The following is a conversation between Dr. David Burkus, author of Leading from Anywhere, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: One of the world’s leading business thinkers, Dr. David Burkus, helps leaders and teams to do their very best work. His latest book is titled Leading from Anywhere. In it, he tackles the key challenges that managers face, from hiring and onboarding new members from afar, to building culture remotely, tracking productivity, communicating speedily and avoiding burnout.
And he is with us now. Welcome to the Business of Giving, David.
David: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Denver: You know, you offer lots and lots of practical advice in this book. So, let me start with you. What of your own advice do you follow most closely, I mean, to the letter of the law, and where could you do a better job of listening to yourself?
David: Okay. So, where do I follow my own advice most closely? One of the things we talk about in Leading from Anywhere and also in a book I had written prior is how much bonding happens and connections happen in a team or an organization when you’re doing what looks like nothing.
Not a catch-up call.
Not just, “Hey, let’s call for 30 minutes and catch up,” but actually, “Let’s go physically do something together.” Right? And so, I started trying to practice what I preach in that regard. So, people invite me to, “Hey, can I pick your brain for 30 minutes?” Or if I’m trying to get in, I usually never suggest this simple phone call or Zoom call.
We’re all a little hung over from Zoom calls, let’s just be honest. But I’ll say, “Hey, you know, there’s a park 15 minutes from my house, I’ll meet you there in the afternoon. Let’s go for a walk and talk.” Or, “Let’s go do this thing together.” Let’s find those reasons. So, I try and do that. What’s really actually fun is I have kids that are 10 and 8, and on colleagues and contacts– I know who also have children, I actually just try and make it a family affair.
So, if I’m in a city with my family, I’ll still reach out. I did this a couple months ago. I’ll still reach out and say, “Hey, you know, I know you’re in town. Let’s get the kids together and go walk through the zoo,” or what have you, right?
So, that’s probably the thing I try and practice most often, and I advise a lot of organizations to do that, too, in terms of when people are back in the office. Let’s make sure there’s something to do that you’re not just coming back to sit on Zoom calls and respond to emails.
David: Where do I need to do a better job listening to myself? That’s an interesting one. I mean, I suppose if I knew the answer to that question, I would be doing it, right?
Denver: Not necessarily. I know what I should do a lot of the time, and I don’t do it.
David: Yeah, no, that’s fair. That’s fair. So, one of my mentors is Marshall Goldsmith. He invited me to be part of his, sort of, MG 100 Crew, et cetera, and he’s a big proponent of what he calls Feed Forward, which is in other words: Don’t ask for feedback on your past performance, but solicit as much essentially advice or feed forward, feedback you’d give if you say, “Hey, I’m trying to work on this.”
And the key element of that is you have to actually go to people whose opinions matter to you and say, “Here is the thing I’m trying to do. What advice do you have for me?” And I probably don’t do that with a broad enough cross section, right? You get set in your ways; you feel like you start to know your best. You pay exorbitant amounts per consultants.
When in reality, if you could just get a group of colleagues around and say, “Here’s my big ambition. What do you think?” You could probably get just as valuable advice for no money. So, I probably need to do that a bit.
“I guess I could say the state of remote work right now is that it was never actually about remote.
It was about autonomy. The thing that the pandemic forced on 40% of the American workforce was you actually have some autonomy now in where you do your work and when you do your work, and people aren’t going to give that part up willingly…
…people would still be back two to three days a week. So, there’s no point mandating three days and making people feel like you stole their autonomy again.”
Denver: Oh, that’s really, really interesting. Well, you know, we’ve just heard the State of the Union speech, and as I look at remote and hybrid work, we’ve been at it about three years now. So, if I were to ask you to give a State of the State, your assessment of hybrid and remote three years in, what would you say, David?
David: Wow. Are we really at three? Yeah, you’re right. March 15, 2020. So, as we’re recording this, we’re like almost at three years. What’s the state of it? So, for most people, the vast majority of organizations and employees are in what we’d call hybrid mode, right?
So, I actually was saying this even a year, a year and a half ago– that the number of people who stay fully remote post pandemic will double. But when I say double, keep in mind it was only 4% to 5% of the American workforce at least, before the pandemic, right? And we’re right there.
