Podcast  /  Work Minus Barely Hanging on with David Burkus

Work Minus Barely Hanging on with David Burkus

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20% of people are actively engaged in their work, and another 20% are actively disengaged. Everyone else is barely hanging on, just working for the paycheck. But there are a lot of intuitive and straightforward ways you can change that.

Start with your office policies. If they were set up to deal with the exceptions, they most likely aren't helping anyone.

How managers lead is another key component. Expecting your team to solve all their own problems is a bad way to manage.

David Burkus has 99 ways to make the world of work better, but better policies ain't one.

What we learned from this episode

What policy creep is and how to stop it

Why the best policy may be the one that eliminates an old policy

The difference between standards and policies

If only 25% of the stuff at your office drives you crazy, you are doing ok.

When someone is underperforming, 85% of the time, it's a systemic issue

Why "come to me with answers not complaints" isn't the best management advice

A super-secret trick to see if you really need to do a boring part of your job

What you should do before you quit your job

What you can do right now

Find a policy to kill

Encourage your team to come to you with problems that you can solve as a group

Stop doing something you hate and see if anyone notices

Key Quotes "I was looking at lots of great workplace practices and policies and I came into this realization that most of them were policies of actually eliminating prior policies. There had been something and it was blocking people from doing their best work or socializing with their peers the way they were supposed to and it was the team leader or even the senior leader or the founder of the company that stepped in and said, 'You know what? Actually, let's pull that out because it's clearly causing problems.’”

Today, our guest is David Burkus. He’s the author of three books, including the recent “Friend of a Friend,” and this is Work Minus Barely Hanging On. Hi, David. How are you?

I’m good. Thank you so much for having me.

Very excited to have you on. You’ve got a lot to talk about, a lot of different things, but why don’t you start off just giving us a little bit about yourself and why we should be listening to you today?

Well, I don’t know that I can answer to why you should listen to me part, but I mean, the real topline version is I’m the author of three books, father of two kids, husband to one wife. I’d like to keep it all that way except maybe a few more books. And at the core of all of those books is an idea that we have a wealth of research into human behavior, social science research on how humans act, how differently they act than what we expect, and all of those sorts of things. And yet, a lot of it stays locked in the ivory tower for no reason other than translation. It’s jargon filled. It’s full of all sorts of stuff that people don’t understand. It takes forever to explain to somebody what a P value means but there’s a giant debate in science about P value. Most leaders, most managers don’t need any of that. What they need is a distillation of here is the core idea and what it means for your world of work. So, the thing I always say is I’m trying to get great ideas out of the ivory tower and into the corner office, the coffee shop, the coworking space, wherever work gets done.

But you yourself are an associate professor. Explain that.

Yeah. I know. I somehow found myself in said ivory tower. The long version of my story is I went to undergrad knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re 17, 18 years old, all you think about is fiction. The world of nonfiction to you is just textbooks so you’re not even aware of it. And then as I was learning and reading and reading all sorts of stuff, I found several social science writers that were brilliant in distilling the research but were also amazing storytellers. These are people like Malcolm Gladwell, the Heath brothers, Daniel Pink, etc. All of these people are are brilliant and they blend that gap and that was, for lack of a better term, lightbulb moment for me that, like, wow. This is really meaningful because you can use good storytelling to prove a point and to help people figure out how to work better but also it’s not just your opinion about junk. It’s actually well-steeped in research. This is what we actually know. And so, that lead to graduate school to study the social science part because I had already studied the writing part and then ironically a bunch of different things happened and I was asked by my own alma mater, I went to undergrad at ORU to adjunct teach a couple of classes because they had a bit of a shortage and then gradually that turned into a full-time position. And it’s a great job to then launch a series of books and all of that from. But it was entirely accidental. I thought I would work and be a barely hanging on corporate employee for 20 years before I had enough cash in the bank to try this whole writer thing. Turned out it was a little bit different than that. But the goal is still the same. So, now, it’s almost even easier to take good ideas out of the ivory tower and put them in the corner office because I have a presence in both.

