Autonomy at Work

Autonomy at work is one of the biggest drivers of productivity and happiness at work. Here you'll find concrete advice on how to make autonomy real in your company.

The Dangers of Knowledge Hoarding

Just like the poor souls on Hoarders, you may not realize you have a problem.

Think of all those little times in the day when you stop what you’re doing to ask “Emma, how does the copy machine work?” or “Bryan, how many days have you taken off this month?”

They seem like small-fry problems, but they are actually issues of employee empowerment. You stop, gather the information, and move on. But they all add up to a huge productivity drain for you and your company, for one single reason: knowledge hoarding. Information is stored in particular places, and particular people are responsible for it.

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Knowledge hoarding is normal but dangerous. Here’s why:

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The Science of Trust in the Workplace

A 2015 study at NYU Langone showed that when mice were given oxytocin—the hormone that enhances bonding—they started caring for other mices’ babies, as if they were their own. This behavior continued even after the mices’ oxytocin receptors were shut off.

trust in the workplace

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could give some to your manager?

It turns out oxytocin can actually teach us a lot about working together as a team and building great work relationships leading to more trust in the workplace. Here’s how it works.

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Why Every Company Should Work as If They Were a Remote Company

When you work in an office with a small team, it’s easy to cultivate a culture of co-dependence. After all, the email, the document, or the customer name that you need is just a shoulder tap away.

But relying on other people for information causes unnecessary friction in your workflow and directly hinders everyone’s productivity. Every time you tap someone on the shoulder you assume that what you need is more important than what they’re doing. It creates an entire culture around disruptiveness, where no one hesitates to interrupt their peers for their own needs.

Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to ask anyone for information? If it were just readily available, right at your fingertips? For remote companies, it has to be this way.

Because remote companies tend to have employees scattered across the world, they are forced to put truly strong systems in place. As a result, everyone in a remote company is as productive as possible, because no one has to rely on other people to get the information they need.

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How to Manage the Distinct Personalities of your Remote Team

So you think it’s time for your company to take the plunge and go remote. While you and your team begin to hammer out the details, new concerns bubble up—what if your staff burn out or fall through the cracks? Managing a team with such diverse personalities is tricky enough when you’re under one roof—you can only imagine how it’s going to be once everyone disperses.

Of course, some personalities are better suited for remote work than others. Some members of your remote team will punch the air and run home when you announce that you’re going remote. Others might glance hopelessly around at their office friends, at their favorite desk, at the cozy couch, and not know how to deal.

You can’t 100% predict who will love working remotely and who’ll flounder, but if you’re prepared, you can meet each member of your team halfway to set them up for success.

Here’s a breakdown of the different characters you might have on your team, and how to help them through the transition so they’ll thrive in your (newly) remote business.

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People Management for Rookies

Most people who start their own business do it because they have a great idea. Whether they’re setting out to start a new social media site or an environmentally-friendly sock distribution company, they do it because they’re excited about the business concept. People management is usually far from their minds.

It’s one of the least sexy parts of starting your own business. And it’s also the most important one to master.

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In fact, people management is one of the things entrepreneurs struggle with the most, in part because it requires such a different skill set than other entrepreneurial qualities. But new entrepreneurs often make the mistake of dismissing it as a secondary task, instead focusing their efforts on what they think are more important duties.

Managing teams—especially remote teams—is hard, but really important. Poor prioritization leads to breakdowns in communication, which lead to mistakes in your team’s work, which spell out failure for your company.

The good news is, managing teams is a learnable skill. It boils down to a handful of daily processes that you can accomplish to be a competent and successful manager.

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Managers, Are You Sabotaging Motivation at Work?

3 Ingredients of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Given a choice between solving puzzles for free or for pay — which would you pick?

If you want to stay motivated and solve more puzzles, the surprising thing is that you should do them for free.