We’re seeing about 10% of people that are still in that kind of fully remote situation. The vast majority, especially of knowledge workers, nonprofit workers, et cetera, are in a what they all call hybrid. And then, a smaller percentage have called everybody back. I mean, my wife works in a hospital setting, so you can’t really do that remotely, at least not yet.
What’s interesting is just how wide that definition of hybrid is, right? I’ve worked with organizations where hybrid means the office is open, come back when you want; and other organizations, what that means, the office is open, you need to be back three to four days a week, right?
And I kind of have a problem with that. I think, most people, if you look at the engagement numbers and surveys and what people are saying, most people want to be back in the office one to three days a week.
And so, if you just said: the office is open, and then we built some reasons for you to be there like: every Wednesday or every Monday, we cater lunch, so you can come in… Or that maybe if you don’t even cater lunch, you just establish a ritual of everybody eats together on this certain day… or you do your weekly kind of all-hands meeting. You make a point to do that in person on Mondays.
Those things draw people back in because they want to connect with their colleagues. But what they want is not to be told exactly when they’re supposed to be there, and not to be checking a box that they’re there even though they’re doing work they could be doing from home, right? I guess I could say the state of remote work right now is that it was never actually about remote.
It was about autonomy. The thing that the pandemic forced on 40% of the American workforce was you actually have some autonomy now in where you do your work and when you do your work, and people aren’t going to give that part up willingly, right?
So, I work with a lot of organizations that are mandating how many days you’re coming back, and I actually really advise against it because if you opened it up and just said, “Come back, the office is here.” And started building some reasons to come back, people would still be back two to three days a week. So, there’s no point mandating three days and making people feel like you stole their autonomy again.
Denver: You know, I was thinking about that the other day, David, in the way we watch television. We always used to have to be sitting in front of the TV to watch the show. Yeah. But now, you know, we wait till the weekend and we watch the show then, or we binge watch, or whatever.
Essentially, everybody’s watching the shows. They’re just doing it with autonomy, and it just seems that that mindset has now finally reached the workplace where you begin to say, “I’ll get the work done, but let me decide how I’m going to get it done as long as I get it done well and in a timely way.
David: Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. I mean, we used to, when someone told us about a new show, what was the first question you asked? What time is it on, right?
Denver: Exactly. Yeah.
David: And now, you ask, where is it on? Disney+, that plus, whatever, right? You want to know that. And I think it’s a similar thing.
I mean, I was talking with an executive yesterday, and the thing that I told him is that you can mandate your people to come back. You can do it, and it will work for the bottom 75% of your workforce– for the mediocre, middle, and your low performers. But your top talent, they know they don’t actually need you.
I mean, outside of the tech industry, we’re seeing this really weird thing in the current sort of recession, which is that only certain industries are actually in recession at a certain time, right? There’s a bad couple of months for tech, but it was a great few months for energy, right?
So, it all sort of depends on what industry you’re in. But in the industries that aren’t seeing that recession, top talent knows that they have more flexibility. They need you less than you need them. And so, they’re not going to willingly give up that autonomy. So, you can try and force people back, and you’ll get most people back. You just won’t get the people back that you want.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly right. You’ve got to get the ones who are there because of inertia, and not the people who really can go somewhere else.
“Failure is inevitable, but learning is a choice. And the way that we demonstrate to a team that we want to learn from our failure is by going first and admitting our own sort of role in it.”
Denver: Let me ask you about psychological safety. Boy, we know how important that is, that sense of belonging, that sense of not having fear to be able to speak your mind– always important to any healthy workplace culture, but maybe even more important in hybrid remote.
Are there different ways we need to think about that or approach psychological safety in this new world of work?
David: Yeah. So, the thing, what I would say is I don’t know that it’s more important. Certainly, building a sense of belonging is more important in a place where you’re not seeing everyone every day.
What I will say definitively is that it’s harder. It’s actually a whole lot harder to build psychological safety remotely, right? Because think about it, what happens when you have psychological safety? Well, people admit their mistakes.
Well, now we’re in this asynchronous communication environment where people can take three or four hours… if you’re in an email thread and something goes wrong, they can take three or four hours to respond while they think of all the reasons they’re not to blame, and then put that out there.
