The first hard truth of productivity is that you can’t do as much as you think you can.
You can make hundreds of calls a day. You can close dozens of deals. You can write thousands of lines of code. You can recruit dozens of candidates. You feel invincible and immortal in your mind.
But statistically speaking, you are average.
You inflate what you are capable of. You aren’t an outlier. You don’t scale the same way a computer does. You are, alas, a human. It’s easy to ignore median output and assume that you are an incredible exception that works in a flow state, at will, ad infinitum.
But as a human, you have built-in limitations. These limitations are physical, mental, social, and chronological. Until you recognize those limitations, you’ll never feel productive; you’ll always assume that you could be doing more. The first step to being truly productive is to have an honest assessment of what you are realistically capable of doing.
There are limits to what your body is capable of doing–both in one-time activities (e.g. pulling an allnighter), and over weeks, seasons, and years. Your body requires regular, quality sleep to function correctly. You need to eat properly and allow your body to digest the food. You need to maintain your body with regular exercise. You will face the limitation of sickness once or twice a year. Your body will respond negatively to repeated stress. If you travel a lot, that takes an additional toll on how productive you can be.
Think about the times you thought you could just work through the night on a project, skip a meal, or relied on ridiculous amounts of caffeine or other drugs to keep going. What about the seasons when you got so busy that you quit exercising or eating well?
If you were to go back and judge your productivity during those times, you would probably find that you weren’t much more productive than seasons where you treated your body right.
Accepting your physical limitations means acknowledging that these shortcuts are actually detrimental to your productivity.
For most of humanity’s existence, ‘work’ has meant relying on our body and mind working together, whether as a hunter-gatherer or an early farmer. Once the industrial revolution came about, our bodies were no longer a match for the machines. But, we were able to create and move to an enormous amount of jobs that are based mostly only on our brains. In fact, we can be ‘productive’ knowledge workers while letting our bodies rot.
But our brains have limitations. Just like the rest of the body, the brain isn’t meant to work for hours on end; it requires breaks, variety, rest, and maintenance.
When you add in the required breaks, it’s unlikely that you have much more than five or six hours of highly productive mental work in you every day. Sujan Patel, who runs nine companies, admits that he only gets in six hours on a great day. When you try to go beyond that, your work becomes sluggish and you grow increasingly inefficient.
Accepting your mental limitations means acknowledging that you have a limit on how much mental work you can do in a day, and intentionally providing your brain with rest and other activities.
Hopefully, you have people in your life whom you care about. These people will need you from time to time.
You might be the mother or father of young children, or the child of rapidly aging parents, which both require a lot of time and energy. Your spouse needs you to spend time decompressing and talking about the day.
Emergencies happen and you may need to take a trip to the hospital or make a meal for someone. You promised the kids a camping trip over the summer. Your friends plan a week-long fishing expedition.
The truth is we cannot function without these human interactions.
We usually sum up social limitations with the phrase “Life happens.” The more people you know, the more chances that these social limitations will be present in your life. Social limitations are a great reminder that we are much more than our jobs. You shouldn’t feel bad about not hitting your numbers at the office the same week that your cousin got married and you decided to fly out a day early to spend some extra time with family. These are sacred, human events and we shouldn’t look down on them.
In a world that feels infinite, it’s easy to fall into the trap that we think our time here is infinite as well. But we need to constantly be reminded that we have time limits. You only get a certain number of trips around the sun.
Especially if you live in an affluent society where your basic needs are met and you have no concerns about food, water, and shelter, time truly is the main limiting factor in your life. If nothing else, your ability to be productive is directly limited by the number of hours in a day. There’s only so much work that can be packed in. You only get to be the age you are for one year and then you must get older.
Living within your limits
All of these limitations are good, but our first instinct is to deny or minimize all of them. We believe we can push our bodies even further, that doing more work is just a matter of willpower, that we could get so much more done if it weren’t for the people around us, and that somehow our time supply is limitless.
You will never feel like a productive person until you accept the limits of productivity. We’ll talk more about what it means to accept those limits, but the most important starting place is to stop and see yourself for the social human that you are.
The hardest part of achieving productivity is believing you are mortal.
This is how the logic goes in our minds:
Every person who has ever lived on the planet has either died or will die one day
But, I haven’t died yet.
Therefore, I’m probably going to live forever.
In a fractalish way, we apply the same mindset to our time at work.
Every working day so far, I’ve reached a point where I need to stop and can no longer complete any more tasks.
But, I’ve got a lot of things to do today and a pot of coffee.
Therefore, I will get all of them done today.
As humans, we struggle with the concept of time. We seem to experience it as eternal, but we have all these reminders that it isn’t.
So, the secret to being productive (and perhaps to life–oh?) is coming to terms with the importance of time management. You only have a few productive hours to the day. Like 5-6 hours. Superhuman Sujan Patel, who runs 9 companies, says that he’s probably only good for about five hours a day.
Nonsense! You say. I can work easily for 10-12 hours if I must.
Shut up. You are always wrong about this. You get six.
Time is on your side–unless you waste it
At its core, productivity is the intersection between task management and time management. You have a lot of things to get done and you need to find the time to do each one.
You have plenty of time to get your most important tasks done. But if you try to get everything done, you’ll run out of time each day and not have much to show for it. So, if you know the importance of time management, then what you need is a way to make sure that you spend the right amount of time on your most important work every day. Sounds easy, right?
Two people you definitely don’t want to tell you how to spend your time
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have full control over those six hours and it feels like they get mismanaged a lot. Here are the two groups of people that tend to be bad managers of your time.
1. Other people
Your boss, your colleagues, your reportees, Julian in marketing, the birthday planning committee…everyone wants to tell you how to spend your time. But everything goes to hell when you let other people dictate how you spend your time.
Other people think you are twice the immortal they are and have limitless time to get all of their priorities done. If you spend your day accomplishing what other people think you should do, you’ll never get it done and you’ll just feel bad at the end of every day.
As established, you are a bad judge of time. You get distracted. You don’t know how long things will take to get done. You are drawn to all the easy stuff and avoid doing the hard things that have a real impact.
So who else can do it?
