Here’s to the Carols!


Sorry to drag out this old cliche, but I’ve got to say it: “If you only read one business book this year…” make it “The Progress Principle” by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

The principle goes like this: The inner work life of an employee influences their performance, and the most powerful positive influence on inner work life is progress in meaningful work.

My experience has been that it’s hard to overstate this principle.  Behind every call for a more robust communications environment in companies lies a hope that, if we can just pour more high-quality content on people, morale and engagement and performance will improve, once and for all.  But these two researchers offer compelling evidence that what matters more than websites or videos or email blasts or break-room parties—way more—is believing your efforts are productive on important tasks on a daily basis.

And they reframe the definition of a successful manager to mean someone who can enable that progress for their people.  The book gives a great checklist of ways managers can get that done.

So far, I have yet to work for a business that makes that skill a core focus of managerial training and development, or a systematic criteria for promotion.  For the moment, companies marvel when they see it and say something like, “Clone him!”

My boss Carol* was one of those people who just got it and did it, over and over.  Rather than say, “Don’t bring me problems, only solutions,” she expected me to bring forward problems she could actually help resolve as part of her role, and then she actually resolved them.  She stayed involved without micromanaging—”checking in without checking up,” in the lingo of the book.  She’d fight and defend upwards for our team’s ideas when they were sound.  She gave us a bye on administrivia when it threatened a greater good, including down time or time with our families.

In terms of communication, she was transparent, pertinent, clear and empathic.  She did not create communications channels to do this, but her modeling of it enabled us to do this for each other as team members and for others outside the team.  The primary test of effective business communications has got to be whether it enables employees’ progress in meaningful work.

This is why, in consulting with businesses, I start out with an analysis of how teams are functioning and communicating among themselves at present, before deploying any specific tactics.  When I know that teams are already clear on A and B, but what they need is a C, that C gets gobbled up for its usefulness the moment it’s available.  And when teams are struggling with the basics—trust, clarity, focus, resources—I suggest pausing elaborate communications vehicles until the basics can be meaningfully addressed.  Because happy-talk communications in a toxic environment can actually be money spent widening the credibility gap between employees and leadership.

* As it happens, I’ve worked for several Carols—even one Carole—and they all exhibited these qualities.  Maybe there actually is some cloning going on . . .

How have you seen the Progress Principle at work in your business or team?


Alumni, or refugees?

woman running ID-10059483 David Castillo

Anybody who has ever left one company for another—or for nothing—has felt the tug of that question.  Many companies are putting big effort into ensuring that employees who leave remain loyal, in-touch, connected-to-the-brand types who see themselves as proud alumni of an outstanding organization.  Networks, websites, special events, online groups: all to keep everybody feeling the love.

The opposite, of course, is to have someone flee the organization, that very day, with only the clothes on their back, shattered by trauma, disillusioned / angry / lawyered up.  Oh, and with accounts on several public online forums.

This first-person piece by Will Blythe in The New York Times describes a typical method many businesses to foreclose any problems with the latter: the growing use of non-disparagement clauses in separation agreements.  I think we can quickly make three obvious observations about the impressions created by this:

1. A company that wishes you to say only good things about them by making you swear not to say bad things about them is admitting they are on the “Great Places to Work, But” list.

2. A company that believes you’re willing to sell some of your right to free speech for money may not have had the highest view of you in the first place.

3. The company’s balanced scorecard may be broken; or, in Blythe’s words, “If a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.”

Back home in Indiana, we used to call this shutting the barn doors after the cows had run out.  Maybe it prevents a future bad thing from happening, but it certainly can’t engender a good thing.

Breaking up is hard to do, whether it’s a termination for cause, restructuring, layoff or performance.  In the course of my work, I have written the scripts used for these discussions.  I always said that highest standard to observe was whether some version of the same language used in recruiting and hiring could be used in the separation discussion, not as a moment of gross cynicism but as proof there had been a consistency to the employee experience at every stage, with this particular stage as an unfortunate but at least understandable outcome.

Few businesses meet that standard.  But more could if they chose to.  Truth-telling and consistency long before the end make more alumni out of potential refugees than any legal requirement.

How can you better understand the life-cycle of your employees and improve it with strategic communication?

Image courtesy of David Castillo /