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6 dangerous biases of bosses

Integrity is the cornerstone of leadership.  For managers, intelligence — both cognitive and emotional — is important. But research says that employees rate trustworthiness as more important than competence in their managers.

I think that’s because so many managers lead people who are smarter than they are. The staff doesn’t expect the boss to be a genius; they want a supervisor they can trust.

Trust is confidence, in the face of risk, that another person will act with integrity. Tell the truth. Share credit. Take blame. Make decisions based on values. Reject prejudice.

We earn the trust of our team over time. But it takes vigilance to maintain it, even if we have the best of intentions. That’s because we tend to overestimate our own abilities and think we’re more reliable or principled than we really are.

We have blind spots and biases that can erode trust. We often discover that the hard way, through an obvious mistake or from candid feedback about our shortcomings.

To help ensure your feedback is positive, and your mistakes are minimized, here’s some help — Six dangerous biases of bosses, and how they appear in the workplace:

1. “I like you. You remind me of myself.”

This bias is so common that social scientists have a name for it: Similarity Attraction Effect. It leads us to be more approving, more empathetic — and more likely to hire and promote people like us.

It leads us to measure the behavior of others by the yardstick of what we ourselves would do. We see ourselves as the norm to which others should conform. Think about how limiting that can be and how damaging to a team’s potential for the creativity and innovation that come from diverse perspectives, personalities and experiences.

This bias is also cited as a key reason for continued pay and promotion disparities faced by women and minorities in the workplace. It’s not overt, old-fashioned “You Need Not Apply” kind of prejudice. It’s discomfort with and often misjudgment of others, the kind we examined in depth at a recent forum at the National Press Club. (Here’s video of the event.)

It’s not easy to hear that we all pack a little prejudice deep into our decision-making about others, but it’s a stepping stone to solutions.

2. “I hired you.”

When we bring a person onto our team, we’re telling the world, “I believe in this person.”  Since our credibility is on the line in a hire, we root for the best outcome and may be more inclined to give second chances. Even if we believe we wouldn’t unfairly favor our hires, it’s important to monitor our interactions with the rest of our staff, to make certain they see and feel that we’re equally invested in their success. We need to be clear about standards and excel at giving feedback to all, so when any employee does well, it’s clearly about performance, not preference.

This is especially important in an organization undergoing significant change. New hires may bring new skills and can be seen as allies or competitors to the current staff, depending on the leader’s approach.

I learned that lesson when my newsroom was going through a large expansion. We had switched network affiliations and doubled the hours of news we produced. I was determined to convince our strong staff that the influx of new teammates would meet their standards, so I involved them in the vetting process. One day, after a respected reporter looked over the impressive resume of a potential hire, I asked, “Is she good enough for our newsroom?”  He half-smiled and said, “I’m worried. She’s TOO good!”

It was his friendly way of reminding me that while I assumed he knew how much I respected folks like him, even top performers need to hear it loud and clear. I had made the mistake of just asking them to bless the newbies.

3. “I coached you.”

When we decide to help someone improve, we can fall victim to what I call “the coach’s bias.”  Coaches work closely with employees to identify things they should work on and how — and that very focus causes us to see the glass half full instead of half empty.  Coaches note small improvements and point them out, to encourage people to keep on track and try harder.

Meanwhile, others are more likely to see the objective and bigger picture of the work still to be done and the performance gaps unfilled.

Again, learn from my mistakes. I hired a reporter who had no TV experience, but a solid track record for getting good stories. Because he was nervous on-air and it showed, I worked with him as a coach. He was getting incrementally better, so I gave him a spot on our election night coverage. As he sweated — and we squirmed — through his not-great live shots, the producer and I kept saying, “Well, he’s better than he was. He’s getting there…”

The next morning, we reviewed of our coverage with our general manager, who saw things without the “coach’s bias” — only the vantage point of a viewer. He was blunt. He told us the reporter had no business being on the air in that high-pressure, totally ad-lib situation.

He was right. Bias had clouded my judgment. I did a disservice to the audience and to the reporter by seeing only his baby steps toward improvement. I kept working with him, though, far more direct about his need to make election night just a bad memory.  Eventually, he turned out fine — and I learned a lesson about bias.

4. “I put a stake in the ground.”

When we make a public statement, it’s hard to reverse course. We can dig in to that decision and convince ourselves we’re right, when what we’re really doing is saving face. That’s what makes change so hard in organizations, as people confuse positions with principles.

Here’s what I mean. You may have heard a manager say things like this:

  • I won’t hire someone with less than 3 years’ experience.
  • I won’t promote someone who doesn’t come in and pitch hard for the job.
  • I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do.

Managers hang their hats on such ideas, which may have worked for them in some way at some time. Meanwhile, others may see the downside to those positions much more clearly than the boss. The organization may miss out on a brilliant young candidate, or a chance to diversify the team, or lose an up-and-coming employee who feels unappreciated. Those who see those downsides are in a tough spot. It’s not always easy to speak truth to power, especially when the Powerful One thinks righteousness demands rigidity.

That’s why managers should think carefully before declaring “always/never” manifestos, and be open to the possibility that their past positions can blind them to both consequences and possibilities. When a person of integrity says, “I’ve rethought this” or better yet, “I was wrong,” it can build credibility. (Just don’t do it daily. That builds incredulity.)

5. “I used to do that job.”

It’s easy to have an affinity for work that was a big part of your career, especially if you were good at it. Your knowledge and fondness can lead you to pay greater attention to that area, to favor it in staffing, budgeting or equipment.  It can also make you be more critical of it and micromanage it.

I recall a newly appointed managing editor telling me he realized how often he gravitated toward the investigative team’s desks, where he used to work. He walked right past other employees, sending the message, “Here’s what’s important to me,” when all he was really doing was heading to a comfort zone.  When he understood the impact, he changed his habits.

Just know that those whose jobs you’ve never done are watching you, eager to see if you can overcome your bias of experience, and learn to see the world through their eyes. There’s nothing like a manager who demonstrates a genuine interest in learning what it takes to do a job successfully — and acts on it.

