Over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to work for three-man start-ups, large multinationals, and everything in between. No corner of the tech world has escaped me. I’ve had experience with any type of manager you can think of, from the loud narcissistic asshole to the quiet, calculated deep thinker. As I’m slowly moving into management myself, I became curious about what makes people tick at work. I started analysing how great managers are building teams that thrive. “Put together a good team and give them meaningful work” might be the go-to answer, but I’ve come to learn that this answer is too reductive.
I’ve seen miserable people working in mission-driven start-ups and happy people slaving away at a big four accounting firm. I’ve met high-performing individuals working on problems that don’t matter and design leaders in charge of vastly talented teams dreading having to wake up in the morning. It’s more than meaningful work and a good team; it’s got to be.
I became fascinated with figuring out how to get the best out of people. And, naturally, being the nerd that I am, I ended up with a framework that I can now share.
I find there are four critical aspects that make people thrive at work, and they build on top of each other. You start at the bottom and as you complete levels you can move up north.
This is the foundation of people thriving in the workplace. If your organisation doesn’t provide clear goals, expectations, and directions as to where you’re all going, no amount of good colleagues will make up for it. Without having this clarity, people may feel disengaged, aimless, and lose motivation. Without knowing what’s expected of you and how your work fits into the broader picture, there is no foundation to build on.
I’ve found this to be the main reason people don’t do well in certain companies, regardless of how well they are being paid, how purposeful their work seems to be, or how great their colleagues are. You’ll hear things like “I enjoy working here, but I don’t feel I’m contributing to anything important,” or “I work hard, but it doesn’t seem like what I do is going anywhere.“
I like to use the analogy of a football team. You can assemble the greatest team ever, in the largest stadium, with the most passionate fans supporting them. You can invest in training facilities, youth development, and recovery protocols. You can hire the best coach there is. But if you put a blindfold on each player every time they step on to the pitch, you won’t need to clear out space in the trophy cabinet any time soon.
This is how most people navigate organisations – in the dark. To take the blindfold off, your organisation needs to understand the importance of transparency and clear goal-setting. This matters even more than the quality of the team you assemble. It’s partially why every now and again a mediocre team will achieve something big; because they were all working towards the same clear goal.
As a manager however, you are in a tough spot, because most of these aspects have nothing to do with you. You’ve got no control over how your C-level executives communicate. But I would hope that in your organisation you feel empowered enough to ask questions and bring answers back to your team. A mid-weight Product Designer might not have access to the company leadership, or might not dare to ask questions. But you, as a manager, can and should.
Your job is to ask questions and then communicate the answers to your team. You need to spread awareness among senior stakeholders that if they rally the team around common goals, their people will perform better, talent retention will increase, hiring will get easier, and people will turn up to work happier. That’s not something to sniff at.
Here’s what you want answers to:
- is it clear why this organisation exists beyond the need to make a profit?
- is it clear where the organisation wants to be in one, three, five, and ten years?
- do senior stakeholders regularly communicate updates about the business, how far we are from reaching our goals, and why our work matters?
- is it clear to everyone in the team what their exact responsibilities are?
- has it been communicated how each person’s performance will be measured, and is this regularly being tracked and discussed?
- do people know what it takes to get promoted?
- are the organisation hierarchy and reporting lines clear?
Once we all know where we’re going, we can assemble a team and work towards that goal. But that doesn’t mean everyone will thrive just yet. You’ve now taken the blindfold off your players, but still need to coach them to work well together. Do they all know their position on the field? Are they comfortable with your tactics and strategy? Are they hanging out together after training to build camaraderie and trust?
This aspect is all about the emotional wellbeing of your people. This is not some hypothetical mambo-jambo. I’m not talking about ‘safe spaces,’ whatever those are, and cozy breakout rooms. It’s about the extent to which your people feel comfortable, supported, and valued by their colleagues and seniors. Employees who feel supported and valued are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and productive. A positive work environment fosters a sense of belonging and teamwork, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and overall wellbeing.
As a manager, this is an essential part of your job, and it’s becoming more and more important in an increasingly individualistic world. If you’re not stepping up your game in this area, people will move on.
Talking about people moving on, you’ve probably heard the saying: “People don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad managers.” Almost seven years ago I’ve tried to debunk that. There are a million reasons why someone might leave, and it’s not always bad leadership. In my experience, regardless of why you might think of leaving, if your manager fosters this ideal environment that I’m talking about, you’re more likely to stay. It won’t stop you from leaving if the circumstances force you to. But it will stop you from leaving for opportunities where the grass might be greener, because you feel at home where you currently are.