Themes of your book, creativity, management, networking. If you were just asked to speak on any topic, what’s your go-to thing? What do you like the most?

So, that’s a really hard question to answer. I will tell you the most requested topics are generally from the second book, which is “Under New Management,” because it’s directly about workplace matters. But I think the networking book is actually more important. I get a little more energized if I get a choice when I’m speaking at a conference or organization, etc. I want to work that in and the reason is quite simply that humans exist in networks. We think that networking means going to cocktail parties, meeting total strangers. We think it’s something you only do when you’re trying to change jobs. Or if you’re in sales, you’re trying to do all the time. But in reality, that awareness that my organization is a network, that my team is a part of a larger network, even the organization is embedded in a larger network of the industry, these are important insights for anyone to cope with. And then the book itself teaches you knowing that that is true, here’s how networks work so you can figure out where you are in that network and where you need to be. And I find that topic fascinating and also a realization that a lot of people don’t have. Like I said, a lot of people think networking just means those two things, finding a job or selling. And make no mistake, a lot of people also think it’s an incredibly negative thing for that reason. But it’s way bigger than that.

Yeah. Absolutely. We had a guest on that was talking about networking and when we were talking about diversity and inclusion. I feel like it’s one of those underdeveloped topics for sure. I mean, there’s a lot out there about management, there’s a lot about creativity. Obviously we can always come with new things. But networking really should be more discussed.

And in this world, there are two types of books. There are what I call the fascinating books and then the advice books. The fascinating books are attempts by the actual researchers that have studied networks. So, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler or Duncan Watts or all these people are brilliant and their books are fascinating but they’re not all that prescriptive. They’re not all that applicable. And if you’re looking for something prescriptive and applicable, usually you just get the advice book. You get so and so’s advice on how they built an amazing network and you should do that, too. And I think that also causes a problem because a lot of people feel inauthentic when they’re then go trying to take said person’s advice about an elevator pitch or how to introduce people or what have you. I’m actually trying to split the difference. I’m trying to take the fascinating insights of these people and add that prescriptive element to it that’s not based on me and what I did because nobody should care. Unless you’re carbon copy of me, then my autobiographical advice isn’t going to be all that helpful. But if I can say here’s what the science says and that means we need to do these couple of things better, that’s a much different approach. So, that’s that value proposition is trying to be in that middle between these two categories of books. And based on the feedback that I’m getting, I think it’s resonating with a lot of people which is exciting.

Well, we asked you what you wanted to speak about on this show and you said Work Minus Barely Hanging On. What do you mean by that?

I think work shouldn’t have to suck and I think that was probably a too provocative title so we went with this. When I think about work, this term barely hanging on, I’m thinking about we all know the stats that about 20% of people are actively engaged in their job, about the same number are actively disengaged, and everybody else is in the middle. And that’s what I mean when I say barely hanging on. You show up. There’s a paycheck. The fear of losing that paycheck keeps you engaged. You’ve got to meet certain objectives but this isn’t your calling. This isn’t your life. Or you feel like it could be but there’s so many rules and regulations or what I call policy creep that boxes you in. I mean, literally, today, I had a conversation with a woman who quit working on one of her offices, This is actually in response to a video that I had posted. She quit working in one of her companies because when you moved into your office, they gave you a coffee table book of artwork and said pick one and we’ll put it on your wall. It is nice but she had a follow-up question. What if I don’t want one of these prints? They said, “No, no. These are the 20 approved prints that you’re allowed to have in your office. You can’t have anything else.” So, it sounds nice in the surface because like it’s a cool looking office space, but in reality, there were so many policies and procedures that were blocking her from doing her best work ever that that’s a barely hanging on situation. You know you want to do great work but yet you’re, like, I don’t know how to do it in these constrictions and confines of what you’ve asked me to do.