6. “I’m under pressure to deliver.”

We can talk ourselves into some bad decisions when we frame a situation as “strictly business.” It makes it too easy to exclude other important considerations.

The business ethics professors who wrote “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” point out that humans approach decisions with two identities, their “want selves” (emotional, impulsive)  and their “should selves” (rational, thoughtful). We’d like to think we operate under our “should selves” as managers. But under workplace pressures, a phenomenon they call “ethical fading” may kick in when we’re being pressured for results:

Our visceral responses are so dominant at the time of the decision that they overshadow all other considerations. We want to help our company maintain its market share. We want to earn profits and bonuses. As a result, want wins and should loses. It is only later, behavioral ethics researchers argue, that we engage in any type of moral reasoning. The purpose of this moral reasoning is not to arrive at a decision — it is too late for that — but to justify the decision we’ve already made.

This doesn’t mean all managers chuck their moral compasses in service to the bottom line. It simply alerts us that it takes both awareness and courage to be the voice that raises issues of ethics, diversity, safety, quality, promise-keeping, compassion or community when others may want to narrow a conversation to short-term business objectives only.

It takes awareness and courage to combat any of these six dangerous biases. We can commit to being vigilant and more self-aware. We can ask for feedback from others and take it to heart. We can use our influence to help colleagues do the same.

It’s a challenge, but it comes with a payoff: a reputation as a trusted leader.

* * *

How should you respond if someone suggests you have a bias? I’ll share tips in this “What Great Bosses Know” companion podcast.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014


Manager alert: pay attention to your best people

For the better part of the past two weeks, I needed a good slapping.

I don’t mean that literally, though some of the people in my life might wish I did. What I needed was someone to snap me out of the insecure funk I get in from time to time.

I had writer’s block.

Do you ever get it? Ideas that seem so clear in my brain get hijacked and disappear somewhere en route to the keyboard. I start a sentence, delete it, start another and delete that, too. I get up and walk the dog, stare some more at the laptop, send out Facebook birthday wishes, stare at the laptop, get a cup of coffee…

Before long, my insecurities win. I am convinced I will never write again. How tragic. It happened so quickly; I never saw it coming.

Am I overreacting? Of course I am. That’s what insecure journalists do. Some are convinced they’ll never write again. Others believe they will never master the digital skills their jobs now require. Still others simply think that finally, after years of fooling their bosses, they have been found out as talentless hacks.

But while they think they need a new career, what they need is a good slap — the kind that really good bosses know just when, and how, to deliver.

Bosses like John Dotson — but when I needed him last week, he was nowhere to be found.

John passed away last year, 30 years after we were colleagues at The Inquirer. He came through Philadelphia before moving on to Akron, where he became publisher of the Beacon Journal and led the newspaper’s Pultizer Prize-winning coverage of race relations.

During our time in Philadelphia, John taught me a lot—but he never helped me more than on a winter’s day in 1983 when we were walking back to the office from lunch—and he slapped me.

That morning, our editor had assigned us to begin an expansion of the paper’s presence in New Jersey by opening a new bureau and publishing a twice-weekly local news section. It was my first big assignment at the Inquirer—and my insecurities immediately kicked in. I spent lunch telling John all the reasons I was worried. I suspect I did nothing to help his chicken salad settle.

We were only a dozen strides out of the restaurant when John moved a step ahead, turned to face me and stopped. I froze. John looked angry. I don’t know for sure that these were his exact words, but almost 30 years later, they are the ones I remember:

“Stop it, Butch. Just stop it. If Gene didn’t think you could do this, he wouldn’t have given you the job. But he knows you can. And you do, too. So just do it.”


I don’t remember what I said to John next, but I know what I felt. Yes, a little embarrassed; but even more, I felt believed in.

Believed in by someone I admired.

That day certainly wasn’t the last on which I felt insecure. But John’s slap changed me in at least two important ways: first, I moved on with a bit more confidence—enough to carry out that assignment and a number of others in the years to come.

More importantly, I recognized that talented people need to hear something they don’t always believe:

That they are good.

Now, it’s certainly not news that a lot of journalists harbor insecurities about their work. Indeed, some of the most talented newsroom people I know are among the most insecure. Unfortunately, some work for bosses with little or no patience for reassuring insecure staffers. They call them “needy,” “whiners,” “head cases.”

Sure, I’ve known journalists who seem to bring a new source of anxiety to the boss every day. For them, the “slap” needs to involve an understanding about how much access to your time is reasonable.

But the truth about many good—and insecure—journalists is that they only end up in your office when they hit bottom. When they think they’re failing.

Some of the luckiest ones had Jim Naughton for a boss.

On many a day, I watched Jim—the former executive editor of The Inquirer (and a past President at Poynter)—as he huddled in his cramped cubicle with a distraught member of the staff who just knew their career was over.

To be sure, Jim could be patient, and these scenes often lasted long into the afternoon. But eventually, after his efforts to reason and comfort had failed, Jim would move just a bit closer to the staffer and say:

“You need to stop this. You are good. Really good. Do you know how I know you’re good. Because we hired you, that’s how. And we don’t hire people unless they’re good. So get out there, relax and do what you’re good at.”

Last week at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference in Washington D.C., I talked with editors about how, especially in times when resources are stretched thin, our best staffers receive the least attention. After all, they come through every day with good work, and many of them rarely ask for anything.

Trust me. That does not mean they do not need attention—maybe even a slapping.

For even if they are not feeling insecure, they need the attention of someone who tells them that they are good, that their work is improving—that they are believed in.

Neglect your best people at your own risk. More than one manager has been surprised when a good staffer decides to leave, usually to join someone who provided what you didn’t—a much-needed dose of praise.

So here are three ideas for helping your best staffers fight their insecurities:

Be clear about what you like. You probably thank best staffers for their good work. But to make that praise meaningful, be specific about what you liked. Remember your goal: To help staffers be more aware of their talents—and which ones you specifically value. That increases the chance they will replicate the good work, and creates a platform from which you can continue to talk with them about improvement.