And so, now, you’ve turned what should be a learning moment of, “Hey, this thing failed, and let’s dissect it,” and you’ve turned it into everyone covering their own butt because they have the time to do that. This, by the way, is also why every social media site is basically garbage at this point, because we’re communicating asynchronously, and we have all the time in the world to construct the perfect response about why I’m right and you’re a demagogue, right?
And so, that same thing can sort of happen. It’s also when you’re running like teams calls or Zoom calls and that sort of thing, it’s harder to see the people who might have something to say. It’s harder to see the people who disagree. It’s harder to know that you’ve spoken over someone. I mean, especially with the texts not really there yet with everyone having equal bandwidth.
So, it’s actually very easy to talk over someone accidentally, because you didn’t even know they started talking; there’s microseconds difference, right? So, it becomes much harder to build it. And that’s why, I think, especially for leaders, the things you really need to focus in on are making sure that whatever medium you choose for a team meeting, let’s say, make sure that you are hearing from every voice because everybody has different preferences.
Some people on your team would love to have the whole conversation via text, whether that’s email or inside a channel of teams, or Slack or something like that. Other people would rather jump on Zoom. Other people would rather be in person, and whichever medium for the meeting that you choose, some people are going to dominate it, and some people aren’t.
So, you either have to rotate around what mediums of communication you’re having so that you’re playing to everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, or you have to know and make a point to amplify the voices that don’t normally get heard in that medium to send that message that you want to hear from them as well.
And then, the other thing you have to do is be much more willing to admit your own mistakes so that people get the message that just because you have the time to think of a reason why you’re not to blame doesn’t mean you should. Failure is inevitable, but learning is a choice. And the way that we demonstrate to a team that we want to learn from our failure is by going first and admitting our own sort of role in it.
And then, the conversation shifts to what we’re learning from it. So, yeah, it’s a whole lot harder to do. Those are probably my top two things that I find myself saying over and over again to execs and to leaders, “Okay, well here’s what we should do, now that we know that’s so much harder.”
“What we know from the research on trust, trust is really interesting. Trust isn’t given, and trust isn’t earned despite the fact that we use those terms all the time. Trust is reciprocated. It’s a reciprocal process. It’s an exchange.”
Denver: Yeah, that’s really some good insights. Let’s go off on that, on building trust on teams. You’ve just written about that. It’s a big, big issue with you. How, in this little rectangular environment that we’re in, can we build that trust, particularly building trust with people sometimes that we have never even personally met?
David: Yeah. Yeah. Well, ironically, signaling that vulnerability is a great way to start. What we know from the research on trust, trust is really interesting. Trust isn’t given, and trust isn’t earned despite the fact that we use those terms all the time. Trust is reciprocated. It’s a reciprocal process. It’s an exchange.
You can’t build trust with someone without taking a risk. What happens is you demonstrate, somebody has to… usually if you’re a leader, I say you… because if you’re a leader, it’s you. But somebody in any relationship– work or even personal– has to step out first and be vulnerable and be willing to put themselves in a position where they have to trust that other person. Could be vulnerability, could just be asking for help, right?
David: You can’t receive help without trusting the person who you’re asking for help that they’re actually going to help you. So, you start that process, and we know this from Paul… Paul Zak’s research is brilliant in this area… that when people feel like you are being vulnerable to them, or you’re asking for their help, or you’re trusting them, that actually spikes the level of oxytocin in their bloodstream in the moment, and that makes them more likely to want to trust you.
So, it’s this kind of reciprocal process that we need to start building. And, again, like I said, unfortunately, we don’t do these things in a hybrid or a remote environment as easily.
We already talked about why people don’t get as vulnerable because they can think of all those reasons that they’re right. But it’s the same thing for help. I talk to so many leaders who, in the last three years, feel like “Hey, I used to manage a team, but now I just manage individual relationships because when we were in the office, people would go to other people on the team to ask for help.”
Now, everybody’s like “Well, you know what? I have until Monday when we’re back in the office to figure it out. I won’t tell anyone that I’m struggling here. I’ll figure it out. I’ve got time.” And sometimes that works. One time out of 10, that might work.
