

Now, I share this not to overwhelm you! Rather, it’s to underscore how hard this is for all leaders, whether you’re new to the role or not. Personally, with almost four years as a CEO under my belt, I still consider myself a “work-in-progress,” and constantly aspire to be a better leader.

Where to start? Over the past few years, here are ten things I’ve learned from observations and conversations with hundreds of managers and CEOs. It’s what I try to keep in mind each day as I lead, and what I believe the best managers do…

Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage.

As a manager, you may think your job is to manage others. Sounds straightforward enough. However, the word “manage” is misleading. By definition, it means to “run, control or supervise”… which isn’t what I see as the role of a manager at all.

I believe the best managers focus on doing one thing: They try to understand what intrinsically motivates people, and create an environment that allows people to tap into that intrinsic motivation themselves. You’re not telling anyone what to do. You’re not controlling anyone or exerting influence on anyone. You’re not even trying to empower anyone.

Instead, you assume that people already have innate talents, gifts, and capabilities within them. Your job as a leader is merely to provide an environment for those inherent qualities to come to light.

How do you create such an environment? Read on…

Create clarity.

To create the best working environment for your team, you must create clarity. Do people know what needs to happen, why the work is important, and what success looks like? Do people know how their work fits into the bigger picture? Do people know what standard of quality needs to be met before their work is shipped or goes live? The best managers constantly clarify these things — in meetings, in emails, during one-on-ones. They also ask their team, “What isn’t clear?” or “What’s confusing?” or “What am I not explaining enough?”. Without clarity around the work, the work can’t get done well. There is literally no one else on the team whose job it is to create this clarity. It’s is solely up to you, as a manager, to make things as clear as possible.

Provide context.

Once you’ve made it clear what needs to happen and why, you have to make sure your staff has enough training, historical background, tools, and understanding of the stakeholders to make informed decisions. In other words, they need context. If you don’t give them context, you’re leaving them out to dry. As an employee, there’s nothing more frustrating than being expected to execute on something when you don’t have enough context to execute it well. As a manager, asking the question, “How am I getting in the way?” or “What do you need from me to be successful?” can help you uncover what context you need to give your team so they feel supported.

Ensure psychological safety.

Your success as a manager is contingent on how honest people are willing to be with you. Without people shooting you straight as a leader, you won’t be able to course-correct should things start to go wrong. For example, if a project starts to run behind, will someone bring that up proactively to you so you can take immediate action? Or will you only find out about it when the client is furiously emailing you after business hours?

Creating a safe environment for your team to speak up starts with going first and showing vulnerability as a leader. For instance, do you admit when you’re struggling with something as a manager? If so, that will give others permission to admit where they’re struggling too. Or, when an employee points out a mistake, do you thank them for being forthcoming and commend their honesty? If so, you reinforce that you want to hear the truth. Consider how every action you take as a manager is an opportunity to show your team that it’s safe to say what’s on their minds.

Ask meaningful questions.

We’re predisposed to believe that leaders must have all the answers in order to do their jobs well. As a whole, our society praises people who have the right answers: We give gold stars and A’s to students in school who have the right answer. We award thousands if not millions of dollars to game show winners who have the right answer.

Our society never seems to reward people who ask the right questions. It’s unfortunate, because I believe asking meaningful questions is a core tenant of what makes a manager good at her job.

When you ask questions as a manager, you do two things: (1) You show you care and have deep interest in learning more about your team. As a result, you foster a sense of psychological safety in the workplace. (2) You give yourself the opportunity to unlock valuable information that you might not have known about before.

As a leader, never forget these benefits of asking questions, and how helpful they can be for you. Not sure what to ask your team? Here are some questions you can start with.

Respond within 24 hours.

About five years ago, I was an employee at another company. During that time, my coworker vented to me one day: “I asked our boss if I could take a 3-day vacation this summer…. It’s been several weeks, and I still haven’t heard back from him.” I’ll never forget how livid she was. For her, it was a sign of disrespect for her manager not to respond. Take note of this. Your team’s engagement is directly tied to how responsive you are to their ideas, comments, and requests.

In fact, a recent Gallup study shows how much responsiveness matters. They found that the most engaged employees said that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours. Keep this in mind the next time you receive an email with a question from an employee, or a suggestion that an employee mentions to you in-person. Let it disappear into a black hole without any response and it will feel maddening to an employee — whether or not you intend it to be.

Let go.

When you’re an individual contributor, you’re used to doing everything yourself. The minute you become a manager, that changes. Your job is to create an environment for others to do their best work — you should not be meddling in other people’s work, yourself. You have to let things go. You can’t be thinking to yourself, “I can do a better job at that”… Stop it. You may not be willing to admit it, but that’s micromanagement. I had a friend who’s a CEO once tell me: “If someone can do your job at least 70% as well as you can, they should do it.” 70% is good enough. Just let go, and let them do it. Doing too much yourself encourages bad habits on your team, bottlenecks your team’s growth, and pisses off team members since they can’t operate freely. You know what it feels like… You’ve probably been micromanaged before, yourself! Don’t commit the same sin.

Lead from the front.

If you want your team to do something, set the example for it. If you want people to show up on time, show up to a meeting early yourself. If you want people to share more analytics and data around certain decisions, explain and support your own findings with data. If you want your team to be more proactive in taking on responsibility, actively seek out ways to pitch in and take things off your coworkers’ plate. No one’s going to do anything differently if you don’t do it yourself first.

Be consistent.