Talk growth. Telling someone he or she is good is important. But helping me plot my future success is even more valuable. If I am your best feature writer, what can that talent help me become? Build a continuing conversation with your best staffers around their ambitions and how their talents can help them realize them. (Especially in this job environment, it’s not enough to believe I am good—I need to believe I will be good.) And don’t be afraid to include in that conversation the areas in which the staffer needs to improve. Even if I am insecure, I can hear your advice for how I need to improve as supportive—especially if you’ve made it clear you’re invested in my future.

Challenge. Get beyond the words. Nothing demonstrates your belief in me more than an assignment I know you really care about. Whether it’s a story, an investigation or a new product introduction, give your best staffers bigger and bigger opportunities to prove to you—and to themselves—that they are good.

So if you’ve gotten this far, I guess it’s clear that—for better or worse—I got over my writer’s block.

Thanks to a slap.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to rely on a boss to help you snap out of a funk. After two weeks of living with my flare-up of insecurities, it was my wife who—for want of a better metaphor—stopped and faced me on the street with a message I needed to hear.

Donna and I were in the middle of a four-hour car ride to visit her brother in Jacksonville and she had listened to me try to explain, again, why I couldn’t seem to write anything.

For a while, Donna was quiet. Then she began, “William…” in that tone– you know the one–the one that’s stern and caring at the same time.

“William,” she said, “people believe in you. I hate to see you doing this to yourself. You will write when you know you have something to write about. I know you will.”

Thanks, Donna.

In the end, I know it’s important for all of us to believe in ourselves. But some days, it’s hard.

So let me speak for insecure people in newsrooms everywhere:

Boss, we know you’re busy and we’re sorry to be pains in your ass, but on some days, we just need to hear that someone believes in us.

We’d like it to be you.







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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

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As mobile ad revenue continues to soar, newspapers still struggle to catch the wave

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There was a double dose of good news in eMarketer’s mid-year ad forecast released today. Ad spending will grow more than 5 percent in 2014 for the first time in 10 years. And the mobile ad boom shows no sign of plateauing with 83 percent growth over 2013 expected.

Digital giants like Facebook and Google continue to dominate the category (together more than 50 percent), while newspapers and magazine struggle to offer competitive ad buys on their mobile products.

The Newspaper Association of America’s revenue report for 2013, released in April, found that mobile advertising had grown 77 percent for the year but still accounted for less than 1 percent of total revenue.  By contrast, as Facebook reported its first quarter earnings the same month, it said mobile had grown to 59 percent of its total ad revenue.

A newspaper publisher friend summarized the state of play in his industry this way — “2013 will be remembered as the year when mobile went from infinitesimal to insignificant.”

Doing better in 2014 remains a high priority for many newspapers, but more bumps in an already bumpy road are foreseeable.

The American Press Institute held a summit on mobile this spring and found that detailed personalized data is the key to sales.  That is a great strength of Google and Facebook as the digital giants continue to invest heavily to stay ahead of competitors

The creative side of effective mobile advertising is a work in progress for marketers.  The consensus seems to be that banners do not work well on smart phones and tablets and that video, GIFs and other entertainment along with location-specific messages are the better match to how customers use the devices.

The right sort of sponsored content/native advertising also fits with mobile, especially if it is the sort of thing users will share on social media.

In short, these are characteristics of the new generation of content sites like BuzzFeed (which does not take banners) but relatively unfamiliar to legacy operations which do.

Mobile news content is also in early stages of development except at the largest organizations like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe. They have put money into iterative improvement of apps that both display well on the smaller smartphone screen and are tailored to quick, on-the-move consumption.

My own hunch is that getting video right and getting stronger mobile ad performance will go hand in hand for news sites — challenging and frustratingly slow work but hardly impossible.

If the eMarketer forecast is correct, the imperative will only intensify. The research firm sees mobile advertising revenues passing the total ad revenues for newspapers this year and more than tripling them by 2018. Read more


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Poynter to host forum discussing leadership of women in media

The Poynter Institute announced Thursday that it will co-host a national forum focusing on the issues surrounding women in journalism and media leadership.

The forum, which will be held in partnership with the National Press Club Journalism Institute, will focus on the current conversation about newsroom culture as it pertains to women, which was invigorated by the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Read more

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Naysayers are swarming on Clayton Christensen and his “gospel of innovation”

Clayton Christensen

Updated 6-24.

If business school professors were pop stars, Clayton Christensen would be Beyonce. His 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, is wildly influential — in particular, it has been both the theoretical underpinning and rallying banner for would-be digital disruptors of legacy media.

Most recently, Christensen’s thinking is central (and repeatedly cited) in the leaked 2014 Innovation Report young digital staffers of the New York Times produced this spring.  They argue that the print newspaper on which the company built its reputation needs to be de-emphasized and that, borrowing from upstarts like BuzzFeed, the Times should embrace a newsroom culture of aggressive digital development.

This month, however, Christensen has begun to gather some formidable detractors as well as acolytes.  The lead critic is fellow Harvard professor Jill Lepore who unloads a long debunking article in the current issue of The New Yorker.

The core of Christensen’s view is that big and established companies often go wrong trying to improve their dominant premium-priced product as nimble challengers whittle away at market share with much cheaper alternatives. Lepore concedes that this “dilemma” — the frequent futility of sustaining improvements — explains some business failures.  But that’s all she concedes.

Otherwise she finds Christensen building a broad general theory on the back of a few  handpicked case studies, many of which are factually and logically flawed. Thus the disruption framework is not a reliable predictor for success and failure, either for incumbent companies trying to survive and prosper or for hot new ventures crashing into a market.

Turning to the example of the Times’ Innovation Report, she writes:

It includes graphs inspired by Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma,” along with a lengthy, glowing summary of the book’s key arguments. The report explains, “Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent—The New York Times.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

The New Yorker piece is getting broad pickup (“The emperor of ‘disruptive theory’ is wearing no clothes,” headlines Salon).