But most of the time, the situation just gets worse. I’m a big fan of, I think, I want to say I stole this from IDEO. But I may not have, I don’t actually remember who invented it.
Denver: Maybe they stole it from you.
David: Right, right. But they coined this term “help time,” sort of like Google’s famous 20% time, or 3M’s famous 15% time. Help time was essentially, “Hey, a certain percentage of your calendar every week should be reserved for helping other people on other teams. And that’s actually something we’re going to track.
What percentage of time did you spend every week helping other people?” And I think that can be a great ritual that does that. Other times, I tell leaders, when you’re doing your weekly all-hands meeting, if it’s weekly or biweekly, whenever you do it, but make sure you’re including the question: What’s blocking my progress?
And making people give you that answer. And what I love about that question, by the way, is that it’s not a request for help. Nobody uses the “H word.” But they are saying: “Here are the things I’m trying to pursue in the next week. And here are the roadblocks that I’m seeing,” and that if you’re doing that when everyone is present or when everyone is virtually present, you’re doing it in a moment where other people can opt in to help.
If you don’t do that in those types of meetings, what will happen is they may still ask for help eventually, but they’ll ask it of you directly and not the team. That might build trust between you and them, but that doesn’t build trust across the team, which is what we really want to do.
Denver: Yeah. And I love that idea of help time because, you know, I’ve noticed that in this Zoom world, we have pretty good vertical communications, but not so much horizontal.
Denver: And when you’re building in 20% of your time to help people on other teams, you essentially are beginning to find out what’s happening on those adjacent teams, and that can go a long way. And it is funny that we know this in our personal life. If you confide something personal to me, David, I am so much more likely to confide something personally back to you. So, we kind of know it in our own lives, but we never really then transfer that sense to the work environment.
David: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We’re totally aware of this reciprocal or exchange process that’s going on, but then think it’s totally irrelevant in the work world. And it’s funny because the last time I checked ChatGPT was good, but it’s not that good.
Denver: Not yet.
David: And so, business is still about people.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. You know, one thing that you’re really, really big on, and I want you to speak about it if you could, is a team working agreement. Tell us about that.
David: Yeah, so a team working agreement… or I use different terms depending on the organization I’m working with and, you know, like I would never use the term “agreement” in a unionized environment.
So, sometimes I’ll call it, “Hey, let’s do a frequently unasked questions document, a charter, and a team charter.” One time I was working with a British firm and I said, “Let’s do a declaration of interdependence,” which I thought was hilarious; they didn’t appreciate it all that much.
The idea behind this is it’s not a big formal document, but on any given team, there are unstated assumptions about how people should be working. You have your preferences and your ways of working, and you think other people should be working the same way, right?
Like if I use a simple tool like email, right? Everybody complains about email, but then their solution is: “But if everyone would just use it right”, well, you don’t mean right, you mean if everyone used it like you… let’s just be straight. But there’s 8 billion people in the world, so good luck. But what a working agreement is about is wherever those unstated assumptions are, let’s bring them out.
And I do that through a list of questions, right? And depending on the team you’re working with, your questions are going to be different. But wherever there’s conflict or miscommunication, there’s usually a question you could ask that would force those assumptions out. Small questions like: What’s a reasonable amount of time to wait for an email response?
Big questions like: How do we want to give each other feedback? And as a team, you go question by question and you talk about “Hey, it’d be optimal if we said 24 hours. You have 24 hours to respond to an email before you know it’s appropriate to ping them again, or text them, or call them,” right?
Would save a lot of time. So, you come to an answer for each one. And then at the end, what we do is we sort of lock that document. These are our team norms. These are the rules of the road for the next 60 to 90 days. This is a living document. You’re not going to lock it in place forever.
Because the team’s going to change, number one, but also, you’ll find at the end of two or three months, not everybody followed the rules, and so we should talk about why they didn’t, whether that’s because the rule was actually terrible or whether that’s because they are… just kidding, no one’s terrible… but you know what I mean.
And then, if we did follow them, how did they work? And what adjustments do we need to make? And so, you do this maybe once a quarter; you kind of make those assumptions, but people commit to going by the norms. And what that does is that, first, it forces everyone to talk about their preferred ways of working, but then it forces everyone to sort of sacrifice that for the good of the group working together.