The most sacred productivity moment of the day
We must start with the fact that our brain goes through many different states throughout the day. At times we are impulsive and erratic–let’s call it your survival brain. Other times we are thoughtful and wise–or, your focused brain. The survival brain is your default brain state and is in charge most of your day. It takes a lot of work to shift from the survival brain to your focused brain state.
The time that you spend prioritizing tasks should be the most insightful and clear-minded that you will be throughout the day, and when your focused brain should be hard at work. When faced with a list of tasks and specifically asked which ones are the most important, your focused brain is pretty damn good at picking the right ones.
But when given the same list of tasks and addinging in time crunches, messages from other people, numerous distractions, and a noisy open office plan, your survival brain takes over and starts accomplishing whatever seems like the most immediate threat, or the easiest win.
Giving yourself five minutes away from the madness to ask the question “What’s most important?” is often all you need to make the switch from one brain to another, but there’s one point of the day when your focused brain is most likely to show up. For most of us, this comes at the end of the day when we finally come to grips with our mortality and limits as humans.
You think back on the day and ask, “Was it a good day or a bad day?” You imagine a friend or spouse asking how your day went. If you are productivity-minded like me, your answer lies in how many tasks you got done and if you got the big stuff done. If the answer is “It was a good day,” you can probably look back and see that you made progress on your big tasks and you moved forward in key areas. You did a good job matching your tasks to your time.
If you think back and all you can see are small tasks, distractions, meetings that didn’t amount to much, and those same big tasks that you successfully avoided, then you know that you let one of those groups of morons run your day.
It is at this moment that you will naturally make the best decision about how to manage your time tomorrow. You are more clear-minded than you’ll ever be. Your focused brain is in full evaluation mode. Your survival brain doesn’t do well reflecting on the past, so it has taken a back seat. When reflecting at the end of the day, you have the ability to start the next day fresh and either replicate your success, or fix the issues you had before. All the most effective time management strategies boil down to whether or not your focused brain is in charge when it comes time to decide what to do for the day.
The Ivy Lee time management strategy
The story goes that back in 1918, PR consultant Ivy Lee was working with the Bethlehem Steel corporation. When asked for help in improving the productivity of the whole company, he gave this plan to the CEO:
Clearly define your vision and goals.
At the end of the day, write down the six most important tasks to achieve these goals.
Rank these six tasks according to their importance.
At the start of the next day, start with the first task and don’t move on until it is completed. Then move to the next task.
At the end of the day, reassess the priority of any new and uncompleted tasks.
There are two keys to making this method work for you.
First, you do your prioritizing at the end of the day when you are most clear minded about what is important.
Second, when you have to start on your most important task before you do anything else. Before you say hello, before you get your coffee, before you open your computer, before you check your email or messages. Before you do anything, you must give your full attention to the most important thing. Start doing it and don’t stop until you finish it. Then go get a bagel.
If you follow this single time management technique everyday for the rest of your working life, you will have an awesome career. Even if you do a Ivy-lite version and only get 1-2 of your most important tasks done, you’ll still wind up being awesome.
End of the day hygiene
If you really want to take this method seriously, you need to block time for it at the end of your day. You really only need five minutes to do it, but it will make a huge difference.
However, you will need to practice good workspace hygiene if it is going to work well. Many times at the end of the day, you’ve got 10-20 tabs open on your browser of things you abandoned throughout the day. Or papers laying at your desk. If you leave them all up (or out), then when you start the day tomorrow, you’ll immediately get sucked into finishing whatever was up.
Instead, close down all your tabs. Add any lingering tasks to your task management system so you don’t lose them. Then, pull up the tab or paper that has your most important thing to do tomorrow so that you reduce any kind of friction and your focused brain can start right away with nothing in its way.
The importance of time management
If you are serious about getting productive, then you have to be serious about time management. There are lots of effective time management strategies and tips out there, and we’ll explore more of them in the future, but the most important one is who calls the shots. If you leave that to other people or to your survival brain, then you’ll always be disappointed with what you can get done.
Take time management seriously, trust your better brain, and plan your day the night before.
A key step to being productive is to establish your task management system.
One of your limitations as a human is the number of things you can keep in your head at any time. The human brain is capable of remembering lots of things, but we can only keep so many things front and center.
Thoughts about tasks come in and out of our head very lucidly. You get to work first thing in the morning and try to focus on your weekly report. But before that, you have to close down some tabs you have up that remind you that you really need to finish off the slides for a customer demo.
You clean up the slides and start to move back to the report, when a nagging feeling hits you that you are forgetting something. You check your calendar. Shit, is that webinar scheduled for today? You quickly sketch out an outline, but then remember that Andrea had said something insightful in one of your chat groups that you wanted to include. You open up that application, and then all hell breaks loose and that report has no chance of getting done.
This is your brain
This is how our brains are built. We can focus on what we are doing right in the moment until some emergency presents itself and then we have to shift all of our attention. Tasks randomly jump to the top of our consciousness like one of those old school lottery ball machines.
This might have been a good system for the old hunter-gatherer trying to stay alive, but it’s pretty horrible for the modern office worker who has dozens of things to remember and prioritize.
What is a task management system?
A task management system externalizes all of these random thoughts and relieves your brain from having to constantly store and sort them. Instead of being constantly distracted by emergencies and thoughts that pop into your head, you can quickly capture and later sort through them later.
The two essential functions of a task management system
At its core, a task management system must do two things.
Capture and store task reminders
Good productivity recognizes that your best ideas may come to you when you are already being productive at something else. You don’t want to ignore that idea, but you don’t want to indulge it either. You need a tool that can nearly instantly let you take those distractions, and put them in a system where you can organize them later. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.
Ideas come randomly in your head, or from action items at a meeting, or when you are working on something else, or when you are sifting through your communication.
Your task management system is the place where all of these ideas sit in one place. But if it is just a dumping ground of ideas, it’s not enough. You also need to be able to quickly look at all your tasks and arrange them based on their relative importance and urgency so that you get the most important things done first.
Qualities of the best task management systems
You don’t want one list in your email, a bunch of sticky notes on your desk, and then a separate app on your phone to handle your tasks. You need one master system that holds everything.
Let’s face it–some of your best ideas come when you are on the toilet. Or at the park. Or riding in the car. That said, your task management system shouldn’t be exclusively mobile. When it’s actually time to work, you probably don’t want to pull out your phone and risk being distracted.
