What does trust have to do with Israeli day care centers?

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Trust, two ways

You can fake it for a while
Bite your tongue and smile
Like every mother does her ugly child

But it starts to leaking out
Like spittle from a cloud
Amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound

— The Shins, Turn On Me

A core tenet of leadership is trust.

This trust goes both ways. Your staff need to trust in your ability as their leader to be hard-working, just and candid with them. Conversely, you need also to be able to have trust that your staff are able to do the same for you. High levels of trust create mutually beneficial relationships where each party wants to do their best for one another. Low levels of trust create dissidence, politics and a gradual collapse of teams.

The importance of trust goes beyond just how well you get on with those around you: it has a direct impact on your effectiveness and output as a manager. Aside from my immediate responsibilities in day-to-day activities, I would say that some of the most important facets of my role are attracting and retaining the best people I can find and, once I’ve hired them, ensuring that they are doing challenging and satisfying work so that they can accelerate their careers. How does trust factor into this?

Trust in your staff ensures that you’re able to delegate the work best suited to them so that it is both satisfying and stretches their ability so they can grow. Trust ensures that you’re neither micromanaging nor deserting them while they’re doing it. Trust means that your conversations can be candid and therefore tackle the tough but pressing issues. Trust means a small problem is discussed early and is resolved, rather than it silently snowballing until somebody hands in their notice.

The most challenging part of maintaining trust is that it is extremely fragile. A relationship and rapport that has taken years to build can be lost in an instant. One unfortunate event, intentional or not, can rewind a relationship significantly. Depending on the size of the mishap, it can even erode the default level of trust that others at the company have in you, regardless of whether you work closely with them or not, and there’s little you can do to take it back; that’s just human behavior.

But you’re getting paid well, right?

One viewpoint that I have observed, especially from those that are outside the technology industry, is that generous compensation – whether through raw salary, stock options, or other perks – has the effect of excusing untrustworthy behavior from leaders and the company as a whole. The argument is that if people are getting paid well for their efforts, then, surely, they can confide in their compensation when other dimensions of their role are more abrasive.

Well, I don’t agree. I like to think that, for those of us working in the knowledge industry, we are intrinsically motivated to do a good job and to improve our skills independently of the exact quantity of our renumeration. Many of the software engineers that I know, including myself, still enjoy programming enough to do it in our spare time for fun. In fact, the 2018 Stack Overflow Developer Survey cited that 80% of their respondents still do programming as a hobby. So yes, of course, we like to be paid as well as we can for what we do (who wouldn’t take a pay rise?), but the environment in which we perform our jobs, especially within the dynamics of the relationships that we have with our manager, direct reports and our peers, is a key foundation of job satisfaction.

For example, months of turmoil at Uber resulted in many employees quitting, despite the impressive growth of the company and high compensation. Indeed, we have all heard – probably from our parents – that money doesn’t buy happiness, but research has reinforced that viewpoint. A poll of over 1 million people showed that income level only correlates with happiness to a “satiation point” over which additional income is not associated with greater happiness. In the technology industry, which is generally well compensated, most people earn more than this satiation point, so other factors, such as relationships with colleagues and purpose and challenge of work, are the drivers for retention.

Other surveys have produced similar results. Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk gave a highlight of another study in this area. Watch the clip until 3:26.

Getting happiness from your social interactions at work requires that they come from a place of mutual respect and trust. When they aren’t underpinned by those foundations, all sorts of things can go wrong. Let’s see how.

Breaking the contract

There is a case study which beautifully highlights the nature and fragility of trust. I was fortunate enough to see Clay Shirky speak at Brandwatch‘s NYK conference in Chicago. His talk brought to my attention a paper that showed proof of a contraction of the deterrence hypothesis. What does this mean? Well, the hypothesis is that introducing a penalty, such as a fine, for unwanted behavior, will reduce the occurrence of that behavior from happening in the future.

The paper performed a field study of a group of 10 day-care centers in Israel. When parents sign their child up to attend a day-care center, they sign a contract that states that it operates between 7:30AM and 4PM. This implies that parents should come and pick up their children at the end of the operating hours. If parents were to turn up late, they would notice that a teacher would also have to stay late until all of the children were picked up. The authors of the study note that before the study happened parents were only occasionally late and would rarely come any later than 4:30PM.

