Bad advice you shouldn't take

We have long joked that Raw Signal Group needs a t-shirt that says, "Hire smart people and manage them effectively." It's a riff on an oft-cited but misquoted Steve Jobs-ism.

The legend goes that Steve said, "Hire smart people and get out of their way." He didn't. Can you imagine Steve Jobs not having an opinion about what Apple was building? Or how they were going to bring it to market? We cannot. But it makes a good bumper sticker. And particularly in tech, where we are fond of smarts and autonomy and a total absence of accountability, it's easy to see the appeal.

Our "manage them effectively" version would make a terrible t-shirt. For one thing, it's too many words. For another, it's not even remotely pithy. And for yet another, nuance is generally sort of a buzzkill. Like, unless you spend your entire life working with bosses, who cares that the Jobs version is bad advice?

Why can't we have our (complex) heroes and our (inaccurate) bumper stickers and call it a day?

We've been talking about this a lot lately. Right now, there are an unprecedented number of mainstream media articles being written about the future of work. And a sea of op-eds about what bosses ought to do and not do. And a lot of them are garbage. Well-written garbage, but still.

The question we keep turning over is this: is it a problem that so much of the popular management and leadership writing out there is well-packaged bullshit?

At worst, we sound like the classically trained musicians who complain about pop stars. Who cares if it's not musically significant? And who are you to decide that anyway? You basically never want to be on the opposing side of Britney Spears or The Beatles.

But when we dig into why it matters that so much of the management corpus is wrong, it's not just that the advice sounds good but doesn't work. It's that the advice sounds good and is actively harmful to the leaders following it. And to the people working for those folks.

If we care about building a future of work that's different than the past, we're gonna need to stop bopping along to BS.


Three questions to ask of any management advice

Management is hard work, and the people doing it have typically never been taught how to do it well. It's easy to understand why there would be such an appetite for advice.

But internalizing bad advice will fuck you up. It will mess with how you perceive your role, how you measure yourself, and how you define success. It can make you feel like you need to perform this other version of Leadership that is inauthentic and gross. One of the biggest fears we hear from bosses in our programs is that they'll become the kind of boss they hate.

But there's good advice out there, too. And you can start to sort the good from the bad with three questions.

1. Does it hold people with power accountable?

Everyone in an organization ought to be accountable for the way they show up. With individual contributors, a lot of their accountability is rooted in their performance of their craft. With leaders that accountability rests on how they use their power. This seems pretty self-evident.

In practice, though, a lot of management writing gives senior leaders a pass. It treats their failures, even their toxicity, as an inevitability and advises you on how to manage around it. It's often written to comfort executives, by people who sell to them. And so it focuses on how more junior staff should endure them. Coddle them. Adapt themselves to the visionary assholes in charge. To get themselves promoted.

We have both worked for executives like this. Please believe us when we say it doesn't work. Even when it gets you recognition, or safety relative to your peers, it hollows you out. Even if it doesn't warp your own use of power – and it might – it enables and perpetuates that toxicity. It's advice written by people full of war stories about, "you think this is bad, you should see what I put up with."

No, you shouldn't. None of us should.

2. Does it treat employees without power as cogs?

There are jobs that require more or less specialization, more or less seniority, more or less training. There are roles that are easier or harder to fill in a given market. Those things can be true and it's fair game to talk about them.

But when management writing talks about unskilled work. Or menial labour. When it talks dispensable people. Run.

The Wall Street Journal is out there telling us all to preferentially pay the 10% of employees that you "need and respect the most." With the unstated but crystal clear implication that you don't need or respect the other 90% as much. Really? Sounds like a badly run business, if that's true.

But it's not true. It's just a comforting thing to write. As a boss, it gives you a shortcut, a way to tell yourself it's okay that nearly everyone is leaving your org. An emotional shortcut that spares you from thinking about what's going on for those people. Spares you from thinking about how bad it must be, if people in your org are fleeing during a pandemic. Don't take that shortcut. People choosing to leave your company is a really important signal.

And speaking of The Great Resignation...

3. Does it treat major elements of work as passive truths to be dealt with, or active choices that can change?

We didn't call it The Great Resignation. We said, "Can you talk about why everyone's quitting?" Because one framing is that it's a force of nature, and the other is that it's a set of choices. Which frame you choose matters.

Resignations. Competitive talent markets. The structure of the org chart. All of these things can feel bigger than you, as an individual leader trying to get things done in your organization. We get that. But be skeptical of any advice that takes them as fixed. It limits your ability to be engaged and creative and treat those elements as movable. Because they are.

Not every org is hemorrhaging people. Not every org is finding it impossible to hire. It's comforting to imagine that they are because it means your org's failures aren't your org's fault. But advice that sells you this kind of comfort does it at the expense of your growth.

The one thing the Future Of Work chatter all gets right is that we're in the biggest renegotiation of work in a generation. The pandemic broke a lot of the old rules and now everything is on the table. It's an exciting time to be a boss, and gives you huge opportunity to build an incredible organization working with amazing people.

But it requires you to be awake. It requires you to be active and resourceful about what you're trying to build and who you want to build it with. You don't have to do it alone, there's lots of good advice out there, too. Advice that starts from the assumption that junior people should expect dignity and senior people should expect accountability.

It's less comfortable. It's more complex. It wouldn't make a great t-shirt. But it's how you build better bosses.
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This week, Melissa is on The Career Contessa podcast talking about what changes when you assume most employees (at all levels of seniority) show up to work wanting to do a great job. 

The episode pairs eerily well with today's newsletter, even though it was recorded a few weeks ago. Go check it out. 🎧
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