“Stay in Your Lane”

When people are driving, it is important for everyone to stay in their lanes, and only switch lanes when it is clear.  Driving is a complex activity with a simple goal—get from point A to point B, as safely and (usually) as quickly as possible.

“Staying in your lane” is appropriate for achieving simple and linear goals. However, it is not the best approach for complex work that requires multiple perspectives, human creativity and collaboration. For example, in designing roads, it is necessary to incorporate many perspectives, including drivers, driverless cars, mass transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, neighborhoods, environmental and aesthetic considerations, as well as material science and engineering principles. Each of these points of view must be blended into solutions that are workable, if not optimal, to everyone involved or impacted by road design decisions.

In my experience, most work is more like designing roads than driving on them. There is too much “stay in your lane” messaging when “get out of your lane” thinking is required to solve complex problems. At first glance, “stay in your lane” might seem to make sense in terms of dividing work and responsibility. However, it stifles creativity and keeps everyone thinking too small.

“Stay in your lane” thinking leads to failure of the whole because there is no cross-over of ideas among the parts and too few people take responsibility for the big picture. To be successful, the parts must listen to and see each other, ask questions and offer ideas outside of their “lanes,” and to see the larger patterns and inter-dependencies. 

So many times, I have seen the breakthrough ideas, or the seeds of them, come from people with the least amount of expertise in where teams are stuck. Expertise itself can become a trap of well-worn, familiar roads, where you can no longer see the landscape or detail—like driving on auto-pilot. Being forced to answer simple (“stupid”) questions and respond to fresh (“radical”) ideas from non-experts has a way of causing the experts to identify their basic assumptions, see the landscape with fresh eyes and possibly discover new avenues of thinking. When teams get to learn about other lanes, routes and geographic layers of the road, people become more invested, more satisfied and more trusting of one another.

In my career, I have worked with two managers, Deb Donohue and Barry Caplin, who were brilliant in creating team structures that required people to get out of their “lanes.” 

Deb had a team of 10-12 analysts, with a lot of complex work to cover. She and the team identified the domain areas and designated leads for each domain, based on people’s interest and expertise. The leads became the experts and decision-makers for their areas. Others on Deb’s team were designated as team members for each domain, responsible to back-up the leads and serve in an advisory capacity to the team leads. Everyone on Deb’s team was a lead for at least one domain, and participated as a team member for 2-3 other domains. This structure clearly defined who was responsible for each domain, but gave non-lead, team members voice to offer feedback and ideas.

Barry had a similar approach. He also designated domain leads who were decision-makers but he expected everyone on the team to provide their perspectives, ideas, opinions and feedback for domains they did not lead. It was an expectation that each lead vet their ideas with all  other team members. All were leaders and all were team members. No one was ever told to “stay in their lanes” because they were all responsible for each other’s success and the whole.

If you are an organizational leader, think about how to create structures that encourage people to get out of their lanes to ask questions, offer ideas and feedback outside of their primary areas of expertise. If you do this, you will get better decisions and more productive and satisfied teams. Most people don’t want to “stay in their lanes.” They want to learn, offer ideas and contribute broadly. “Stay in your lane” thinking and messaging doesn’t allow people to bring all of their curiosity and creativity to work. For today’s challenges, we need all of the curiosity and creativity we can get!

For more radical ideas on how to create happier and healthier work environments, see my book, “Management Culture: Bold & Innovative Strategies to Engage Employees” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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Criticism & Correction

When I look back on all the jobs I’ve had, the ones that have given me the most sleepless nights have in common a continual fear of being criticized. An email from the “boss” or a request to go to their office could send me spiraling down an anxiety hole that made it difficult to even focus on what they were actually trying to say to me.

Conversely, the jobs I love had none of this. I felt supported in my decisions and knew that my boss “had my back” when I made decisions and even took risks. Even if there was a question about why I did this or decided that, we had a conversation based on curiosity, not criticism.

Criticism, and the constant fear of criticism, kills creativity because creativity requires a sense of safety. Safety is not possible when you are in a constant state of dread that you will be corrected.

Criticism also kills collaboration because working together requires trust and openness to explore new possibilities. When groups fear criticism, they are not willing to throw out new ideas or take chances. Instead, they do exactly what they are told.

The expectation and common experience of having a critical “boss” stems from an underlying cultural assumption that people with more authority have superior intellect, judgment and experience compared to their subordinates. It assumes the boss is always right and employees must be taught how to do their jobs correctly.

The presumed superiority of “superiors” (it’s even in the language!) is so strong that supervisors who are not even intending to be critical will be perceived as such because for most of us the fear and dread left behind by past experiences, lingers. Bold leaders must go out of their way to be supportive and provide safety for employees to counteract the fear of criticism and change the culture of management.

There are countless ways to do anything. If we want creative employees and collaborative teams, we must change the culture of management to allow more paths to get our organizational goals. Supporting employees and “having their backs” even when we would have taken different paths is a great place to start.

