Reframing The Conversations At Work

Google’s Lia Garvin on how to create a culture of participation, creativity and meaning.

The crucible of the pandemic may be contributing to burnout and the ongoing Great Resignation affecting employees and managers alike. But for Lia Garvin, a team operations manager at Google with prior stints at Microsoft and Apple, the current pressures don’t alarm her. Instead, she sees it as an ideal moment to reframe the conversation at work.

Garvin, an executive coach whose observations of thorny business problems helped spark the idea behind her new book, Unstuck: Reframe Your Thinking to Free Yourself From the Patterns and People that Hold You Back, suggests combating burnout among workers and employers by creating an experimental mindset that invites feedback. She encourages managers to recast how they ask questions to help their employees find solutions for themselves.

Garvin spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about getting inspired, developing teams that can effectively bridge hybrid and remote distance, and fostering a culture where employees feel supported even after making mistakes.

We are at this tricky time when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. There’s a lot of talk about burnout. What are some of the best strategies you’ve found for finding and keeping top people motivated?

It’s interesting the interplay between motivation and burnout. And I think we’re seeing that more and more right now with so many people feeling like they’ve reached peak burnout with the pandemic, balancing working from home, childcare responsibilities, all of the uncertainty that we have right now in the world, in the workplace. A lot of people are reevaluating what they want to do—do they want more purpose-centered work?

And I think to motivate employees, even during times of uncertainty and change, we have to focus on first and foremost on recognizing and appreciating that it’s a difficult time. There’s a lot of uncertainty—people are going above and beyond just to show up. And then appreciating the hard work people are doing in the language in which they receive it in. Otherwise, it might fall flat, it may not land. And so for managers and leaders, really getting to know their team members.

Managers are tired too. If you’re a manager, what are some ideas to get re-energized?

Managers have been asked to do a lot more potentially than they’ve ever had to in the past, from helping create a sense of stability where they maybe don’t know what the expectation is, to helping people navigate working from home, a hybrid, distributed workforce. I heard it said quite a bit at the start of the pandemic: put on your oxygen mask before helping others. I think for managers, it’s reminding ourselves that we are in the middle of it too, and we may not have all the answers. Be transparent about what you know and what you don’t. It goes a long way as opposed to either saying nothing, or going silent, or kind of making something up that people don’t feel is authentic.

The second thing is really empowering their team members to be accountable for their own careers, to take responsibility. This is a tool in a manager’s toolbox that I think is not necessarily deployed as much as it should be. We can use coaching skills of really listening empathetically and getting under the surface of what’s going on. Or helping reframe a problem or a feeling of stuckness so that a person can see it through another lens. We can ask questions that help a direct report think bigger and broader when they’re feeling stuck as opposed to looking at what they already know and have tried. But the biggest thing that managers can do is remind ourselves that it is on our team members to own their careers and to be accountable.

When managers get out of a feeling of having to solve problems for their teams, they realize they can actually be a better leader. They can have more of a bird’s eye view. They don’t have to be as deep in the weeds and that can take a lot of pressure off managers.

That’s an interesting way to look at it— that taking on too much may actually be creating some feeling of stuckness.

It’s funny because a manager might think, oh, I’m really helping. I’m making sure I’m there at every step. But what it starts to do is it gets in the way of your team member being accountable for thinking creatively, for problem solving for themselves. And it can make a manager and a team member both feel stuck in a problem as opposed to both feeling like, hey, we’re supporting each other. The team member really owns the solution.

To dig into that stuckness more, what is your favorite tool in the toolbox?

My favorite tool is starting with reframing the questions that we’re asking ourselves. So I mentioned that a manager can help a team member think more expansively. And I think that starts with when we’re asking questions that begin with “why,” like, “Why me, why did this happen?” or “Why didn’t I get that thing?” The “why” questions are getting us down deeper and deeper into things that we already know, we already think. And the reframe there is to ask questions that begin with “what.” We’re open to the fact that there might be more possibilities out there. And that’s really the central theme of my book and the work that I do is helping people to think what else might be possible than the perspective we already have. That one we’re really familiar with. What else is here? And that’s the tool I start with, really shifting the questions we’re asking ourselves.

And to look at that again from the manager’s point of view, it sounds like that “what” question is critical.

