Management in the WFH World with Jean-Nicolas Reyt

PodcastJanuary 26, 2021
Production line illustration

We’re not in a factory. We’re not in a production line anymore. We’re in a place where we expect people to be flexible, to be creative, to be motivated. So if you want people to be that way, treat them that way. Don’t treat them like they’re factory workers.

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In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke speaks with Jean-Nicolas Reyt, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management. Jean-Nicolas’ research focuses on the meaning employees attach to their work and workplaces. In their discussion, Brooke and Jean-Nicolas discuss the rationale for a shift from Scientific Method approaches to management, in the context of increased remote working driven by the pandemic, as well as a greater demand for work flexibility from high-value employees. Some of the topics discussed include:

  • Organizations’ reliance on management models developed for factory, conveyor-belt workers, and why these don’t serve advanced Western economies.
  • The need for more accurate measures of performance, based on output rather than impression management.
  • Strategies that managers can implement to build trust and confidence in their teams. 
  • The role of leadership in establishing a common sense of meaning and purpose.
  • How organisational culture helps bridge the physical and motivational gap between individuals and the collective.

Key Quotes

Why We Should Abandon Archaic Measures of Performance

“If you have an employee that is excellent, they can do something in 20% of the time that it takes another person, they can do even better work. Then, good. You have an excellent employee. Who gives a crap if they’re sitting on their chair? Nobody cares. What you care about is that they’re doing their job. If they’re doing it well, then it doesn’t matter.”

Progress Requires Trust and Leverage

“The image that I have is horseback riding where you can either keep the reins extremely tight to the point that the horse is pulled back and can’t stand properly. And you’re thinking you’re doing a good job, but you’re really not. You need to give more trust to the horse, right? And so, I think it’s very interesting because sometimes, we also forget when we’re managing other people, we forget that our systems don’t only have direct effects, they also have indirect effects. They signal things about what we think. They signal things about how we consider people.”

Micromanagement = Mediocracy

“In creating these systems that are so airtight, you also leave no room to breathe whatsoever. And the result that I’ve seen from that is that these very, very controlling organizations manage to get a decent quality of work out of the baseline talents that they are able to recruit, but that they have real trouble recruiting and certainly retaining top end talent. In order to make sure that your lowest level people are not underperforming, you create a circumstance where your highest performing people can never over perform.”

How the Pandemic Is Forcing Organizations to Confront a Crisis of Leadership

But it’s also a leadership crisis. So many organizations have realized, “Oh, wait a second. We don’t have a leader here. It’s not a leader. It’s like a manager. It’s somebody who does, who implements a system that was already decided before. It’s not somebody who can come up with a new system. It’s not somebody who can understand how the winds are going and what direction we’re going into.”

What Defines Real Leadership

“A true leader doesn’t just implement things. A true leader is able to listen to what’s going on without feeling threatened, and is also then able to come up with a new system that makes sense in the new environment. Slapping a fresh coat on something that’s rotten underneath, it just doesn’t work.”

Culture Eats Micro-Management For Breakfast

“This is why culture is probably the most important thing a leader can do. Implementing a good culture. When organizations have a strong culture, people understand what’s expected of them. They understand what the organization is about. They understand what’s rewarded and what’s punished. And when people know all of these things, you don’t have to micromanage them, because they get it. So, if they’re faced with a different situation, they don’t have to come to you because they don’t understand anything. They can just understand themselves, “Well, that’s how we’re going to deal with this.””



Brooke: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, a research director at TDL and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Jean-Nicolas Reyt, Assistant Professor of Management at McGill University. And in today’s episode, we’ll be talking about going hybrid, giving employees agency, structuring work and rewarding true productivity. Jean-Nicolas, thanks for joining us.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Thank you so much for having me.

Brooke: I gather there’s been a lot of media interest in your research since remote work got massively accelerated about 18 months ago now. Can you give us some insight into what kinds of questions you’ve been receiving? What is keeping people up at night?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Sure. So, it’s really interesting the way it all unfolded, because in the beginning, people saw the working from home challenge as mostly an IT challenge. And so, you really had to bring people home and have their internet connection fixed and have laptops and all that kind of stuff. And over the weeks, after March 2020, then managers and employees started understanding that the rules of the game were different. You can’t manage a remote employee the same way you’re managing an in-office employee. And so, I think the thing that most people want to know is, “What do we need to do differently, so that people can have a good balance between work and home, people can be productive, people can feel they’re valued by the organization?” It’s really about reinventing work or inventing the future of work.

