Every team must build trust and confidence with peers, but remote teams face a greater challenge because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. At Levels, we work to assume positive intent of our teammates, which supports our core value of “confidence is earned.” Both values are tied to work performance, and in order to build confidence and trust, a team member must do great work as well as learn how to communicate that work effectively, especially in a remote environment. Listen as Levels founders Sam Corcos and Josh Clemente discuss how confidence and trust need to be earned over time.
Josh Clemente (00:06):
If I’m feeling low confidence, I shouldn’t be going and circling around and trying to get the word through the grapevine, go directly to that person and make it clear. I’m struggling to understand the status on X, Y, Z. I can’t deliver if I don’t have that confidence, fill me in.
And then, it’s that person’s responsibility to assume that, this person’s not trying to undermine me. They have a legitimate concern that I’m not communicating effectively enough and what can I do to improve the situation? And I think that’s how the dynamic has to play out.
It’s okay for you to feel that someone is not delivering, but you need to take that to them as opposed to assuming that they’re trying to sabotage the company or something that I would consider more political and outside the atmosphere we’re looking to build.
Ben Grynol (00:45):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level. Confidence and trust. They’re very much linked.
They’re very much things that we’ve talked about in all these different cultural episodes that we continue to do and continue to explore. We’re very much learning as we go and sharing a lot of these learnings along the way. You can have confidence in a company, you can have trust in a company, you can have both, you can have neither.
Well, the same goes in a professional setting. The same goes in a personal setting as far as a relationship goes. What’s the difference between confidence and trust? This might sound semantic, but there are a lot of nuance differences when you start to really break them down.
And so, when we think about things like positive intent, you can have the idea, we all want to assume positive intent. But often, especially in startups, you get a lot of scar tissue from past organizations or even with relationships. You might have scar tissue as far as friends, family members, loved ones, anyone that you’ve got this scar tissue that piles up over time on top of each other.
And so, when it comes down to trust, you’ve got this idea of positive intent. People can be top performers. They can be culturally aligned and they can still not always assume positive intent even when they say or they want to. Sometimes it’s conscious and sometimes it’s subconscious.
It’s very much a skill and a mindset that we all work on throughout our lives, whether it’s personal or in professional life. But when it comes to confidence, what is the difference here? Confidence is earned very much based on performance.
Somebody could be a top performer. We could have trust that they can do the job but we’re not confident that they’re going to follow through. And this sometimes comes down to this idea of a failure to communicate. And this failure to communicate is very much a failure to perform and to build trust in others that you’re going to be able to actually deliver the work.
This is where confidence comes in. It’s the failure to communicate that erodes this confidence and eventually trust over time. And so, confidence, trust, they’re inextricably linked in the way that we think about them and talk about them.
And so, Josh Clemente and Sam Corcos, two of the co-founders of Levels sat down and talked about this idea of trust and confidence. Essentially confidence and trust, they’re both earned over time. No need to wait. Here’s where they kick things off.
Sam Corcos (03:40):
I’ve talked to a couple people on the team and this is not a universal gap, but there’s definitely some hesitance for misunderstanding about how some of our cultural principles overlap with each other or potentially conflict.
And one of our core values is assume positive intent, which means when you read something that somebody says, assume that they’re not trying to cheat you or undermine you or do anything sneaky, assume that they just mean the thing that they say.
And Heney I think put it really well. He said that but it took I think six plus months before he was able to get to the point where he could just take us at our work. This is how we run the company and just act as if that were true, even if you have doubts, but act as if it were true and assume positive intent.
Casey has also talked a lot about this as well of even if you think there is a negative tone in a message that you get just act as though there isn’t. And it turns out most of the time there actually isn’t. So, assuming that positive intent is really important, do you have anything you want to add to that?
Josh Clemente (05:04):
The complex thing is mostly scar tissue and baggage that people build up over years and years where they assume that values, statements are platitudes. So, unfortunately, I think it points to the toxicity of many cultures where subcultures, let’s say inside companies, inside other systems where no one is assuming positive intent and there is a lot of rampant politic and people are out to get each other in a real meaningful way.
And so, being an outlier of a culture is we’re working upstream against that assumption. And I think the tool there is absolutely correct and that generally speaking, people just need to… it’s maybe even beyond assumed positive intent. It should maybe even be assigned positive intent. So, whatever the statement is, just it is positive intent. So, just assign positive intent to it. Even if you’re wrong, even if it’s not, you just do it anyway.
Sam Corcos (06:07):
It reminds me somebody that I was talking to where we had to really go deeper into this terminology, because I mentioned that this is a cultural value that this person needed to work on and they responded with I already assume positive intent.
