Monday, November 29, 2021

Work That is Not Communicated is Not Finished

Actions to take: Any time you assign work, instruct your employees to notify you when a task is finished. Make it clear that "finished by the deadline" includes sending you notification by the deadline. Spend time thinking about who needs to know about the completion of a task. Include that communication as part of the task as well.

A service that public libraries offer to their patrons is access to computers. Anyone with a library card can plop down and begin browsing the internet, working on a job application, playing video games, whatever. The service is high demand in most places. If there are 20 computers in a library, all 20 will be in use. 

One time when I was managing a public library branch, we had scheduled maintenance on our public computers. IT came in, put them all out of service, and worked on them until lunch. When I came back from lunch, the computers were still marked out of service. Next day, same thing. On the morning of the third day, I called to complain to the IT manager that this maintenance was taking far too long. As it turns out, the updates had been finished that first morning. The IT technician just failed to tell our front desk staff to put the computers back in service. They had told their boss, but the IT manager had assumed we knew.

The moral of the story is fairly obvious (particularly given the title of the post), but I rarely see managers put anything into practice to ensure that work gets communicated. Here is the easiest way to do it: 

Make notification part of the task. 

In our post about assigning deadlines, we gave you a handy way to help your employee understand the priority level and amount of work expected for a task. In addition to these deadlines, give your employee clear instructions about how they need to communicate completion. Your HR department might have just sent out required quarterly training. Instead of saying, "Make sure to complete this by December 31st," say, "Send me an email by December 31st letting me know that you've finished your training." 

You will save yourself a massive workload when you do it this way. Imagine that the first week of January rolls around and your boss asks, "Did all of your employees complete the required training?" Without the notification step, it is on you to find out. Maybe it only takes two minutes to ask, but if you have 10 employees, that's 20 minutes of pointless busywork. If you had your employees respond to your email instead, you can get your answer in 30 seconds by looking up the thread.

This is a single example. Bosses hand out assignments on a near-daily basis. When you put it on yourself to track all of your employees' task completion...well, you won't do it. It is simply too much work. In reality, the manager only ever learns after the fact when something is late. You avoid busywork, headache, and anxiety when you make notification part of the assignment. 

You are often not the only person who needs to know when something is finished. When you are assigning notification, tell your employee who else needs to know when a task is complete. An average manager will slow down processes by interposing themselves in the chain of communication—employee tells me, I tell other people. 

In fact, this was exactly the solution that the IT manager gave me in our anecdote above. "Sorry Ben. It won't happen again. In the future, I will personally let you know when my techs are done with their work." Waste of time. It is faster, better, and easier for everyone to assign this communication to the person who is already doing the task. The techs are already there. Just have them notify the front desk staff on their way out. (Note: this mindset usually comes from a manager who has low expectations for their team. The IT manager didn't trust his people to follow through on the notification step.) 

Average bosses have a terribly difficult time staying in the know about the status of various tasks and projects because the workload of it overwhelms them. Better bosses ascribe to the adage "work that is not communicated is not finished." They integrate that concept into their management by making notification part of the assignment. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

Holiday Week Off

Actions to take: Draw clear lines between work and non-work, both in your behaviors and in how you spend your mental energy. Ensure that you are prioritizing your non-work life over your work life. 

I will be taking the week off for the holiday. I encourage you to do the same if your situation allows it! We will be back with more content on the 29th. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Be More Direct

Actions to take: State what you really mean in workplace communications, particularly with feedback to employees. Avoid indirect comments that tell an employee there is a problem but do not clearly state what the problem is. Put extra time and thought into phrasing your communication to be completely honest while maintaining complete politeness.

Early in my management career, I failed to teach an employee how to improve their customer service skills. This employee had a flat affect, only spoke when asked a question, and tended to respond in monosyllables. We worked in an industry where 1) many customers are in a talkative mood when they are being served and 2) employees often had to spend several minutes looking things up for the customer, which meant a lot of dead air if no one was speaking. 

Customer feedback about this employee was never terrible, but it was never great. They knew it. I knew it. We both wanted them to improve their skills. I gave them feedback on multiple occasions that they needed to be more engaging with customers. 