This relationship was based entirely on trust. Parents knew that if they were late to pick up their child then this would have a direct effect on the time that the teachers were able to go home. Nobody wants to feel guilty, right? But could lateness be prevented altogether? The deterrence hypothesis presumes that the introduction of a penalty – in this case a fine – for the parents of children that are picked up late, would reduce the occurrence of it happening.

So, that’s what the study did. After the 5th week of monitoring lateness they introduced a fine into 6 of the day-care centers. Any child that was picked up more than 10 minutes late would require the parents to pay the equivalent of roughly the hourly rate for a baby-sitter. After 17 weeks, they removed the fine and explained to parents that it was a trial that they were evaluating. What were the results?

Surprisingly, the introduction of the fine made the late behavior worse! You can see the dramatic increase in late arrivals from the group with fines in week 6. Prior to the fine being introduced, a late pick-up would mean a feeling of guilt from the parents when they saw the teacher waiting there with their child upon arrival. The deterrent against lateness was one of mutual understanding that lateness causes inconvenience for another human.

After the introduction of the fine, however, a relationship built on trust and respect became one that was contractual and based on money. Parents who didn’t want to rush to the day-care center at the end of the day could instead just pay a small amount of money to vindicate themselves from any bad feelings.

Even more surprising was the observation that on week 17, after the removal of the fine for late pick-up, the behavior didn’t revert back to the pattern before week 6. A relationship based on trust, after transformation into one dictated by money, stays broken.

What can we learn from this? Firstly, we can see that you can’t excuse poor relationships or untrustworthy culture by throwing money at the problem. Additionally, once you’ve gone past the breaking point for trustworthy relationships, they’re extremely challenging to restore.

How do we build and maintain trust?

Building trust requires no special techniques or skills that aren’t available to you in this moment. In fact, when trying to increase rapport through means that feel forced or unnatural, you’ll find that it has quite the opposite effect. Trust is built through being open and consistent with your intentions and actions, and is reinforced by acting on behalf of the values that you hold true.

Here’s some primers for your thoughts on how to build and maintain trust.

  • Getting relationships off on the right foot. If you are taking on a new member of staff then beginning that relationship with the opportunity to explicitly talk about how each of you likes to work is a good move. I have previously written about a contracting exercise that serves this purpose. Give it a go.
  • Being transparent and true to yourself. When I am driving, I find unpredictable drivers who move suddenly much more dangerous than those that are going too fast. You want to ensure that others find your actions and reactions as predictable as possible. If you find that you have to act out a particular persona for work when in fact you are quite different outside of the office, then, with time, this is only going to work against you. If you can’t be transparent and honest with yourself, how can you be transparent with others?
  • Being candid. Candor is your tool for showing that you care. Praise when praise is due. Critique openly when necessary. Nobody likes to hear honest feedback when that feedback isn’t positive, but, with time and practice, your directness will be respected and trusted. People will gravitate to you because you have nothing to hide.
  • Having time for your staff. Absentee leaders, especially those with unpredictable commitments and demonstrable flakiness, send a bad message. Being a trusted leader requires being present. If you can’t be there physically, then you can be there via video call. If you can’t be there via video call, then you can be there via email and messages. Just be there.
  • Making your intentions clear. If you have to deliver some unpopular news, then you should be clear on your intentions when doing it. Frame bad or unpopular news with the reasoning behind the decision that you have had to make. Like doing mathematics at school, show your workings. Demonstrating that a decision was difficult allows others to understand and be empathetic towards your situation, even if it has a negative outcome from them. After all, you would never act in malice. There is always a reason.
  • Admitting your own conflicts of values. Since leaders are meant to represent the values of the organization as well as their own values, there are sometimes conflicts. For example, the senior leadership may have made a decision that you disagree with but you have to carry out regardless. In these situations, the path to maintain trust with your staff involves admitting those conflicts of values. You can still see a decision through whilst disagreeing with it and letting others know that is the case. You can disagree and commit.

In summary

Trust takes a long time to build and retaining it requires transparent and consistent effort to maintain. It can be lost surprisingly quickly. We can’t replace trust with a contractual obligation or financial contract. Being yourself and acting in congruence with your own values gets you a lot of the way. Admitting your own struggles and conflicts makes up the rest of the journey.

Keeping your 1 to 1s fresh

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Here we go again…

It’s approaching 3PM. You’re leaning against the wall outside the meeting room, bracing yourself for the sheer boredom and monotony of the coming hour. Sigh.