When sorting through your email, it’s nice to be able to just click a button and have it immediately go to your task management system. Or when you schedule a meeting, for you to have a quick option to assign a task to prepare for it. Or when you are having a discussion online to quickly pull a task out of it. At this point, there are very few systems out there that have this deep of an integration will all your tools, but just having the ability to capture the URL of where that work needs to happen is enough.
Benefits of using a task management system
You know where to go when it’s time to work
When it’s time to sit down and work, you don’t load up your email or messaging app. You look at your task management system and start hitting the big stuff. Work is what happens when you are moving through all of your tasks, not just sitting in your chair.
For me, a great task management system is a centering tool. I can relax knowing that all of my ideas and reminders are safe in one place. When it’s time to work, I don’t have to go through the anxiety of wondering what I should be doing. I know what I need to do and I can sit down and do it. This is especially useful when I hit that afternoon slump and am easily distracted and need something to pull me back in.
Your task management system is the boss
A good portion of what you probably do at work is controlled by other people through meetings, notifications, emails, and more. Another large portion is all of the internal distractions you face. Even if you are focused on a task, your brain is still on high alert mode and aware of other things you could be doing. Like going to finish off that cheesecake in the break room.
So, who is in charge of what you do? Other people? Or your lizard brain?
Instead, when you let a task management system be your boss, i.e. determine what you work on, you get to take advantage of trusting that your higher brain knew what it was doing when it prioritized your tasks.
You make a barrier between communication and getting shit done
Many of us confuse communication with accomplishing tasks. When you are talking with others about work, you are rarely getting tasks done. Communication and dialog is a vital part of work, but it isn’t everything. If most of your day is spent switching between your email and messaging applications, you aren’t likely getting much done.
When you do your communication, it’s like going out to check your mailbox. It’s an important part of the day. But you don’t spend your whole day sitting at the mailbox and continuously checking to see if anything new has come. You visit only a few times, check what’s there, and sort it appropriately. Then you get back to work.
You are already using a task management system
You don’t have to create one or go out and spend a lot of money on technology. You mostly need to decide if the system you are using is a good or bad one and if you can improve it.
Good systems I’ve tried
A piece of paper
There have been seasons when I just take a big piece of paper and write out everything that is top of mind at the start of the day. I might star the things that are top priority and then just work on mowing down the list.
This is my default system when I’m stressed or when I really need to focus, such as right before I start packing for a big international trip. I’ve also used it around the office by just writing down 3-4 of my most important tasks and keeping that by me all day. It’s still my preferred method on weekends when I have a wide variety of tasks to choose from.
The down side of a single piece of paper is that you can lose it, it’s hard to change priorities, and can’t last for more than a few days until you need to make a new one (not always a bad thing to clear it all out and start fresh).
To help with prioritizing things, you can use sticky notes or flags to keep track of tasks. This solves the prioritization issue because it creates a kanban feel where you can move things around.
You get some bulletin board and then write your tasks on the flags and arrange them on the board in order of priority. The flags are really easy to move around (taking drag and drop to a whole new level), and it feels damn good to see a pile of flags sitting there of things you’ve accomplished for the day.
The downside of flags is that they don’t link to your digital tools like email, and you can’t take them with you easily if you are working in a different location for the day.
You make a simple spreadsheet with the name of the task, a column for any links to quickly access the work, and a column to set the priority. If you auto-sort the sheet based on the priority column, you’ve got a nice system that can capture, prioritize, and integrate pretty well.
The downside of spreadsheets is that, well, it’s a spreadsheet, and is destined to make you depressed at some point in your life. The user experience is lacking a lot, and it can be hard to keep a record of everything you’ve done if you are deleting rows.
Everyone’s got some tool they’ve tried at some point. This is where you realize that it is a very personal thing what tool you want to use. I tried to use Evernote at least three separate times. I’m sure people aren’t lying when they say how awesome it is, but I just don’t get it. I used Remember the Milk for a long time with some success. And I’ve tried Todoist and Wunderlist. They are all fine, but usually are just a bit more complex than I want.
I used Google Tasks for a long time and its integration with Gmail was great. But just when they cleaned up the UI, they also forced you to only be able to see the tasks on your desktop when you had your email up, which is horrible for distractions.
Bad systems make you focus on the system, invite distraction, and don’t let you prioritize your most important tasks.
Ever sent yourself an email as a reminder to do something? Stop that. Email is built for distractions and should only be used as a tool for communicating with people outside your company. Do not keep emails in your inbox to remind you to do them later. You are not working when you are going through your email. You are only sorting your communication.
Apps that you fiddle with all the time
It will take 2-3 days to create a new task management system and configure it to your tastes, but after that, you should pretty much never work on it again. If you find yourself constantly messing with it, it’s not a good system for you. Spending time on your task management system itself is not being productive. Don’t be deceived.
Now, get back to work
Having a good task management system is essential to being productive. There are lots of good systems out there, but most of us are stuck using sloppy ones. Be intentional and create your own system that works for you.
“Diversity is getting invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
You may have built a diverse workplace. There may be African-Americans, people from the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and a diverse age range. Great, you’ve hit your diversity goals. Now what?
Do women in your office occupy positions of real power? Can trans people make it through the week without an invasive question? Are there microaggressions when a Muslim steps out of a meeting to pray? Do black folks keep getting complimented for being so well-spoken? Do Latinos get to enjoy their lunch without a Taco Tuesday comment?
Now that you’ve built a diverse team, the real hard work is about to begin.
It’s tempting to think that you can just throw all of your properly proportioned team members into the same room and expect them to suddenly be highly innovative and productive.
But unless you take an inclusive approach to diversity, all you’d done is made the issue worse.
What you have created, my friend, is tokenism, or only hiring these people to avoid criticism and to make it appear that your company treats everyone fairly.
The diversity you have created doesn’t mean much if your staff doesn’t practice inclusion. Moe Carrick, founder of Moementum, Inc. says diversity is the mix while inclusion is what you do with the mix. So, how do you create an inclusive environment that brings out the beauty and power of our differences?
There’s good and bad news.
The bad news is you can’t do it in a day. Or in a week. Or a year. It’s not that easy. You can not root hundreds of years of discrimination with a half-day diversity training program. There are people who devote their entire careers to this and look back to realize everything moved a few inches.
