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Elizabeth City
Saturday, June 19, 2021

Stop Sabotaging Your Workforce

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The great work-from-home (WFH) experiment of the past year has given us all an opportunity to revisit how we work and redesign it for the better. While some newly remote organizations are simply recreating the office online, managers should take this chance to change some unproductive workplace dynamics. Start with stressing the importance of asynchronous communication: When we’re able to move away from hyper-responsiveness, we can cultivate more time on deep, meaningful work. Empower people to make decisions, and scale back on the frequency of meetings and unnecessary bureaucratic approval processes. Look for strength-alignment with roles when hiring, because this not only sets people up for immediate success, but also creates a motivating positive feedback loop. High-performance cultures not only bring out the best in our people, but attract the best people to the fold, giving organizations a significant competitive advantage.

Eighty-five percent of employees aren’t engaged at work, according to Gallup. Misalignments between strengths and values, lack of personal development, command-and-control management, shallow-level work, and process-heavy change-resistant cultures all play a part in the disengagement.

And this was before the pandemic forced more than half of the world’s highly skilled workers to go remote, where the physical disconnect can further deteriorate engagement.

As the lines between work and home have become more blurred, people have been working longer hours, despite the fact that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives,” according to Cal Newport, bestselling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.


Our great work-from-home (WFH) experiment can offer us an opportunity to revisit how we work and redesign it for the better. Consider the following:

Asynchronous Communication

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic — the company that powers 35% of the world’s websites — knows a thing or two about remote work. His team of 1,170 employees is completely distributed. To make a remote workforce function smoothly, Mullenweg stresses the importance of asynchronous communication — getting back to people when it suits us rather than in real time. That’s because when we’re able to move away from hyper-responsiveness, we create cultures built around batched and written communication. This helps knowledge workers cultivate more time on deep, meaningful work.

But most newly remote organizations are simply recreating the office online, with a constant barrage of emails, instant messages, and back-to-back calls. Here’s how managers can change that dynamic:

Call to Action

  • Value focus and outcomes above responsiveness.
  • Encourage the batching of instant messaging and email.
  • Where possible, default to written communication instead of meetings and calls.

Minimum Viable Processes

During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services designed its Simple Sabotage Field Manual to infiltrate and compromise the productivity of Axis organizations. Some notable excerpts from the manual:

  • Insist on doing everything through channels — never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees for further study and consideration. Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five people.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking this as standard operating procedure at most organizations today.

Process is supposed to serve us, to help us deliver and minimize risk. But, taken too far, it sabotages competitiveness, growth, productivity, and employee morale.

In his famous 1997 Amazon shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos illustrated the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 decisions:

  • Type 1 decisions are high stakes, costly, and irreversible.
  • Type 2 decisions are low cost and reversible.

Most decisions are Type 2 decisions, and should be made quickly, but when we treat almost all decisions as Type 1 decisions, our cadence grinds to a halt.

Such cultural pitfalls are encoded into many governance procedures, such as delegations of authority and approvals, which mitigate Type 2 mistakes at the expense of long-term growth.

For example, Singaporean telco SingTel has made myriad big and bold bets, such as the acquisition of numerous startups, which ultimately failed due to Type 2 decisions around the management and operations of its acquisitions. Most recently, its video-streaming service Hooq was liquidated after suffering losses of U.S. $62.5 million. As Melissa Goh noted for TechinAsia, “the company has stringent approval processes in place to avoid costly mistakes — which, considering everything that has happened, is quite ironic.”

How can managers avoid such costly mistakes in the future?

Call to action:

  • Empower employees to make Type 2 decisions on their own.
  • Scale back key processes to the minimum level required to support both innovation and risk management.
  • Decrease both the number of steps required to get things done and the frequency of events such as reporting and meetings.

Self Development

As I previously wrote for HBR, learning and development is broken because it focuses on continuous professional education (CPE) credits rather than on learning what can help us excel in our roles. Much of what we are taught is useless and quickly forgotten.

Daniel Pink wrote that mastery is a key driver of intrinsic motivation in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. If people don’t feel that they are learning anything of value at work, they’re likely to become disgruntled and search for greener pastures elsewhere.

Call to Action:

  • Give people the opportunity to learn skills that matter to them and their role today, rather than rolling out mandatory general courses.
  • Give people the opportunity to learn about topics of their own choosing, not directly related to their existing role, but that can position them to take advantage of new opportunities tomorrow.

Values Alignment

A key tenet of happiness is living in accordance with our values, which extends to work cultures and company missions. It’s imperative that we hire people who are aligned with our mission and culture. As Brad Stulberg, author of Peak Performance, put it, “purpose is the world’s greatest performance enhancer,” and the data backs this, with Deloitte reporting that purpose-led companies have a 40% higher level of employee retention.

Call to Action:

  • Define organizational values that mean something — above and beyond the generic integrity, trust, and teamwork — and hire people who both share these core values, and who truly believe in the mission of the organization.

Strengths Alignment

It’s noble to address our weaknesses, but we each have our own dispositions toward excelling in certain areas. As Tom Rath, author of Strengths-Based Leadership, puts it, great leaders know their strengths. “If you focus on people’s weaknesses, they lose confidence,” he wrote. Gallup Research also found that we are six-times more likely to be engaged at work when we play to our strengths, and three times more likely to report an excellent quality of life.

Call to Action:

  • Look for strength-alignment with roles when hiring, because this not only sets people up for immediate success, but also creates a motivating positive feedback loop.
  • Automate and outsource any rudimentary, process-oriented, and low-risk functions to liberate time so people can apply their best selves.

Implementing Change

Rather than setting up another committee and cueing a collective eye-roll in your organization, take action to align your workforce for a productive future.

Call to Action:

  • Get buy-in from decision-makers by framing changes around both cost-savings and employee retention.
  • Designate one or several small projects to test these organizational changes.
  • Use early successes to generate belief and genuine interest throughout the organization. Share learnings with other teams, and continue to build upon the momentum. As Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion states, an object in motion stays in motion.

High-performance cultures not only bring out the best in our people, but attract the best people to the fold, giving organizations a significant competitive advantage. It’s time to stop sabotaging our organizations and people and start serving them.

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