For more radical ideas on leadership and how to create a work environment that is creative and collaborative, see my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees at mgmtculture.com or on amazon.com.

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The Boss is Always Right!

“The Boss is Always Right” is the most dangerous unwritten rule that we follow in the workplace. Pretending that bosses are always right, even when they are not undermines the organizational mission, work goals and healthy relationships. It breeds a culture of deceit.  

Of course, the boss is not always right. People in positions of authority are not infallible.  Leaders make mistakes at the same rate as all other humans. We know this is true, but there are cultural rules that prohibit us from pointing out when bosses make mistakes or even challenging decisions that don’t make sense from our perspective.

People are required to comply with the “boss is always right” rule because to behave otherwise can bring on the wrath of the boss and could even end a career. Because the personal stakes are so high, we pretend that bosses are always right. Then we are expected to clean up their messes without complaining, and we wind up talking about their mistakes behind their backs.  

Think about the feedback imbalance. While it is management’s job to evaluate employee decisions, work products and performance, it is seldom OK for an employee to make any kind of judgement of management decisions or actions. Employees are expected to do what they are told, without question and without criticism. Any feedback perceived to be negative toward management is considered insubordination. This does not serve the work or the organization. It only serves the ego of leaders.

Imagine if this were not true. Imagine a workplace where the goal of our collective efforts is to do the best work possible, without having to be careful with people in positional power. Imagine if everyone could provide honest feedback on everyone’s decisions, work products and performance. Honesty would be the standard and quality would be the result.

I want to work at a place that openly looks at plans, decisions and directions from a variety of perspectives, fully vets concerns, and has a collective goal of doing our very best work. I want to work where employees are not required to manage the boss’s ego. How about you?  

If you are a leader, welcome challenges, welcome feedback, and require the people with less positional power to tell you when they think you are about to make a mistake.  The quality of the work will improve.  Productivity will improve.  Engagement will go through the roof!  

For more radical ideas about how to transform the workplace, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on amazon.com.



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Building on the brilliant insight of the woman who coined the now-popular word, mansplaining, I offer a parallel concept, bossplaining. 

Bossplaining comes in many forms:

  • Annual Reviews
  • Employee Development Plans
  • Coaching
  • Performance Management
  • Feedback
  • Corrective Action Plans
  • Mentoring
  • Advice
  • …and the ever-popular “Teachable Moment”

All of these mechanisms provide the perfect opportunity for supervisors to bossplain what employees are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it in a way that is both condescending and absurd. Bossplaining reinforces the superiority of the “superior” and the inferiority of the “subordinate.” It feeds the boss’s ego and demoralizes the people who work for him/her/them.

This is not to say that all of these feedback mechanisms are inherently condescending or even unnecessary. In and of themselves, they are neutral. The problem is that they generally are used only one-way—top-down. They assume the person advising is wiser, smarter and more knowledgeable than the receiver of the advice. Feedback that goes up the chain of command is often not welcomed, and is sometimes referred to by another name—“insubordination.”

Clearly, there is an art to offering advice, feedback and perspective based on experience, position, and even age, in a manner that is neither condescending nor absurd. There is also an art to listening to voices that are fresh, less tainted, more diverse, even younger.  It is called inclusive leadership.

For more radical ideas on leadership, check our my book, “Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees,” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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“You’re Just Lucky to Have a Job!”

While there is an element of luck in getting a job–being in the right place at the right time–when people in positions of power say, “You’re just lucky to have a job!” they aren’t referring to luck at all. They are referring to the power they have over you.

Bosses have tremendous power over employees–the power to make their lives miserable and the power to fire them. Saying “You’re just lucky to have a job!” serves as a reminder that employees’ “luck” could change if they do anything to cross the boss.

Supervisors who wield this power as a threat over employees can force people to stay in line. However, it will be difficult for them to engage the imagination and commitment of the people they supervise. Forcing people to stay in line using threats may lead to compliance, but it will never lead to creative investment. Living with the constant threat if you raise concerns, make a mistake or question management, does not make for a particularly engaging workplace. One might say, employees who work for bosses who makes such statements are indeed unlucky.

Supervisors and managers who do not wield the threat of being fired, who welcome feedback and encourage risk-taking foster engagement, creativity and collaboration. They create environments where employees thrive, which results in higher quality work, increased productivity and healthier work cultures. One might say, employees who work in such an environment are indeed lucky.

If you manage people, consider the messages you send about luck. Do you threaten to change people’s “luck” if they don’t do as you wish, or do you strive to create a non-threatening, engaging environment, where there is a sense that people are lucky to be there?

If you are in a position of power, and you work hard to de-emphasize rather than wield that power; if you invite the people you manage to participate fully, even if it means making waves or making mistakes; you will feel lucky too! Happy and engaged employees will make you look good. Getting there just takes letting go of control, sharing power, and allowing people to bring all of their ideas and concerns into the conversation. It takes listening, supporting and accommodating people to do their best work.