The New York Times led its business section June 1 with an article on the Harvard Business School’s forays into online instruction.  How best to do that is cast as a strategy battle between Christensen and Michael Porter, another faculty star, who thinks a best-of-the-best company “must stay the course.” For the business school that would mean offering limited high-end online courses — a pattern the school is so far following.

Christensen, predictably, thinks the long-established on-campus instruction model is expensive and dated, so he would prefer the b-school wholeheartedly “disrupt itself,”  specifically offering free MOOCs (massive open online courses).  “Do it cheap and simple,” the Times quotes Christensen as saying. “Get it out there.”

Concurrently with Lepore’s article, the business blog Statechery (hat tip to Millie Tran of the American Press Institute) offered a similar rebuttal.  Author Ben Thompson dwells particularly on the number of times Christensen has been wrong in predicting that Apple and its high-end, elegant digital devices are heading for a fall.

Christensen, to my knowledge has not yet replied to the critics, and I doubt he will.  As the week goes on, however, writers for Vox and Slate have weighed in critiquing Lepore’s critique.

For his part Christensen steams along with his work, which in recent years has been done with co-authors and applies the disruption theory analysis to broad fields.  That began when Christensen, who has had a number of serious illnesses, spent his considerable time in hospitals on a theory for fixing the health care business.

In the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, he and a co-author take on capitalism itself.  They say that the world is suffering a glut of capital and that, especially in large corporations, investments are much more likely to go to money-saving process improvements rather than bold new product development  (“trying to cut your way to prosperity” as we often say in the news business).

In an admiring profile in Harvard Magazine (“Disruptive Genius”), Christensen even stands his ground on Apple.  Less expensive Android-based systems are now slowing the sales growth  iPhones and iPads and “killing Apple,” he claims.  “So I got it wrong; then I got it right,” he tells his interviewer.

My own take (regular readers won’t be stunned) is a sort of middle ground.  Big thinkers, even if they may be over-generalizing, are valuable in shaking up assumptions  — in Christensen’s case, the conviction that top companies with smart managers will stay strong and crush competitors.

Newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines had that sort of market dominance in the golden years of the 20th century.  Now both are fighting for their lives in the digital era, lest they become as Richard Nixon put it in the context of the wind-down of the Vietnam War “a pitiful, helpless giant.”

But I will applaud Lepore too, on the grounds that big thinkers and their big ideas need to be challenged and debated.  Christensen has mostly been lionized, leave it at that.

His skills as a writer help explain that level of acceptance.  While dealing in difficult concepts and occasionally slipping into business theory jargon, his writing is typically confident, clear and accessible.  That can sweep a reader along without a lot of pauses to  reflect on what Christensen may be leaving out.

Slowing down to analyze his paper applying disruption theory to the news business, for instance, I thought Christensen made the common mistake of an exclusive focus on holding and building audience with only passing attention to the importance of finding new ways to serve advertisers well.

At a Nieman seminar in 2013, Christensen said that he had been thinking about just what journalism and news does for its consumers.  He came up with three benefits: (1) find out what is true among competing claims. (2) help busy people unwind at the end of the day and, especially with ethnic publications, (3) generate pride, recognition and respect for a community.

The list is good but narrow.  It doesn’t really hit on the powerful appeal to users of being “in the know” (an old marketing slogan for my hometown Tampa Bay Times) whether for water cooler conversation or one’s own satisfaction.

I think Lepore misportrays Christensen as a dogmatist.  His less noticed follow-up book, “The Innovator’s Solution,” explores an obvious question left dangllng from The Innovator’s Dilemma.  How exactly do you makes an established organization good at innovation? Christensen explicates essential best practices like leadership from the top or heterogeneous project teams.

Also Christensen has started to consider instances in which disruptive theory may not be relevant. Hotels, for example, he told Harvard magazine, are not vulnerable to technological challenges and may occupy a particular spot in the basic-to-luxury spectrum indefinitely if management is attentive to sustaining improvements.

As for newspapers and the future of journalism debate, Christensen remains a justly  influential figure. His consulting firm, Innosight, worked on the American Press Institute’s 2005 Newspaper Next report – a disrupt-yourself wakeup call touting new business models that got a respectful hearing but not much action at the time.

The report has aged well, and a decade later the need for rapid digital transformation has become more orthodoxy than heresy. Though foot-dragging remains an issue.  Just this week, my favorite media analyst, Frederic Filloux, slammed French news organizations for half-hearted stabs at digital, and a lingering view that because their work is important, print newspapers will endure as businesses indefinitely.

The demography, technology and business pressures driving massive change in journalism (and journalism education too) are not going away.  Figuring how to put Christensen’s theory to practice will remain essential, though I will grant Lepore that his big idea is better treated critically than as gospel.

Update:  Christensen did reply in an interview with Bloomberg/Business week, published June 21.  Also Clark Gilbert, CEO of Deseret Digital Media and a former colleague of Christensen’s, critiqued Lepore’s article in a post on

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Controlling business puppet concept

5 reasons managers are addicted to “fixing” – and how to recover

I admit it. I’m a recovering fixer. Show me a piece of copy and my fingers get itchy. I crave contact with a keyboard, with a gnawing urge to tweak someone’s writing a little — or maybe a lot.

Then I remind myself of the pledge I took years ago:

“Remember, Jill. Sit on your hands. Coach, don’t fix.”

I adopted that mantra so I’d have to learn how to help my newsroom staff improve their work without taking away their ownership, responsibility, and too often, their pride in performance. I’d have to learn to teach, not just do. Moreover, I’d need to teach in a way that would help people discover ideas and approaches for themselves, instead of just following instructions from the boss.

Now, in my leadership workshops, when I identify myself as a recovering fixer, I ask if there are any others like me in the room.

I’m never alone.

Many of the aspiring great bosses my workshops say they, too, are hooked on fixing. They’re also the ones who play catch-up on all their other daily duties as they hand-polish the work of others. But it’s become their way of life. Maybe it’s your reality, too.