It might be easy to ask employees to expense only up to a certain dollar-amount during conferences… but then make an exception for a friend on your team and cover more of her expenses when she asks about it. “It’s a one-time exception,” you say to yourself. Bullshit. Acting inconsistently — applying different rules and standards to different team members — sets a dangerous precedent for how you’ll behave in the future. While seemingly harmless, that inconsistency bleeds into other areas, and it will be picked up by someone else on your team sooner or later. Regardless of how long someone’s been at your company or what relationship you have with them, treating employees equitably is important. You want to be a fair, just leader. That only happens by being consistent in how you treat all members of your team, all the time.

Build rapport.

People are naturally skeptical of those in power. A recent 2016 study found that one in three employees don’t trust their managers. You don’t want to be a victim of this statistic. To build trust, build rapport. Your team wants to know you as a whole person — not just as a boss. So revealing what you care about, what social causes you support, and what hobbies you enjoy outside of work etc. matters. You’re not making a superficial, desperate plea to be liked — that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, the more you can show that you are a real, multifaceted person who they can empathize with and relate to, the stronger your relationship with them will be. And, the more trust they’ll place in you as a leader.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t flawlessly practice each of these 10 things as a leader every day. It’s hard! Just last week, I realized that I should do a better job creating more context for our team, and of letting go. But, in writing these 10 things here, it helps me commit to doing each of them better . Hopefully, it is equally helpful for 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.

Depend less on each other

Separate the gears

Don’t grind together, glide past one another.

Do you do a lot of waiting around at work? Not waiting because there’s nothing to do, but waiting on someone else to do something first so you can do something second?

If so, you’re likely at a crazy company.

Crazy companies are full of dependencies. Calm companies are full of independencies.

Dependencies are tangled, intertwined teams, groups, or individuals that can’t move independently of one another. They’re often waiting for each other — for this person to do that so this other person can do this. For this team to finish that part so this other team can start on theirs.

If you’re building airplanes or working an assembly line, fine. That’s probably required. But most companies these days aren’t, yet they still work like they are. One piece at a time, vs. many pieces at once, in parallel.

Here’s an example. If your company makes an iOS app and an Android app, and the iOS team can’t release a new feature until the Android team has finished their version, that’s crazy. That’s creating artificial dependencies that prevent separate teams working on separate things from each moving at their own pace. When you lock two teams together, you slow everyone down and create a whole host of frustrations.

You may say the iOS and Android apps must be the same. Different platforms but identical products, right? But why? That’s an artificial rule. If one releases a week or two or even three before the other, who cares? It’ll be fine. In fact, it’ll probably be better. Each platform can evolve on its own at its own pace — neither waiting for the other. None behind the other — each independent of one another.

We’ve made these decisions in our own business. Our web app team, iOS team, and Android team all release on their own schedule. They’re driven by the same big picture product vision, but their implementation schedules and specific decisions are dictated by each team independently. We used to wait on each other, but no waiting is a whole lot better for everyone — especially our customers.

We’ve even made it so iOS and Android get whatever the web team makes “for free” because all our desktop views are mobile friendly. So iOS and Android can expose those mobile web screens in their native apps, and level them up later to fully native versions on their own schedule if they choose.

That’s just one example. But here are a few more: Every team or department at Basecamp has the power to do what it needs to do without getting permission from another team or department. Some may consult others, but support doesn’t need to wait for management to grant a big refund, and ops (IT) doesn’t need to wait for approval to invest in more services, and every employee can buy whatever they need to do their job without having to get permission first. Gears don’t grind to a halt here, they glide.

So keep an eye out for dependencies in your business. Try breaking them apart. If one part can’t move without another making a move first, find out why. Don’t tie more knots, cut more ties. It may sound counterintuitive, but the fewer bonds the better.

The most helpful thing you can say to a teammate: “It’s your call”

Great people blossom when you nurture them with trust and respect

When a teammate asks me a question, one of my favorite responses is “It’s your call.” It’s such a simple yet powerful phrase. In just a few words it conveys…

Trust | Confidence | Respect | Autonomy | Ownership | Empowerment | Responsibility | Decisiveness

How can such a simple phrase mean so much? Take this common scenario — a team discussing what to work on next. Here’s one version of that conversation:

Julie: What should I work on next?
Shelley: How about a native homescreen?
Melissa: I’ve always wanted breadcrumb navigation!
Sara: Another option would be to squash some 🐛
Erica: File upload feature would be cool

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a back and forth like this. Julie has opened the door for feedback, and the feedback provided makes total sense.

But imagine the same opening line with a single response:

Julie: What should I work on next?
Shelley: It’s your call 😀

Immediately the whole tone of the conversation has changed for the better.

Instead of asking for permission and being given specific directions, Julie has been empowered to make the decision herself.

She now has complete ownership. She’s free to explore and make her own choices. She’ll assess all the open tasks. She’ll drum up her own new ideas. She’ll decide what’s next based on her own criteria of importance.

More importantly the team has expressed sincere trust, confidence, and respect in her and her abilities to do everything. They’ve said “whatever you decide is cool with us.”

Full autonomy like this has significant long-term benefits to teams —no managers, increased motivation, time saved, sharper assessments, faster decisions, happier people, improved independent learning, better teamwork and so much more.

All of that accomplished by just saying a simple phrase.

When it comes to software development, conversational opportunities like this come up pretty frequently. Keep an eye out for questions about:

  • What to work on next
  • How to implement a feature
  • What tools, APIs, or libraries to use
  • How to manage/keep track of work

Of course when you’re asked for your opinion, you can certainly give it — you don’t want to leave people completely hanging.

But before you do that, consider challenging the person asking the question by simply saying “It’s your call.” You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome, and the long-term benefits are well worth it. 🤘

Great things can happen when you emphasize these values — Basecamp 3 and its Android app are the result of a handful of autonomous teams working in an independent, yet highly coordinated environment.

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