Employees have so much more to give at work than most workplaces allow. Let’s welcome and encourage full participation. Let’s create workplaces where everyone feels lucky to be there!

For more radical ideas on how to create an engaging workplace, see my book, Management Culture” at mgmtculture.com or though amazon.com.

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Sexual Harassment

All of the recent news stories about sexual harassment and exploitation of women in the workplace have been sickening and disturbing on so many levels. First, learning that the alleged behavior was so blatant and involved several high-profile people. Second, that it involved many women, spanned many years, and also was so recent (this is 2017—sometimes it feels we are going backwards!). Third, that the allegations cross many sectors and political divides. Fourth, and what I find most distressing, is that the alleged behavior required conspiracies of silence within well-known organizations. Apparently, many people knew what was going on, and even participated in it, but did not speak up. They were fearful or thought it was not their place to question.

What is heartening about all of this disheartening news is that the women who were abused and harassed had the courage to tell their stories. It is also heartening that they are being heard, and given support by the media, political leaders and Americans. Finally.

While we may be shocked by the allegations of sexual exploitation, we should not be surprised. The dynamics that allow abuse to occur exists in most hierarchical organizations. People at all levels with power over others often believe and act as though they “own” the talents, time and careers of their underlings. Many believe themselves to be superior beings to their subordinates, and will exploit their “resources” for their own gain. They believe that no one else has the right to interfere with their “style” of management. Further, everyone within a strict hierarchy is trained to “never question management” out of fear of being fired or retaliated against. These are the rules of the work game in so many organizations that allow people in power to abuse people with less power, and get away with it.

Abuse is an extreme version of the lesser indignities and frustrations both men and women feel every day under the crush of controlling hierarchical dynamics that give them no voice. To root out the abuse, we must root out the unequal power dynamics that allow it to exist. We must embrace principles of democracy—freedom, mutual responsibility, justice, transparency and checks and balances—in the workplace, just as we strive to apply these principles in our politics.

At the heart of democracy is a fundamental belief that all persons are equal—regardless of gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual identity or any other defining characteristic. Abuse and exploitation can only exist when perpetrators do not see their victims as their equals. Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are not valued in the larger society as equals to men. We have made strides in equality but have a long way to go as a nation in terms of seeing and valuing women as equals to men.

For example, in another recent news story, a professional athlete was roundly criticized for thinking it was funny that a woman sports reporter would know about the intricacies of the game. The outrage about such blatant sexism from the sports media was encouraging. However, full equality within the sports world would go beyond granting respect to the women who cover men’s sports. It would extend as well to providing the same respect to women who actually play sports. Women are not just reporters, they are athletes and deserve the same respect, coverage and attention as men, though they seldom get it, even in the sports world that congratulates itself on calling out sexism in their ranks.

Let us continue our journey toward equality for all people, including women, to realize the great dream of American democracy where all are free of oppression, abuse and harassment.

For more radical ideas on how to transform workplace dynamics, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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White Privilege

I recently had an insightful conversation at work with a white colleague. We had just attended a diversity training. Unlike me, who grew up in the suburbs, my colleague grew up “dirt poor” and does not know how to relate to the concept of “white privilege.”

My colleague worked very hard to create a prosperous life, which is a source of pride, imbedded in gratitude that we live in a country where hard work can move someone from “rags to riches.” This is America’s story of hope and promise to those who work hard.

Hard work, however, is only half the story. The other half is opportunity. Without opportunity, hard work does not lead to financial success, let alone, wealth. White privilege, as I understand it, is recognizing that the opportunity deck is stacked in favor of those who are classified as racially “white.” Those who are not considered “white” face a myriad of barriers that my colleague and I did not have to overcome.

I have come to understand my own “white privilege” by looking at the data and listening to people who have struggled against barriers because of the color of their skin. I have come to see the patterns that value white over non-white people in our social, economic, political and cultural systems and institutions, creating an unfair playing field, particularly for African Americans and American Indians. For so many years I did not see these dynamics because they did not affect me. That has been my privilege.

When it comes to data, I need look no further than my own state. Minnesota consistently ranks high in national studies for quality of life, health, education and employment—if you are white. Minnesota also consistently ranks high in racial disparities. The gaps in education, income, home ownership and health between “white” people and “people of color” is stark.

In 2016, the Metropolitan Council published a paper, RACE AND ETHNICITY MATTER FOR ECONOMIC SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY that details these disparities. I encourage you to look at the report and its sobering conclusions.

Looking at data and listening to people have motivated me to learn more and do my part to dismantle institutional, cultural, systematic racism. I want to help create a workplace that values every employee and provides equal opportunities, regardless of one’s skin color or background. I want to live in a nation that lives up to its promises of freedom and justice, where every child and adult feels valued, and has the opportunity to realize her or his dreams, just as was possible for my white colleague, and for me.

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