You are probably not surprised to learn that my employee's skills didn't significantly improve. "Be more engaging" is simply not actionable advice. What is "engaging"? When exactly does engagement happen? What if I already thought I was engaging the customer by answering their questions? Probably, I would just end up frustrated that I'm doing something wrong but don't know what it is that I'm doing wrong. Looking back, I'm sure that is how my employee felt. 

This is something that average managers do all the time—vaguely hint at an issue. The all-time worst offender is "You might want to take a look at that." I would wager money that 90% of the readers have received that feedback at some point in their careers. "You might want to take a look at that" communicates that there is a problem, but it (seemingly intentionally) avoids stating what the problem is or how to fix it.

There is a social phenomenon that push managers toward vague, useless feedback. It's not just about being spineless or unwilling to have tough conversations. It is the concept of "saving face." 

In social situations, it is rude to directly point out another person's flaws. This is why we learned euphemisms in grade school for telling someone that their pants are unzipped. Stating it in a roundabout way is less embarrassing than calling it out directly. Just imagine the difference between telling a friend "Your outfit is totally inappropriate" and "What would you think about wearing this instead?" The former requires your friend to confront your opinion. With the latter, your friend can dodge the implication if they choose to. Maybe they do take your advice, maybe they don't. But you aren't forcing them admit that there was a problem in the first place. That is what it means to allow someone to save face. 

Why doesn't this translate to the workplace? For anything that is unrelated to job performance, it does. If your employee brings in brownies that taste terrible, of course you need to engage in this social practice (unless you work in a bakery). For work-related behaviors, though, there is no option to pretend that the flaw doesn't exist. Giving indirect feedback to an employee is trying to have it both ways. It is saying, "I know I have to address this problem, but I don't want to do the emotional labor of having a real conversation about the problem." Your employees are getting frustrated with you, developing the opinion that you are passive aggressive, and feeling helpless to fix their problems. 

With my employee in the anecdote above, I needed to stop telling them to "be more engaging." I could have said any number of specific things to be more direct. "When you allow minutes of silence while you look things up, it makes the customer feel awkward. Could you work on maintaining conversation with them while you work?" Then, if my employee wants ideas for fixing the issue, I could have had a coaching session to brainstorm ways to do it effectively (have prepared questions for the customer, talk through what you're doing while you work, etc.). 

"Be more direct" applies to all kinds of communication, not just feedback. Be more direct in your initial instructions to employees. Be more direct when training new employees. Be more direct in discussions with your colleagues across departments. 

It is hard to be direct with your opinions. It is socially difficult to stick your neck out, and it literally requires more effort to put honest thoughts into words. The long-term benefits are worth it. With employees, direct feedback will lead to real improvement. Direct instructions will mean less corrective feedback in the first place. With colleagues, direct communication will lead to a reputation for being a straight-shooter. People will come to you when they want a real assessment of their plan, not just platitudes. That is invaluable to both the organization and to your career advancement.

One caveat to round things out. Direct does not mean rude. Direct does not mean angry. This post is not a pass to allow your emotions drive your behaviors. Direct means honest. Honesty and politeness go hand in hand. You have to be more thoughtful and more deliberate about how to phrase your comments if you want to be more direct.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Daily Morning Brief

Actions to take: Set out a 5-minute timeslot each morning to update your staff about the goings-on of the day. Take 10 minutes beforehand to think of topics and prepare yourself for this meeting. After your staff gets used to the meeting, begin integrating them into the information sharing.

One of my pre-management jobs was as a customer service desk employee for a public library. One day, a maintenance team showed up out of the blue. They explained that they would be working on the HVAC system. They needed to set up a perimeter to access the ceiling in one corner of the library, and they'd be at it for a few hours. Their work blocked a pretty significant portion of the children's picture book collection. Worse than that, the maintenance team was working in the exact spot where we did our "read to a dog" program for kids every week.

None of us at the front desk knew anything about this maintenance work. When we got a break in the stream of customers and went back to ask the manager, it turns out she had known about it since the previous Monday. It had slipped her mind to tell us.


Employees complain that they never have a clue what is going on. The complaint is usually justified. Perhaps the easiest way to eliminate this frustration is the daily morning brief. Choose a time in the first two hours of the day for a 5-minute all-hand meeting each day. If you are a customer-facing organization, 10 minutes before opening is the perfect time—5 minutes for the meeting, 5 minutes to get ready to unlock the doors. In the daily brief, give your team all the information they need to be prepared for the day. 