So, I might have this preference. I would prefer to just call everyone and hash it out over the phone. Or I’m that one person that in teams where everybody is typing in text, I’m leaving voice memos because I would prefer to do that. But now I know, okay, that’s not what people want to do.
So, now, I’m committing to… I’m going to communicate the way the team would prefer we communicate for a time, just so that we’re all on the same page, but that we’re kind of not having as much conflict. We’re collaborating better because nobody’s violating our unstated assumptions anymore because they’re not unstated. We all know what they are.
Denver: Yeah. And this working agreement, as you say, becomes a baseline in which we can respond to, as opposed to having it in everybody’s individual brains and making these assumptions about other people, which is smart.
You talked about asynchronous communication a moment ago and, of course, there’s synchronous communication. I think this is one of the great challenges that organizations are facing in terms of what is the best way to leverage this that is going to lead to the greatest level of productivity. Give us what you think about that.
David: Yeah. So, in terms of stating what we know from the research in other places, I can say definitively that when we have to generate ideas or try and discuss a problem, synchronous communication still dominates over asynchronous, but that’s actually about it, right?
There’s a lot of other places where with a decent working agreement, some rules of the road, et cetera, there’s a lot of communication we think should be synchronous that shouldn’t be. Three years into the pandemic, we’re still calling meetings and then presenting information at people for the first 30 minutes, when you could just as easily build the slide deck that you want to present to everyone and then click record on your computer, on your QuickTime or whatever, and record yourself narrating over those slides and send it out.
And send it out and say, “Hey, when we jump into our meeting tomorrow, I need everybody to have watched this, so that we can jump right into discussion.” So, now, you’ve done two things. You’ve flipped something that didn’t need to be synchronous to asynchronous, which allows people to have that autonomy we’re talking about. Just like a show, they can watch it whenever they want, but you’ve also shortened the meeting by 30 minutes, because you’ve dumped that off.
So, there’s a lot of situations where we could be doing that still, three years into this, doing a better job with asynchronous communication. And again, not every team is great at this because not every team took the time to talk about their different preferences and come up with some rules of the road.
But when you do, you end up saving a lot of time. What we know from the research on remote and hybrid and geographically-dispersed teams, whether that’s somebody in the office and somebody two zip codes away, who’s working from home or whether that’s across the globe, we know that what’s sometimes called bursty communication works best.
Meaning, there are times where we come together, sync everybody up, generate solutions, et cetera, and then there are Heads Down time where it’s a norm on the team that no one is meeting during this time, so that we can protect their time for focused deep work. And we need both. So, I mean, you decide as a leader listening to this, you decide which one you want to work best.
At a minimum, I would encourage you, please declare either like two no-meeting afternoons or one no-meeting day a week, which is itself a form of bursty communication. It’s not as bursty as I would prefer. I would prefer small bursts of communication and long bursts of asynchronous, but whatever. Let’s start small and, and let’s protect some people’s time to do that deep work.
Denver: You know, even the name bursty communication suggests energy. It suggests speed and quick, and we’re moving, as opposed to these long-winded things that can come on. When you’re talking about asynchronous and putting those things on slides and sending it out, it reminded me a little bit of Sal Khan and Khan Academy.
Because, again, he put the lessons online and essentially, what he did is he flipped the classroom. And everybody would spend their time at home watching those lessons. But then, when they got to the classroom, the teacher would be there to talk to them about what their problems, et cetera, et cetera, instead of having her standing in the front of the room just doing something which they could watch on their computer.
David: Yeah, so this is one of the reasons I left the academy. So, I was teaching in B school right up until the pandemic. I left about two semesters after the pandemic, because hybrid teaching was even worse than fully remote.
But, you know, I remember at least at the university I was at, we sent students home for Spring break, and they assumed they were coming back. And then, midway through Spring break, we said: Don’t come back for the rest of the year. We’ll figure out what to do with all your stuff eventually, but don’t come back. Don’t come back on campus.
And I spent Spring break flipping the classroom. I spent Spring break saying, “Let’s change this and watch this.” And the great thing that I discovered is that I didn’t have to record every one of my lectures.