I know that everyone here wants what’s best for the company, but that feels more like the surface level understanding of it. This person, when they would see a communication from somebody, still had a hard time like oh, they’re just being performative with this communication or they’re trying to undermine my project or this or that.
But sure, they want what’s best for the company. But in this particular case, they had a really hard time somebody asking a question. And from my perspective as an outside observer, they just had a legitimate question and they didn’t know the answer, but this person was reading subtext into what they were writing when none existed.
And so, I don’t know whether it’s just something we have to continue to reinforce in practice because it is a learned skill. People have to learn to assume positive intent. It’s not something that certainly, especially from people with scar tissue of having worked at organizations where you could not assume positive intent because people really were being sneaky and out to get each other. It’s hard to break that pattern.
Josh Clemente (07:39):
It’s interesting because those anecdotes are typically where the cracks show is. The general consensus might be, oh, yeah, no, I assume positive intent and everyone here does. But in this case, this person was clearly not acting in good faith. And as you can see, the shortness of the statement or it’s almost nature to maybe read into subtext.
It may not be nature for people to try to continuously assign best intent to people that they may not actually be socially close to. Especially when you’re new into an organization and there’s a context that you don’t yet have. So, I mean, I think it’s a matter of reinforcement and demonstration and just continuous demonstration.
And maybe even providing a peer system or a judgment free zone where you can reach out to somebody or some group of people who really do a great job with this value and just say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this specific case.” or “I don’t think this person is acting with best intent.” And the other individual can just show them how to navigate that situation.
How would I respond if I received that same communication or how might you be the first person? There’s another thing that I really like and I don’t remember where I heard it, but the phrase is just be the first that, that’s it. It’s just be the first.
And it applies to any value where don’t wait for the other person in a dynamic to act according to this value, just you step up and be the first person to do so. And that could be washing the dishes at home. It could be assuming best intent or acting… assigning best intent.
The point is just be the representation that you’re hoping to see out there. And so, I think that applies here is even when you can be very confident, even if it’s blatant explicit, there are people in our culture, I think, in our company today who are still able to just assume the best and work with it and turn that scenario around.
And so, maybe having an opportunity for people who are struggling with this and with any other value that we have at the company have a direct route. Hey, if you’re struggling with this value, a great person to talk to is Ben or whoever the person might be who could offer a coached scenario.
Sam Corcos (10:06):
And it’s another interesting thing because I’ve noticed this having had a lot of conversations with people on our leadership team, it’s funny how… it’s easy to assume positive intent with people who you are performing really well.
And where a lot of people, even some of the highest performing people who are the most culturally aligned in so many ways still struggle with this when it comes to somebody who’s not performing or not communicating well or there’s some gap, that’s where the assumed positive intent starts to get really hard and as more resentment start to build up.
And I would say it also is where it starts to overlap with this idea of confidence is earned and how those two can sometimes feel they’re in conflict.
Josh Clemente (10:56):
That’s definitely true. And it probably applies to, well, certainly explicitly with this value of assuming that’s intended, it becomes very difficult when you’re feeling at odds with someone’s output or with someone’s personality. It’s likely that I personally think that the personality component is actually the main driver of this difficulty.
It’s when people have different approaches to communication style, it really just personal style, extroversion versus introversion. People who are type A and fact finders versus those who are a little bit more, let’s say, fair about things. That’s where the cracks start to show and people start to be like, well, why are you invading my space with this, whatever it might be, communication style.
And the difficulty, it’s just recognizing that each of us has our own unique style where everyone is going to have their different layer, and with our tolerance value where we don’t just tolerate the popular perspective we tolerate even the out group, even those who it’s not popular to tolerate so to speak.
That philosophy here I think is really important where it’s actually almost only important to assume best intent with people you don’t personally or don’t get along with, you know what I mean? It’s not work elsewhere. It’s just naturally going to flow among the people that you get along with best.
I mean, I assume best intent and confidence is earned are interesting because they’re complimentary but also can be at odds in certain situations where it can feel like I have low confidence, how can I possibly assume best intent in this situation?
Sam Corcos (12:37):
And I think they can feel at odds, but I really don’t think that they are. Because in my mind, confidence is earned is really much more about performance. And it’s a tricky one that I know it’s reasonable for people to feel uncomfortable with this.
Because we’ve all worked with people who are… I was talking with somebody recently who he said that there are people who are really good at doing the work and they’re not always the same people as those who are good at telling stories about the work.
And some people are just really good at telling stories and don’t actually deliver any work. And I’m sure we’ve all worked with those people where you’re like how is it that the management team likes this person, their work quality is trash but they keep getting promoted and they keep getting the big projects.
And when things go wrong somehow, they’re able to deflect blame onto other people. Having said that, the people who do really good work but don’t communicate it are also failing because they haven’t built the confidence in the people that they work with.