Why are managers so addicted to fixing? I’ve identified top five reasons:

1. Vanity: Your company promoted you to management because you were really good at your craft – a top producer. Now, your supervisory duties are different from the front line work at which you excelled, and it’s hard to give up something you love. So, when a chance to demonstrate your old chops presents itself, you can’t resist.

2. Efficiency: To review a piece of work with the person who produced it takes time. For expediency sake, you just repair it. You hope the employee will learn from the changes you made, as if by osmosis. You’re wrong, of course. But you do it anyway.  Again and again.

3. Quality: You have high standards. The one person whose performance always meets the mark is – you. So, for quality assurance, you assign yourself the task, even though it adds to your list of duties and often lengthens your work days (and nights and weekends.)

4. Responsibility: You never want to let your organization down. You’re dedicated to making deadlines, achieving goals and beating the competition. When anything on your watch isn’t as good as you think it could be, you personally deliver the solution. (Even though others could, should and probably would do their part, if you used the right leadership skills to guide them.)

5. Incapacity: Fixing is the lone tool in your repair kit. You’re capable of critiquing a product by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” but you can’t articulate the why and how of that assessment in detail. You don’t yet know the right words that describe a path to improvement. You’re talented, but you haven’t learned how to coach. So you keep relying on what you know – jumping into the fray – and you miss opportunities for both you and your staff to grow.

Your addiction to fixing causes problems.

By fixing, you let mediocre performers off the hook. They can keep churning out substandard work because you’ve led them to assume it’s YOUR job to elevate it, not theirs. You’ve created an assembly line where they produce a first draft and expect you’ll doctor it up.

Meanwhile, you’re frustrated, and wonder why they never seem to get better.

On the other end of the spectrum, the high performers on your team resent your interference. They are proud of their work and may feel you’re hijacking it, just to put your own mark on things. Even if you’re making minor modifications, you come across as the “corrections officer” rather than the coach who helps them discover options, try new things, see what they’ve overlooked and enjoy taking good work to an even higher level.

How do you become a coach instead of a fixer?  Here are some tips:

  • Become a student of quality work, including your own. Deconstruct it; take it apart to identify the decisions, the process, the steps that built it from the ground up.  None of us “just does it.”  We operate through a series of identifiable actions with certain assumptions and values attached. If it’s writing, for example, look at a resource like Poynter’s inexpensive e-book “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism” that puts the work of top performers under a microscope and asks them questions about how that quality came to life. Familiarize yourself with the answers.
  • Develop coaching language. Once you see distinct pieces, parts, techniques or barriers related to quality, name them. Build your own book of smart, descriptive terms. There’s a famous phrase around Poynter; “Get the name of the dog.” It’s shorthand coaching language for: Stories are made memorable by key details, as in “The firefighter stepped out of the still-smoking house, cradling a dog Buddy in his arms.” In my journey to become a coach, I built my own coaching lexicon. To help writers remember how passive voice can take the life out a sentence, I’d massacre a Bob Marley/Eric Clapton hit by singing, “The Sheriff Was Shot By Me.” They got the point. Have fun; craft a coaching language that works for your craft and for your team.
  • Remember the power of questions. The most important tool a coach has is a question. How can I help? What’s your goal here? Can you think of another way to do this that’s less complicated? What would happen if…?  Being good at asking questions helps people discover their own answers, which you can then applaud and they can then execute. When I made the commitment to be a writing coach instead of a fixer, I started each review of a story by asking the writer: “What do you love about this story?” It turned out to be a very effective opener.  Most writers would talk about a few things they really liked, but often blurted out what they were concerned about, making it an easier coaching opportunity. My “love” question also let them know I expected people to care about every story, every day. For the record, once you make questions your primary coaching tool, you can also give direct advice. But do that strategically and sparingly, so people don’t revert to being dependent on your wisdom instead of their own.
  • Enjoy a new level of satisfaction in your work. Where once it was all about “What I produced today,” it’s now about “My employees’ success.” Your fingerprints aren’t all over the good work. In fact, your input is almost invisible to an outside observer. But you and to your grateful team know the real story. The work, the workers and the workplace are all improved when a fixer becomes a coach.

Remember, great bosses don’t fix the product, they coach the people.

* * *

Coaching also works to help people make better everyday decisions, too. More on that in the companion podcast to this column:
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Manager, Interrupted: How to trade all of that multi-tasking for some real focus

Multitasking at work. (Flickr Photo by Jonathan Blundell/

It’s 3:00 p.m. You’re sitting at your desk, trying to edit and file to the web the six paragraphs on your computer screen, a breaking account of the fire that has reduced downtown traffic to a crawl.

Your phone rings. The reporter at the fire wants to add a sentence about a new detour. You take the information and add it. Back to editing. Your mobile phone buzzes. It’s a news alert: the mayor has decided not to seek reelection. Then the phone rings. The city government reporter has the news about the mayor. Tweet it, you tell her, then file three paragraphs for the web and call back to discuss a follow-up. You forward the news alert to the news and web desks to let them know what’s coming.

Back to the fire story. It’s 3:06 p.m. Your phone rings. It’s a reporter who wants to take next Friday off…

For the newsroom manager, the workday can seem like a relentless string of interruptions.

Perhaps that’s because it is. And in today’s resource-strapped newsrooms, you can feel like the string is wrapped around your neck.

Does it have to be this way? Can a manager do anything about the interruptions that always seem to complicate life at the worst possible moment?

I say yes. In fact, I’d say you can even learn to love them. (I’ll try to get to my suggestions before you get interrupted.)

First, a reality check.

Before managers come to Poynter for a leadership seminar, I ask them to keep a log of their activities—all of their activities—for one typical work day. They arrive with sheets of paper, filled with a single-spaced record of their work. When I ask what struck them about their lists, many say: “We really do a lot.”

Then they invariably say: “And I get interrupted constantly.”