I could literally go watch this 20-minute video from this world expert who’s already talking about what I would talk to you at. And then, I made our actual class times exactly that, Q&A times. “Okay. You’ve all watched this.” Now, the one thing I’ll say is that I was dealing mostly with undergrads, and so you have to do little things like throw a quiz in there at the beginning to make sure they actually watched it.
But if you can do that, you can have much more productive time. I was the only person, in the B school at least, that flipped the class. Everybody else bought a webcam, shared their screen, and just went into six weeks of lecturing at you, but via Zoom.
Denver: Snooze time.
David: And that’s when I began to be like, you know what…
Denver: Time to move on.
David: Because long term, and this is a symptom in basically every university, even Harvard, the idea that one institution has all of the world’s experts and you want to lecture from them is ridiculous in the modern era, right? Even a place like Harvard has to split the world’s top academics with Yale and with Stanford and all those sorts of places. So, that becomes the new educator’s role. I’ve sometimes heard it described as that “guide by the side” instead of “sage on the stage.” But most academics I know aren’t willing to give up the stage yet. It’s a really weird time to be in that world.
Denver: Well, you know, we get anchored to who we are. That’s where our ego is, our status is. That’s what we do. And, I guess, it’s fear, you know, in terms of: Will I be able to be effective in that interactive, give-and-take world when I got these things done.? You know, we’re talking a little bit about communications, and I guess if there’s a bane to everyone’s existence right now, it’s meetings, especially these virtual meetings that just go on and on and on.
Denver: What advice do you have for a lot of the nonprofit leaders on how best to run these virtual meetings?
David: Yeah. You know what’s funny is we’re all in far more meetings than we’ve ever been in, and yet we’re actually running through the agenda more efficiently. Now, the reason for that is that everybody’s got a new meeting they need to be on at the top of the hour, right? So, that’s not good.
You know, I think, the biggest piece of advice I’d give to nonprofit leaders or any leaders is that the cost of a meeting is a lot higher in a remote or a hybrid environment, and we need to kind of calculate that cost. When everyone was at the office together, the cost was still high, but it didn’t seem as high because they were there anyway.
So, what’s the difference between them at their desk and them in the boardroom being in a meeting? Now, again, I actually still rather prefer them at their desk because they’re probably doing productive work instead of sitting in a meeting. But I forgive most leaders for thinking the cost isn’t that high.
Now, the cost is pretty high because not only are we asking them to sacrifice the time they have undistracted to do their own, sort of deep, productive work. Remember that autonomy piece, we’re also asking, we’re also claiming little bits of people’s autonomy by saying: you have to be on this meeting at this time.
So, if we know that, the thing I would encourage a lot of leaders to do is look at the agenda. When we perceived the cost to be lower, we used to do this giant, two-hour, catch-all meeting, seven different agenda items. And because there were seven different agenda items, 21 people had to be in the meeting.
We’re still doing that, but in a virtual environment. That’s actually ridiculous. If you looked at your agenda, I bet you could carve that two-hour, 21-person meeting up into three 45-minute meetings with only six people who need to be on each one. Now, unfortunately, for you as a leader, you’re still in the meeting the same amount of time.
But you can save a lot of people’s time by looking at the agenda and going, “You know what? Actually, you need to be here for item two, four, and seven. So, we’re going to group those together. And the people that need to be here for items one, three, and six, that’s a different meeting.”
And that way, we’re saving everybody’s time. The cost of a meeting is not one hour, it’s one hour times however many people you’re inviting.
So, look at that agenda, and it may be more time-efficient to break those up and not just break them up because that’s how we get to too many meetings. Break them up, and then re-look at the attendee list; trim the people who really don’t need to be there, and tell them, “I would rather you be focusing on all this than be here. It’s something you don’t have any input for anyway.
Denver: And, if I could add, make it as bursty as you possibly can.
David: Right, right.
Denver: Always make it bursty.
David: I mean, it’s a great term, right? But, no, that’s true because I said seven agenda items. Usually, the first three or four are status updates which you don’t need to be part of the meeting. That’s something we can take and make asynchronous. So, there, we we’re saving the first three agenda items right off the bat.