And so, you have to earn that compliment. It feels like a lazy thing to say that there is a balance, but it really is true. If you cannot communicate the work that you’re doing to build the confidence and the people that you work with, that is part of a job. An absence of communication is a lack of performance.
Josh Clemente (14:18):
Well, given the roots of the company in asynchronous, not just remote but asynchronous and memos over meetings, philosophy, documentation is a core performance criteria. So, I think at some point assigned an amount of time that should be spent documenting one’s work and it was like 25%, we said something around there.
And that documentation process is not just writing down reams of text in order to check a box, it actually means communication of the work that you’ve done. And so, that is already explicitly built in. It’s like the documentation and communication of it is a requirement for you to be able to survive and thrive in a remote async environment that the one that we’re building.
So, I think that’s absolutely the case where it’s not just an ancillary thing or a supplemental overhead, it’s part of the job is documentation and communication and the confidence is secondary to it. So, I think the difficult part is in many cases, people feel that they’re doing the work, documenting the work, and still getting questioned on it.
And that questioning is, that’s often the situation where I, the person doing the work, struggle to assign best intent to the person who has low confidence in me, who is coming to try to understand, hey, what’s going on with this project? I’m feeling low confidence right now.
And so, I then think, well, this person’s like, they’re out to get me, they’re trying to expose me. Similarly, the person who has low confidence is struggling to assume best intent because they can’t see what’s going on behind the curtain. Is this person working or am I getting totally… it’s a hospital pass where I’m going to end up with my project being undeliverable. So, it’s a tangled mess.
But what it comes down to is each person taking personal responsibility for the situation. It is, again, be the first. It’s your responsibility as the individual doing the work to communicate.
You made a really good point, which was in a recent memo, which was that it related to distribution versus value or maybe like no, no, it was recognition versus value. So, value that is not recognized is not valued. And similarly, work output that is not communicated is not work output in some sense.
Sam Corcos (17:04):
Definitely becomes an epistemological question of if a tree falls in the forest. I think a fairer statement is that assume positive intent does not mean assumed performance. And I think maybe that’s where some of the misunderstanding is. It’s reasonable to expect a certain degree of communication to build confidence that one is performing.
And I think to your point, when there’s low confidence, it’s harder to assume positive intent, but that is probably something that we need to figure out how to better message and communicate. So, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that. I think there’s something more to that as a category of thought that we need to articulate.
Josh Clemente (17:53):
I think with the confidence is earned concept, we allow for a or we want to make sure that people understand that you can’t expect that others are going to have high confidence in you. That’s something that is built up over time through repetition and demonstrated success.
The flip side of that means that, in fact, it indicates that it should be expected that there will be times when confidence will be low, maybe even by default and you have to build that over time. So, when you come into the environment, people are going to assume best intent.
They’re going to assume you’re here to do your best work. And yet, you still have to go above and beyond relative to other work cultures to communicate your work and make sure everyone’s on the same page to build that confidence. So, there should be no expectation that everyone’s confidence is going to be high at all times in the work that you’re doing.
And that’s okay, that’s a personal responsibility to continuously just determine how you can do better, how you can better communicate your work and how you can build confidence in others. And similarly, performance, we’re a team not a family is another important value here.
And so, that means that we’re a team of high performers. And if someone isn’t performing, we can’t just bury our heads in the sand and oh, well, we’re assuming best intent. They’d like to be a high performer and thus they are a high performer, that’s not how we operate.
So, there’s room here to both interact with our colleagues with good faith and assume that what they’re trying to achieve is the same thing you’re trying to achieve, but you can also have low confidence that the output is there and it’s your responsibility to make that clear to them I think is really what it comes down to with.
If I’m feeling low confidence, I shouldn’t be going and circling around and trying to get the word to the grapevine, go directly to that person and make it clear. I’m struggling to understand the status on X, Y, Z, I can’t deliver if I don’t have that confidence and fill me in.
And then, it’s that person’s responsibility to assume best intent, okay, this person’s not trying to undermine me, they have a legitimate concern that I’m not communicating effectively enough and what can I do to improve the situation? And I think that’s how the dynamic has to play out.
It’s okay for you to feel that someone is not delivering but you need to take that to them as opposed to assuming that they’re trying to sabotage the company or something that I would consider more political and outside the atmosphere we’re looking to build.
Sam Corcos (20:28):
This is something that it took me many, many years to get good at this of recognizing when feelings and resentments start to manifest, and just very quickly having an open conversation with the person who is on the receiving end of that, whether to realize it or not and just saying you and I have had some of these kinds of conversations in the past of something is off, I don’t know exactly what it is.
But when I get emails from you, all of the energy of my body just drains. It’s like, oh, man, another one of these. I don’t even know what it is but I just don’t want to open it. And neither of us want to work in that environment.
