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People Before Policy

Think of a job that you chose to leave (or are about to leave). What was the core problem? Reasons vary but there are typically some recurring themes tied to engagement:

· No forward path (or someone actively blocked it)
· Bad manager (sometimes horrible, usually just mildly incompetent)
· Poor fit (this role just isn’t me)
· Not challenging (boredom)
· Zero impact (no one would notice if I stopped working)

In gauging your own next steps as a leader simultaneously contending with return to work/hybrid arrangements, performance, and profitability, remember that the elements underlying disengagement (including your own) are neither new nor unique.

The days of yore (take your pick: pre-COVID, pre-financial crisis, pre-internet, pre-whatever) were rife with problems and conflicting interests. Intensities varied but at its violent worst you have the Haymarket Riot of 1886. On the more benign side, they put barbers and coffee shops on the ground floor in the 1950s to keep people from straying too far from the office.

The pandemic and hybrid work didn’t create the principal-agent problem and changes in distanced, abstract, top-down policies generally won’t solve specific, local challenges of employee engagement. Yes, of course policies (and laws) matter, but before heading straight to policy considerations to deal with your seemingly special circumstances, think first about your specific team members and their individual needs.

This turns out to be harder than it sounds but one concrete, “good enough” heuristic I’ve found is to follow your ABCs:

· Autonomy
· Belonging
· Competency

And I mean this quite directly: instead of thinking about what your new work policy should be, you should instead explicitly ask yourself what you can do to move people to their appropriate levels of autonomy, increase their genuine sense of belonging, and facilitate the development of their competencies.

This simple shift from policy to person leads to concrete questions like “What would help Jasmine get the uninterrupted blocks of time she needs to do her deep work?” or “Is my design team suffering because we aren’t sitting in a room together?” or perhaps “Can Chris handle less directed guidance at this stage of his career?”

Once you’ve got some clarity on your specific people challenges, you’ll be in a better position to selectively revisit policies if necessary. Start small, deliberately test, and iterate accordingly. You can’t just logic this stuff out because people are variable and messy. You need to see what works and what doesn’t. And over time you may just find that when you fix the small things a lot of the things that policies attempt to address take care of themselves.