Each week, you sit down with your manager and, regrettably, you slowly plod through a status update for each of your projects while she makes notes on her laptop. In last week’s meeting, you drifted into daydream whilst you were looking out of the window behind her. You saw a dog trot past the building that had never experienced the concept of having a meeting. You were deeply envious. You wondered whether you could replace your current presence with an audio recording of yourself instead. It would probably be much more engaged.

When you first started attending 1 to 1 meetings with your manager, they were interesting; you felt like you were really getting to know each other, and learning about how each of you liked to work. But now that you’re beyond the introductory phase of your relationship, you’re finding that all that there is left to talk about is the projects you’re doing, week in, week out. Should you both just call this meeting off and resort to email instead? After all, these project updates come through your sprint demo meetings already…

How did it get this way? Do you staff feel the same about their meetings with you? What can you do?

The slide towards monotony

As we previously explored, your 1 to 1 meetings are really important. They’re your primary opportunity to engage with your staff each week and your best chance to really get to know them on a personal level. You can discuss pretty much anything, and when they’re run well they can make a significant impact on the wellbeing and happiness of your employees. They can experience leaving that meeting room each week feeling listened to, supported and understood.

However, as with many aspects of life, comfort and repetition can breed complacency. Once you and your staff have gotten into a rhythm, you may find that your weekly interactions slide from something that you used to look forward to into something that you begin to dread. The mere sight of them in your calendar triggers aversion. Oh dear. Before you know it, you’re both rattling through the same status updates as last week, both wishing that you were somewhere else in the world: maybe in the forest at sunset, or in bed, or perhaps walking alongside that dog that’s never had a meeting.

1 to 1s that are nothing but status updates have no place in your life. They’re boring, they don’t contribute to either of your personal development, and they’re just a repeat of information that could be better recorded and broadcast elsewhere.

I would be so bold as to attempt to coin a theory:

With time, and without conscious effort, all 1 to 1 meetings will degenerate into status updates.

Can we call that Stanier’s Law? Regardless, it’s your duty to make sure that they don’t. But how?

Keeping them fresh

Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of ways that you can make your catch-ups more interesting. They do require more conscious effort and planning, but this is definitely worthwhile. We can split the techniques into two camps: those that involve making the content of the standard meeting more engaging, and those that represent more occasional and radical changes to the meetings to make them more exciting.

Better topics for discussion

Given that the topics of conversation will degrade as you become more comfortable with each other, the first solution is quite obvious: have better topics! I was initially thinking of describing these topics as your poker hand: in that you can choose to play them when you feel the need, but that’s not really how the game of poker works. You don’t play individual cards. Instead, your topics of conversation are more like (and do forgive me) cards in a Pokémon hand, or a Magic: The Gathering hand; you only really use one at a time in response to a situation… but let’s get on with having a look at the topics of conversation you could use before I reveal even more embarrassing things about myself.

  • Personal development. This goes without saying, but do make sure that you check-in regularly on this subject. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this conversation needs to involve peeling through annual review notes, but there are a number of ways that you can probe into how they’re getting along. How productive are they feeling? Do they still feel like they’re being challenged and are working on interesting problems? Why did they seem to get frustrated in that meeting last week? Ask open questions and then explore the deeper reasons why they feel a particular way.
  • Goals. This is slightly more formal, but how are they progressing towards their goals for the year? Are they getting enough opportunity to actively work towards them? Do they even have any? If their goal is to aim for a promotion, are you both allowing enough opportunity for them to work towards it? If not, how can you make that happen? Perhaps their feelings towards their initial goals have waned, and it’s time to talk about setting some new ones.
  • Following their interest in skills or technology. What technology have they read about recently that really excites them? Have they watched any conference talks that have seeded their brains with an idea that they want to try out on their next project? What technology do they think that the company could really benefit from? What features would it enable? Where is the industry going and what are other technology companies doing that catch their attention? How could we replicate that success?
  • What are they excited about? What concerns them? This goes broader than their team or the technology they are using. What did they think of the last company meeting? How do they feel about the company at the moment? Do they think that it is succeeding or failing? Do they feel that the culture of the company is supportive and open, or are there problems on the horizon? Which companies out there appear to be doing well, and why? What makes them successful?

Widening the conversation not only makes your meetings fresher and more interesting, but it helps you get to know each other more deeply.

