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AGAINST THE GRAIN

5 new rules for managers who are ready to buck conventional wisdom

A woman walks on a pathway painted with social distancing circles on the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan.
Reuters/Mike Segar
Choosing a new path.
  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz

Published

A few years ago, a management professor I had met in Los Angeles was visiting New York and dropped by the office for coffee. “How are you?” he asked. “Not great,” I confided. “I think I’m a terrible manager.”

Just that morning, in our newsroom’s main Slack channel, I had sketched out a plan for covering a big breaking news story. A young reporter involved in the plan pushed back on a key piece of it, in a reply that everyone in the Slack channel could see. I considered her reasoning but found it faulty, and messaged her and her direct supervisor explaining why. We pressed on with my plan, which turned out to be the right call.

I had won the argument and proved my point, but I still felt lousy, and not because I had overruled someone (I was confident enough to feel no guilt about that). What was bothering me was that I couldn’t imagine ever openly questioning a ranking editor’s request like that when I was a young reporter. And so I deduced that if I was being questioned in that way, then I must have been doing an awful job of carrying myself with any authority.

“No, no,” the good professor protested. “That’s the sign of excellent management!” What mattered, he said, was that my colleagues and I had apparently set the conditions that encouraged exchanges like that. It wasn’t back talk; it was respectful disagreement. The reporter’s willingness to engage in it was the hallmark of an employee who felt empowered.

I saw his point and felt a bit better. But I was conflicted. Having my authority openly challenged wasn’t something I was ready to embrace; it was merely something I would have to learn to tolerate, just as I had learned to tolerate any number of other features of the modern workplace, like millennials telling me how committed they were to their side hustles (again, not something my Gen-X self could ever imagine talking about with my bosses back in the day, if I could even imagine having another job outside the one they were paying me for).

At some point, though, I stopped fighting a lot of these things, for three main reasons:

  • It felt futile. Workplace norms were evolving, and my railing against it wasn’t going to stop it.
  • I realized the new norms made more sense than the old ones. Surely I could have eliminated a lot of frustration and angst in previous jobs if I had felt free to constructively argue with my bosses. The new norms weren’t just new—they were progress.
  • I realized these changes would help me grow as a manager. With my decisions open to critique from any corner, I became all the more motivated to make sure I supported my ideas with evidence and presented them clearly. When I fail on either count, I can rely on my colleagues to push back and force me to do better.

I’ve come to see that my initial hesitation in embracing the new norms had nothing to do with their merits. They simply ran counter to what I had been conditioned to believe was the way management worked. But I’ve been in the working world for more than 20 years now. Certainly my perspective and expectations were in need of some updating. Now, when a direct report talks about the passion project she’s pursuing outside of work, I take it not as a sign she isn’t fully committed to her primary job, but as a reminder to give her assignments she would find exciting and fulfilling.

The following ideas offer stark alternatives to conventional wisdom about management. Do any of them offend your managerial sensibilities? If so, consider why—and whether it’s time to cast off what you were trained to believe and embrace them.

1. Support your employees’ side projects

Once you understand why so many millennials have side hustles and how it makes people happier in their day jobs, you’ll probably be a lot more open to Seth Meyers’ dictum that it’s important to support staff who want to take on outside projects, even if it’s in the same field as their primary employer. The NBC late-night talk show host doesn’t just tolerate having the writers on his staff pursuing other projects; he helps with pitches, opens his Rolodex, and offers references.

“I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t resent us if you felt like we were giving you a job but it wasn’t the one you dreamed of…and it was also, you know, stopping you from pursuing that,” he said in a 2019 episode of the LinkedIn podcast Hello Monday.

Read more about how Seth Meyers keeps his staff from resenting him.

2. Encourage employees to look for new jobs openly, not secretively

For most of her career, Beth Perkins was resigned to the idea that a job search was something you did covertly—as she puts it, “a clandestine affair conducted behind a shroud of fake dentist appointments,” and kept from your boss and colleagues unless and until you were ready to resign.

When Perkins arrived at O3 World as the digital product agency’s people growth manager, she was eager to find a better way for people to make their next career move. So she worked with her CEO to craft an environment where employees felt permission to look for new jobs in the open.

What does it look like when a company not only refrains from freaking out when an employee starts looking elsewhere, but actively assists them in their search? Read more about how to support graceful exits by your staff.

3. Welcome your employees’ activism

It’s understandable that executives feel besieged by the rising activism of the rank-and-file. But it’s time to get over it, argues Alison Taylor, executive director of the Ethical Systems program at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Her advice is about more than just keeping the peace.

“As companies try to navigate an unprecedented set of ‘externalities’ complicated by existential questions over the role of capitalism in society, they might better answer those questions by harnessing the energy of those very workers who are already pushing for more ethical and responsible business models,” she suggests.

Of course, if you think upper management has a lock on the best new thinking that could help finally move the needle on diversity or climate change, feel free to ignore her advice.

Read Alison Taylor’s full argument for why CEOs should stop worrying and learn to embrace employee activism. (And for the counterpoint, consider Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong’s attempt to create an apolitical workplace.)

4. Reward people with lateral moves

For those of us still prone to using terms like “climbing the corporate ladder,” it’s useful to remember that there are many routes to a successful career, and they don’t all go up.

Lateral moves can be an effective and economical way to reward and develop talent, and research suggests that people are more intrigued by the idea than perhaps most managers realize. In a 2016 survey of 2,000 American adults with full-time jobs, conducted for the software firm Cornerstone OnDemand, 89% of respondents said they would consider making a sideways move without getting a raise.

Even better for managers, the survey found that only 27% of the respondents would look to make a lateral leap to a different company; most people (66%) indicated they would prefer to make lateral moves internally.

Read more about the surprisingly effective retention power of lateral career moves.

5. Make open-source communities your new model for managing teams

The expectation that we manage geographically-distributed teams as closely as we would an in-person team is a relatively new phenomenon. Arguably, it requires a new model for managing people. Luckily, there already is an example of how to manage dispersed communities connected by the internet.

Quartz at Work contributor Cate Huston checked in with Leslie Hawthorn at the open-source technology company Red Hat to find out how open-source software collaboratives come together and stay productive. The managers of these communities offer terrific examples of how to create community, define rules, and explain decisions.

Read more about how open-source community managers approach each of those tasks, and what managers anywhere can learn from them.