In the early 1970s, psychologist Edward Deci wanted to study how money affects motivation. In one experiment, he paid one group $1 (that’s about $6 today) for each puzzle solved within three sessions, while the control group received no payment. In the middle of each session was an eight-minute free period in which people could continue puzzling, read magazines, or otherwise spend the time how they wished.

It was the paid group who chose to spend less time working on puzzles in the free periods. The extrinsic monetary reward made them lose intrinsic motivation, where the reward is the activity itself.

Over forty years later, managers still rely on the old model of dangling external rewards like money and prestige to motivate their people — but in today’s era of knowledge work, this model is increasingly misguided. If you think your people are going to continue to put in their best efforts with monetary rewards, you’re sabotaging the most powerful sources of motivation.

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Are You an Unwitting Audience to Productivity Theater?

Before Curtain at the Theater

A productive office is supposed to be a buzzing hive of activity, right?

But as a manager, a workplace that’s always humming with constant activity is not what you want to see — because it’s a sign that something has gone awry. It means that people are putting on a show to look busy all the time.

You know the trick: when someone walks by, you quickly switch tabs to bring up the spreadsheet or report you’re supposed to be working on, or engage in theatrics like looking very annoyed or walking briskly like you’re a very important person who can’t be bothered.

Welcome to Productivity Theater. Even though it’s impossible for human beings to be working nonstop, that’s what’s expected at the workplace. Looking busy becomes how you get recognized for doing a good job. The result is a show put on for the managers — and proceeds largely according to their expectations, scripts, and direction.

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The Transparency Paradox: How Transparency Can Force Your Best Employees to Hide

i love lucy chocolate assembly line to illustrate transparency paradox

The rule is one operator per station. But when nobody’s watching, there might 17 people for 13 stations on the assembly line at one mobile phone manufacturing plant in Southern China.

When managers comes around, though, they’ll see 13 operators, one for each station, exactly as prescribed by the leaders. Even with company values like learning and continuous improvement, this plant’s employees scrambles to hide exactly the kinds of refinements and creativity that management seeks.

Transparency is often touted as a vital ingredient for the best teams. And it’s true. For people to move fast and think for themselves, they need ready access to the information they need to do their job. Failing to provide a foundation of common knowledge and creating an uneven distribution of information opens the door for inefficiency and unhealthy power imbalances.

But the transparency paradox arises when there’s no trust and autonomy. Actually, it’s more like counterproductive monitoring — one-sided visibility to benefit the manager’s curiosity rather than equip the employees to do their best work.

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The Most Charismatic Leaders Are People You’ve Never Heard of

evil queen from snow white

When you’re in charge, you get used enjoying feeling like the linchpin. Take co-founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, Rich Sheridan, who used to think: “I liked being the person everyone came to…. There was glory to it. I felt like the smartest guy in the room.”

Back when he was a VP at a company called Interface Systems, he brought his eight-year-old daughter with him to work one day. Her candid observation about his job ended up completely transforming how he thought about management. When she told her dad that he must be very important — because “[a]ll day long… people came in here and asked you to make a decision for them. And you made a decision, and they went on their way” — that threw Sheridan for a loop.

He realized how this style of managing people created a system of bottlenecks and he began to conceive of the right way to manage as a decentralized, bottom-up approach of decision-making. Menlo Innovations now runs as a bossless organization, because being the smartest guy in the room was a liability.

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The 60% Rule: The Humbling Reason Why It’s Vital that You Encourage Autonomy at Work

product visionaries

Breakthrough products are created out of thin air by a singular product visionary — your Steve Jobsian figure in a black turtleneck and a ponderous look. He yells at people and tells them what to do, until it’s perfect and done.

To Chris Savage, co-founder and CEO of Wistia, one of the biggest video hosting sites on the web for businesses, that’s a widespread misconception that can harm the way you run your business.

Chris has a rule of thumb on making product decisions that’s both incredibly humbling to all you Jobs disciples out there and imperative to grasp. The rule is this: the very best of us only get product decisions right 60% of the time. The rest of the time, we’re wrong.

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