So, let’s try to figure out what’s going on here and how we can fix that problem. And I don’t know if that’s the same thing as assuming positive intent or confidence is earned, but it feels like it’s certainly within that domain.
Josh Clemente (21:33):
I think it takes a lot of character for someone to address difficult situations generally no matter what the situation is, it takes practice to get comfortable doing. And when you’re feeling low confidence in someone, it is difficult I think to raise that directly to them.
It’s a lot easier to talk about it and see if other people are feeling similarly and that turns into a gossip scenario where, oh, yeah, there’s a lot of people that feel the same way, that validates me. I don’t need to talk to that person, they’re clearly a low performer. They’re here to just skate by that.
It starts to develop that ambiance and it’s less likely that you’re going to have that direct conversation with them. It’s exactly the opposite of how we want this to go, which is that you have point to point communication with people and difficult conversations are part of it.
And in fact, it may actually be… if everyone’s assuming best intent, it makes difficult conversations that much easier. If I can go to you and say, “Sam, look, I’m feeling something’s off here and I’m feeling like we are talking past each other.” or “I don’t know if you intended this but you made this statement that made me feel like what I’m working on is completely useless to the company.”
“Let’s work through this. Let’s jump on a call and work through it.” And if I know that you’re not going to hang up on me, yell at me, chastise me for raising it because you’re going to assume best intent in me coming to you, then we’re both better off.
And I think this is, again, a lot of this is having the repetitions, experiencing this. And as with most things, the minute that the opposite of this scenario plays out, a person who’s new to the culture confides in someone else that they have low confidence and they need.
They’re trying to figure out what’s going on and they get chastised or they get shut down or someone else is looped into the conversation to pile on, it’s pretty hard to reverse that damage. So, it’s on every single person at this company. I mean, leadership has to demonstrate it first and foremost.
But every person has to really be acting in this way because every example that is a counterpoint just drives home that not only do the company culture values not matter, but I can’t assume best intent at this company, which we know how that plays out.
Sam Corcos (23:54):
For sure. To bring it back to a podcast from two years ago with Mark Randol is that people notice what you tolerate. And if you allow for that to start to metastasize is probably a good word for it. It happens very quickly and people start to question really all of your other values.
If you don’t take this one seriously, which ones do we take seriously? And the answer is, if you don’t take one of them seriously, you probably don’t take any of them seriously. So, you have to be really, really mindful of picking values that you can really stick to that you believe, but it requires constant vigilance to keep that alive.
Josh Clemente (24:40):
It’s interesting. This is one of the assumptions of good intent in other people that you’re working on the same mission with is pretty foundational, I think, to almost every other value that we’ve got. Let’s just assume that that value goes away.
And in fact, people may or may not assume good intent in each other at the company, how can you disagree and commit with someone? How can you have short toes when someone else is contributing in your area so to speak? I think it becomes, it devolves so rapidly that it’s almost hard to imagine a more important principle for everyone to be demonstrating and to really reinforce.
It’s almost like this is the prayer that we need to repeat most consistently. And I think the confidence is earned thing is it’s just naming a reality, like you’re going to feel low confidence at times in the company and it’s just like the ebbs and flows of work cycles and I think team dynamics.
But to assume best intent in other people, it has to be an ever-present component of interactions. Most importantly asynchronous because, or sorry, remote more so than asynchronous.
But when you don’t have those opportunities to just hang out at a lunch table and talk with someone and get to know their life a little more, it becomes a lot easier to default to assuming bad faith because those social connections aren’t being built up consistently.
Sam Corcos (26:18):
I feel like a lot of workplaces complex or non-workplace like spousal complex are often… they often stem from assumptions that are made that are not correct. I wonder if it’s helpful to go through some specific scenarios if, let’s say, let’s take you and I as maybe a case study as a hypothetical where maybe I am, I’m feeling low confidence because I don’t have visibility into what you’re working on.
And I would ask like, Josh, I need us to get back to daily async standups. I need daily communication to rebuild my confidence in this business unit. I can imagine how that might feel in a negative way of, if somebody feels like maybe they’re reading it to some subtext of I bet he thinks I’m not actually working hard.
Or I bet he thinks that I’m not doing X, Y, and Z as opposed to just taking me out my word, which is like I just don’t have any visibility and I need more visibility to feel confident. So, I don’t know how we can do a better job of we’ve done some in terms of it’s reasonable to ask for certain forms of communication.
But especially given how different it is than most people’s work styles from the past because we’re remote and the communication burden is higher, what can we do to allow for that in a way that doesn’t create conflict.