The good news is that if you, as a leader, can bring about a change in the mindset of your employees. It’s a long and difficult road, but you can get there. You can lead by example and make your employees see that we must acknowledge our differences and treat each other with dignity.
Bring your bias to the dais
As a team leader or functional head, the onus of instilling an inclusive culture in your team falls on you. And guess what, you have a ton of bias just sitting inside you. Take a look at any of Harvard’s implicit bias tests if you need proof.
The absolute best thing to do first is to call out your own biases and name them. When biases go unnamed, they keep the power. They love to lurk in the darkness and are easy to deny. Instead, when we bring them out in the open, they don’t seem so insipid.
Lead by example and others on your team will be more comfortable to be open with their biases.
Stop using the phrase “culture fit”
The norms of power and the embedded rewarding system in most organizations are directed at people who ‘fit’. In our interview with Leron L. Barton, he said:
I just thought back to whenever I would interview at a company or tech firm, they would always stress culture fit. “Well, you have to fit the culture here. We have a certain work culture here. Or our culture at this company is blah, blah, blah.” And so, I just found that that was a new way to discriminate against people and block them from saying, “Oh, well, yes, on paper, he or she was fantastic. But they didn’t really fit the work culture.”
It’s a dangerous word because it can exclude. It’s usually code for “you’re not like us”. It stops managers from hiring people who are different from themselves. It stops people from fraternizing with their coworkers.
Pay close attention during your meetings
Meeting behavior tells you everything you need to know about inclusion–whose voice is heard and who gets interrupted, who speaks the last word, and how the dominant group responds to an outlandish idea.
It’s highly likely that white males dominate the meeting and women and people of different races do not get their due credit. Whose ideas are discredited? Who forces everyone to listen? Who summarizes other people’s thoughts?
If you notice these subtle behaviors and microaggressions, then you know your workplace needs a dose of inclusion. Establish clear meeting policies that allow people to participate freely and amplify the voices of women and other marginalized communities. Experiment with appointing a leader to keep the meeting on track, someone who isn’t the usual person in charge. Ensure that people don’t interrupt each other and give credit to the original idea creators.
Hand over the power
It’s tempting to want to take charge of this and every conversation regarding inclusion. But the best thing you can do is to give up as much power as possible. Who plans your holiday celebrations? Who gets the final say for decorations and art around the office? Who plans the company offsites? Even if you try to be a benevolent privileged group, it isn’t the same as turning over full power and authority to people from marginalized communities.
Be a good human
There’s no point in having extra seats for marginalized people at the table if they don’t feel like they belong there. Adding to what Verna Myers said, belonging is dancing like no one is watching.
Human things like sitting down and listening, asking for someone’s opinion, making eye contact, and giving genuine appreciation are always appropriate.
Over to you
The topic of diversity and inclusion is broad and extensive and it’s a massive challenge we all need to tackle to create a better workplace for everyone. Hiring goals are the first step an inclusive environment but this won’t automatically create one.
Inclusion is not a one-off thing but it’s an ongoing process. It’s close to impossible to teach employees how to be inclusive because it requires them to identify unconscious biases, put emphasis on key moments, build new habits, and be a good ally. Take the first step today!
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
The first time I heard the word “ally” in the Diversity and Inclusion topic was on Jennifer Brown’s episode of the WorkMinus podcast. I was pretty intrigued by this word because I knew its conventional meaning yet I had no idea what it meant in this context.
“So, I can have a conversation with others to educate them and remove the burden of having to do that all the time from people who are transgender. It’s something that I can show my allyship in.”
Having spent almost all of my life in India, a country where I feel like people only look out for themselves, I found the concept of allyship interesting and important. It’s something we need to talk about often. And a lot more.
Who is an ally?
An ally is someone from a privileged group who actively promotes and aspires to support people from marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ people and black folks. Allies use their privilege to bring awareness to these issues and create opportunities for those put at a disadvantage.
A straight ally is someone who stands up against prejudices against members of the LGBTQ+ community and a white ally is someone who opposes racism against people of different ethnicities.
Allies and world wars
My love for history makes me think about the world wars when I hear the word ‘ally’. I find it quite interesting because, we’re still talking about war–a war on racism, misogyny, bigotry, and all other ugly things that are wrong with our world. And, the allies play an important role in fighting these spiteful elements.
Being an ally means not just standing up against discrimination but acknowledging that you may be contributing to the problem as well. It is important to become aware of these unconscious biases and make efforts to address and eliminate these prejudices.
[Read how Neil caught himself doing this during an interview with LeRon L. Barton.]
Anyone can be an ally
The most important thing about allyship is that you’re not really an ally until someone from a marginalized group recognizes you as one. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to be an ally to a marginalized community.
Allyship is an ongoing process of connecting with disenfranchised and discriminated communities. It’s building a relationship that’s based on mutual trust and respect. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow with people that you normally wouldn’t while creating the world a little bit better for everyone than what it was yesterday.
How can you help?
You don’t have to be in a position of power to be an ally. You might be from an underrepresented group and still be an ally. For example, take a white woman and woman of color. Even though they both face the same problems, one group faces an additional disadvantage because of their race.
Understand your privilege
The first step to being an ally is understanding your privilege. What that means is that there are some things in life that you have never experienced or will never experience just because of who you are. Here’s an example. There are 17 states in the US where you can legally be fired on grounds of your sexual orientation. If you’re a straight person, you’ll never have to think about it.
Before you can fight for the rights of others, understand what privileges you hold that others don’t.
Even the marginalized may have some levels of privilege. This is called intersectionality. You can use this privilege to use your voice for others. As a black male, you can do more for the black members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Listen to people
Hundreds of people share their stories every day on the internet. Start reading tweets, blogs, and news articles and get caught up on the issues that the marginalized communities face. Only once you’ve done your homework and have a thorough understanding of the issues that are important to them, you can take meaningful actions.
Speak for them when they’re not in the room
Being an ally is about integrity. It’s about doing the right thing even when no one’s looking. To be a good ally, use your position of power to voice for those not in the room. This includes calling out blatant things like racists comments. But it is even more important for microaggressions and things that are easy to sweep under the rug.
Speak up but don’t speak over
A good ally knows when to shut up.