Here are the sorts of things you should prepare to talk about at the daily brief:

  • Anything that violates the typical routine. Maintenance work, promotional events, important meetings, etc. Don't let your employees get caught off guard like we did in the anecdote above.
  • Guests to the workspace. Especially visits from anyone higher up on the chain of command. You don't want your front-line staff giving blank stares when your boss's boss shows up.
  • An outline of your day. Let your team know when you have meetings, when you are free, when you are busy with your own work, any times you will be away from the office, etc. If they want to talk to you, this will let them know how and when to find you. If someone shows up looking for you, they can respond confidently.
  • Information about others' workloads: Are folks out of the office, say for vacation? Give a quick reminder to the rest of the team about how long they'll be gone. Does someone have a project that is coming to a head this week? Have them give an overview and ask whether they could use a hand in any way. (note: you may want to prewire this with the employee the first several times, until it becomes routine and expected. That avoids putting them on the spot.)
  • Information from staff meetings. The daily brief is an excellent place to reiterate information or get new perspectives after staff have had more time to think. Did you leave staff pondering a discussion topic during last week's meeting? The daily morning brief is a good place to informally check up on new thoughts. 
  • Information from emails. Ditto the above regarding reiterating information. Especially new things and things with deadlines. Required training from HR is a great candidate here. As we've mentioned before, if you tell a person something 5 times, they'll claim they heard it once. The daily morning brief is an easy way to get those repetitions in.
  • Recognition/Praise for employees. Did someone successfully wrap a major project? Hit their 5-year work anniversary? For big things, this won't be the only way you recognize them, but it is one place to do it. 
  • Share a bit of personal information. Did you or another team member recently become a grandparent? Run a marathon over the weekend? Come back from vacation? Big personal accomplishments or life events are often worth sharing. (Note: if your sharing others' information, proceed with caution. Make sure you know your team well enough to be sure they want to have the information shared).
  • "Fun" stuff: Asking "desert island" questions, doing a tour of each staff member's workspace, and other getting-to-know-you activities can also be doing during the daily brief. Use sparingly. Some members of your team will love having these things sprinkled in from time to time. When this sort of thing becomes the primary purpose of a meeting, most people resent it. 

When average bosses institute a daily meeting, it is usually a huge drag for the employees. It feels perfunctory and performative. It is as though the boss heard one day that they're supposed to do it "for teambuilding" and gave it no further thought before launching in. Cover the topics above each morning, and you will avoid that pitfall. Your employees will get useful information out of the brief and come to appreciate them. 

Here are a few more tips for conducting your daily brief effectively:

  1. Same time every day. This is a no-brainer. If you're going to have a meeting every day, people need to know exactly when it is happening. You don't want to spend 15 minutes letting everyone know when your 5-minute meeting is going to happen.
  2. Always 5 minutes. The brief is brief. Plan your list of topics to hit 5 minutes every time. Keeping it to the same amount of time will give your employees the confidence that they know what they're in for.
  3. Spend 10 minutes prepping. You don't need a lot of time to prepare this meeting. But you do need to take time. Take 10 minutes writing your list and thinking through exactly how to say it. Don't skimp on this time. Make sure you are remembering all the things worth noting for the day's events. 
  4. Delegate where possible. Initially, you will do virtually all the talking in these briefs. Over time, integrate others. Get the rest of the time used to the idea of sharing information about their work.

A final point to wrap up this post. The daily morning brief is not just for on-site teams. If anything, it is more important to do when your team is remote because there are fewer opportunities to naturally pick up on what is happening with others. 

When your employees have a clear sense of what you are doing with your day and what their coworkers are doing, everything works more smoothly. The team is less likely be caught off guard, interrupted with surprise issues, or miss important milestones. Whatever the composition of your team, do a daily morning brief.

Note from the author: if you enjoy this blog, please consider sharing your favorite posts with others.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Feedback is Not Important

Actions to take: Don't worry about missing the opportunity to give any single piece of feedback. Only give feedback about things that happened less than a week in the past. If you find yourself stressing over the fact that you couldn't find time to comment on a particular behavior, you need to be giving more feedback generally. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

Note: some employee behaviors require a conversation regardless of how much time has passed. That is likely a disciplinary conversation or praise/recognition conversation, not feedback. Don't get the concepts mixed up.