From Scientific Management to Meaningful Leadership

Brooke: Yeah. That’s a great point and it raises this natural question of what it is that we were doing before. So, Henry Ford in the Ford automobile plants, famously, with the help of Frederick Winslow Taylor, created this system of Scientific Management for factories. Tell us a little bit: What is Scientific Management and how was it well-adapted to the work environment of its era?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Sure. When people used to be working mostly in factories, people like Ford started thinking, “Well, how can we make them more productive?And so, it was all about finding the one best way that people could be productive and they started to have production lines and you standardize all the methods and all that kind of stuff. And in the end, you have one standardized product, and the standardized product has to be of equal quality, and has to be always at the same quality level. 

The way they worked, it made sense to have the 40-hour work week from Monday to Friday, where everybody had to be in the office at the same time in  the same location. Because in a production line, if somebody is missing then the production line stops. You just can’t move forward if the guy who screws the screw is not there. then it’s over. You just can’t go on with the rest of the project.

What’s really interesting is we’ve been stuck with this model over the past 100 years, even though everything in the world has changed, right? And I think what’s been very interesting about the pandemic is that it really put into question that model and people started thinking, “Is it really the only way we can do this?”

Brooke: So, which elements of that model still endure? Where do we see the legacy of scientific management still in our day-to-day working environments?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: There are some procedures where it still makes sense. There are some environments where it still makes sense, but I think for the vast majority of employees today, it really doesn’t fit anymore. So many people, I mean, the way you do your job, the way I do my job and the way most people who work in an office do their jobs, we’re not really producing a standardized output, and we don’t really have to work all at the same time or in the same location. In fact, a lot of times, people will have a week where they don’t have a lot of work to do. And then another week where they have a lot of work to do. That’s really not the way Scientific Management was working, it was all about always doing the same thing, the best way.

Brooke: Right. So, it was really prioritizing consistency and also, shorter loops, so for instance, there are some things in my own job, for instance, for the people working with me, I participate in performance assessment exercises periodically. There is a certain input that is required for me for those processes to move forward, but it’s not like if I don’t do something within the next 10 minutes, then the person after me in the chain cannot do something in the 10 minutes following that. The time cycles are longer, they also cascade on top of one another because there are a lot of different types of processes that I’m involved with rather than just one.

But as you mentioned, up until the pandemic started, despite the fact that there were all of these cascading timelines and that it was not nearly as clear cut, and certainly consistency was much lower, we were all working in the same physical office space. We were all conserving more or less the same working hours, this kind of thing.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Definitely. And I think, it’s interesting, what you’re saying is it’s very, very difficult and if you want to measure the performance of someone, it’s very difficult to find an indicator that will simplify something very complex into one unique number. If you’re thinking about a production line, well, it’s pretty easy to see if somebody is performing or not, you can just do quality checks,ou can look at the output in terms of the number of units they produced, all that kind of stuff.

But all of that work, we outsourced it to other countries some 30, 40, 50 years ago. We don’t do that kind of work in our developed economies anymore. And in fact, a lot of jobs, here again, like most office employees,  require creativity. They don’t require us to do the same thing over and over. They require people to come up with different things, different ideas, and different ways.

Remote Working and Consequences for Management

Brooke: All right. There are a few buzzwords that I want to dig into here. Two of them are remote work or telework and the other one is the four-day workweek. These concepts certainly have exploded in terms of how often they get discussed and how seriously they get discussed, I think in workplaces. But they’re not actually new, are they?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: No, they’re not. I mean, if you think about remote work, so I did my dissertation on remote work. And I was advised by one of the most prominent researchers, who did most of her work in remote work in the ’90s. Itreally started in the early ’90s, right? Whenever the internet became something that could be reliable, then a lot of academic researchers started to theorize about what it would change. In fact, if you look at the papers at that time, they were saying, “Wow, it’s going to be a  boundaryless organization, right? And they really anticipated all of this to happen.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: They really thought this was great. “Now, people can be more flexible. We don’t have to be stuck. We don’t have to do all this commuting and pollution and the city centers don’t have to be so crowded.” All that kind of stuff was already anticipated in the ’90s, but it just didn’t happen. It just never happened because managers were still thinking with a different model, a different mindset.