Josh Clemente (28:08):
The way you framed it right there, it’s helpful for everyone to think ahead in terms of how the messaging is going to be interpreted and add a bit more context if you can. So, I think hearing I have low confidence in this business unit versus hearing I need more visibility to build my confidence up in this business unit, it’s the same thing.
But the little addendum thereof I don’t have visibility and thus I am experiencing some concern about is business unit. It feels just that little added element I think feels tractable. It’s like, oh, okay, this is a visibility thing and I can work towards improving visibility and thus that will improve confidence.
Whereas, just saying, I’m feeling low confidence, we need to get back to daily syncs. It feels a little bit more, maybe a little more looking over the shoulder like micromanage. So, although the outcome is the same, it’s just naming exactly what you diagnose as the problem that is leading to the low confidence.
It’s different than, for example, if you say I have low confidence in this business unit, one might interpret that as, well, they know everything that’s going on and they just don’t think that this business unit should exist or they disagree entirely with our targets and our strategy.
And this is frustrating because I feel as though I’ve been communicating all of that and doing all this hard work. And now, I’m just being questioned at the foundational level. I’m not sure if that’s coming across. But just the two scenarios, just simply adding that it’s a visibility issue helps to diagnose the problem so that we can just quickly get back on track.
So, that scenario should happen when it needs to happen. But for the individual who’s experiencing low confidence, it’s helpful to try to be as specific as possible about where the issue seems to be arising from for you.
Sam Corcos (30:15):
I wonder, so is a bit of a tangent, but what is in your mind the difference between management and micromanagement? Because people seem to always jump from zero to micromanagement pretty instantaneously. And I struggle giving people guidance on direction as is often even perceived as micromanagement.
And so, I don’t have a really good conceptual framework for it. Because it seems like I’ve never heard anyone use the word management, they either go from complete autonomy to micromanagement.
Josh Clemente (30:55):
It’s a really tough thing to describe concisely. But what I think it comes down to is prescriptive versus collaborative management maybe. For most people who are fairly entrepreneurly minded and want to work in a startup environment, they’re looking for maximum latitude and responsibility to make decisions toward the goals.
And when there’s an individual with somewhere above them in the hierarchy who is specifying how to do work, that is for sure micromanagement. It’s basically confining your domain of responsibility to just execution. You’ve become a mechanical terk more so than a fully autonomous piece part of the team.
So, I think that’s one case. And then, the visibility thing is where it gets much more complicated, because clearly, asking for daily updates is not micromanagement. Because if you’re not prescribing what those daily updates should contain then aren’t actually controlling this person’s actions.
But if your objective with the daily sync is to realign, to stay very closely a aware of what’s happening because it’s really important work and small deviations lead to very large consequential differences in outcome for the company, that can feel… I think there’s a way for this to feel empowering for the individual.
It’s like my work is super important, it’s so important that I need to keep the leadership team apprised of it on a 24-hour basis. It really comes down to the messaging and what that personal relationship is between the manager and the report.
Because it’s it the same scenario, like I said, feel both empowering or feel like someone’s pulling the strings and I have no control over the decisions I make. So, I guess what it comes down to is it’s much more about explaining what you need to be able to succeed as the manager.
The why of the situation is actually what I think this conversation is about. I need more visibility so that I can do whatever it is that you need to do. If I need to know with a high degree of resolution what’s happening in this business unit so that I can communicate that to our investors and close the next round.
Or, so that I can check in on whether or not our growth targets are correct so that I can make adjustments across our headcount, these sorts of things. I think the why is really what separates a micromanager, a person who just independent of context wants to pull the strings for the direct reports versus someone who is collaborating with their people and really trust them to make good decisions.
But trust does not mean… trust and ignore it’s… an active manager can be the most powerful tool that a person has, someone who cares about them, make sure they have the right resources, doesn’t set them out to dry, gives them continuous feedback, that can happen on a daily basis. It really comes down to the why and whether the person understands it.
Sam Corcos (34:29):
So, you mentioned if you prescribe talking about daily async standups, if you prescribe what they contain, that’s micromanagement. But unless you want to caveat that.
Josh Clemente (34:42):
Let me caveat that. So, I think what I mean is tomorrow your update should include completion of this thing. You have sent an email containing these words, you have X, Y, Z, so you’re prescribing the person’s actions. Now, prescribing the content of communication like I need… I’d like to see these sorts of updates daily over the next few weeks so that I can have the right type of visibility but you’re not prescribing their actions in their workday. I don’t know if that clarifies.
Sam Corcos (35:16):
Well, I’ll give you an example. When I work closely with engineer, I like to specifically request a certain type of communication, which is I want to know what project was worked on. I want to see the interface as I want to see a walkthrough of it and I want to walkthrough of the code like it would be on a poll request.