I heard you talk about perceived control so it looks like you have control over it but really they’ve just expanded control just little bit.

I’m not the first person to talk about the importance of autonomy in a workplace. Daniel Pink has a great book called “Drive” about it which is a a distillation of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s research on self determination theory that the short version of this is that when we feel like we can self determine how we do our work and how we live our lives, we’re much more intrinsically motivated which is great. Unfortunately, a lot of policies and procedures kind of creep in that eliminate that. They may keep the perception of control but they eliminate a lot of control and that’s a really big problem. It’s not when we’re talking about like flipping burgers but when we’re talking about designing a marketing campaign, or in her case, structuring real estate deals, etc., you hired smart people and you pay them a lot of money so that their brain could go to work solving your problems but then you tell them, no, no, no. You can only solve your problems inside this very, very rigid method. What do you think that does to their motivation? It’s incredibly draining. And so, the reason I got clued into a lot of this is that when I was writing “Under New Management”, I was looking at lots of different workplace practices and policies and I came into this realization that most of them were policies of actually eliminating prior policies. There had been something and it was blocking people from doing their best work or socializing with their peers the way they were supposed to and it was the team leader or even the senior leader or the founder of the company that stepped in and said, “You know what? Actually, let’s pull that out because it’s clearly causing problems.”

Let’s talk about more this idea of policy creep. A lot of times, you think a policy is always there because something happened in the pas. They had to address it and then they had to address something else because of that policy, or like you said, establish a policy to remove an old policy. Is that the best way to approach things like culture and office management or is there a better way to do it?

I mean, generally, no. And that’s exactly right. Like what I call policy creep is the idea that we had a bad apple, we had someone who misbehaved, we had someone who stayed at the $400 a night Weston instead of the $200 a night Fairfield Inn that was right across the street. And now we have to set a policy putting a dollar limit on how much you’re allowed to spend on when you have to travel for work. It sounds reasonable because we want to prevent that bad apple. The problem is you’re a company of 100 people. You have 99 other people that were making reasonable choices before that and the rule doesn’t really help them make reasonable choices. All it does is make their life hard if they need to be in Manhattan during fashion week because you can’t get a closet for $200 a night during certain weeks in cities like that. And so, the idea is we created this policy presumably to prevent that thing from ever happening again. It’d be much better if you got rid of the bad apple relatively quickly and then you reasserted what I call standards. Standards are different than policies and rules. They’re the same in the sense that, “This is how we behave. People like us are doing this.” But they are not, “We’re going to prevent you from doing your work your way.” We’re just going to remind you of this is what the standard is. We try and find the best deal that we can that’s as convenient as possible when we’re on travel, to use that example. And that creates a much more motivating environment but also still guides behavior. It just does so in a way that protects that idea of self determination, that idea of control, that idea of autonomy.

Talk more about the difference between standards and policies. Let’s put in the context of people connecting outside the office or maybe even in a conference. What are some ways that policies will inhibit what you’re trying to do but standards can actually help it?

I mean, in terms of in a conference and that sort of thing, the example that comes to mind is I’ve talked to several people since “Under New Management” came out and more so since “Friend of a Friend” for whom going to conferences like that or networking events are a hard fast rule. Some people, especially in sales, actually have it in their performance improvement plan or their performance management plan for the year. Here’s how many events you’re going to go to to generate business for a boss, etc. And yet, I mean, we can know from the network standpoint that you don’t necessarily have to go to a lot of those unstructured events where networking happens to do this. Of course, people are going to now because they have to but there are other ways to grow your network and we ought to let people that are in charge of business development do that. My favorite example of this is actually the polar opposite. It’s not about traveling for work. It’s about traveling for fun. In “Under New Management”, we wrote about Netflix and their whole unlimited vacation policy which has now become adopted in more and more companies and I think a lot of people think misconceptions about it right off the bat. They either think like why are you paying for no one to work. That’s not really true. Or they’re saying you have unlimited vacation but in reality everybody is so worried about their performance that nobody takes a vacation. That’s not really true because again that’s where standards come in.

