Monday, May 30, 2022

Blog Announcement

This marks the last post of the better-boss blog. I enjoyed writing these articles. I hope you got something out of them. 

I will leave the blog up for those who want to continue referring back to past posts, at least for the foreseeable future.

If you would like to contact me, feel free to email ben (at) Thanks for reading! 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Check-in vs Check-up

Actions to take: Avoid statements implying that you will never judge your employees' work. Be open about the fact that part of your job is about checking up on whether they are successfully meeting expectations. Also also be the type of manager who explicitly checks in with employees and coaches them to more effective performance. Accept that the role of manager is a complex one, and do both.

Do you check-in with your employees, or do you check-up on them? 

The former is non-judgmental. It is about making sure they have everything they need to get their work done. It is about convincing them to be candid with you about their shortcomings so that you can effectively help them improve. The latter is judgmental.  It is about telling your employees what you think of their work. It is about ensuring the job is getting done to satisfactory standards.

This is the point where your inspirational management blogs will describe the horrors of being a check-up boss. "Foster an environment where your employees never feel criticized. They'll never fear any kind of reprisal or judgment about their work, so they will be far more likely to come to you for advice or to show you where they are having trouble. Stop the check-UP and focus on the check-IN!" 

That is an over-simplification that will lead to disaster. 

Managers are judging our employees' work. That is explicitly part of the job. If a boss tries to convince employees that all conversations are just check-in conversations, they are setting themselves up to betray their employees. The fallout will be enormous. Imagine it. Over and over, your boss says things to convince you that they're just here to help. They have no ulterior motive—they absolutely won't judge you in any way.  

That boss has painted themselves into a corner. Eventually, they will have to do some kind of check-up. Maybe a deadline is past; maybe the employee is doing sub-par work in some area; or maybe it's just time for annual employee evaluations. The better they did at convincing employees that they're "just here to check in," the more two-faced they will seem when it comes to make some kind of judgment about the employee's work. 

Instead, be honest with yourself and with your team. "As your boss, I'm here to help, and I am here to keep you on the right path. I hope that you will come to me for help on any and all of your work issues. I would like to offer my perspective and give you advice whenever you are wondering how to proceed with something. I am also here to check in on your work. Part of my job is making sure we all get our work done, which means I'll need to probe at your progress occasionally. The times when I need to do that are usually times when things aren't going perfectly for you, so it might be a sensitive subject. I will do my best to handle those conversations with grace. But there is no point in pretending that I'm only a guidance counselor for your work."

This check-in vs check-up dichotomy relates to two fundamental and much more talked-about concepts: coaching vs feedback. If your employee is consistently underperforming, feedback conversations and coaching conversations serve different purposes, but they are both important. For instance, they might consistently fail to meet deadlines. They need to know your opinion on the issue. You need to check-up on their progress at fixing the issue and communicate your judgment of their work by giving feedback. A helpful boss will also coach their employees to better performance. They will have check-in conversations with a non-judgmental tone to collaborate on finding ways to improve. 

If you successfully communicate to your employees that your job is about checking-up and checking-in, you can often have both of these conversations in the very same meeting.

The average boss tends to default to one or the other. Either they're always checking-up, thereby creating an authoritarian environment where their employees see them as unhelpful, judgmental, and useless. Or they are always checking-in, thereby creating an environment where their employees see them as a fake friend who says one thing but does another (because the job ultimately requires it). Better bosses recognize that managing people is a complex process. It requires us to be judge and mentor at the same time. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Personnel Issues are Process Issues

Actions to take: Think about personnel issues the same way you think about any other imperfection in the workplace. If it is big enough, do anything necessary to fix it. For everything else, do the cost-benefit analysis of whether it is worth fixing. Attempt to fix issues with a bit of feedback or conversation. However, stop yourself from overcommitting resources (your time and energy) to fixing problems that, ultimately, are not that important. When your organization disagrees with you about how big a problem is (by, for instance, preventing you from introducing disciplinary action), practice professional detachment by accepting this as just one more imperfect process.