An ally’s job is to support; to make use of privilege and voice to promote and say great things about the community members. But, make sure that you say it in a way that does not speak over them or take credit for what they already have been saying.
Being an ally doesn’t make you a part of the group you’re trying to support. If you help your friend build a house, it doesn’t mean you get to live in it.
Being an ally is more important than saying that you’re an ally
Being an ally is neither a self-proclaimed title nor a passive statement. Writing monthly checks to a non-profit is not the same as being an ally.
Being a true ally is a state of mind. It is being proactive, brave, uncompromising, and not being afraid to use your voice. Even though you can’t walk in their shoes, you can acknowledge the difficult road the marginalized had to travel. You can support them and stand up for them when their world is being carelessly tossed around by the privileged few.
I know I can’t fight discrimination everywhere or call out every bad joke. But, I can be an ally to my LGBTQ+ friends and wipe the happy tears off their cheeks when section 377 was abrogated in India. I can listen to them and understand them while they know that they will not be judged for anything they say.
I can’t be sure where my journey to be a better ally will lead, but it’s definitely a path that will change me for the better.
Diversity consciousness in the corporate world has come a long way. In recent history, countries have had laws in place that actually protected the rights of employers to not hire people from different backgrounds.
The definitions of diversity have also evolved. What was once limited to race and sex has been expanded to physical ableness, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious beliefs, native language, economic background, and much more.
Real inclusion or splashy PR?
Celebrating diversity (at least on the surface) is a part of today’s company culture. From celebrating gay pride month to publishing internal diversity reports, many organizations across the world claim diversity as a core value.
But splashy PR efforts and real commitment to diversity are two different things.
The first place where you can tell if a company is serious about diversity is to see how they recruit and hire.
What is diversity recruiting and hiring?
Diversity recruitment happens when organizations put emphasis on hiring from a diverse pool of candidates and have procedures in place to make decisions free from bias based on age, sexuality, gender, religion and other characteristics that are unrelated to the job seeker’s performance.
Most organizations assume you should hire the most qualified candidate. While this may seem like the right thing to do, it will not help your team, as a whole, in the long run. Think of it like choosing a software stack for your company. What may be the best solution for each individual problem may not leave you with the right overall software stack. As Melissa and Jonathan Nightingale say, it’s not about hiring the best person, but building the best team.
Why diversity recruiting should be your top priority
Building a diverse culture is a lot more important than compliance or just being able to say, “We are an equal opportunity employer.” It’s not just an item to be checked off on your list. It’s a mentality that needs to be ingrained in your organization’s psyche.
Diverse teams consistently outperform homogeneous groups. Each person in a diverse team has been exposed to radically different ideas and has a wide range of experience and skills. When surrounded by people who are similar in one or more ways, it’s easy to slip into groupthink and not question things. But when a team is made of people who bring a variety of perspectives and insights, they think harder about their decisions, leading to better decisions.
9 tips to better diversity recruiting
Talent acquisition teams are becoming more and more sensitive to diversity hiring. In a study by Ideal, 57 percent of respondents said they have a recruiting strategy in place to attract diverse talent. You could start with something as simple as changing the language you use in your job posting. Every step you take toward diversity recruiting is one step closer to a more diverse workforce.
Here are a few things you can start doing right now to help you with your recruitment process:
Tweak your policies
Start by creating a company culture that promotes diversity and inclusion. Where might you be able to change your policies to demonstrate more open-mindedness? Gender-neutral restrooms? Private nursing areas? Flexible time off for religious holidays?
You will likely not be able to spot all the issues with your current policies. Instead, ask people from different groups to look over them and point out areas you can improve.
Also, don’t create a separate section of your handbook that says, “These are policies about diversity.” That makes it seem like you view it as a separate problem. Having nursing areas and respecting other religions are just part of working, not a quarantined-off section that is just for diversity.
Establish key metrics
Once you’ve reviewed your policies, you need to decide on key metrics that reflect your diversity hiring goals and to evaluate if your strategies were successful. The overall minority representation (especially in leadership roles), the number of diverse candidates recruited, their retention rate, and pay disparity are a good place to start.
Having actual numbers in place is a good way to judge how effective you were at your efforts. But remember Goodhart’s Law: as soon as you focus on achieving a particular metric, it no longer becomes a valid metric.
The goal is a more diverse and inclusive space. Numbers can be a good indicator of that, but they are only a proxy. If you only chase the numbers, you will often miss out on the bigger goal.
Widen your talent pool
Employee referrals are the top source of potential candidates. However, if your employee base is pretty homogeneous, your referral network is likely the same. When your talent pool looks exactly like your existing workforce, you don’t have much hope of becoming more diverse organically.
Companies need to actively seek and hire candidates from different sources. There is usually some representation of the marginalized community in an applicant pool, but you want to increase the numbers. Try recruiting at colleges with a diverse mix of students and posting to unique job boards dedicated to a marginalized group.
Let candidates know you value diversity
A diverse workplace is one of the key things millennial candidates look for when considering a job offer. You want to be public about your commitment to diversity, without making people think you are pursuing them out of a sense of tokenism. You must find a balance between the indirect, “We think you have a unique perspective,” and the direct, “We really want to have a gay Latino man on this project to help us think through everything.”
Most of this is accomplished by being genuine and humble, and always willing to listen and be corrected.
The first step to moving beyond biases is to admit that you have them. You can’t make it to 21 without having some firm impressions about groups of people–some you’ve met, and many you haven’t.
Being honest about stereotypes and speaking them can be powerful to externalize them and then you can work against them. Imagine looking at two resumes, one belongs to a young black woman from Mississippi State and the other belongs to a white male from Stanford. Acknowledging the natural biases that you have openly with others can be a great way to disarm the situation rather than trying to skirt around the elephant in the room.
Experiment with blind screening
There was an experiment conducted by Stanford where the same resume but with different names was handed to a number of scientists. The “male” was perceived to be more competent despite every other piece of information on the resume was identical, indicating an implicit gender bias. Try to redact the names and photographs on resumes and proceed with the usual screening process.
While these are some common biases, there are many hidden ones such as the names of the universities and former companies. Relying on these signals is being complicit in systemic systems that keep marginalized people out of these places.