To be sure, nearly all jobs include interruptions—and they clearly have a negative impact on the quality of work. A good deal of research has been done into the impact of interruptions—and into the effectiveness of “multi-tasking,” our favorite coping mechanism.

You might have heard some of these findings. They include:

And then there’s a study that found that people who accept interruptions as part of their workday typically make adjustments. The researchers’ observation certainly matched my experience:

“When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted.”

The researchers’ next observation also rang true:

“Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”

Put another way: Merely working faster to compensate for interruptions ultimately tightens the string around your neck.

You need to do more than simply compensate. You need a plan, one built on an idea that might seem counterintuitive:

Interruptions are essential contributors to the newsroom manager’s success.

That’s right. Often, interruptions are good.

Think about it. The news alert about the mayor tips you off to an important story. The call from the reader who caught a mistake during today’s morning show affords you a chance to improve your credibility with a correction. Even the call from the reporter who wants a day off can be good for a number of reasons—maybe it tips you off to a staffer’s personal crisis; maybe it just gives you a chance to acknowledge a staffer’s hard work.

No, you neither can—nor should you want to—eliminate the interruptions in your workday. Instead, you need to:

  • Make the most of the interruptions that benefit your work. (News tips, interactions with the public, important personnel matters.)
  • Reduce (or at least better manage) the interruptions over which you have control. (Email, social media, phone calls that you initiate.)
  • Minimize the disruptive nature of interruptions, whatever their source, on your work.

Here are a few ideas for getting started:

Keep a log of one typical work day. Start when you get to the building, writing down every activity that you engage in. Include everything. Coffee breaks, the water cooler conversation about last night’s game, a question from a colleague that you answer. When the log is completed, highlight the interruptions. Now note the interruptions you caused; the times you stopped what you were doing to check email, tweet, ask a colleague about the agenda for this afternoon’s meeting.

Keeping the log will be a pain in the keyboard. But it will be revelatory—in many ways. Just identifying the interruptions that you control will give you the chance to make different choices, like …

Resist the need to check email constantly. Facebook and Twitter, too. For every time that you call up email and find an urgent message, there are 50 times you find nothing important (or worse, a message that requires an answer—but could have waited). Too late. The damage is done. How about trying to complete the task you’re doing before checking email?

Resist all impulse activity. It’s not just about email. It’s about stopping what you’re doing for any activity that suddenly crosses your mind. “I need to tweet a link to this afternoon’s web report.” “I forgot to call the statehouse reporter about tomorrow’s budget hearing.” “It’s been an hour since I updated the news budget.” All of these activities have two things in common. All have value, and all—if you deal with them immediately—will take you away from what you’re doing. Try counting to 10 before you switch activities. You can do it. You’re stronger than you think.

Invest in sticky notes. The biggest problem I have with self-interruption begins with this statement to myself: “Deal with it now. It will only take a minute.” Unfortunately, it rarely takes a minute. And 15 minutes (or more) later, when I return to the task that was interrupted, I’ve lost my train of thought. What if, instead of stopping what I’m doing, I make a quick note to myself to return an email, tweet out a story or call a colleague about a meeting?

Taking care of things as they happen—without regard to the importance of what is being interrupted—reflects the belief that efficiency produces quality. Not necessarily. Sometimes efficiency actually compounds the disruptive effect of the interruption you were attempting to address.

Get comfortable with “Can this wait?” Every interruption presents a value proposition. Two activities are vying for your attention (and remember, the brain cannot deal with two cognitive activities at once.) So which is more important: What you are doing now, or what the interruption is asking you to do? Some managers almost always vote for themselves (I didn’t like working for them); others usually vote for the interruption (the copy desk didn’t like working with them). Fact is, sometimes you need to stay focused on what you’re doing— on deadline, for example, you need to edit. When you’re having a difficult career conversation with someone, you need to stay in the moment. When that is the case, an appropriate response to your interrupter is, “Can we talk in an hour?” Or “Will tomorrow work?” Or “can someone else help you?”

This is not to suggest that the reason for the interruption is not important. It’s a reminder that managing is about making choices—and prioritizing how you spend your time—to have the best possible impact.

Schedule stuff. Another great use of the log is to identify times of the day that are less hectic—times when you could schedule work that can make the interruptions that occur later less disruptive. Regularly scheduling 20 minutes to give staffers individual feedback can address performance issues that otherwise might pop up on deadline. Setting aside 30 minutes early in the day to edit a non-deadline story reduces the chance an interruption will destroy your focus. Use your schedule to exert as much control on your day as possible. Get stuff done before it has to compete with external interruptions for your attention.

Assign your staff to a few shifts on the desk. Sometimes the people who interrupt you on deadline have no idea they are being disruptive. Nothing more effectively shows the staff their impact on the operation than letting them help manage it for a few days. Suddenly, for example, the reasons for deadlines are clear. It’s also a great way to measure a staffer’s editing potential and increase the staff’s versatility.

Create a time of day for admin. Talk to your staff about bringing you administrative concerns at a specific time of day. Deadline is not a time to talk about holiday schedules. On the other hand, nothing increases your credibility as a manager more than demonstrating that you care about such issues. Be clear that this is not about dismissing or trivializing administrative questions—it’s actually about handling them better than you can on deadline. (And ultimately, you’ll be judged on how—not when—you dealt with those holiday schedules.)

One last thought: If you decide to respond to an interruption—for any reason—shift your focus completely to the new activity. Dealing with someone’s issue while attempting to continue what you were working on diminishes both activities.

Do one thing at a time. After all, that’s all our brains can handle.


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Thursday, May 29, 2014

virtual newsroom _ depositphotos

Virtual Newsroom: getting journalism done in a digital age

At this moment, I am at my dining room table in Los Angeles with two laptops, a cellphone and an iPad. I work with staff writers who live in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and just outside of Tampa. I also talk virtually with Poynter faculty, adjunct faculty and freelancers who write for us, some of whom live in Florida, but some who do not.

As the future of news is still inventing itself and the nature of news remains in transition, there’s one thing we can say definitively: We’re no longer working the way we did 10, 5 or even 2 years ago.

