Do the Right Thing

I was on a walk with a coworker at BuzzFeed the other day, talking about our teams and our jobs. At one point, while I was describing the changes we’d made to the design team in the past year or so, she stopped me and asked “How did you know you were making the right changes? How do you know that you’re doing the right thing?” Luckily this is a question I get with some regularity, particularly from new managers or managers challenged with turning around a team. There’s a natural nervousness around making the wrong decision, upsetting or alienating your team, and losing the trust and momentum you were trying to build in the first place. When you were making things, you could just cmd-z when you fucked up. But now what?

Do what you know.

Have you had a great manager in your life? What did they do? How did they think about the world? We all have to be our own person, obviously, but standing on the shoulders of awesome people is a great way to get started. There’s one manager from my Amazon days, Aaron Donsbach, I tend to think about a lot when making decisions or navigating complicated situations. We dealt with a ton of complexity together at Amazon and he was always super patient, calm and thoughtful. He was rarely thinking about only himself or his team, but about everyone and how our decisions would impact them. And, perhaps most importantly, he almost always did what he said he would. His offers of help weren’t empty when I was having a rough time.

Additionally, look at the teams and processes that have worked in past jobs. It’s probably no surprise that I’ve ripped a lot of my BuzzFeed playbook directly from my time at Etsy. I’ve copied things like how we use Basecamp, how our design crits are organized and run, design bug rotation and even our roles documentation. From Amazon, I took the idea of leadership principles as a rubric for peer and self review. Great managers steal great processes and adapt them to their organization.

Do the opposite.

There’s a great Seinfeld episode in which Jerry convinces George that “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” George then proceeds to do the opposite of everything he’d normally do, to great effect (by telling the truth about his job and living situation to a woman he’s interested in, he gets a date).

Hi my name is George

In the same way, think about the not-so-great managers you’ve had or witnessed in the past. What frustrated you? What did you wish they’d help you with? A lot of the things I personally feel passionate about as a manager are things I didn’t get from my own: openness and transparency, showing up to 1:1s regularly, being helped with career development, being allowed to vent once in awhile (and then helped). I see a lot of new managers make the mistake of emulating their own past managers and teams because they assume that’s how things are supposed to be done.

Think critically. Challenge what you know. I used to think that there must be some reason that managers hide things from their teams, but when I became a manager I found out that it’s totally not true. I was able to basically say anything I wanted. Sure, I’ve learned how to best deliver information, but I can totally choose that information. If I’d just followed what I’d seen past managers do, I would have hoarded that information and frustrated my team in the same way I’d been frustrated.

cmd-z anyway.

A lot of managers (not just first-timers) make the mistake of thinking that management and leadership require one to be right all the time. They make a decision and stick to it, even when faced with overwhelming opposition or dissatisfaction. They’re the leader, after all. How would it look if they changed their minds or gave in to opposition? A few years ago, Jason Fried had a meeting with Jeff Bezos where he got some great advice:

[Jeff] said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

The reality is that cmd-z is just as viable in real life as it is in your code or design. If you get that I can’t go backward feeling, fight it. It’s perfectly sane and reasonable to change your mind, no matter how deep you’ve gotten into a disagreement or process. Tying yourself to something just because you’ve already said it or started it is actually kind of nuts if you think about it.

Do what you think is right.

The best advice I have is to always do what you think is right for the team. Even if it’s not convenient. Even if it will cause a little friction. Even if what’s right is unclear. Even if what’s right isn’t clear and you may be wrong. If people know you’re always acting in their best interests (and not simply your own or the company’s), they’ll trust you and come along when you want to try something new. And if you admit when you’re wrong and try something else, they’ll trust you even more. With almost everything I’ve implemented for the design team at BuzzFeed, I’ve told the team “This is an experiment. It could totally blow up in our faces. But everything is fungible and we can change it if it doesn’t work.” Doing the right thing, it turns out, isn’t about being right. It’s about discovering what’s right, together.

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