Find a way to assess abilities that don’t necessarily have to do with these factors. Alternatively, you can use technology to automatically screen candidates to help you succeed in your diversity recruiting strategies.
Have a diverse interview panel
When your hiring managers are diverse themselves, they bring a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. This balanced panel brings out unique exchanges and makes the candidate feel more comfortable and perform better.
After requiring at least two women or members of underrepresented communities in their panel for any new hire, Intel saw a 41 percent rise in women and employees of color in just two years.
However, this alone doesn’t fix things. You can’t just add a Japanese man to the hiring team and then claim that all hiring decisions are anti-discriminatory.
Consider offering remote work
Opening the doors to remote work automatically exposes to candidates from hard Siberian ice to sunny Florida beaches. If you don’t have a culture of remote employees, start with one team and experiment with policies and tracking results. Mike Knoop from Zapier says, “It’s very difficult to add one or two people remote because the culture of the office is not often set up to support it. The best thing to do here is really taking a bigger stake than just one person.”
Bring underprivileged people to leadership roles
It’s not enough to just focus on entry-level recruiting. If all you are doing is adding diverse people to the bottom of your organization, it may be decades before they take on senior leadership roles (if they last in your culture) and bring about a balance in power. You need to think about inserting people at high levels, bringing in diverse consultants and agencies, and bringing on diverse board members.
Toward a more inclusive workplace
Diversity recruiting and hiring is a good beginning, but you can’t stop there. Just because you hire diverse people doesn’t mean they will feel welcome and stay. If the atmosphere is toxic and you don’t prepare others for a more diverse workforce, your new hires may leave, and those from the majority culture who stay get to add the word ‘uncommitted’ to their stereotypes.
Have the diversity discussion with everyone in your company long before you start bringing people in.
Diverse candidates bring a broader skillset and experience, increase cultural awareness, and are a perpetual source of diverse talent pools. Taking the first step towards diversity hiring can lead you to starting a more inclusive workplace.
If you have more tips or have a story to share, tweet to us @workminus. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
I get scared when I think about the future of work.
It’s not because our AI overlords will create a dystopian future. It’s not because most of us will be living on the streets and the disparity gap will only grow deeper (though both of those are possible).
As automation continues to advance and more tasks are handled by systems and machines, humans will move from doing all the work to doing just a certain part of it.
But this shouldn’t scare us–humans have a lot to offer a world where machines handle computations, monotonous work, and programmable tasks. Humans can be insightful, finding ideas in the smallest of patterns. We can be bold, taking risks even when the odds are against us. We can be compassionate, looking out for others and seeing ourselves in them. We can be artistic, creating something that impacts others on a very deep level.
The reason I’m scared about the future is that very little about the current state of work is preparing us to fill those roles.
The nature of work we’ve inherited teaches us to stick to the playbook, play it safe, crunch the numbers, and keep to what’s worked in the past. In a word–be robotic. Our current system of management sees people largely as dumb and stupid; people need to be programmed, overseen, monitored, scaled up, etc. How can we get more out of these people? We’ve been taught to treat people like machines and it hasn’t gone well. Now that we actually have machines to work with, how will we change our ways?
When systems quickly become better than us at these tasks, what are we going to offer? What will we do if we haven’t prepared ourselves to be great humans?
WorkMinus is a place where we take a hard look at the business world and pick out the things that aren’t helping us anymore. Attitudes, mindsets, and artifacts from the past that aren’t going to get to a future where we need to be more human.
It’s not easy to make these changes. It requires people who have authority in the world of work to make bold, progressive moves. We need to experiment with new ideas and share the results with others.
We’ve identified six core areas we’ll be focusing on:
Leadership isn’t telling someone what to do. Robots can do that.
Less than 4 out of 10 people who are promoted to the position of manager actually have the skill set needed to manage other people well. And being good at your last job isn’t enough. Enough ink has been spilled on being a leader, but we still mostly interpret leadership as a power trip. Humans who lead other humans must have high levels of empathy, understanding, accountability, and more to motivate and encourage those they are leading.
Productivity isn’t getting lots of tasks done. Robots can do that.
It’s a trap to believe that the secret to doing great work is to get more stuff done. We stress about finding new ways to write one more social media post or turn out one more widget. But robots are going to beat us at that game every time. Instead, we need to get better at prioritizing the work we have and focusing on the tasks like building systems that scale our productivity. We also need to redefine productivity to include highly human tasks like spending time with children.
Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity isn’t about filling quotas. Robots can do that.
Part of being very human at work is being aware of our personal flaws and the mistakes our parents and grandparents have made in how we treat one another. We are living in an age when many marginalized groups have been kept out of the spoils of capitalism for so long that it won’t correct itself unless we make big changes. This is about recognizing the different narratives we live in, and also meeting universal needs for acceptance and dignity.
Remote work isn’t about working from anywhere. Robots can do that.
Building a better workspace is about redefining what it means to be at work and at home. How can the places we work fit us better and make us healthier rather than drain our energy? How do we build community across generations? How do we respect the environment and reduce travel while still have more face-to-face interactions?
AI and Automation
AI isn’t about using the latest technology. Robots can do that.
Questions about AI and advanced automation will fundamentally change the entire scope of the workforce. It is already happening slowly all around us. Questions around how to use this powerful technology need to be answered quickly. The ethics of a few people may be frozen into algorithms very soon. Are we morally at the place we want to be for that?
Culture isn’t about printing clever t-shirts. Robots can do that.
Office culture includes all the politics, attitude, communication style, decision-making, and relationships. Most office cultures are toxic to the point where people feel horrible for a large chunk of the day. How can we improve our interactions, trust each other more, and build office cultures that are positive and encouraging toward others?
Can we get there?
We’ve got a lot of baggage. If we don’t unlearn a lot of stuff fast, we’ve got bigger problems than we will be able to handle.
Join us as we try to pinpoint the worst parts of work and refocus our efforts on building up those skills that will help us work more like humans.
The best way to stay up with us is to subscribe to our newsletter, where we’ll send you a roundup of the best (or the worst?) in work.
People respond to the topic of diversity in the workplace in different ways:
Are we seriously still talking about this? Just hire the best person for the job.
Oh yeah, diversity is a great thing. My team isn’t really diverse right now, but we’ll definitely hire someone if they fit into our culture.