With technology, we can — and do — report on the news at greater speeds and larger volume. The Web, cell phones, tablets, wearables, and other devices allow us to give audiences what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Downsizing of staff, added work duties, reduction and relocation of workspaces and other expense cuts are also contributing to the upheaval that thousands of journalists have endured in recent years.

This all has led to the era of the virtual newsroom. By working virtually, I mean journalists can function outside the office, perhaps in their home or in a coffee shop or in a shared space, and produce work for a news organization or website that operates at a distance.

As I prepare to transition out of my interim role as editor, I’m writing what I hope will be the first of several posts on the virtual newsroom, a guide and conversation with you about the challenges of working remotely for a news organization.

For decades, journalists have worked in bureaus far from the main newsroom or they freelanced from home, sometimes thousands of miles from their editors and colleagues. But today more journalists are working independently or, even if they remain on payroll, outside of the typical newsroom. Technology makes it possible.

Working virtually is also expanding in part because digital news jobs are growing. Pew Research Center estimates in its report on digital reporting that news outlets born as digital-only operations have created nearly 5,000 full-time editorial jobs. Often these are small and lean operations run by fewer than four people. And, those journalists may all work in different locations.

In a virtual news operation, all of the advantages that an editor can draw on by walking across the room disappear: the face-to-face contact, reading of body language, and connections that form when we share a physical space.

If you’re a writer, similar conveniences are gone if you work remotely. When you have a question about a change in your story, you can’t simply sidle over to an editor’s desk to have a chat. Or if you need the phone number for a source, your colleague who can help may be in another state rather than at the next desk.

For editors, the tasks of giving out assignments, negotiating story lengths and deadlines, arranging visuals, editing and fact-checking all take on another level of difficulty when communicating virtually. For those who do the work, there’s the challenge of fully understanding what’s expected, dealing with unforeseen events, electronically delivering their stories or images, and getting feedback on their work. On some days, communication goes awry and there’s little one can do to fix things from afar.

But there are practices and approaches that can take some of the pain out of the process. I communicate with my Poynter colleagues, for example, by ways that are most efficient or most comfortable for the writers, and it generally works well.

Still, I only occasionally see the staffers in person, and I can’t attend staff meetings at Poynter regularly. Instead we hold Google Hangouts or I listen in to meetings via conference phone.

I don’t get to know all of my colleagues as I well as I would like. Rather we learn about each other by email or phone calls and during my infrequent visits to St. Petersburg.

On the other hand, I don’t spend hours commuting each week and can use the time to work instead. I take my coffee breaks by walking five feet to the kitchen and I’m back in a flash, available for any requests for edits. In my ongoing quest for work-life balance, I can take care of home chores without impacting my work production.

I’m convinced after working on news websites for over a decade, that journalists with certain skills and personalities best adapt to working this way. Hiring and coaching for a virtual newsroom take on added considerations, but I’ll get more into this subject in a future post.

If you work virtually or manage those who do, tell me about your experiences and concerns. Jump into the comment box below or email me at and let’s talk. You can also catch me on Twitter: @sandraoshiro. Read more


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jill Abramson_AP

So what the heck IS a good management style, anyway?

There are no perfect managers. Not Jill Abramson. Not Dean Baquet. Certainly not Jill Geisler when she ran a newsroom, and she’s now a leadership teacher, for heaven’s sake.

Every manager has strengths and challenges. And on any given day, you, as a boss, will disappoint someone.

You hire and promote people while rejecting others. You accept and advance one person’s idea but pass on someone else’s. You hold people accountable for quality and performance. You force them out of their comfort zones to learn new things (Hello, digital age.)  In tough economic times, you cancel projects they love, freeze or cut their salaries and lay off their talented friends.

And if you’re like most people, you do all that with little or no training in how to lead a team. Your training was in journalism, or in whatever craft in which you performed well enough for your bosses to say, “We like what you do, so how ’bout we put you in charge of that work?”

But you don’t just manage work. There’s this matter of leading the people who perform it — human beings who bring their hopes, talents, deficiencies and personality quirks to the job with them.

They are people, not just producers. They aren’t all like you and even the best of them don’t — and don’t want to — do things exactly the way you did when you were a top performer.

That’s where management really gets tricky, and the temptations are great:

It would be so easy if you could only:

  • Captain a team of journalists who question authority and resist spin, except when it comes to you.
  • Hire employees who are just like you, because they make you so comfortable.
  • Focus strictly on results, not the folks who get you there.
  • Tell them, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job,” so you skip chit-chat and focus on tasks you really like.
  • Deliver criticism whenever and however you damn well please.
  • Expect people to conform to you, whatever your strengths or shortcomings, because you’re in charge.

I’ve just described the bad old days, didn’t I? — a time when bosses could be behave like tyrants and discriminate indiscriminately (who wants women and minorities to crash the club, right?), and have all that be perfectly acceptable so long as their team (happy or miserable) cranked out some good work. Sometimes even that wasn’t necessary, as long the boss made budget.

Times have changed. Businesses and business schools began to focus on leadership, not just management. The goal was to improve the product and the process by looking at how people at work are hired, trained, engaged, motivated, and, yes, even inspired.

The goal was to figure out how to have more employees say things like this about their managers:

He has a fantastic ability to listen to criticism and act positively on that criticism. He is good at selecting the right person for the job, and is genuinely liked by his colleagues. He inspires confidence and brings out the best in people.  He is good at working as part of a large team with many conflicting ideas and agendas. It’s fun to be at work when he is the boss.

That quote is from a 360-degree feedback report for a manager in one of our Poynter leadership seminars. When I wrote my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I illustrated great and not-so-great behaviors with these real responses about managers, to show what an impact they have.

With good grim humor, she has helped lead us through a severe downsizing. She has done this by reminding us what our core mission is, and if we focus on that we’ll be all right. And she has led by example, by getting down to work and not whining, and proving we can do it.