Exactly. If you’re a manager and you say to your team member, “Why didn’t this thing go well?” That’s a hard question to hear. “Why weren’t you prepared?” That’s going to breed defensiveness or someone feeling like you don’t support them. But as a manager, if you say “What’s another way that meeting could have run? What’s one thing you might change for next time?” Well, now I’m thinking, okay, I’m supported. This person’s here to work with me, but I’m not like a total failure. The way in which managers ask questions has a lot of power. Create the space for them to reflect without them feeling like they’re being judged.

You’ve looked at perfectionism and feedback and it seems like that can be a roadblock to excellence both for the individual and perhaps the larger company. So if you’re thinking about culture and creating it or changing the conversation as you’ve just said, what are some strategies for fostering that?

Fortunately, the importance of building psychological safety on a team is more well understood today. Amy Edmondson is one of the leading experts on that and has really done a lot to bring to life the importance of creating an environment where people can be vulnerable, where they can make mistakes, where they can raise concerns, flag risks, be transparent, be candid, disagree—without having it held against them.

What I’ve really loved learning as I’ve dug more into psychological safety is that it’s not just about being nice and liking each other. It’s really about creating that space where you can have the hard conversations, where you can respectfully disagree, where you can work through a really challenging problem or even a conflict and come out the other end and feel like, wow, I really have that support here. I can get through.

Can you walk through the steps you find work best in reviewing a project?

I was on a product team once and observed a really powerful way of debriefing at the end of a project. First the group sat around in a circle, and that already created a sense of openness and removed some of the feeling of hierarchy. Half the group was across two locations, so totally doable virtually. We sat in a half circle in both locations. And first we went around and said what went well. What we were proud of? You get people on the same page around being excited about what people felt like really went well. Everyone shares. And in the next round, what could have gone better? “Oh we could have done more user research about this thing. Or we could have looped in this person earlier,” whatever. And then the third one, which is where the real growth happens, is “What will I personally do next time to improve?”

I just love this step because it’s not about glossing over things or putting the responsibility on someone else. It’s, “I’m a part of this and here’s what I’m going to do. Here’s the growth I want to have for next time.” And I just heard such incredible, humble people taking responsibility for themselves and their role. And for a group to hear that from each other, that goes so far to strengthen that psychological safety because you hear people are really here for the good of the greater team. And especially hearing leaders, more senior folks in the team, take responsibility and sharing what they feel like they could do differently, it sets a great example.

What is the role for creating a greater sense of meaning in a company?

One thing to do as a manager is to help connect the dots between a person’s individual skills, what their role is and what their place is within the broader organization. And I think knowing that you matter in an organization, that your expertise, your skills and what you’re doing in your role contribute to the success of a project, or a team goal, or the broader company goal. It starts to plant that seed around the meaning.

There are companies where they’re doing world-changing work and there are jobs where it may feel, on the surface, like just kind of doing an everyday mundane thing. And I think you can really make what’s seemingly mundane feel meaningful when you connect the dots. This doesn’t mean having to create a story around, “Oh, we’re changing the world with this XYZ thing.” You can create meaning in everything by showing a person they specifically matter.

What I like to do with teams is to first help people tap into their superpowers. What are the strengths that you bring to the team? Whether that’s using CliftonStrengths strength finders or asking people, what are some qualities that people have really celebrated or praised about you? Maybe it’s, what are things that you’re proud of? Sometimes it’s hard for people to access what they’re proud of, but they’ll be okay sharing what someone has said about them.

So identifying what are these superpowers and then saying, how do I use those things for my job? Well, maybe I’m a great communicator. Maybe I can break down a complex problem and make it really digestible. Maybe I’m a great relationship builder. And then how that connects to the work becomes way more clear. And then you make the connection of, how does that role fit into the broader role of the company? Well, if it’s a role like a QA manager, my work ensures that customers have products that are high quality and they’re usable. If you’re a sales representative, you make sure people can get excited about the products and it gets into more people’s hands. When you connect the dots for people, they see why they’re there and they don’t feel like a cog in a machine. And I think that can go a pretty long way to create meaning.

During the pandemic and working from home for many of us has prompted a lot of companies and individuals to reevaluate how they’re working. What are some of the best approaches to team building from a distance?

I’ve seen a lot of examples of folks really making an effort to set up virtual lunches and happy hours, but those kinds of things work best when there’s a foundation of that inclusion and belonging already. There are times where we jump right into the social activities and they’re not well attended. And we think, well people said they wanted more connection, but now they’re not here, what do I do?

