Is it safe?


 Ten years ago, I wrote “I can manage” (in chapter 9), which captures how to be a good manager in four pages. Some recent articles and situations got me reflecting on one of the points: “There is nothing more critical, more essential than ensuring everyone is given an opportunity to work in a safe environment.”

Obviously, your employees can’t do their best work if they fear for their lives, but our buildings are fairly secure and workplace accidents are pretty rare. However, physical safety is only one aspect of feeling safe. Your employees can’t do their best work if they feel:

  • Harassed by self-centered and stunted heathens.
  • Disrespected by insecure, insensitive, or ignorant doofuses.
  • Bullied by arrogant beasts.
  • Neglected by self-serving narcissists.
  • Repressed by domineering and distrusting rulers.

Fearing harassment, contempt, belittling, abandonment, or retribution leads to subpar work at best and disciplinary action at worst. What can be done to allay these fears? How about being more than a manager? How about behaving like a decent human being?

Life’s hard—don’t make it harder

Harassing people is clearly unconscionable and not tolerated by Microsoft. Why would you deliberately make anyone on your team feel disturbed or offended by your behavior or the behavior of anyone else? No decent person would.

However, decent people may disturb or offend others unintentionally, or they may assume that their behavior isn’t disturbing or upsetting. If people’s body language does not adequately convey offense to you, surely a request to stop bad behavior will (yours or others’). One instance or request should be enough to put a stop to harassment. It’s unconscionable—just stop it.

While behaving disrespectfully isn’t quite as serious as harassment, it’s still upsetting to people. Your skillset and preferences alone don’t make you right. Your background, lifestyle, and beliefs alone don’t make you admirable. Your abilities (or disabilities), appearance, and attire don’t make you superior. Of course not, so don’t insinuate it. Treat everyone as they’d wish to be treated—with respect. If you’re unsure how to act appropriately, check the HR website or just ask. It’s not hard, it’s not awkward, it’s just decent.

Eric Aside

HR’s unconscious bias training can help you recognize when you unintentionally offend, misjudge, or mistreat others. The HR website has additional training and materials, such as the diversity and inclusion toolkit.

Being a jerk is so 1980s

Bullying your co-workers and employees is deplorable. It makes you appear desperate, insecure, and thoughtless. It makes others feel unheard, unappreciated, and small. Yet in the early years of Microsoft, arrogant bullying was not only happening, but seemingly rewarded. Accomplishment was the actual thing being rewarded, but bullying seemed a valid means to an end.

When the company was small, everyone knew each other and had to work together. People learned to tolerate smart bullies who got things done. But by the late 1990s, that small dynamic was no longer in effect. If you were a bully (and hadn’t made the executive ranks), people could ignore and avoid you.

Today, being a jerk is not only deplorable—it’s ineffective (even for executives). In our diverse and inclusive environment with our broad base of customers, there’s no place for arrogant beasts. Bullies should learn some manners and humility or leave and ruin some other company, because there’s no room for them at Microsoft.

Eric Aside

The I.M. Wright character is modeled after some arrogant beasts I knew early in my career. Hopefully, he’s a little more enlightened and not a complete jerk.

No man is an island

Neglecting any of your coworkers and employees inadvertently is unfortunate and fails to take advantage of the diversity of ideas around you. We’re all busy, but we should make time to listen to and value our peers.

Neglecting people deliberately due to favoritism, bias, prejudice, or narcissism is sickening and disgraceful. Think that isn’t you? Do you always go to the same people for ideas? Do you restrict information that could be shared broadly? Do the loudest and quickest dominate your meetings? Do some voices remain unheard? Do you monopolize credit? Do you dismiss ideas that you can’t claim as yours? Does your career trump other concerns? If any of these sound familiar, you’re neglecting people at your peril.

Self-serving narcissists can advance for a while, but they leave a trail of people who despise them: people who were ignored, uncredited, and mistreated; people who only supported the narcissist out of fear or ignorance; people who will take joy in the narcissist’s downfall.

The bottom line is that for people to care about you, you must care about them. You must treat them with respect and appreciation. You must give them chances and value their ideas. The moment you play favorites, skip past the quiet one, or willfully exploit people is the moment your co-workers turn against you. This is tragic for you, because they’d support and appreciate you if you gave them a chance.

A growth mindset

Repressing people by leading with fear and distrust may be the most insidious and harmful behavior of all—not because it’s the most severe (that’s harassment), but because it impacts so many, drives such bad outcomes, and can last so long. Harassment and disrespect get noticed and corrected. Bullies outlive their welcome. Narcissists mess up and no one lifts a finger to help. But dictators can rule through fear, and even have admirers, for as long as they get results.

What makes dictators so bad? It’s that they can’t tolerate mistakes and dissent. Dictators who accept mistakes and dissent seem weak, endanger their outcomes and dominant position, and don’t stay dictators for long. Instead, dictators rule with fear—fear of making mistakes, seeming disloyal or disagreeable, or not generating adequate results. However, mistakes are inevitable, no one is infallible, and adequate isn’t enough.

Mistakes and respectful debate should be embraced. They are an opportunity to improve—to go beyond adequate and reach exceptional. But repressed individuals are too scared to take chances. They are too frightened to speak truth to power, provide contrary views, or try new ideas. Thus, they remain anchored to safe old choices. As a result, organizations run by dictators get left in the past.

Our best every day

Satya says, “It all starts with a growth mindset—a passion to learn and bring our best every day.” To do so, we must feel safe. Safe from harassment and disrespect. Safe from bullying and neglect. And safe to make mistakes, disagree, learn, grow, and improve.

Managers are in a unique position to ensure people feel safe. They can have zero tolerance for harassment. They can demonstrate respect and educate their teams on diversity. They can confront the bullies and help them become more collaborative. They can care about every team member and ensure everyone contributes in meetings, designs, and validations. And finally, managers can make work a safe place to be truthful, disagree, and occasionally fail.

Whenever I welcome new members to my team, I tell them that mistakes are human and expected. It’s not the mistakes that matter—it’s how you respond. If you hide mistakes out of shame or fear, they can become real problems. Instead, if you welcome mistakes as an opportunity to grow and improve, everyone can be part of the solution, and our teams and products are better for it.

We want Microsoft to be a place where everyone can do their best work. That means a workplace free from fear—a workplace that embraces who we are and encourages us to take chances and grow. Be part of making that a reality.

Eric Aside

For more about dealing with big mistakes, read I messed up.

0216 Is it safe.mp3

Comments (2)

  1. Karadi says:

    Manchurian Candidate much? 😛

  2. Jo_di says:

    Very well written and nice audio as well. It would be wonderful, If you can make the audio available similarly in downloadable .mp3 format on your other articles as well. Embeded Audios which you have on other articles works fine but can’t be listened offline/on the go without internet connectivity.

    Thanks 🙂

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