So, senior leaders in management are very showy about the breaks that they are taking. There’s a couple little rules to guide unlimited vacation, like if you’re going to be gone for more than 30 days, you’ve got to have a plan to keep on top of what your objectives are and that’s got to be approved by a couple of people. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Just means that you’ve got to do some things before you leave to let us know how you’re going to stay in touch. But it’s a great example of that standards thing. On average, when you look across the entire country at least in the United States, companies that slip from normal vacation where everybody gets X number of days to unlimited vacation policy, most people take about the same on average. The difference is that the distribution gets wider. Some people take a lot less. Some people take a whole lot more. And I think that works better. Really my explanation for that is that it works better for where people are in their family life. I have two young kids at home. I’m going to want to take way more vacation than somebody whose kids have graduated and for whom this work is a lot of the source of their identity now, etc. They’re going to take a lot less. The average works out to be the same, the amount of money that the company has to spend on it, all that sort of stuff is about the same because their standards are still in place. But you’re letting people adapt it to the way that their life is in the moment, which again, helps that autonomy piece.

When we talk about barely hanging on, I feel like there’s this big spectrum of either you’re on this majority side where everyone hates their job versus there are these few outliers out there that travel for a living and just get a right about it or they have some big self actualization where their job is everything about their identity and they love it all the time. Where do we find ourselves in the middle? If we don’t want to be on the side of hating everything but we see this other side, it’s like can everyone reach that side? I don’t know. Where should we find ourselves?

On an individual level, there’s going to be elements of every dream job that are terrible. I think it was actually Marcus Buckingham who came up with what he called 25%. If 25% of the things that you do in an average week drive you nuts, that’s okay. But if 75% of what you’re doing is in line with your strengths and something that gets you really excited, that’s a really good goal to shoot for. So, on an individual level like that. As a manager, of course, you’ve got to worry about what is happening with my team and what’s going on and this is where I think listening and paying attention to the source of the complaints, like my least favorite saying in all of leadership common sense advice is that whole “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions.” That’s your job as a leader is to come up with the solutions and you’re not going to know what to solve unless people come to you with problems. I get the idea of you don’t want people just griping and complaining. I totally get that. But again, standards, not necessarily rules. You need people to come to you with their problem so you can see where they are and especially when people are underperforming.

This conversation happens probably almost every day in corporate America. Someone is underperforming. A manager goes to confront him or her about that. And the response is a pointing out some rule, some system that’s happening, some way in which he or she is blocked from doing their best work. And of course, the management response is, well, that’s the way it is and we’re going to have to figure out how to work inside it. Well, maybe not. The unlimited vacation policy, for example, was the result of Reed Hastings fielding complaints, fielding problems about people saying, “I don’t understand. We have this come and go as you please work environment. Not everybody is 8:00 to 5:00. We don’t have a dress code policy. We’re not tracking what we’re doing when we’re here. Why do you need to track what days we’re not here?” And Reed’s answer was like, “You’re exactly right. I don’t.” There are things in the law that say we have to give a certain number of vacation days but there’s nothing in the law that says take as many as you want. We can get away with that. And so, again, it’s this idea that leaders, one of their primary jobs is to figure out what’s blocking people from doing their best work and then work to remove it and if you’re just a front line manager or a team leader that doesn’t have the power to do that, you still need to think about what are the ways that I can be a human shield to help insulate my team from facing those things because those are the things that drag people down from doing their best work to ending up barely hanging on a year later because they’re so frustrated with running up against the same problem over and over again.

So, let’s say I am a manager, a team leader, I have someone on my team who is really under performing. It drags on for awhile and it gets to this point where it really seems like they are barely hanging on. What are things along that process that I can do to help that person and to encourage them instead of just going straight to, “Okay. Here’s your performance plan. Get this done or else you’re out the door.” What are some more modern things?