Or this:

What can you say about an editor you trust completely, who you know would do anything for you and your story, who inspires you, who makes work not seem like work at all?  If I could get her to be the editor of my life, I’d be a better person.

So what do these managers do better than others?  They look at their relationships with employees as a series of transactions. Produce enough good outcomes from each of those transactions and you build social capital.  Social capital is a bank of trust and good will that gets you through the rough times, when your role as a manager requires you to disappoint someone, or when you simply make a mistake.

When supervisors are committed to having high-quality transactions, people who are criticized aren’t crushed, people whose ideas don’t get accepted aren’t made to feel stupid, people who do well get deserved credit, and folks aren’t left wondering where they stand in the organization or if they even matter at all.

There’s something else the best managers do: they understand that their moods and behaviors are contagious. Their energy, enthusiasm and optimism set a tone in the workplace. They have — or learn to develop — a good degree of social and emotional intelligence. They can read people, read situations, read a whole darn room and respond accordingly. (I always said that my job as a manager was to get calm when the team got nervous and get nervous when the newsroom’s too calm.)

They know what management style fits best for which situation:

  • A commanding, top-down leadership style is the right fit for crisis or when risky decisions must be made, when employees expect calm and in-control boss. But that style is self-defeating if used for all occasions because people feel micromanaged.
  • A pacesetting style, raising the bar and constantly challenging people, can jump-start a sluggish team. But a group of high performers (especially those who are smarter than their bosses — and many are) will rebel in the face of relentless “not good enoughs” from their leader.
  • A democratic style that demonstrates empathy gets people through tough times. Democratic leaders tend to bring people together for a voice in decisions (if not necessarily a vote) when buy-in is important during change. But used too much or in the wrong situations, it can create a conflict-averse culture with slow decision-making.
  • A visionary style can help people see and feel the importance of a mission and a goal when they are up against uncertainty and challenge. But if it’s big talk and little execution, employees feel manipulated, not motivated.

Authors like Daniel Goleman, who delves deeper into those styles in his book Primal Leadership will tell you most managers have a “default” style of managing — behaviors they fall into instinctively. But the best ones know how to shift out of that style and into another that’s better for the moment. They do it comfortably and carefully, so it’s not an act. It’s simply knowing how to match the right dance to the right music.

It’s hard work. It’s why, if you don’t mind the shameless plug, leadership training is important. I know it could have saved me (and spared my team) from some of my managerial mistakes. It’s why I take special delight in working with new managers and applaud organizations that identify emerging leaders and provide them with some schooling even before they’re promoted.

Because at the end of the day — or make that the work day — the secret to a smart supervisor’s success is this:

Manage yourself, so you can lead others.

I share more insights in this companion podcast:

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

In this Oct. 18, 2011 photo, traffic passes the New York Times building, Tuesday, in New York.  The New York Times Co. stock rose sharply on Thursday, July 26, 2012 after the media company reported that second-quarter revenue increased more than expected.   (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

New York Times’ Sulzberger took a risk; how about one more?

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s latest statement is a far cry from the May 14 New York Times news release about Jill Abramson’s departure, a missive that seems almost comically cordial now. Then, Sulzberger expressed his “sincere thanks” to her and she, in turn, thanked him for “the chance to serve,” calling him “a steadfast protector of our journalism.”

Addressing the staff that same day, Sulzberger would only describe the reason for the editor’s departure as “an issue with management in the newsroom.

Jill Abramson was gone and remained silent. Sulzberger thought he had said enough. But reports about the backstory surfaced from diggers like NPR’s David Folkenflik and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. The focus then turned, in large measure, to questions about compensation (was she the victim of pay discrimination?), style (was she really so tough to work for — and with?), the handling of her departure (why did it seem so cold-blooded?) and sexism (isn’t this just another example of women being sanctioned for behaviors that are valued in men?)

Then the world began to weigh in, with opinion pieces aplenty, including Poynter’s own, in which my colleague Kelly McBride and I both talked about the need for greater Times transparency about the firing. Much of the commentary came from women — about women.

It’s understandable.

At a time when women in journalism earn 17 percent less than men, when Abramson’s departure leaves no top 10 paper with a woman in the editor’s chair, when women are still underrepresented in the leadership ranks of many professions, when Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wants us to “ban bossy,” a master narrative began to emerge: This firing must have been strictly about gender, power and money.

And that apparently didn’t ring true to the man who made the decision to fire Jill Abramson.

In an act that likely caused heartburn for attorneys and HR people, who traditionally counsel leaders to keep personnel reviews private, even in the face of public criticism, Sulzberger re-opened the conversation — with the kind of detail rarely shared about managerial performance. He said:

During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.  I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom.  She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them.  We all wanted her to succeed.  It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.

That statement carries with it no small amount of risk, including ridicule from disbelievers or litigation by his former employee, especially if her separation agreement contains a common non-disparagement clause. (To learn more about them, you could always check out this January New York Times Op-Ed piece.)

Those are risks Arthur Sulzberger is willing to take in defense of his decision, his paper’s reputation, and his own legacy. He closed his statement by speaking about — and then apparently on behalf of — the women in his organization:

We are very proud of our record of gender equality at The New York Times. Many of our key leaders – both in the newsroom and on the business side – are women.  So too are many of our rising stars.  They do not look for special treatment, but expect to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues.  For that reason they want to be judged fairly and objectively on their performance…

May I suggest he engage in one more risk? Be introspective. Ask the women of the Times about the status of women at the paper today: their pay, their evaluations, their promotions, their ability to have their ideas gain traction and to influence change. Is the pride in “our record of gender equality” shared widely? How do you know?

If there’s work to be done, lay out a plan for improvement (just as the recent deep-dive analysis of the paper’s digital shortcomings and need for culture change away from print-centrism did so clearly) — and share it.

If the findings are positive, then by all means be transparent about that, too. The world could use some good news about women in the workplace. And don’t hesitate to note, if credit is indeed due, that whatever her “management issue,” Jill Abramson helped other strong, smart women succeed at The New York Times. Read more