Mixing it up

Alongside regular injection of more stimulating topics, there are ways to occasionally take the meeting somewhere different entirely: both metaphorically and physically. I often find that in periods where everything is going swimmingly there can be a lot less to talk about; perhaps because we find ourselves naturally drawn to the dramatic. Since those are the times that conversation more easily drifts, so you can try to mix up your meetings further:

  • Rubber duck your ideas. Are either of you working on something interesting at the moment? Why not use each other to sanity check your ideas? You could whiteboard the design of the feature you’re building and your direct report can offer critique. This shows that you value their opinion as a peer which in turn builds trust and rapport. It’s even better if they find holes in it that you can fix together.
  • Go wide with conversation topics. Think outside of the company. Are they concerned about changes in the industry, or any items in the news such as the Cambridge Analytica allegations? What impact does that have on your own company? Which websites and apps are they using that they love at the moment? Why do they love them? Could any of those features work their way into your own software?
  • Flip the meeting. Instead of you driving the meeting, why not let them drive? Why not have them ask you about what you’re working on and what’s on your mind?
  • Go outside! We’ve been encouraging getting out of the building into the fresh air and having walking meetings. Getting away from the meeting room that you sit in every week can be extremely beneficial for the mind and some extra exercise can’t hurt either. Back in 2013, Jeff Weiner wrote about his shift to walking 1 to 1s. Although it’s a bit harder to take notes (often you have to transcribe quickly afterwards) it’s extremely refreshing to get active and have a more energized conversation, especially if you work near some nice public spaces.

In summary

With time, and without conscious effort, all 1 to 1 meetings will degenerate into status updates. Don’t let that happen. Keep the topics of conversation fresh and find ways to keep your regular check-ins as something that you look forward to, rather than something you dread.

Job hopping and what you can do about it

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The jobs they are a-changin’

When my father retired from his role as a civil servant ten years ago, he had been in his current role for eighteen years. That wasn’t necessarily eighteen years of solid growth and progression, either. It was just eighteen years of grafting the same old, day in, day out, in order to make sure that he provided for our family. Granted, my father was not working in technology, and also granted – and I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying – he was not as career driven as many of us working in technology are. Yet, the generation that are beginning to retire are leaving behind a work landscape that is radically different from the one that they entered. Jobs for life, secure tenure and final salary pensions are pretty much a thing of the past. The new workforce must be more entrepreneurial, and as a result, they are less loyal to the companies they work for.

The tenure of my father’s last job is almost unheard of in technology. The average time spent in one role has been trending dramatically downward with time. When Travis Kalanick stepped down from his role as CEO of Uber in 2017, he had been in the job for 6.5 years. This was 5 times longer than the average Uber employee at 1.32 years. According to Business Insider, the average tenure at Facebook was 2.02 years, Google 1.9 years, Apple 1.85 years and Snap 1.62. Job hopping has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. The fact is inescapable: it is the world we now live in.

If you are a manager who thinks that your staff are going to stay loyal to you for many years, then you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. But there are ways that you can increase the chance that staff are going to stay longer than average in your organization. Before we look at some techniques that can help retain staff, let’s have a look into why people are motivated to move around.

Why are people changing jobs so much?

There are many reasons why people in the technology industry find themselves with itchy feet. These reasons are not necessarily mutually exclusive, either. They compound to create even more compelling reasons to keep changing role. Job hopping is more prevalent in the younger members of the workforce, but the following reasons are also applicable to staff of all ages.