I mean, let’s be fair, a performance plan is a way to fire someone without getting sued. It’s not there to help people. And so, hopefully, you’re doing this before it gets to that point. There was a brilliant mind, especially in the 1980s, who pioneered the total quality management approach, W. Edwards Deming, and he had this, it’s not a hard fast rule, there’s not data for this, but he always tried to remind managers of the 85/15 rule which is what he said was, and I realize now I’m throwing out all sorts of fractions, right? We have Buckingham in 75/25. Now we have Deming. What he said is that if you have an underperformer, if something is going wrong, 85% of the time it’s the result of the system and only 15% of the time it’s the result of the other person. And what he meant by that as a manager it’s your job to figure that out. You go and you talk to this employee about their underperformance or why they feel like they’re barely hanging on. And maybe it’s a system issue, like they don’t have access to the resources that they need or they don’t have enough communication from people that aren’t on their team or that they don’t have authority over so they can’t force it but are elsewhere in the organization that they need. Those are systematic issues.

Systematic issues are also like maybe it’s a training issue, maybe you thought or they thought that they were competent enough or had enough skill in this area to do it and we made that mistake and with a little bit of training get them to that level and prevent us from having to fire that person and rehire somebody else which is an expensive proposition. So, it’s always worth asking, “Can we train you to do that thing?” before we go, “Let’s get rid of you and get somebody who we can,” because that’s going to cost us a lot of money to do that. Those are all those systematic issues and it’s up to managers to figure that out first. It might even be a motivational issue which is that 15% on the person thing but even then we’ve got to figure out is it a motivational issue because the incentives aren’t in line or because you’re dissatisfied with something or is it a motivational issue like you are just that 20% of people that are actively disengaged. Most of the people who are in that middle category, they are also in that 85% category where it’s a system issue that is preventing that. But yes, there’s always going to be one or two out of ten people who just couldn’t care less. And my example of this is, like, it just sounds weird in my head, but my first job out of school I worked at a supermarket and we had these little recycling things where you could put your can deposit back in and there was this kid who would regularly get tired of dealing with the machine so he would launch like a whole soda in the can return thing, watch it get shredded. And fire him is the only solution. There is no motivational plan or no change to the system that’s going to prevent that. You just got to get rid of those people but that’s a much smaller percentage of people than the one that are in this barely hanging on category that are being dragged down from the system. And as a manager, it’s your job to figure that out. Where are they? Are they the 85% are they in the 15%? My bet is that they’re going to be in the 85% because about 85% of people are.

We’re covering all sorts of math here. This is great. And there’s got to be a YouTube video of that guy doing that soda can trick somewhere.

Man, I hope not. I wish I could even remember his name or whatever. But no, it was consistent. I mean, if you’ve ever, like in a supermarket, they have these big machines and you put all that in and they then give you cash. It’s like Coinstar except you’re putting in your cans from the deposit. The machine, by the way, is set up to just shred the can as soon as you do it so that you have this bin full of shredded bottles or shredded cans that are easier to recycle. Some machines will actually just crush it as opposed to shred but whatever. Same deal. And changing them out was really annoying. It’s this giant bin of whatever. And so, he would get, if you told him to do that the first thing he would do is do that and then he would tell you it was broken. And the first time he did it, you’re like, “Oh, okay. We’ll get somebody to fix it.” Then when it breaks two weeks later and you’re starting to notice a pattern and so then you just straight up watch it happen and you’re like, “All right. Yeah. There’s nothing in the system here that is making you behave this way. You’re just a terrible person. And so, we’re going to have to share you with our competition by letting you get a job at a competitor.”