Denver: Yeah. I think sometimes you have to have a very few agenda items. I’ve noticed this on emails I sent to people, and particularly younger people, they’re only going to read the first item. That’s it. And if you have three things, you just might as well forget about two and three.
Denver: They’re never going to get there, and they’re never going to read it.
David: Well, and in a reply-all, happy culture, if you’ve got three or four agenda items in the email, now you’ve tripled the list of people that need to be in the Reply All, whereas if you limit it to one topic per person, you can save a couple people’s email boxes by only having that one in there.
Denver: Yeah. No. It’s really a great point you make about meetings, and I sometimes find it funny that we’re trying to replicate the office online, which is almost impossible to do, needless to say.
But we’re trying to replicate something which we all hated. It’s like can we just get the office back? Well, we had about 32% engagement, but you really want to do that? Don’t you remember?
David: Well, you know, it’s amazing, right? I mean, there were movies and Emmy award-winning television shows that ran for dozens of seasons, and 20-year-old comic book strips about how inhumane and boring and dreadful the office environment is. And now, we’ve got Jamie Dimon going, “This doesn’t work. Everyone needs to come back to the office.”
David: What? What?
“People want to make progress on meaningful work. That’s the most potent way that they’re motivated. And if we can’t show them progress, at least we can show them meaningful work. But ideally we can show them both.”
Denver: Yeah. Our memory is really funny. Hey, talk a little bit about maintaining motivation because I have found from some of the people I’ve talked to, it gets a little bit difficult, and they flatten out, particularly when things get very, very hard, and the team’s not making progress the way it would like. What can a leader do to try to inspire and create motivation?
David: You know, ironically, this is an area where the nonprofit world should thrive compared to the for-profit or, well, I almost said compared to government, but truthfully, the government should always thrive, and it doesn’t. So, that’s a whole other dilemma for a totally different podcast.
But, you know, one of the things we know consistently, people are most motivated by two things. They’re motivated by a sense of pro-social purpose and a sense of progress. So, they want to make progress on meaningful work.
That’s, I guess, the easiest way to say it. And, those are two separate things. So, first of all, there’s that progress piece, and you hit that, that sometimes you feel like you’re not making progress. And so, it’s incumbent on a leader to help people realize, if you can’t show we’re making progress on a project, you can still show people they’re making progress in their own individual life.
Look how far you’ve come over the last six weeks or six months with this skillset, et cetera. But I think, the big one that a lot of people don’t do enough is when I say this purpose or meaningful work or, what I said, pro-social purpose, I define that as how well can you answer this question: Who, as in, who is served by the work that we’re doing?
There’s another question, also starts with a W that everybody got obsessed about 15 years ago with answering as the big, powerful motivational thing. And we tried it, and what that meant for most people is we rewrote the mission statement, and then nobody memorized the new mission statement either.
Why? Because that’s what it lacked, right? And you think about the nonprofit world, the nonprofit world is fundamentally trying to usually change something, whether it’s something that’s unjust in our society, something that needs to be remedied; help people who aren’t getting sufficient help, and we can talk about that, or we can tell the stories of who’s been the direct beneficiary of our work.
The second one motivates people a whole lot more than just: we’re disrupting this industry, or we’re bringing justice to the world in this sort of way. I get it, but that’s a very abstract concept, and we as humans, if you think back to early humans, we were designed to be in small community, and we judged our effectiveness, our contribution to that community by knowing who was receiving our help and who was the direct beneficiary of it.
And so, if you look at organizations like in the nonprofit world, I’ve always been a massive fan of Scott Harrison and charity: water because they tell those stories so regularly, and I’m not saying anything here that someone in the nonprofit world wouldn’t agree with. My point is I don’t think we do it often enough, and we don’t do it internally enough. We might do it with donors. We might run a great campaign where we talk about those who’s, but how often do we bring that back?
And especially, your people who are not on the, sort of, giving end of that help, right? Let’s say, you’re just on these: We got to try and get donations, or We’re just the IT team, or We’re just Legal, right? Those people that are one step removed from that stakeholder that’s benefiting from the existence of this organization, they’re the people who need to hear the stories the most.