Because that allows me visibility into it and the context that they could give. And that’s being very prescriptive on how it’s communicated because that’s what I need in order to feel like I understand what’s going on. I was talking with Teddy this morning, one of our investors, and he talked about the difference between the golden rule and the platinum rule.
The golden rule, do on others as you would like them to do on you. The platinum rule, do unto to others as they want you to do unto them. So, it’s not about what communication patterns I like, it’s about what communication patterns they like and I have to match that.
And it’s just reframing it in that way, which is like maybe I don’t want people to send me daily communication but it turns out the person I’m working with, they do want that and that helps them work most effectively.
Josh Clemente (36:39):
We’re saying the same thing because the types of visibility that you need to build confidence, that’s an important thing to communicate to a direct report so that they can build that confidence. It’s giving them the right tools. It’s describing the tool they need to close the gap.
But there’s a difference between requesting that specific type of communication versus describing specifically how to solve a problem with code like use… essentially prescribing to them how to do the work and then follow up with me and confirm that you did it exactly this way and give me proof by walking me through the code.
That’s a situation where the person is literally just your keyboard or they’re your translator into the keyboard. And again, in certain circumstances, this can be highly collaborative. Hey, we have this problem, let’s talk through ways to solve it. Let’s try this thing, see if that works.
That can feel, it can, again, be collaborative or it can be prescriptive where you are… for people who want to be problem solvers, they want to have the latitude to make decisions and think outside the box. Frequently, it is beneficial to them and to the manager to not have to both be solving the same problem at the same time.
It would be a better situation for you to not need to think through how to… what code to write to solve a certain problem when working with an engineer to instead just trust them to be able to solve the problem and to give you the update that gives you the visibility you need to know it was solved.
Sam Corcos (38:17):
And maybe this is me outing myself as a micromanager then. But I certainly don’t think that I am, because my preferred operating style is having the right people in the roles and they’re not paying attention to it all and moving onto the next big problem.
Josh Clemente (38:36):
Well, I think that’s explicitly not micromanagement though. That’s successful manager report dynamic where you trust them, you’re not prescribing their actions to them. You’ve said, this is the problem we need to solve. You’re the right person for the job, keep me updated on how it’s going and ask me if you need resources and I’m not going to think about it unless you ask me to.
That’s precisely I think the opposite of micromanagement. Versus saying, okay, look, this is your task. Do these three things tomorrow and update me. And then, the next day prescribing again what they should do. It’s taking away the entire domain of potential paths that this person can explore.
And it is certainly not an effective way to manage, to control someone’s actions and require that they follow them explicitly, otherwise you call them out for insubordination or something. This is the type of toxic manager report relationship that is frequently called micromanagement, but I think it’s just bad management.
It’s not being able to trust someone. Now, we’ve drawn the difference between trust and confidence a couple times in the scenario where you have that very effective manager report relationship where you go hands off and you trust them to make the decisions.
You can still experience low confidence like, hey, I haven’t heard an update on this and it’s at the point where it’s really consequential to our upcoming raise or whatever it is, milestone. Can we increase visibility? Let’s go to daily communications just so I can get back on track, become fully aligned and then we can change the cadence when necessary.
That’s a very high… it’s grounded in trust because you’re not pulling the rug out from under them, you’re not controlling them, but you were simply asking them to focus on building back your confidence, their visibility. And again, I don’t consider this micromanagement, the difference is the why. Your goal is to get the visibility while maintaining that individual’s full autonomy. It’s not to take away their ability to make decisions.
Sam Corcos (40:34):
And some of it is even simpler that, and maybe this comes back to stating the intent, like when Moz took over the product function, I asked for daily communication asynchronously.
And specifically, it was to manage my anxiety, so that I’m not constantly thinking about it in the back of my mind and constantly worried about it. And that can feel silly, but it matters that I don’t feel anxious about it and that’s just a reality.
Josh Clemente (41:06):
One of your responsibilities is to ensure that product is on track. And a lot of times, again, this is where assume best intent comes in on say Moz’s part in this case. But in general, for anyone who has a consequential position at a company, think about it through the lens of the other person.
If you’re trying to assume best intent, put yourself in Sam’s position and take on full accountability for the direction the product goes at the ultimate existential company level. How can Sam do that without visibility into what’s happening on product?
Especially when there’s been a recent change in product leadership. I think it’s built into… it should be an expectation of that person that the first thing I have to do is communicate how I’m going to change things and what I’m doing on a daily basis to adjust course for product.
So, that’s part of assuming best intent is looking at it from the other person’s lens and it’s often pretty easy to do. It’s often pretty straightforward. You and I, again, had had some history with the thing where what it was ultimately the breakthrough was just my realization that you were operating in an information vacuum.
