Business and work Mindsets

The flipside of treating employees like children

When I was last a manager I couldn’t help but draw analogies between raising children and managing employees. Now, having been both an employee and a manager, the association is even stronger for me. At the same time there are two perspectives on treating employees like children. The one is harmful (as you may imagine) and the other can be very positive.

The classic approach to treating employees like children

When you think about managers treating employees like children, you may imagine managers –

  • working on the assumption that employees can’t be trusted to do their work without close supervision;
  • strictly determining working conditions and times to reinforce that close supervision; and even
  • micro-managing their work.

That is a pretty common approach to managing employees, I think, particularly one adopted by managers who may not have a lot of experience and having stepped into the role believing that managing employees means telling them what to do and when to do it.

It isn’t a particularly effective strategy for the most part. For one thing it basically kills the employee’s initiative and creativity by imposing far too much structure and oversight. Why bother being creative and using your initiative if you have a manager looking over your shoulder telling you exactly what to do and how to do it?

One argument I’ve heard is that many employees are incapable of working unsupervised and if you give them too much flexibility, they won’t get the work done. I think this approach is the embodiment of the destructive perspective on managing employees like children. It tells employees that they are not trusted to get their work done or to make decisions about how best to do their work. It also typecasts employees as programmable machines that can’t be left unsupervised for five minutes.

This approach has been framed as encouraging planning and goal setting but it’s really far more than that. It is the expression of deep distrust and fear of losing control over processes that don’t function productively when controlled so tightly.

A more productive approach to managing employees

Our son is eight years old and we are starting to trust him with responsibility for a couple things. As you can imagine, an eight year old is not exactly accustomed to taking responsibility for many things. We’ve been working with him for a while now to teach him what it means to be responsible for things like his toys, a feature phone we gave him for emergencies (it turns out there are a lot of emergencies in an eight year old’s life) and school work.

I had an epiphany after a discussion with him last night; about responsibility and managing employees. He mislaid something we made him responsible for and only told us a week later. I had two options at the time. The first option was to take away the responsibility and revert to managing that aspect of his life and the second was to reinforce what it means to be responsible, guide him and give him another opportunity to behave differently. I’m not sure how much of what I was telling him really sunk in at the time. Then again, he is a child and his primary focus shifts between Megaladon sharks and Star Wars: Clone Wars (depending on the day) with school work somewhere in the persistent background.

Unlike our son, however, employees tend to be adults and are capable of independent thought and brushing their teeth without being told when and how to do it. Just on that, our son can brush his teeth, he just needs reminders now and then. It is far more effective to rather apply the minimum structure required to make sure projects proceed as planned and to otherwise leave it up to employees to figure out the best time and method to get the work done. You can keep track of how projects are progressing using various minimally disruptive tools (my favourite is still Basecamp for team projects) and perhaps even have regular status meetings (although I think that these are largely redundant if you are tracking project progress effectively using other means) to bring teams up to date.

This approach requires a fundamental shift that can be challenging for managers: instead of assuming that all employees are lazy machines that will slack off (not the awesome team messaging app, the act of not doing much unless driven to work) at the first opportunity; managers could rather start with the assumption that their employees are adults capable of independent thought and getting their work done efficiently with appropriate guidance (guidance, as in leadership, not puppetry).

Just as it’s more constructive to teach our son what responsibility means and give him the tools he needs to learn to behave responsibly; managing a team constructively is really more about leading them to success and empowering them to do their work in the most effective way they can. That doesn’t mean hovering over them and directing their movements. It means giving them the guidance and tools they need to develop their most productive workflows and the space to do great work.

Unchain your staff

Businesses are not 19th century factory production lines (even 21st century production lines aren’t 19th century factories), particularly in knowledge-driven industries. People work differently. Some thrive under closer supervision and others needs more space and flexibility to disappear off into the ether and to return with their creations in hand. If you are going to treat employees like children, treat them like you’d like to treat your children if you want them to grow up to be responsible, independent and confident adults. Preferably, though, recognise that your employees already are adults and have the capability to do great work if you would just remove the chains and let them do it.

Image credit: Grandstand figures by Efraimstochter, released under a CC0 Dedication

Business and work Mindsets

Small is a state of mind, not a value judgment

Pizza Place in the Town of Leakey, Texas, near San Antonio 05/1973

When I left a large law firm to start my firm, Jacobson Attorneys, in 2005 I priced my services relatively low on the naive assumption that I would attract a greater volume of clients who would find my fees affordable. One of the first lessons I learned was that this thinking doesn’t work because, despite best intentions, clients frequently associate low fees with less value regardless of the quality of the services. This is especially the case when it comes to legal services where there is a general assumption that these services are costly.