Picture this: it is Friday afternoon. You pass the customer service desk on your way back to your office. As you pass, you overhear an employee speaking rudely to a customer. Clearly they are both frustrated, but your staff should know that matching anger with anger is never a successful strategy. You hear your phone ring and go answer. You are too busy to follow up with your employee that day, so you make a note to give feedback next week. 

You get in on Monday and realize your employee has taken vacation for the week. The soonest you could give feedback about the interaction is the following Monday, 10 days after the incident. Do you make time to give the feedback, or do you sigh and forget about it? 

You let it go. 

If the rude employee anecdote resonated with you, you might want to disagree. When we have an employee with a known issue, every missed opportunity to address it feels like a major loss. We have been living with this issue for as long as we've known the employee. It is a big problem to us. But you must keep your employee's perspective in mind. They might have been in this job for years before you were their manager. That means they've been engaging in this behavior for years without anyone saying it is a problem. It is very much not a problem in their mind. 

When you try to give feedback about things that happened over a week ago, it undermines the idea behind feedback as defined by this blog. Feedback is a little piece of advice about how to do things better in the future. Each piece of feedback is small, practically nothing. If you have a comment that you've been hanging onto for 10 days, it can't be a small thing. Your employee will recognize this. It will make your "little" piece of feedback feel insincere. Your employee will start to mistrust your intent with feedback. "The boss is trying to help" will get replaced with "the boss is out to get me." 

If you find yourself stuck on the fact that you couldn't give feedback about this or that particular interaction, you are probably not giving enough feedback generally. Feedback is part of the everyday routine of an excellent boss. It becomes as mundane and as frequent as checking your email. The problem behavior will roll around again, I promise. If you prioritize giving feedback and make it part of your routine, you're likely to catch it next time.

In several important ways, feedback is like exercise: 1) you only see results when you do it every week; 2) missing a single instance won't matter; 3) waiting and trying to do it all at once will result in injury. 

Average bosses give feedback so infrequently that they consider the little bit they do give to be of the utmost importance. Their perspective adds a completely unnecessary and often overwhelming tension to the situation. Better bosses know that, while feedback as a whole is one of the most important things they do, each individual feedback conversation is not important at all.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Feedback Is Important advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

This blog uses the "feedback" tag than any other label. There is a reason for that. After one-on-ones, routine feedback to your employees will impart more benefits than any other action you can take as a manager. Forget about being a "servant leader" or "transformative" or being the boss with brilliant strategic ideas. Clear, specific feedback to all of your employees every single week will have far more impact than any of these.

We have made similar claims in previous posts. Simply saying it doesn't make it true, however. Let's give a proper argument to convince those who haven't begun integrating feedback into their everyday management. 

Feedback motivates behavioral change

The feedback formula we advocate tells people a specific behavior they engaged in and a specific outcome or outcomes. Compare the two comments: "Please make sure to get your project report in on time." versus "When you get your project report in late, it prevents [coworker] from being able to complete their part of the job." When we hear an impact attached to our actions, it resonates. It helps us see the action in context. The first one communicates that the boss is mad at me. The second one communicates that my actions have real-world consequences that I need to consider.

Feedback works in a way that praise does not. A sentiment like "great job" is nice, but it does not tell someone what they need to know to keep doing a thing well. Feedback works in a way that reprimands do not. A sentiment like "this was bad" let's people know they messed up, but doesn't give any meaningful reason why we should try to fix it. ("The boss is mad" doesn't count. The boss is an idiot who doesn't understand which parts of my job are important.)

Feedback makes people more secure

Imagine being in a relationship with someone who never told you whether they liked you one way or the other. You make them dinner—they eat it but don't comment on it. You buy them a birthday present—they use it but don't say whether they like it. You plan a date—they go with you but don't indicate whether they are having any fun. 

Feedback is necessary for human social interaction. Virtually everyone who read the above scenario thought, "Well they probably don't like you." Consider that. No feedback equals "things are wrong." Yet the above scenario is a perfect analogue to how most of us experience our work. 