I have actually listened to and know someone from a marginalized group and see the systemic problems, but I can only do so much.
Diversity is the be all end all of corporate practice.
This article is for people who find themselves somewhere around 2 and 3.
Setting it straight
We live in the most interconnected era in history. Humans have never been more mobile or interconnected. With remote working options, organizations can now hire people regardless of where they live. Diversity is a part of our lives and it’s not changing anytime soon.
However, that doesn’t mean that diversity at your organization happens automatically. While rarely intentional, many companies have invisible or unspoken barriers that prevent them from welcoming a diverse set of people.
On top of that, diversity is only really about demographic information. The deeper topic is inclusion, or how welcome diverse people feel at your organization. Diversity recognizes that people are different; inclusion says that we can treat people the same regardless of those differences. Or, as Vernā Myers says, “Diversity is getting invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Why we are still talking about diversity in Workplace
From a business perspective, diversity and inclusion are very important topics.
Most of these benefits come from the fact that when you are surrounded by people who are just like you, it’s easy to slip into group thinking and not question things. Homogenized groups get comfortable and feel like they perform better, but really don’t. But when a team is made of people with a variety of perspectives, they think harder about their decisions and lead to better results.
2. Talent wars
Companies are taking diversity and inclusion in worplace seriously because it is getting harder to find highly skilled talent. Your hiring practices may unintentionally be hurting you by not exposing you to a more diverse talent pool, limiting the number of applicants you interact with. Much of the younger workforce, even from privileged groups, value working in diverse places and may pass on your company if you haven’t established a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
3. Social change
If you believe in equality and equity for marginalized groups, and want to see some real progress, it doesn’t happen with a national apology, a holiday, a monument, or a lesson in history class. Things become more equitable when marginalized people get power and money, both of which happen first at the workplace. If you are in a position where you can give influence, power, or money to a person from a marginalized community, you will be doing the absolute most practical thing towards creating a more equitable world.
Conversations about diversity involve at least two groups: the privileged, and the marginalized. Over many millennia, we’ve built up a lot of social baggage where one group tends to get the advantages and the other(s) have to survive on what is left. Here are a few of the ways that diversity can be represented.
Gender is also a quickly evolving topic. Take a look at the dropdown menu for a recent tech conference:
Sexual orientation. Society is slowly accepting the broader and fuzzier definitions of someone’s sexuality to a point where more people are open about their preferences and expect it to not stigmatize them at the office.
Race and ethnicity. Official US government forms minimally require these major race and ethnic groups to be included: American Indian, Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian, White, and Latino. However, there are thousands of racial and ethnic groups around the world, and just looking at broad groups is limiting.
Nationality. This refers to the passport the person holds, which may or may not be a good indicator of their native culture.
Native language. The mother tongue is the language people grew up with, or the one they use to curse someone under their breath.
Religion. While a choice for most people, religion is often a strong indicator of someone’s heritage and home culture.
Age/Life stage. Many industries get criticized for only hiring young graduates and letting go of older workers. Also, certain stages (parents of young children, caregivers for older adults) often require more time at home, restricting the ability to attend social events where team bonding happens.
Economic background. Many companies unintentionally create class differences and don’t have anyone in leadership who grew up from a disadvantaged family.
Education. Degrees and the universities they come from are often unnecessarily used as a gatekeeper to get a position.
Mental and physical disabilities. These groups have always had to face an uphill battle in the office and are often excluded from roles and teams.
Take a moment to evaluate your company (and separately, your leadership) based on these parameters. Where do you have a lot of diversity and where do you have none?
Feeling overwhelmed? This isn’t a checklist that you need to complete in order for your company to qualify as ‘diverse’. While demographic data is a good indicator of action, it starts with the attitude. Where do you have subtle biases? Where do you need to question your assumptions and explore with more empathy.
As a whole, organizations cannot prioritize every area of diversity. Many organizations publicly commit to gender or racial diversity, but other areas are also important and may be easier to start with. Building an inclusive mindset opens you up to many different types of diversity.
Pardon me, your unconscious bias is showing
While overt diversity barriers are usually unlawful, your company probably has a lot of inclusion barriers you don’t recognize that prevent you from attracting and keeping the best people. Rather than deny that you have a problem, it’s better to examine areas where you have unintentionally exclusive practices.
Employee referrals are by far the top source of potential candidates. But most people are likely to refer people from their network, which tends to be pretty homogenous. Establishing quotas for recruiting doesn’t always help because many of the types of diversity are either very difficult (Did you grow up poor?) or illegal (What is your sexual orientation?) to ask. Yet, when your talent pool looks exactly like your existing workforce, you aren’t likely to solve the diversity problem anytime soon.
Most organizations assume that you should just hire the most qualified candidate. This is similar to a best-of-breed approach in IT where you select the best software solution for each individual problem. But as any IT administrator can tell you, this doesn’t always leave you with the best overall software stack. Also, using terms like “culture fit” is often code for just “Is this person like the rest of us?”
3. Day-to-day in the office
Even if you hire people who make your office more diverse, if they don’t feel welcome, they will quickly leave. Much of diversity is seen as an HR problem, but inclusion is an everyone problem. What kind of humor is considered ok to use? Are microaggressions ignored? Do you only celebrate women in the office on International Women’s Day? How much does mansplaining happen in meetings? Who gets picked to travel and represent the organization? Who is asked to work late/extra?
4. Fraternizing outside the office
A true test of inclusion is what people do outside the office. What time do people get together? Do you always meet at a bar? Does it usually have to do with sports? Who gets invited? Is it always in the same part of town?
5. Performance Reviews/Promotions/Salaries
Much of diversity and inclusion is seen in who gets promoted and paid more. This starts with performance reviews where gendered language is common. (E.g. men “take charge” while women are “aggressive”.) The pay gap is also real–those from privileged backgrounds know there is less risk if they fail and ask for more money.
6. Existing leadership
Many organizations can talk a big diversity game, but at the top, they are mostly monocultural. Taking a hard look at board members and CXOs (not including the token Chief Diversity Officer) is an accurate read on how committed the organization is to diversity and inclusion. Homogenized leadership teams will move much slower.