That’s a good way to put it. Last question about self diagnosing barely hanging on, this feeling of, “Man, I don’t want to go to work today. I can’t do it another day.” When you get to that point, you shared an example earlier where you’re talking on your blog, somebody quit their job because of what they listened, what you said. So, at what point do you decide, “Look, this is something I can fix. I can go try to change the systems.”? And at what point it’s just like, “I need something different”?

I mean, my first question would be did you try and change the system? A lot of people get frustrated with the system and then they go, “Hey, well, I’m going to go start looking somewhere else.” And then they leave and in the exit interview you find out why and they’re like, “Oh, well, we could have adjusted that. We could have given you more responsibility over here and less over there,” and what have you. So, the first one is have you tried? I think everybody, whatever that thing you’ve identified that’s dragging you down, if you’ve made it apparent to your manager and your manager is not one of the leaders that is listening to this show so they don’t care about this kind of stuff, they are the management equivalent of the can shover. If that’s the situation, then yeah, it’s time to start looking somewhere else. So, there’s trying to fix it. I think that’s step one. Even before you get to like step three which would be look somewhere else, there’s a middle step that it’s a little sneaky. I feel bad saying this as a management person because most managers would hate that I’m about to say this but if you tried just not doing that task that frustrates you and just see what happens.

A lot of times the things that frustrate us pressured us because we have this internal sense of how important they are to do and we don’t like doing them but it might be that other people don’t like receiving them. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve talked to people who are like I used to hate having to do this report every single day by noon on Friday because of such and such and it’s hard to get all the numbers for a week together when the week’s not even over, whatever, and then they just started sending it Friday afternoon or Monday morning and nobody really said anything. So, sometimes you could take it upon yourself to just move it in line with what works for you and as long as you don’t get yelled at then it’s that old better to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission. You tried permission. It didn’t work. What if you start trying to change it in other ways? If you get called out on it, we get right back into policy creep, then yeah, now we’re at step three. Now it’s probably time to invite yourself to be successful somewhere else. Share yourself with a competitor. But I think before you do that, I think you need to have that talk with management about it. Make them aware of that problem. Maybe you even need to try and see within the realm of autonomy that you do have what you can do to change it. At the very top, we talked about my friend who only could pick 20 pictures. What if you just come in on a Saturday and change the picture and see what happens? Do people yell at you or do they not? If they don’t, there is no problem.

Nice. Well, that tip right there was worth the price of listening to this episode. I hope everyone picked it up.

Stop doing what you don’t like doing and see if anyone notices. I mean, I will say you can’t do this if you’re an underperformer. If you’re already in that top of the curb, you’re a good performer and you know that this is what’s blocking you then you’ve earned the right to have those conversations. If you’re not, then I think this is where you get those managers that go, “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions. You’re just a complainer.” But if you’re a top performer and you’ve got a complaint, you’ve earned the right to talk about that and it’ll make everyone a better performer by removing it. So, you should totally go for it.

And sometimes that’s the first sign that we realize something is obsolete. Like, when’s the last time somebody turned in that report? Oh, it’s been two months. Maybe we don’t need it.

I gave you a weird example, but yeah. I’ve straight up had examples of people who submit reports on things like that every week. Or expenses are a big one. I worked for a company where we had to do expense reports every single week and then one day we got a different manager and it was six or seven months before she told us, “I actually pick one day a month and I go back through your four weeks of it. So, I mean, if you want to just do it every month, that would be fine, too.”

David, where can people go to stay in touch with you?

The show notes for this episode are probably going to be the single best place to go but if you want to go beyond that, I am David Burkus. If you type that into Google, you’ll find a bunch of different presences on whatever your chosen social media site is. You will probably find me. I’m the only one I know of. There is one other Dave Burkus with a web presence but he talks about finance and I know nothing about that. I’m in like index funds only. So, it’ll be pretty easy to tell which one of us it is.

Well, thanks for being on the show. Thanks for sharing your insights. And we look forward to talking again soon.

Yeah. Thank you again for having me.

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