And so, that would be my biggest encouragement to leaders at all levels is to collect those who stories; I call them impact stories. Anytime you hear of somebody that’s benefitting, even, by the way, if it’s internal, if you get a thank you from a different team, a leader of a different team, make sure you’re capturing that. Share and then share it out to your team so they can see that “who” as well.
People want to make progress on meaningful work. That’s the most potent way that they’re motivated. And if we can’t show them progress, at least we can show them meaningful work. But ideally, we can show them both.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Well, look, all giving starts with emotion, and emotion comes from hearing the story of an individual. I mean, we’re going to be more moved by a single person who was going to raise a million dollars on GoFundMe than if I tell you 5 million people are starving in Somalia. You don’t respond in the same way.
And you’re absolutely right. I think within nonprofit organizations, if you’re not on the front lines, those people who are not connected with the mission sometimes forget who they’re working for. They’re just doing the paper, the finance paperwork.
David: Yeah. Yeah.
Denver: They could be any organization in the world, and that’s a crime.
David: Yeah. And especially in a remote or hybrid environment because now, you’re in an “everyone-in-the-office every day” thing. You might still have a couple interactions a week with those frontline people, so it rubs off on you a little bit. Now, it doesn’t as much. And so, it becomes even more important to tell those stories.
Denver: David, you work with so many different organizations as well as so many leaders. Are employees looking for something different from their leaders in this new world of work?
David: You know, no, to be honest with you, no.
David: The difference is that most of them have the audacity to say it now, right? Like I joined the workforce right at kind of the end of the shut-your-mouth-and-pay your-dues era, right? Like your job here is to be of value for the first two or three years and to do what we say, to learn, et cetera, et cetera.
And now, we have this world where, partly because of generational differences, partly because of the pandemic, partly because of that autonomy thing we were talking about, people are unafraid to say: this is what I want from work. But they want the same things, right? People wanted autonomy, they wanted to work for leaders who told them that their contributions matter.They wanted to make and know that their organization was making a contribution that matters.
These are all things that are sort of universal and were universal before, right? Probably one of the best theorists on human motivation and what people want from work was Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, and most people probably remember this from Dan Pink, because he explained this brilliantly,But what do they want? They want autonomy; they want relatedness, and they want a sense of progress or purpose, or what Dan Pink called mastery. They wanted that before the pandemic, too. The difference is there were still a lot of people that were, “Oh, okay. Well, I’ll get that later, but for now, I’ll pay my dues.:
Now, everybody is bold enough to say: this is what I want. So, do they want something different? No. The difference is there’s a whole lot of people that won’t settle for paying their dues anymore.
Denver: I have found that out. Let me close with this, and it kind of runs through everything you’ve said, and that is the question of time, I mean, that precious, finite resource, time, because really, everything that you talk about really has to do with how we can best leverage and use our time. What’s the mindset an organization needs to take when they think about the time that they have, the time of their people, to be sure that they’re getting the most out of everything?
David: Well, you know, I think the biggest thing is that our relationship with time in terms of how we manage employees is sort of skewed, right? Pre-pandemic, a lot of leaders assumed presence equaled productivity, that I can see you, and I saw that you worked a late night, that you put in a lot of hours and therefore, you’re a hard worker.
Well, some people put in a lot of hours because they’re really committed and they’re a hard worker. Some people put in a lot of hours because they’re not working all that hard, and they’re taking really long breaks and getting on YouTube, and some people put in much shorter hours because they’re just performing better.
So, I would say that would be the first thing. Separate that connection we all had in our minds between presence and productivity, and judge people’s contribution to the organization based on the results of their work. And if you need to put better feedback systems in place and better accountability systems in place, great.
But make sure those systems are not based on how much time are you working, how much presence do you have in the office or in responsiveness to email. But actually: What are the actual results you’re producing? And the side benefit of that is what you’re also telling people there is that we care about results, and you manage your time, and whatever you want to put as the center of your life that occupies the most time, great, right?
Our relationship is one of here’s what we’re paying you, and here’s the results we’re expecting. Time isn’t actually a part of that equation anymore.
Denver: Cool. The book is Leading from Anywhere, a wonderful collection of ideas that will allow your organization to effectively adapt to the world of hybrid and remote work.
Thanks for being here today, David. It was just a pleasure to have you on the program.
David: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.