If you do well in this area, you should never hear complaints such as “I often wonder whether my manager thinks I’m good at what I do.” or “I enjoy the work, but some of my colleagues… I don’t know how I feel about them.” You want people to rave about their team. You want them to feel at ease emotionally. I don’t like using the analogy of a family in the context of work, but it’s the sort of feeling that I’m looking for. Your team needs to feel like a family; a healthy one, that is.
Here’s the type of environment you need to foster:
- everyone enjoys working with each other
- people think the management is considerate and has good intentions
- management is supportive, listens to employee feedback and takes action, and offers guidance where necessary
- people go home thinking ‘My manager cares about me and my growth’
- there are clear performance criteria for everyone
- everyone knows where they stand with everyone else, including their manager(s)
- there is a purposeful lack of politics that allows the best work and the best people to surface
- some people hang out with each other outside of work
- there is a fair work-life balance, where people don’t need to take work with them at home too often
- everyone feels treated fairly and equally.
Communication, interpersonal skills, leadership, and problem-solving skills are critical at work. They help us build relationships, manage conflicts, and collaborate more effectively. Employees who possess these skills are more likely to be successful in their roles and progress in their careers faster.
Over the years I’ve worked with people who were great relationship-builders, great communicators, and great people to have around, but were mediocre at their work. Somehow, though, they always seemed to stick around and have a good time; even get promoted.
At the end of the day, beyond our skills, we’re all humans. Hundreds of thousands of years ago your skills mattered too, but if you were not a team player and you weren’t liked by your tribe, you wouldn’t have been around for too long. Knowing how to communicate your ideas, being well-liked, understanding how to manage (or avoid) conflicts, bringing a positive attitude to work, working well with others, and being capable of high-level critical thinking are soft skills that matter more than the speed at which you code or the quality of your spreadsheets.
Here’s what you need to ensure to complete this level:
- are all your employees aware of the importance of soft skills?
- have you mapped your entire team on a matrix of soft skills, so you can see who is lacking where?
- do you actively look to put your team in situations or give them projects where they can improve their soft skills?
- are you using your 1-on-1s to guide each direct report to where and how they need to improve?
- are you fostering a good working environment where people can honestly tell each other how they can improve?
- are you measuring each direct report’s performance using your soft skills matrix?
We might all know where we’re going, the environment can be great, and we can all be good at building relationships and communicating with each other, but if you haven’t got the chops, you’re less likely to thrive. The cherry on top are the technical skills. This is all about having what it takes to do the job.
Some might argue that technical skills are what matters the most and should be at the bottom of the pyramid. To that I say that I’ve seen mediocre people thrive in companies where the goals are clear and the environment is right, and I’ve seen people with amazing technical abilities fail because these aspects were not in place. In my experience, technical skills don’t matter as much – mostly because they can be trained.
Sometimes people will come in at the peak of their abilities, and you can give them clear responsibilities and let them do what they do. Some other times you’ll have to do loads of coaching and up-skilling to bring your people up to speed. Whether you’re the one who’s hired them or not, as a manager it’s your duty to ensure that everyone in the team has what it takes to deliver quality work.
Out of these four aspects, this one is where most managers focus. Your team is struggling? One of your reports is falling behind? You’ve hired someone who didn’t turn out to be as good as you thought? There are solutions and articles written all over the internet for these problems, so there’s no surprise most managers see this aspect as their main responsibility. And sure, it is a big responsibility. But not nearly as important as the rest.
Doing the work well matters. If someone in your team is not carrying their weight, they will, of course, eventually have to find a new job. But what I’ve learned is that if the other three aspects are covered, and especially if someone has good soft skills, they’ll get more time and support to improve technically.
Here’s what’s important in this area:
- is it clear to everyone what their strengths and weaknesses are?
- is the skillset of the entire team mapped out?
- is everyone in your team aware of how they all fit into the puzzle that is the design team?
- is there a clear plan of action for the team members who need to be up-skilled?
- is there support from the company to learn and grow?
- are people being given responsibilities according to their skills?
- are people’s responsibilities stretching them just beyond their comfort zone, to help them grow efficiently?
Today we focus a lot on what someone can do. But building teams that thrive is about much more than just their skills. Learning to do research better, improving your presentation skills, or understanding how to link your design work with the wider business goals – these are all important. But we forget that skilled people only thrive at work and push the company’s mission forward if they stand on top of a strong foundation.
Most managers, most likely you included, need to spend more time building that foundation. I hope this helps you figure out where to start.