Brooke: And even now, that they seem to be getting more traction, I mean, the impression that I get looking at many organizations, and including our own, the way that we’re trying to take these concepts on board, and to really digest them, primarily, we’re trying to fit remote work and timing flexibility. Flexibility and space and flexibility and time of how and when work is done. We’re still trying to really shoehorn those into the old Taylorist model.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah. And it’s very, very common. I think it’s very important when you’re changing, when everything is changing in an environment. You can’t continue to use  old rules. I mean, you can continue using them if they make sense, but you first have to wonder, “Why are we doing this? What purpose does it serve,” right? So, for example, we were talking earlier about how you have employees or managers who think it’s a good thing if the employee stays longer at work, and maybe is the last person to leave. And it doesn’t really make sense. Can you think about a way where actually people just end up staying for very long hours at work, but it just doesn’t serve their productivity. So I think it really is important to wonder, “Why are we doing all of this? Does it serve any purpose?” And then you just strip away all the stuff that you don’t care about.

Improving How We Measure and Incentify Performance

Brooke: So, we much, perhaps as a crutch, on how many hours someone spends in the office. Certainly, the visibility of people working, which is much, much easier when you’re all co-located in the same space. And of course, when you’re working overlapping hours. How do we get away from that crutch? What better indicator is available to us that we can adopt instead?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: I think, one of the things you should be looking at is work output. Is the person a good team member? You can also look at team output. A lot of the work now that we’re doing is team-based, so sometimes it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to try to incentivize people on individual performance where in reality, you’re asking them to be team players. I think a lot of times people are reluctant or managers are reluctant to go for these systems, because they worry about a tiny minority of people who will abuse it. But the reality is, most people are good people. Most people want to do a good job. They want to be part of a successful company. And so, you have to give them credit for that.

And then, of course, if people are slacking or social loafing then you fire them. But it’s very important to have a wider timeframe. You can’t really know if a person is productive today. You have to give them a few months to see if they’re getting productive. And then you see if they’re good team players. Are they producing what they’re supposed to be producing? What are other people in the team saying about that person?

Brooke: So, there are a couple of things there that I wanted to unpack. The first is that you’re talking about giving individuals a lot more agency in the way that they organize and structure their work. And the second is that you’re also potentially, stop me if I’m putting some words into your mouth here. But you’re also potentially advocating that we need to shift the unit of assessments that perhaps the individual is not so much what we need to be assessing, it’s actually the outputs of teams that is more important.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah. There is this paper that was published in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago and it’s called, “On The Folly of Rewarding A while Hoping for B.” And it’s a really, really interesting paper and I really encourage everybody to read it. It’s a very interesting paper about incentives where we have good intentions.We think we’re doing the right thing. We hoped for B, but we reward A. And so, we just reward something completely different

And I think, one of the distinctions that we’re showing was, well, you’re hoping for the team to work together, but you’re just rewarding individual performance, which makes people not team players. It makes them actually think about themselves only. So, I think it’s important to look at every single way you’re trying to incentivize people and then wonder if it makes sense, in the work you’re doing.

Brooke: And what do we do with these legacy systems? So, the fact that first of all, we incentivize so much stuff that is misaligned with what we actually want as outcomes. But also along with incentivization, we have these monitoring systems, so there’s a lot of stuff that even if we decide, “Okay, I’m not going to explicitly incentivize this.” I’m also very much aware of it, like the example you gave earlier of the colleague who decides they’re going to stay really late at the office. That’s a very visible indicator. It’s something that’s communally available as a data point that this person stays late.