Do you want people doing great work, or do you want them constantly wondering if they are messing up? Most of us have an enormous amount of anxiety about our jobs because we simply have no indication whether the boss (and by proxy the organization) likes our work. This is even true of your top performers. Top performers think they are doing great work. But they still need to know whether you think they are doing great work. Almost no one is so egotistical that they are immune this kind of worry.

Feedback makes later work easier

Bosses are mandated by the company to comment on employees' work in at least occasionally: annual performance appraisals and disciplinary issues. A bad (or average) boss can get away with never saying anything about how you are doing except in these two cases. 

Most bosses dread these two parts of their job. Appraisals and disciplinary procedures are a lot of work no matter how you slice it. But without routine feedback, they are like taking a calculus test without ever having practiced any examples.

Feedback is the "doing your homework" of performance management. For good reason, HR demands proof that the employee knows about issues and has been given opportunities to improve. Without feedback, it is impossible to take any disciplinary steps. It doesn't matter if the problem has been going on for years. It doesn't matter if the problem is causing major breakdowns on your team. You might be ready to fire an employee. HR doesn't care. If you haven't been giving feedback, you must start at square one and pretend like this is a brand new issue.

It is a similar story with performance appraisals. The only difference is that they have to be done—you can't just skip an appraisal because you don't have enough information. Without having documented feedback throughout the year, appraisals are a massive workload. You have to dig through emails, projects, whatever you can get your hands on, to come up with things to comment on about each employee's work. When you give routine feedback, though, appraisals are easy.

It is impossible overstate how valuable it is to have documentation of feedback when you tackle these big performance tasks. I have had HR staff tell me they are "blown away" by how prepared I am, both when dealing with performance issues and with justifying top appraisal scores for my top performers.

The three reasons we have laid out above are not the only reasons that feedback is important. And they all amount to the same thing: better long-term performance. Frequent, casual feedback gives you a team that is continuously changing their work behaviors for the better, is not wasting time worrying about where they stand in the eyes of their boss, and can sail through the big, infrequent performance conversations. A team like that is going to significantly outperform the average team.

I believe that average bosses are trying. Talking about performance is hard, and nobody is handing out prizes for giving feedback to your employees. The path of least resistance is to avoid those discussions until they can't be avoided. Better bosses recognize that feedback is important. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Using One-on-Ones: Informal Task Deep Dive

Actions to take: Occasionally use your one-on-one time to get a deep understanding of one of your employee's tasks. Have a plan to begin asking about the task when the opportunity presents itself. Ask open-ended questions that convey your enthusiasm and eagerness to understand their work and how they do it. Afterward, mentally review the conversation for potential follow ups.

To be a truly effective boss, the most important thing you can do is build a trusting relationship with each employee. By far the easiest way to do that is through routine one-on-one meetings. recommends that those meetings are scheduled, 30 minutes, weekly, and rarely missed, with the first half of the meeting spent on whatever they want to discuss and the second half for whatever you want to discuss. All posts about one-on-ones assume this strategy.

One of the most difficult things about managing others is getting a clear picture of how employees do their work. It is hard enough getting an accurate understanding of what your employees are doing all day. (Though we will assume that readers of this blog have gotten over that hurdle with the help from our one-on-ones basics series.) Even if you sat and watched an employee work all day (not recommended), you wouldn't get much understanding of how they do their job. This is obviously true for white-collar jobs where the work looks like "sit in front of a computer all day." It is still true for blue-collar work, however. My first jobs were dishwasher, then short-order cook. In both of those positions, I was constantly making decisions, big and small, about how best to get the job done. Those decisions, and the factors I considered to make them, are invisible. You would only get a true sense of how I did the work by interviewing me about it.

Which is exactly what bosses should be doing with their employees on a regular basis. When you gain a sense for how your employee does their work, there is a goldmine of benefits:

  1. Opportunities for feedback. This is the most obvious benefit. As you discuss the finer details of their work, you will naturally notice places for feedback. They will say something clever, and you'll want to encourage them to continue that good practice and potentially port it over to other areas of the job. You also see places where they need to abort some element of their process or add to it. For instance, a deep dive into a task that involves other team members might reveal that the employee doesn't think to inform their coworkers when their work might be early or late. There is an easy place for a little corrective feedback.
  2. You will discover best practices to share with all employees. If you have four people who do a thing, one of them does it best. You'll learn who it is by doing a deep dive into that task with all four. That one person might do the work so much better that it is an obvious win to have everyone start doing it that way. 
  3. You will learn more about your employee's communication style. One-on-one agenda items tend to be brief and obvious—answer this yes/no question, tell me the status of this project, find out questions about some upcoming change, etc. Having a more open-ended conversation affords the opportunity for a slightly different kind of communication. You will find that you understand your employee a little better after doing a few of these deep dives.
  4. It is useful for professional development. When you interview an employee about one of their tasks, yes, you'll learn about that task. Just as importantly, you'll learn something about their broader skillset. Hearing how they do their work will help you understand your employee's strengths, especially if you do this with two or three tasks over time. You'll recognize patterns. Your detail-oriented people will have a dozen steps related to planning and ensuring that things don't fall through the cracks. Your big-picture thinkers will talk to you about the way they develop their ideas. This new knowledge will help you both have conversations about future career decisions and skills the employee should focus on.
  5. Employees will feel that you are attentive (in a good way). Yes, attention from the boss is a thing that we avoid most of the time. There are some contexts where it feels good to shine a light on your work. People are generally proud of their work, especially the parts that involve independent decision-making. When you do this right, you might hear an employee say something like, "You know, I've never had a manager who wanted to learn my process before."

Now that I've (hopefully) convinced you that this is worth doing, let's talk through the how-to. There is really not much to it. The only real trick is starting the conversation naturally, in a way that doesn't catch your employee off guard. 

Wait until the subject comes up. You may need to wait through several one-on-ones. With most of your one-on-one agenda items, you put it on your list and bring it up when you're done talking about the previous item. This is a little different. We want to make this conversation feel light and informal. If you abruptly cut to a conversation about one of their tasks and rapid-fire questions, a couple things will happen. Your employee will feel put on the spot and nervous. They'll assume they did something wrong or there is something wrong with the task itself. They'll feel blindsided, like you are pulling something on them by not letting them prepare for this conversation in advance. By waiting for the topic to come up naturally, you can avoid all this. You can simply show enthusiasm, ask your first question, and give the employee plenty of space to answer before you ask your next question. They might think it a little odd, but done right, they'll just think you took an interest in their work. 

The only other tip is to prepare in advance. Know what task you want to learn more about. Prepare three or four open-ended questions you will ask. Mentally picture that first question. For instance, you might have an employee who is responsible for answering emails sent to the customer feedback account. Next time that task comes up, you could be prepared to say, "Oh! I've always wondered what the breakdown is between people saying nice things and people complaining. What's it like?" This can very easily transition into you asking questions about their strategy for responding to complainers. The conversation goes from there.

The average boss barely understands what their employees do all day, and they have absolutely no clue how the employees go about their work. Better bosses take the time to show interest in the details. Integrate informal task deep dives into your routine for one-on-one agenda items. Try it with three or four employees, and you will quickly discover the benefits of taking the time to understand how your employees operate.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Participating on Panel Interviews

Actions to take: In all cases, remember the purpose of panel interviews: to increase the diversity of opinions about who to hire. Take steps toward that purpose. As an organization, design processes that reduce bias and groupthink. As a hiring manager, directly instruct your panelists to form their own opinions. As just one of the panelists, watch out for issues, but be politically savvy about pointing them out.

We've talked about why panel interviews are miserable. We've talked about why they are still the best option for most organizations. Now let's talk about what you should do when you find yourself on a panel.

Remember our short history lesson about the origin of panel interviews. They were created because, when left to their own devices, solo hiring managers tend to hire people who look, think, and act like they do. This is problematic from both a legal and from an effectiveness standpoint. You don't want a team full of clones tackling problems. They'll all come up with the same (likely suboptimal) solutions. Panel interviews were created to add more voices to the hiring process.

It is debatable how well panels succeed in that goal. But there are some things we can do to make it more likely. Whether you are part of the decision-making body that determines how panel interviews are conducted, the hiring manager running the process, or just one of the panelists, you have some power to make panel interviews more effective.

Organizational Advice

This portion is for those of you who have some pull within the organization to create and revise procedure and process. We know the goal of a panel is to get an array of opinions about who to hire. We also know that, due to power dynamics, people will want to defer to whomever has the most authority in the room. We need to create processes that promote the latter and fight the former. 