Even though I was doing what I felt to be like many times a normal typical workload at the time it was not being communicated effectively, so that value was… it was unreceived or perceived. So, I think that’s certainly not micromanagement, it’s simply slated as your responsibility to understand what’s happening in product and to make sure that you have close communication with the person leading it.
So, of course, it needs to be corrected. You can do so and there’s not like… I mean, it’s what we’re building on tight feedback loops. This is what Levels exist to do. And it’s much more effective to do that 10 minutes from the time an action was taken rather than 10 months.
Sam Corcos (43:00):
It definitely ties into confidence is earned in many ways, only give you another hypothetical. So, there was a situation not that long ago when we really needed a strategy document in a particular org, and it was overdue and this person felt like they were totally on water with all kinds of projects.
And I said, “I need you to cancel all of your one-on-ones next week. I need you to tell all of these people that all of these things that you’ve promised that you’re going to deliver that that’s going to be put on hold for a couple weeks until we update the strategy because that’s the most important thing.”
I am literally prescribing their actions. I’m saying cancel your meetings next week, stop working on these things and write this document. What is the boundary for something like that between management and micromanagement?
Josh Clemente (43:58):
That to me is very clear prioritization and priority setting is one of the major responsibilities of a manager. If someone doesn’t know their priorities, then everything becomes a possible useful task, literally everything. And you start having rabbit holes that open up and people really just end up wandering aimlessly.
And when you have super clear priorities to the extent that this is a higher priority than having one-on-ones with your team, you’re not saying… again, you’re not doing their job for them. You’re simply saying this is the ultimate and single priority today to the extent that you should remove every other priority on your plate because you won’t otherwise have the capacity to get it done.
And that can happen at the individual level, it can happen at the team level, it can go to the cross-functional level where someone’s has to say, “Look, this priority change is happening, we’re actually going to drop all priorities for an entire function and move those resources onto this other function so that we can get this across the finish line because it’s that important to X objective.” whatever that might be.
And knowing the why. People don’t take that, that’s not micromanagement, that’s effective. And hopefully, we have few of these scenarios where there’s an emergency reprioritization. Ideally, we can be far enough ahead that people don’t have to cancel all their one-on-ones.
But the point is, when that happens, very clear priority communication is a core requirement for a manager to have successful, I think, work with their direct reports. So, again, I don’t think that’s micromanagement. And a lot of this, again, as we know is really soft and of situation specific.
People will call many things micromanagement. But I think in the times that I’ve experienced it personally, it’s someone who is not assuming best intent in their direct reports. And the why of their requests for communication are that they, they’re going to use that to prove that they’re not at fault.
Because they can’t trust anyone around them and they’re playing essentially a politics game where they want to control everybody as opposed to trusting them to be autonomous individuals and giving them the latitude to make decisions. And again, prioritization doesn’t factor in here.
You can have a single priority or you can have 10 priorities. As long as your manager is giving you that clearly and you’re able to make the decisions to execute on it, that’s a functional relationship.
Sam Corcos (46:31):
Interesting. There’s definitely something in here about trust and confidence as it relates to micromanagement. We’re fortunate, in our recent culture survey that we did with the team, one of the questions was something along the lines of, do you feel that you have autonomy and trust?
And that was one of the highest scoring items in the entire survey. So, people really do feel like they are trusted and have a lot of autonomy and decision making. So, we’re probably nitpicking internally if what is micromanagement or not given that almost nobody feels like they are micromanaged.
But it is useful to think about when it comes to say a change in leadership or a change in strategy where there have definitely been times when people on our team have written a strategy document that I disagreed with and made some pretty substantive changes to it.
And I can imagine how that might feel like micromanagement when somebody writes a document that says, “I think our strategy for function X should be this.” And I say, “I hear that, but we’re actually going to do why for these reasons.” And this then bumps into disagree and commit.
Where am I saying that I don’t trust this person? Is it a lack of confidence? Because sometimes, that person just doesn’t have the context. My job is to be the ultimate context machine, I know everything that is cross-functional. That’s why we were talking recently about these lead calls that we do.
They’re not super useful for me because I already know what every org is doing. And so, it might be useful cross-functionally but I’m already cross-functional. So, figuring out when does that qualify as micromanagement?
Josh Clemente (48:36):
I mean, I think we can probably assign most of the pathological micromanagement to core elements, one of them being deliberately blocking context. So, a micromanager doesn’t go to the extent needed to explain to the direct report, the why of what they’re asking for.
That’s key. It’s just feeling like you’re being communicated in a one-way manner. This is what you have to do. You have no choice in the matter, go execute. If you don’t, you’re not going to have a job, that thing. And don’t deviate from my directions at all.
I’m the one with the context, you’re just the executor. That’s one major thing. And then, that leads to a bidirectional assuming that not being able to assume best intent, it’s like this person does not care about giving me autonomy and responsibility.