Well, even if we decide that we’re going to shift our incentives, there are still going to be these data points floating out there in the ecosystem. So, when we’re giving people agency, how do we limit the unconscious assessments and evaluations and judgments that we’re placing on things that are salient to us?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Well,as humans, we try to minimize our efforts, and especially for things that are useless. And so I think, the reason people continue to stay late at the office. I was giving the example of when I was 20 and I was doing this internship. And there was this guy, who was telling me very, very proudly that he was staying everyday, making sure later than his boss, everyday. Sometimes, it would be very late because sometimes, his boss would be very late. And just when you think about it, this is not the behavior you should reward because it’s disconnected. It’s not an important indicator of performance. It’s just an indicator of somebody who’s doing a lot of impression management. Trying to give an impression to people that they’re productive, but impression management is not useful.

There is also this idea that’s very important in this, which is that sometimes when you extrinsically reward behaviors, then you thwart intrinsic motivation to do these behaviors. And so, people are intrinsically motivated to work and to be part of a team and to do good, and there’s only a tiny minority of people who are not doing it. And so, I think it’s important to question the assumptions we make about people. And why we’re doing what we’re doing.

For example, a lot of times I  have some managers who tell me, “Well, she arrived five minutes late today. That’s a problem.” Well, is it really a problem? Does she have to be there? If she’s not answering the phones, maybe. Or opening the store. It’s probably not a problem that she’s arriving five minutes later. Maybe, she’s staying 10 minutes, who cares? It doesn’t matter. None of this is relevant. And I think what’s a bit concerning about those kinds of systems is that they make the assumption that people need to be checked and need to be kept in check, otherwise, they’re just going to stop working. The reality is different.

How Can Managers Apply This Thinking When Organisations Won’t?

Brooke: Yeah. There’s something that’s been looming and as a spectator I didn’t want to unpack it until we’d had a bit more of the groundwork. But now, I feel we’ve done a sufficient amount of that. So I can drive right at the thing that’s been concerning me for a while now. It sounds like what you’re describing is something that would be very at home in organizations that are already very effective.

So for instance, organizations who are very clear about what value they’re creating and have a very clear strategic alignment between their teams, and they actually understand how the collaboration between different team members and between different teams function to create value. Those are the ones who will be in the best position to shift away from this Taylorist and Fordist model of Scientific Managements. And when you talk now about all of these, let’s call them ‘petty concerns’, right? Like being late by five minutes, and did this person show up physically today versus working remotely. And getting people motivated, not just by monetary incentives, but actually to get them to feel that they belong to something greater than themselves, something larger.

All of that relies on this conceptual harmony between the various parts of the organization right down to the individual within their team. So, it sounds like what you’re describing is something that really successful organizations can probably pivot into much, much more easily than organizations that are already struggling.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So, it’s a very interesting point. And I agree to some extent, but I also do think that if you’re a team leader, somewhere, you can implement all of this, even without the organization implementing any of it. It really depends on what you’re rewarding in your team. By the way, this is something that goes so much more beyond just traditional work. I think it’s applicable to so many arenas of our lives. The systems we put in place to assess people and reward people, they betray or they reflect, what we think about human nature, what we think about the people.

If you feel the need to check if somebody is arriving five minutes late or not, it signals what you think you should be doing to manage people. It’s very patronizing. It’s a paternalistic way of managing people. It’s a discussion we’re having right now in my university, because I made the decision when COVID-19 hit that I would stop taking attendance and I would stop grading for participation. I would only grade essays that they write for critical thinking and it’s comparative grading, and that’s it. I will not reward anybody for showing up to class. I will not reward anybody for participating. My attendance is better than before. My participation is better than before.

I think when you reward when you tell people you’re going to take points and check and all that kind of stuff, they’re just trying to fit that system. But if it doesn’t serve an overarching purpose, what did you achieve? All you achieved is people showing up to class because they don’t want to lose a credit. That’s not what I want. I don’t care if people don’t show up to class. I want them to show up to class because they want to. So, I just focus on creating an excellent learning environment and then they just benefit from that.

And I think it’s the same if you have a team of people focused on creating an excellent work environment, focused on understanding exactly what people need and strip away all the useless stuff. I always say it’s like if you have kids, it’s kind of like the teddy bear, right? If you have a little teddy bear that makes you feel safe, even though it does nothing, it’s just in your mind. ust get rid of the teddy bear! Stop checking if people arrive on time, nobody cares! It’s useless. Focus, just make sure that people have the right conditions to do great work. And then if they’re taking advantage of that, then fire them. But I can tell you 99% of people are not like that. They don’t take advantage of systems.