Developing unbiased interview processes is a complex task. It would take a series of posts just to cover the basics. But the concept is simple: put processes in place that force each panelist to think for themselves and form their own opinion about who to hire. Clearly state the goal of panel interviews on your instruction sheet for panelists. Have panelists rate each question on their own and rate or rank the candidates as a whole on their own. Train hiring managers to encourage and reward diverse opinions (it can be very difficult to genuinely thank a person for disagreeing with you). Encourage panelists to avoid discussing candidates until after they have all formed (and written down) their choices for who is best for the job. Consider creating a structured method for having that discussion (e.g. "We go around the room and state our choice and reason for choosing. After everyone has stated their choice, we will talk about differences of opinion..."). Create guidelines for making the final selection, particularly when the panel is not unanimous. 

Do everything you can to push the process away from groupthink and toward independent decision-making. In the end, your process is likely to leave the decision in the hands of the hiring manager. But give them the chance to hear others' honest opinions rather than what others think the hiring manager wants to hear.

Hiring Manager Advice

As the hiring manager, you have more power than anyone else in determining how well your interview process goes. If the organization has procedures and instructions as described above, a bad hiring manager can nullify all that work in an instant. If the organization doesn't have effective guidelines, a good hiring manager can informally institute them for their interviews. 

When you are in this position, take time with the panelists. Most interview processes tend to happen all at once on a single day. Ask your panelists to arrive 30 minutes early. Use that time to reinforce the purpose of of panel interviews. Explicitly state that you are looking for them to share their honest opinions. Instruct them to avoid trying to please you or anyone else on the panel. Instruct them not to talk about their opinions until the end. Give a quick overview of what they should be looking for in a candidate and how they should be rating ("Focus on the content of their answer. The things they say, not how they say it. Judge candidates on the specific work behaviors they describe, and how well that fits your picture of what an effective candidate would do...").

Again, even in an organization that has all the right procedures in place, smart panelists are still wary about stating their unvarnished opinions. If you take the time to say these things, you will set your panelists at ease. 

Panelist Advice

When you are part of a panel, remind yourself of the fact that there are politics at play any time you are in a room with higher-level managers. 

Those who are new to interviewing or new to management in general tend to ignore the context of a situation. When asked for opinions, they will guilelessly say exactly what they think. I would love to live in a world where that kind of behavior is rewarded. It typically is not. That's not to say that anyone will slap you down for it. More often you just...won't get the kind of positive reception you expect for sharing your thoughts. If your opinion is different from the hiring manager's, you just made complicated the situation by sharing your thoughts. 

Again, diversity of opinion is what hiring managers should want. This is exactly the idea behind panel interviews. The reality is, most hiring managers want to pick the person they like with as little fuss as possible and get on with their day. Most bosses think they are right and don't buy into the belief that their biases are influencing their decision. If you have a different opinion, it is because you are wrong.

So, as a panelist, pick your battles. Don't just roll over, but do be smart about stating your opinion. Probe with questions about the candidates rather than outright disagreeing. Don't exclusively talk about your choice of candidate. Instead, say positive things to say about each candidate (excepting those who were obviously duds). When it becomes clear that your choice is not the same as the hiring manager's, make a decision about whether it is worth pushing back. If you do push back, again, don't outright disagree. Instead, explore their reasoning. Treat it as if you are trying to learn, to understand why you came to a different conclusion. Using this method, you will be able to tease out whether there is any chance of bringing the hiring manager around to your point of view. Or you may come to agree with their choice. Both good outcomes.

In some cases, the problem may be egregious. Perhaps it is obvious to that the hiring manager is going with a candidate for a discriminatory reason. In those cases, don't beat yourself up for failing to react right then and there. In fact, that may be the least effective strategy. Immediately after the selection meeting, take time to thoroughly document the facts. Talk with trusted colleagues & mentors about whether to escalate the issue. There are risks to you, so don't make that choice lightly.

After you have done a few, panel interviews are a mundane affair. I remember getting so frustrated early in my career when I saw hiring decisions that were obviously based on frivolous details (Sure, their answers were great. "But did you see how wrinkly their sweater was?"). Accept the fact that, just like every organizational process, hiring is not perfect. Improve it where you can by using the advice here, and learn to live with the imperfections.

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