Value perceptions are informed by a number of factors. One is your price. Other factors include your work space, how you dress, how you present your work, which car you drive and more. I don’t think there is a fixed list of factors which you can tweak to optimise your clients’ value perceptions but there seem to be a common set and if you want to create a perception of value in your services and you don’t, for example, wear a suit or work in a fancy corporate work space, you usually need to be fairly creative about establishing your value.

One business which has a pretty unique approach and is remarkably successful is Missing Link. If you find someone wearing a suit, it may be a client or a fancy dress thing. What is clear is that the Missing Link team does incredible work and their service is far beyond most businesses.

My business, Web•Tech•Law, is a small business. I’ve been thinking about what that means: “small business”. Well, to begin with it is small because my team comprises me, a lawyer and numerically small group of people I collaborate with for different projects. “Small” is a pretty loaded word when it is used to describe a business. Aside from the number of people who form part of that business, the word is sometimes used to describe the business’ clients (are they also “small businesses” or individuals or are they multinational corporations?); the type of work the business does or the business’ geographical or functional footprint.

The word “small” also creates expectations about how much that business will charge for its services and this is where the word “small” becomes deeply problematic from two perspectives. On the one hand, many clients approach a small business with an expectation that the business will charge low fees. If you are selling some sort of commodity, a small price tag is a good thing. It probably enhances the customer’s perception of value in that business.

When it comes to services, especially professional services, a low fee seems to imply poor quality and less value. In many cases this is actually true. When it comes to legal services it is pretty difficult to charge low fees and produce high quality outcomes (not impossible, some lawyers have found the perfect balance) partly because charging low fees means you have to service more clients to earn enough money overall to cover costs and live a decent life and that often means you can’t spend as much time doing great work as you would like to. On the other hand, charging higher fees gives you the productive space to do better quality work without the stress that if you don’t get to the next 20 files that day, you won’t cover your costs for the month. The challenge is that a common expectation is that your fees should be lower because you are a “small business” in one of more respects and, therefore, you shouldn’t need to charge so much.

This perception is based on an assumption, conscious or unconscious, that “small” means “less”. Non-lawyers are usually unable to determine when legal services are high quality services because much of what a lawyer does tends to be unintelligible to non-lawyers so competence is generally assumed. The emphasis shifts to other factors when you assess value in the services you receive. When you walk into a large law firm’s reception area and see the beautiful decor, the modern meeting rooms and well dressed lawyers, you believe that there is more value in the work those lawyers are going to do for you and you expect to pay a lot of money for that work. Similarly, when the large law firm lawyers present you with a substantial bill, you may tend to regard the services as having substantial value even if you’re not sure of the quality. In this sort of environment, charging higher fees serves an important purpose when it comes to value perceptions. Obviously, if you are going to charge high fees you have to deliver too but the high fees are a good starting point.

On a related note, this idea that because a lawyer works in a large firm, that lawyer is a better lawyer than the lawyer in the solo practice on the other side of the metaphorical tracks is a nonsense idea. When it comes down to it, your work is being done by individuals and although large firms tend to hire the top law students, they don’t necessarily always hire top notch lawyers. I have been fortunate to work with or encounter attorneys in small firms who are absolutely superb lawyers (one of those lawyers is a good friend). I frequently encounter lawyers in large firms or in corporate legal departments in huge companies who produce very average work. Again, the size of your office is not a reliable indication of whether you are any good at what you do. You might just be really good at filling a time sheet and meeting high fee budgets.

Frank Moss (LOC)

As tricky as pricing is from a client value perception perspective, it is even more problematic if you consider that where you price your services is also a reflection of the value you place in your own work. This is a tough lesson to learn because learning it requires you to break harmful and, at the same time, self-reinforcing patterns. When you charge fees that are lower than your work is worth (certainly less than your basic effort is worth), you are essentially saying that you don’t believe your services are worth much and you don’t deserve to be paid much for them, if anything at all. So you make less money, have to bring in more business to generate enough fees to cover your costs and the more business you have to generate (which, in itself, is challenging if you don’t believe your work is worth much), the less time you have to do good quality work. That, in turn, reinforces your perception that your work isn’t really worth much and so it goes on.