Brooke: All right. Now, it’s time to turn a bit of that heat back on you. So, you mentioned that you’re not all that interested in people showing up to class just to demonstrate that they’ve got a warm butt in a seat, it’s about what they learn. How do you feel when a student doesn’t show up for the entire semester, but submits brilliant work?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Then good for them. It doesn’t matter to me, it’s irrelevant. First of all, it just doesn’t happen in real life. Unfortunately, if a student doesn’t show up, typically after a couple of classes, I’m going to send an email to figure out what’s going on with them, right? Because I would be concerned, I would be concerned about their mental health or what’s happening with them. But if a student is bright enough that they can avoid showing up to class and instead, they just read the slides and read the book and they do excellent work, then it’s fine with me.

And it should be the same thing for any manager. If you have an employee that is that excellent. They can do something in 20% of the time that it takes another person and they can do even better work. Then good. You have an excellent employee. Who gives a crap if they’re sitting on their chair? Nobody cares. What you care about is that they’re doing their job. If they’re doing it well, then it doesn’t matter.

Remote work really taught us that the one rule about remote work, if there is one thing to remember is, don’t tell people how to do things. Don’t try to control how they’re doing things because it’s a battle you’re not going to win. They’re going to be away from you. You’re not going to be able to see how they’re doing it. And then you get into these perverted systems, right? When you start installing spyware and you count the number of clicks, and you take pictures with the webcam to see if they’re sitting in front of the computer, what purpose does it serve? It serves no purpose. What you want is somebody who does a good job. And then, how do they want to do it? Well, I think they know better than you how they can be the most productive.

Brooke: Let’s push the perversion of organizational logic one step further. If you have a whole bunch of students who are so brilliant that they don’t need your class in order to learn the material, does that create a worry for you about how the people above you in the organization will perceive the work that you’re doing?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So the thing is, one of the rules we have in the Faculty of Management at McGill is that we have a curve, so that means it’s all comparative grading. That means you know that your chances of excelling in my class without showing up and doing any of the work are close to none. You’re not going to be able to do it. I think if I am able to create an excellent system, where I don’t have to waste my time taking attendance or grading participation or any of that stuff. And instead, I can really focus on the value, on delivering value to my students, I think, people higher up should be happy, and I think they are.

The higher ups don’t care how I’m teaching. They don’t want to know about it and they can’t do anything about it. You can’t drive a prof out of the house and force him to do something a certain way. All they care about is that my students think that it’s an excellent class. Actually, I’m assessed every semester by all of my students about, “Is this an excellent class? Is this an excellent professor?” That’s what I’m looking at. Do they think I’m an excellent professor? Do they think this is an excellent class?

I think it’s the same thing when you’re managing employees. You develop an understanding of what excellence is and then you assign that standard to people. And you look at the ones who are doing well and the ones who are not doing well. If they’re not doing well, you provide them the help you can. I think that should really be the focus. Anything that uses irrelevant secondary ways of assessing performance should be just discarded and taken away.

Creating Communication Built on Trust and Confidence

Brooke: So, knowing that we always have to deal with some transition period between our legacy system and whatever new system we would want to just start operating with, what are the first steps that people can take? And maybe following your lead, we can start from the bottom up. So, you mentioned for managers, you don’t need to wait for your entire organization to be conceptually aligned around this thing. There are steps that individual managers can take to get started down this path. What do some of those first steps look like for direct managers?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So, one thing that is important to understand. I teach mostly negotiation classes. And I teach them to our MBAs and to our B.COMs. One thing that struck me when I started teaching negotiation classes five years ago, is that most people, 70 to 80% of the general population, do not negotiate anything, including their salaries. And the reason they don’t negotiate anything is because they don’t have the skills yet, they need to be trained for it.

They don’t have the skills to express their concerns or to deal with conflicts. Meaning if they have conflicting goals with their managers, their go-to reaction is compliance. They will just comply with whatever you tell them to do. They are not going to bring up anything. They’re just going to grow increasingly resentful of a system that they’re not happy with. And then they’re going to quit and you’re not even going to know why they quit because they’re not going to tell you because they can’t say it. They don’t have the words to say it. 