  • Economic and social instability. For those that are just graduating from university, economic and personal situations are challenging. The increasingly high cost of housing, especially in metropolitan areas where jobs are, and mounting debt from education mean that being able to purchase a home and find a stable job that pays well is tough. Given that there is less to lose, many use their twenties and early thirties as a time to not settle, and instead let their career pull them towards new experiences and locations.
  • Wanting to experience the broadest possible work. Technology moves exceptionally fast. Many companies do not allow enough opportunity for their staff to experience a varying range of challenges and technologies on a regular basis, so leaving to work elsewhere is often less effort than waiting for the latest open source projects to gain traction from within or for a more interesting role to open up in another team.
  • Pay. As disappointing as the situation in, in general, the easiest time to negotiate a big pay rise is when you are changing to a new job. Given how much saving is required to put down a deposit on a first property, it’s no wonder that many people, as they gain experience, find that changing job rather than fighting for an internal promotion is the easiest way of increasing their salary and thus making steps towards securing their financial future. Engineering skills, especially in big data and AI, are in exceptionally high demand and there are many more jobs than there are qualified applicants.
  • Embracing challenge and risk. Changing jobs frequently means that people don’t have to live with long-term consequences. Large, complex, draining projects can create epic amounts of technical debt and maintenance, and changing jobs is a way of always being involved in the exciting stages of projects rather than having to pick up the pieces at the end.
  • Frustration. After the honeymoon period is over and the realities of a new role have settled in, frustration can begin to build. That colleague who is an absolute pain to work with. That manager who won’t allow for any career progression. That death march project that won’t ever end. That old legacy part of the system that keeps blowing up. It’s much harder to negotiate sweeping change from within, and it is often highly political. Sometimes it’s just easier to quit and move elsewhere.
  • Reduced stigma. While thirty years ago a CV listing five roles in six years may have been read with a furrowed brow, our attitude to frequent job switching has changed. If the average tenure at the top technology companies is so low, and they attract the most talented people, then others will feel less worried about the impressions of others when considering to look elsewhere.

I would advise staying neutral on whether changing jobs frequently is inherently bad or good since, as shown in the list above, there are many factors outside of your control that contribute to people wanting to move around. I am not one to judge the lives of others.

Similarly, if you are reviewing CVs, try to remain unbiased about applicants who have frequently changed job; there may be perfectly good reasons. The inverse is also true: people who have been in the same role for a long time aren’t necessarily stale, either. They may just be happy and settled. We’re all different.

Working with it

Yet, with all of the above factors working against you when it comes to retaining your staff, what can you do? Let’s see.

I chose the heading “working with it” very deliberately. If you think that you’re able to prevent people from leaving then you’re only going to feel extra bad when they eventually do. However, there are strategies that you can employ to increase the likelihood that people are going to stay for longer. Staff who have been at your organization the longest have domain knowledge that cannot be brought in easily from elsewhere. It’s invaluable.

So, what can we do?

  • Map out career tracks. What does progression look like in your organization? What are all of the roles that you have available? What is expected at the levels of seniority in different roles? If you already have this documented, then that’s fantastic. If you don’t, it’s never too late to start. Career tracks can help staff orient themselves with their current position and provide plenty of fuel for conversations about how they can progress to the next level. The simple act of mapping out different career paths is a radical act of showing that your organization cares about retaining and growing its staff.
  • Create opportunities to learn, no matter how small. Make sure that growth is part of the regular conversations that you are having with your staff. Growth doesn’t have to mean constant promotion and pay rises, although those definitely help! Creating opportunities to try new projects, to work on different parts of the application, to mentor junior staff, to try out new technologies and work with different colleagues are all much simpler ways of giving your staff variety and learning opportunities.
  • Encourage side-stepping. Enabling growth isn’t necessarily all about growing upwards and becoming ever more senior in one discipline. Sometimes people leave jobs because they think they might want to change from frontend to backend development. Or perhaps a technical support engineer wants to retrain as a delivery manager. Rather than losing your staff, why not allow this to happen at your own organization? Long tenured staff have a wealth of organizational domain knowledge that is a real shame to lose. Don’t be afraid of dipping into net-negative productivity for a temporary period if it means retaining some talented people.
  • Treat those born in captivity the same as those raised in the wild. Because of the severe talent shortage in technology, companies offer extremely compelling compensation packages to get candidates in the door. Your company may also do the same, but make sure that your existing staff are also able to grow to achieve the same levels of compensation as those that come in from outside. Allow loyalty to your company to be rewarded.
  • Be open about pay. Don’t make pay a taboo subject. Encourage your staff to discuss it whenever they want to; nobody works for free, after all. Convince your organization to do salary benchmarking for each role so that discussions around pay have real context through data. There are a number of services that can help you do this. If a member of your staff feels that they are underpaid despite the data telling you otherwise, turn the conversation towards how they can set growth goals to work towards increasing their pay over the coming year. Use pay as leverage to encourage growth.

In summary

You can’t prevent people from job hopping, especially in their early careers where they have fewer commitments and increased opportunity to explore themselves and the world around them. However, there are many things that you can do to make it more likely that your staff will stay for longer, and these changes will also benefit those that are happily tenured.


* My father’s job was a much less important part of his life than mine is to me, but that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the effort that he put in to make sure that I had a good upbringing. Thank you, Dad!