So, anyway, that that’s just a broken scenario. And I think everyone rolls that into micromanagement as a term, but it’s a misnomer in some ways or it’s maybe unfairly characterized as purely bad. There’s something really useful in a manager being able to flex their or maybe zoom in as needed, and it’s super useful.
No, nobody wants a manager who’s totally aloof and again, doesn’t give them priority, doesn’t give them context. And when you’re struggling, when say one of a manager’s direct report is specifically struggling for whatever reason, that manager should be able to zoom in and work very tightly with that individual or with that group to get it back on track, and that’s a very effective and collaborative scenario.
And that might be called micromanagement. For example, Elon just took over Twitter. And from what’s what it sounds like he’s in a room with each manager working very directly with them to understand what’s happening and redirect or reprioritize, that is micromanagement for sure but it’s high bandwidth communication.
And as long as it stays collaborative and the assumption is best intent, I’m not sure that that’s happening at Twitter. But point being like if that is what’s happening, it’s a version of micromanagement that’s very useful I think for both parties. It’s very quickly getting alignment and to the point that it is helpful to both parties is a tool.
So, I guess, I started off by pulling out the micromanagement label, again, I just want to tie this up by saying there is an important function of a manager being able to balance their own zoom window. When you need to step in and take a closer look and get into the details of someone is really a responsibility of a manager.
And I think the way that it’s communicated, the why, the context is what will communicate that to the direct report in a way that either feels prescriptive and micromanagery or will feel collaborative and supportive.
Sam Corcos (51:38):
It’s funny you say that. There’s a lot on that reflect on there. I was talking to a tech founder recently who had this quote written in my notebook. He said, fight until your dying breath, the formation of information of fiefdoms. We’re lucky in that we have some specific cultural values around treat people like adults.
And we say explicitly and much of our documentation, it is reasonable for an adult to want to know why a decision was made. And if you infantilize people and you don’t treat them, they can make decisions.
As we’re talking about this, it makes me think that micromanagement is, in many ways, it’s the feeling of infantilization. Micromanagement is how people feel when you don’t treat people like adults. Is that a fair statement?
Josh Clemente (52:32):
Yes, I think so. Yup.
Sam Corcos (52:35):
Josh Clemente (52:36):
It’s returning to a parent teenager dynamic or an individual where, I, think actually that paternalistic element is at work where… because I said so is the answer. Why are we doing this? Why are you asking for X, Y, or Z? Because I said so. That doesn’t satisfy the innate… first of all, it doesn’t recognize the capability or capacity of that individual.
And secondly, I don’t think it’s an effective use of either person’s resources, you now have to think for that person. So, the micromanager in this case is taking on the burden of operating for that individual and for themselves. So, it’s just everyone knows it’s inefficient and it is not treating that individual like an adult.
Now, if someone is really not performing and that there is a tool, a performance improvement plan that is micromanagement explicitly, it essentially reprioritizes that person onto a single set of objectives and metrics. And if they don’t effectively execute there, then that’s where things… a final decision is made essentially.
And again, we use that, that is the final straw in some sense, it’s the very last stages of employment. You should never be operating in a performance improvement plan like environment all the time. I mean, that is clearly a tool used for a specific circumstance when performance has been lagging and is clearly needs to get back on course or that person needs to leave.
So, I think that says it all. It’s that if you are writing performance improvement plans with a different name every day for all your direct reports, it’s probably not a very effective use of your time or them, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to stay satisfied for a long time.
It’s more about stepping back, giving them the why and the context and making sure they’re resourced effectively. So, I guess, we went into a versus micromanagement rabbit hole here. But I think all of it is wrapped up in that assumption of best intent on the direct reports part, looking at the manager and building confidence and communicating your confidence level from the manager to the direct report.
Sam Corcos (55:03):
And to tie it together, it is important to assume best intent. The nice thing about companies as opposed to governments is that you can choose who joins. And so, you can choose to only have people who operate in good faith. As we scale, we might have to make fewer assumptions about it, but we have a lot more control over the people that we add and we can make sure that we add people for whom we can assume positive intent.
Josh Clemente (55:34):
One of the major pieces that I would take away from this conversation is just the difference between an assumption of best intent or the baseline interaction that you’re going to take into the workplace versus confidence. These are not the same thing and we all should be expected.
We all are expected to assume the best in a person’s intentions and to help them convey their actions so that they’re building confidence. And again, we’re in nuanced territory here, but I think we can all understand the difference between deliberately interpreting someone’s action or communication negatively versus in the light of this is a teammate, we’re working on the same goal.
That person came here to work on the same mission beside me. It is unlikely that they’re going to be trying to sabotage me. So, I’m going to just assume that this is best intent.