So first is to talk as a team around what are some of the norms that we want to have around team connection? Around communication? Around emailing and chats and everything at different times of the day. Getting on the same page around communication norms can go a long way to making sure everyone feels heard.

And then I think subtle shifts of having meetings be a default of 10 or 15 minutes instead of 30 minutes can go a long way to creating more casualness and communication. One thing I heard a lot was, “I used to be able to just pass someone’s desk and ask a question, now I need to set up a 30-minute meeting and prepare a slide presentation.” And it made the barrier feel so high. So I think we can facilitate more team connection by lowering that barrier by creating opportunities for casual communication by saying meetings are by default this shorter length. And maybe there’s blocked off times during the day for working hours or for heads down time or having a block for lunch so people can have space to get up from their desk.

It seems like a theme for a lot of your suggestions is to delineate or clarify goals across the board.

Yes. And the other piece of it is to experiment. We don’t know right now where we’re going to end up with workplace culture. What we do know is it’s going to continue to evolve and transition from one thing to the next. And so really enforcing an experimentation culture on a team can allow people to adjust and not feel like, okay, if I went into hybrid and I don’t like this right away, is this it, am I stuck here? That we all kind of recognize we’re going to go through a series of evolutions and let’s experiment, collect data, incorporate feedback and keep iterating because acknowledging the unknowns is important. It’s necessary to have a feedback loop in your culture to be able to incorporate that too. And so I think the more organizations can incorporate experimentation and collecting feedback, sharing what they’ve learned, piloting new ways of working or new norms, every so often, every few months even, can go a long way to ensuring we’re figuring it out as we go.

As teams have moved into hybrid that were work from home only or as more and more companies are distributed, new things are popping up that we didn’t realize would be an issue. Some things are better. It’s all so new that it would be silly to think we could figure out a plan before we were actually in it. So I think there’s a lot of learning that needs to happen and will continue to happen over the coming months.

What does that look like practically?

I would say proposing some companies or teams have a no-meetings day one day a week. Give people heads-down time, or a lot of companies are trying three days in office, two days at home. Or maybe two and three. So say for a quarter, let’s try this. And at the end, sending out a survey or conducting focus groups and collecting insights on what worked, what didn’t, what almost worked. What were some of the things that we didn’t foresee and then a team, a committee that’s working on team culture, HR, whoever it is looks at, what are the patterns of things? And what might we want to keep, or what might we want to shift or do another experiment the following quarter? Doing experiments quarter by quarter can be enough time to assess, but it doesn’t feel like forever. And it really brings your employees along so they’re going to be part of building what the next experiment’s going to be. It can encourage them to participate in sharing the feedback because they know that it matters.

This also seems to be an interesting example of coming full circle by practicing feedback. And given that it’s a complex time for companies, for managers, for employees, if you had a couple of must-do items what would you start with?

As an employee I would first off let go of needing to know this is how it’s going be and to embrace we’re in a series of transitions and to just acknowledge that maybe you don’t love that lack of stability, but acknowledging it is important. I think the first thing to do is to say, “Hey, I know this might be rocky and it’s likely to not be where it’s at six or 12 months from now. And I’m just going to do my best to roll with it.”

And then the next thing, tying us back to burnout from the start of our conversation, to get really in touch with your boundaries—to set and reset your boundaries. As you’re finding out about what you need and how you’re evolving in this transition, to continue to check in: is the boundary that I set the right thing? Do I need more? Do I need less?

And when you’re experimenting, there’s no failure.

Right. Then there’s no getting it wrong. We’re trying it and learning is the point.

Given we’re in an inflationary environment, the job market is tight and burnout is a challenge, but without adding to employee stress, is there a way to elevate performance so it actually increases productivity because people are more inspired?

Start with setting clear expectations. It’s so important. In Dare to Lead Brene Brown uses the quote, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Does that mean directives? No, it’s about, “This is what this role needs. This is my expectation of you or of this work, this project. This is what success looks like. And I’m here to support you to get it done.”

And, setting expectations, everything ties together. It’s huge for feedback. Because it gives you something to come back to. It ensures a team member who maybe you don’t meet with frequently because it’s distributed or across locations or hybrid, that they can kind of go off and run with something without continual intervention. It helps someone be empowered and accountable.

The most important thing a manager can do right now, especially with the distributed team, is to set clear expectations and in that conversation, really talk about what success looks like and at what point you’ll check back in on it together. How will you know when you’ve reached success? That’s incredibly powerful.

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