I know that in my classes or in every workshop I organize, the first thing I say is, “I don’t want you to be compliant. I want you to challenge me. I want you to be collaborative. We are here to collaborate together.” I’m not here to inflict the system on people. I’m here to design the best environment, and I can’t do that without feedback from people. So, it means, you need to give people credit for knowing what works and what doesn’t work for them. And then they can come up to you and I think that’s what a manager should do. Ask people, spend some time understanding what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, and understand that for people to come up to you and say it, it takes a lot.

It takes a lot of courage because you’re the boss and you can punish them, you can reward them, you can change your mind about them. It’s really important to say, “I’m not going to change my mind about you. You’re not going to get punished or anything. The goal is just for me to understand on the ground, how reality is for you. What works for you?” And then if you can do something that just makes things more flexible at no cost of yours, which is the case with most of these things, most  management practices, then do it, because it’s worth it.

Then see if it works. You don’t have to just do it forever even if it doesn’t work. I think one of the reasons,a lot of times managers refuse to do this is because they’re worried about losing control. But the reason is, do you really need that much control, do you really need to control every aspect of everything that’s going on? And if so, why do you feel that need? I don’t think you need that much control. Give people more leeway, give people more freedom. We’re not in a factory. We’re not in a production line anymore. We’re in a place where we expect people to be flexible, to be creative, to be motivated. So if you want people to be that way, treat them that way. Don’t treat them like they’re factory workers.

Brooke: So, it sounds like confidence is a big issue here?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah.

The Confidence to Loosen the Reins

Brooke: There’s at once, the confidence of the reports of the frontline employees to share openly with their managers what the challenges are that they’re encountering, and even just giving feedback. If a manager says, “Okay, we’re going to do things a little bit differently now and try it out.” Trying it out is useless unless you actually get some feedback about how it went. So, if you don’t have this open line of communication, if you don’t have that confidence with your reports, with your frontline employees to honestly tell you whether the experiment is working or not, that really puts a challenge into the system, or it really makes it difficult to get any of this moving.

Similarly, confidence from the manager’s perspective. So, you mentioned that a lot of managers want to micromanage. They want to observe very directly in a very detailed way how it is that people are doing things because they want this sense of control. Your advice to them was stop wanting that, so-

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah, don’t do it.

Brooke: You gave this advice to stop wanting that level of control. How is it that we can support managers and get them to a place of confidence so even if they don’t feel they have that level of control, they still feel comfortable. That they don’t feel that that’s some kind of existential threat to them in the organization.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: I really think it’s all about the basic assumptions you make about human nature. I think for ourselves there is a bias in Social Psychology that’s called Naive Cynicism. And Naive Cynicism is all about thinking that you yourself are more focused on the collective interest than other people. And in reality, we are all focused on the collective interest. Of course, some people are not, but those are a tiny minority. And you can’t inflict a system on everyone, when you’re just worried about a tiny minority. It is very, very tricky.

I know for myself, it would be very tricky to be motivated if somebody was micromanaging me. And I think everybody can relate to that. If you believe that you wouldn’t do well if you were micromanaged, then why do you think other people would do well? Unless you think you’re better than they are, which is not the truth. Nobody is better than anyone. We’re just at different stages in life, we just have different qualities, different drawbacks, and we’re in different stages in the organization. That’s it.

But we all are motivated by collective interest. We’re all motivated by doing well and so, that’s all that matters. Don’t try to control things that are not useful. Control only the things that are useful. Then, I have to say, yes, it’s a risk to take. It is. When I I decided to stop grading participation, when I decided to stop taking attendance, people were telling me, “JN, nobody is going to show up to class anymore.” And I was telling them  “I don’t think that’s true.”

I think there isn’t  a single student on this planet that dedicates years of their life to go to university, tens of thousands of dollars of investment, And thinking that they wouldn’t be motivated to go to class is stupid. They are motivated to go to class. So, we just need to give them the credit for it, and then design systems around it. And then we have checks and balances for when it doesn’t work. But the system should always remember that people are good people who want to do a good job. That’s the vast majority of people.