The true signal for inclusion
Like others, Dr. Patti Fletcher notes the difference between equality and equity. Equality means seeing all groups (whether privileged or marginalized) with the same value. That’s a good place to start, but it doesn’t change anything. Equity means that marginalized people share a proportionate piece of the profit, power, and privilege.
Most privileged people are willing to give lip service to diversity and inclusion. The vast majority of white men in leadership and board positions don’t think they are inherently more valuable, but very few of them are willing to step down and be the first to actively share in the privilege that helped them get where they are.
The World Economic Forum estimates that at our current pace, it will take 217 years just for true gender equity in the workplace, and gender is much more advanced than many other types of diversity. This is not a problem that is solved by laws, but by those in privilege who are willing to step aside, share the spoils, and become an ally.
Being an ally
Allies are people who recognize they are in a position of privilege and are willing to leverage that on behalf of a marginalized group. Being an ally is a trendy thing, but the actual practice is requires a lot more than an occasional retweet. Let’s start with what allies don’t do.
Don’t be in the closet. Fake allies notice microaggressions or go to someone in a marginalized group and say things like, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Real allies are not afraid to publicly align themselves with a particular group. This can mean anything from attending rallies to speaking in an office setting when you notice exclusive behavior.
Don’t wait for the facts. Responding to white responses after a wave of police shootings, speaker Sam Collier said, “Black people are very communal in nature…If I come around the corner and see you in a fight, I’m jumping in the fight. After the fight is over, I’m going to pull you aside and say, ‘Why are we fighting?” Many marginalized groups are equally communal and require you to risk your reputation on their behalf.
Don’t expect them to fix it. Those in privilege often say, “Tell me how to fix this.” This makes the marginalized group responsible to come up with answers. If they don’t have executable, ‘realistic’ ideas, the privileged group is off the hook. Those with privilege can say things like, “I’m going to do this, what do you think about that?”
Don’t claim a group. Jennifer Brown reminds us that, “You’re really not an ally until someone in a marginalized group identifies you as such and kind of thanks you for being that.” Wait to be acknowledged by a group before saying how much you’ve done (or plan to do) for them.
12 actionable ideas for diversity and inclusion in Workplace
Building a better workplace requires everyone’s participation, but the onus lies mostly on those with privilege. Here are ideas on how to wield your power effectively.
1. Be aware of the power you have. The best starting point is admitting that you have privilege and that you benefit from it. You may not have asked for it, but it is there. No one is asking you to feel bad about it, but acknowledge it and recognize its effect in your life.
2. Be honest about the problem. You need some baseline metrics to see where your team is with diversity and inclusion. You can start with some general demographic information that is most important to you. Use a tool like Crescendo to reveal biased language. Have someone document microaggressions, talk-to-listen ratio, how often someone gets their words summarized or ‘translated’, and who speaks last in a meeting.
3. Commit to making a change. Awareness and metrics aren’t enough to turn this huge ship. 92 percent of companies said a diversity and inclusion strategy was important to them, yet only 33 percent had documented plan. This is hard to do. Companies like Google and The New York Times have publicly shared their diversity stats and spent lots of money on programs to increase, and yet, their progress has been fairly marginal.
4. Start conversations now. If your company doesn’t have a current culture of diversity and inclusion, you need to prepare people for it. Start conversations and point out areas where privilege is apparent. Forcing diversity efforts without conversations often backfires, creating a hostile work environment.
5. Don’t offload this to HR. Diversity and inclusion is not just HR’s issue to solve–the issue is everyone’s. If you are in marketing, what images and skin tones dominate your visual advertising? If you are in sales, which people get to travel or go to conferences to be the ‘face’ of the company? You may think you don’t have the power to change things just because you don’t have the final say in hiring, but you have a lot of influence.
6. Start with your personal network. This advice from Amy Waninger is perhaps the best takeaway of this list. Company policies and practices take a long time to change, but you have immediate control over your personal network. People naturally want to help those in their network, and if your entire network is made of people who are just like you, nothing changes. If you’ve intentionally built a diverse network, you will be eager to help people from many walks of life. Check out Amy’s book, Network Beyond Bias, for more ideas.
7. Recruit in new places. If you have influence in recruiting, there are a lot of simple ways to expand the kind of diversity you are attracting. Consider going to job fairs, college campuses, advertising in newspapers/radio stations and websites where people from different backgrounds come from.
8. Build the best team, don’t hire the best person. As mentioned before, opting for a “best-of-breed” strategy where you only look at qualifications alone isn’t always the right solution when hiring. Sometimes you need to intentionally bring in someone to a learnable position who doesn’t have all the pedigree because you know their experience will round out your team better.
9. Review your written policies. This is a big effort and usually involves asking around for best practices. Here are just a few areas where you can review (or write!) policies :
Benefits you provide–have you excluded a certain group?
Thoughtful (we thought this would benefit people) vs. reasonable (we are required by law to do this) accommodations
Religious accommodations (diet, prayer times, holy days, dress)
Floating Holiday schedules
Flexible office hours for primary caregivers
10. After-work get togethers. Think about where people usually meet up. When do office parties happen? Who gets invited? These shouldn’t be regulated with policies, but should be flexible and allow most people to participate.
11. Fast vs. slow change. Lateral leadership hires are often a tough way to inject diversity, as these positions require someone to know the industry and culture well. But if you start today hiring diverse people only at entry-level positions it can take decades to make an impact. Consider other areas such as board members, consultants, marketing agencies, and speakers where you can create an immediate change.
12. Be ready for issues. Bringing in diverse people often leads to more conflict initially if people aren’t used to being challenged. Even if privileged team members seem open to written inclusive practices, putting them into practice is much harder. Get people working together on a common goal as soon as possible and keep communication open (see: any sports movie ever made).
If you are in a marginalized group, admittedly nothing will likely change without the actions of someone in power. But that doesn’t mean you should stop speaking up and asking to be heard as this often bring the issues to the public awareness. And also recognize that most people exist in both privileged and marginalized groups, depending on the type of diversity, and can still find a way to be an ally of other groups.
Towards a more inclusive workplace
Building a diverse and inclusive workplace is not just about altruism, but has now become sound business. But these practices don’t happen overnight. The biggest companies in the world struggle with these issues despite huge budgets and training. Start with your own team and pick a few actionable ways that you can encourage diversity and inclusion in the area you have the most influence.