Breaking that perception requires you to take a hard look at what you do, what it is worth and, more importantly, what you are worth as a service provider (we’re all unique and beautiful but what are you contributing to your clients’ bottom line in monetary terms?). If you believe your services are worth less (or worthless), you can’t expect much more than an unending slog uphill in the rain and in the dark. On the other hand, if you are prepared to suspend disbelief long enough to let a little self-worth in, you may realise that you are actually pretty good at what you do and, given the mental space to do better work, you can become pretty great at your work and solve some pretty important problems your clients are experiencing. That merits not only payment but more money than you may have expected. In the process, you start to understand that you are a beautiful and unique snowflake who is entitled to a good living. That may lead to better quality work, more innovation and happier clients all while still only having a small team, in numerical terms, and modest offices.

Reaching that point is not that easy and it requires sacrifice. Higher fees means you won’t receive work from clients with more modest budgets but that isn’t always a bad thing. My humble experience has shown me that while some small clients are great clients to work with and who recognise the value in the services they receive, even if they just can’t afford higher fees, many more clients take the services for granted and don’t pay on time, a reasonable amount or at all. Those clients are probably better serviced by providers who are optimised for lower fees with acceptable trade-offs when it comes to work quality and service levels.

Being regarded as a “small business” is challenging. Some of this has to do with how your clients (or prospective clients) perceive you and your work but mostly the challenge is how you perceive yourself and your professional worth? When you think about your business as a “small business”, are you forming a value judgment about your business or are you just stating a numerical fact about the size of your otherwise high value team?

Mindsets Social Web

A parable about hubris and an ongoing digital tragedy

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail

This post was originally published on Medium

It feels like a lifetime since the Pushers left and the Communicators stepped up. Before then, the Pushers shaped the Message, told us how we would feel about their brand, their products and services. We either accepted what we were told or, well, we didn’t have much choice.

Then, it all began to change. The Manifesto taught us that “markets are conversations” and even though the Manifesto was soon overlooked by a younger generation, its central social message persisted and shaped our interactions with brands. This new generation, the Communicators, began to explore what a more collaborative, engaged conversation would sound like, feel like and what it could do for brands desperate for attention in an evolving digital world where we didn’t have to accept what we were told. Over the course of a few years, we discovered we had our own voices, choices and perhaps even power to influence others too.

As the Communicators rose from among us, we joined them in their journey and became their followers, their fans and co-creators. For a while we were on this wonderful voyage together, Communicators and followers. We formed new communities and we shared our lives more freely than we ever had before. We looked up to our new leaders with great admiration. They were like us and we loved them.

We had a brief Golden Age when we were finding our individual voices. Facebook brought us closer together, Twitter brought the world to us with such immediacy we were astounded at first. More services and tools followed and, today, we have so many ways to share, we are forced to choose based on where our communities are strongest. Once we thirsted for creativity, today we are inundated with it and we use terms like “overloaded” because we haven’t developed effective tools to filter our consumption. Still, its a good time for self-expression and there is so much of it.

The Communicators embraced these new tools for the brands they serve and they used them to capture our attention, share wonderful stories that entice us and weave new fabric to clothe those old brands the Pushers told us about. The Communicators learned more effective techniques as time passed and as they rose to greater heights and found that the brands they served worshipped them and their mystical magick (we knew it was nothing of the sort but then we still believed we travelled with our new prophets). Slowly, almost imperceptibly to most, the Communicators began to believe the praise heaped on them by the brands that also paid them richly. The Communicators began to believe they were the embodiment of the new Social Message and rather than being its interpreters, they started shaping it to suit their vision of this new era. They created new mantras and new laws.

Perhaps the rarified air and great heights led them to forget their earthly origins with us. Perhaps they simply saw themselves as the Pushers’ rightful heirs. Either way, our Communicators changed. They demanded more attention, more praise and they did it in subtle ways. They hosted grand parties and dinners and treated us as beloved followers, graced us with their attention and public praise as if that would somehow sustain us or even elevate us. Some of us became officials in their courts and rose above the rest of us, enjoying success for as long as they were in favour.

Then the Message changed. Our conversations became distorted. We only heard stories of joy, success, praise and favour. We didn’t heard stories about tragedy, disappointment and failure (well, except where failure was heralded as the seed of success). We noticed that officials in their courts disappeared and were replaced and heard quiet rumours about followers who fell into disfavour, were cast out and exiled. Nothing confirmed and yet the rumours persisted.

As the Communicators rose to even greater heights it was as if the Sun shone even brighter on us all and it was tempting to believe times were never this prosperous but this new light didn’t shine everywhere anymore. With this great light came more shadow. The Message was shaped even more and something unfamiliar crept into it: intolerance. Once again, we are told how we feel about brands, their products and services. The Message is no longer a shared construct, the Communicators shape it for us. For the most part we like it and, if we don’t, well, does that matter?