This post will give you a tool for mentally dealing with the fact that, sometimes things don't end up the way you would like when it comes to personnel issues.

Before we talk about personnel issues, let's talk bout process issues for a moment. All work process are imperfect. Take something as simple as shelving books at a library. On the micro level, each shelver is getting better all the time. They catch onto little nuances about the shelving system and make their everyday work more efficient. Shelving also improves on the macro level. Libraries are constantly tweaking their cataloging system to make book location more intuitive and accessible. Organizations at every level of success in every industry continuously work toward improvement. Even excellent processes can be improved upon.

The reverse is true as well. Some subpar processes stay the same for years and years. I am positive that you can think of several processes that have obvious fixes or improvements that never got implemented. For me, it will always be the morning newspapers at one of the first libraries I worked for. Every morning, we prepped the newspapers before setting them out for the day. Included in that process, we stamped them with the library's name and logo to identify it as the property of the library. We stamped every section of every newspaper with this property mark. 

In my eyes, this was a totally useless step. Theft had never been a problem, and we threw out old newspapers after a few months anyway. One stamp on the front, fine. But who is stealing the Arts and Fashion section of the local paper? I saw it as purely wasted time. 

I wasn't considering transition costs back then. Yes, maybe it was wasted time, but it was a small amount of wasted time. Everyone was used to doing it this way. The effort it would take to convince everyone that theft was not going to be an issue would have been a huge hassle after years and years of saying theft is the reason we do this stamping. There's also the opportunity cost to think about. We're all busy all the time. If we spend time fixing this issue, what else might have we been doing with that time? Probably something more meaningful than eliminating a few minutes of stamping each morning. 

As a boss, you need to recognize that personnel issues function in exactly the same way. Major problems need to be corrected, and it is your job to see those issues through to completion. But some issues are simply not worth the time and energy it would take. Your employee says discriminatory things to coworkers? You must do anything necessary to fix that problem. Your employee tends to chit-chat a little too long about weekend plans on Friday? Put a little energy into correcting it, but let it go eventually if it is an isolated issue.

This post is something of a spiritual successor to the previous two posts about the role of Human Resources. Sometimes, you will be convinced that a personnel issue is major. Major enough to consider termination. HR or the powers that be above you keep pulling you back. Every time things feel as though they are coming to a head, actions stall out. You're left with a problem employee that you believe needs to be let go. These are the times when it is the most important to think of personnel issues as process issues. 

Think again of transition costs and opportunity costs. The transition cost of solving a personnel issue comes in the form of your time, energy, and frustration while trying to have productive feedback conversations with the employee (and, potentially, a bunch of side conversations with HR and your boss about the issue). Transition costs also come in the form of the employee's reaction, their resistance, their frustration, their being distracted from other work. The opportunity costs are all the other things you could be doing with that time. In terms of achieving outcomes, there is fair evidence that focusing your time and energy on high performers (i.e. accelerating "processes" that are already working) is more beneficial than focusing on poor performers (i.e. fixing "imperfect processes").

Do not get emotionally caught up in feeling the need to fix personnel issues. It is easy to do. Personnel issues are, well, personal. How often do we have major emotional reactions when the organization has some dumb, subpar process though? Yea, unnecessary paperwork is a waste of time, but are you having heated arguments or losing sleep over it? Probably not. 

Managing people is important. But it is still just a job. Practice a little professional detachment, and convince yourself that a certain amount of imperfection in your workplace is acceptable.

If you push yourself to think about personnel issues as just another part of the process, you will have far more success coping with the frustration of unchecked problems. Yes, we want to always be improving. Yes, we must address any significant issues. Yes, we should see if most issues can be solved quickly with a little casual feedback. No, we are not capable of making absolutely every issue vanish. And that's okay.

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