Brooke: I just wanted to call out one concept that’s echoing in what you said, which is this concept of psychological safety. That if you want people to experiment and you want them to try things out and see what actually works, you need to put them in a situation where they feel that failure is not fatal. That they have the option to try a second experiment if the first one doesn’t go so well.

But there was something else that you mentioned along the way that I wanted to expand on a little bit. So, you talked about this idea of naive cynicism, and believing that people are much more focused on their own individual good whereas we ourselves from the inside perceive that we are much more focused on the collective good. And the kinds of policy choices that get made as a result within organizations where we try to create these systems that compensate for, or over compensate for, this perceived lack of care for the collective.

One of the things that I’ve seen in my own professional experience and in previous organizations is that especially in large organizations, this worry about the lack of care for the collective reaches such a fever pitch that the kinds of policies and the kinds of systems that we create are designed to be so airtight that nobody could possibly pass through them and succeed at championing their own individual interest over the collective interest.

But in creating these systems that are so airtight, you also leave no room to breathe whatsoever. And the result that I’ve seen from that is that these very, very controlling organizations manage to get a decent quality of work out of the baseline talents that they are able to recruit, but that they have real trouble recruiting, and certainly retaining, top-end talent. In order to make sure that your lowest level people are not underperforming, you create a circumstance where your highest performing people can never over perform.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I mean, really, the image when you were talking, the image that I have is horseback riding where you can either keep the reins extremely tight to the point that the horse is pulled back and can’t stand properly. And you’re thinking you’re doing a good job, but you’re really not. You need to give more trust to the horse, right? And so, I think it’s very interesting because sometimes, we also forget when we’re managing other people, we forget that our systems don’t only have direct effects, they also have indirect effects. They signal things about what we think. They signal things about how we consider people.

I was talking to a CEO, who shall stay nameless, because it’s going to be a negative example. And I think he was very, very focused on impression management, so trying to explain to me how good of a manager and culture they had, and all that kind of stuff, about work from home. And I was a bit skeptical, because all of it sounded like it was just crafted to sound good, to be a bit of a new management method. And so, I said to him when he was talking about this, I said to him, “Oh, so that’s great. So I’m assuming you don’t have any spyware on people’s computers or whatever to see if they’re clicking enough?” And he stopped and he said, “Well, I mean, we still have to check if they’re working. And I was telling him, “What’d you mean?” And he was like, “Well, I mean, we take pictures.” And I was thinking but how is it consistent with what you just said? It’s not. All of it was just for show. You can’t manage people and you can’t send a signal to people that you have so little trust in them, that you need to take pictures of them.

By the way, what does it serve? Because you could be doing nothing and still sitting in front of your computer and clicking, right? There was this documentary that was made. And there was this woman who was saying that she was not clicking enough. She was having negative reviews, because her boss was telling her, “You’re not clicking enough.” And so, she was just going on her computer, clicking. I mean, it’s stupid. It’s completely stupid.

And so I think, at the end of the day, you need to give it a shot. You need to give people credit for being good human beings. And if you don’t loosen the reins, it’s just not going to work. You have to loosen the reins and you’ll realize that you were actually wasting a lot of your time doing useless things and that you should be more focused on doing important things.

The Role of Leadership

Brooke: So, I liked that you’ve taken this more into the upper echelons of organizations because I think that’s the next point that would be valuable to help our listeners think through. For people closer to the top of an organization or at the very top of an organization, what are some of the steps that they can take to start to transition towards a system, more like  the one that you’re advocating? My impression from the story that you’ve just told is that setting up a new system that runs in parallel, but actually, the old system is still in place and there’s no question about whether that system is ever going to be displaced. That’s the wrong approach to take, or one of the wrong approaches one can take. So knowing that, of course, there has to be a transition period, what does a healthier transition look from an old system to the new system?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah, so what’s really important is to not do like the example I gave, which is basically slapping a coat of paint or a veneer on top of the old system, because that just doesn’t work. This system needs to be changed. If you want to have people work in a hybrid manner. And so, they basically don’t show up to work every day, they have more flexible times, they can work on the weekends if it’s useful, or not work sometimes on the week if it’s useful, then you really need to listen to how they’re thinking about all of it.

So, there are two things. One, you need to understand that you’re not on the ground. You’re not! You  can see it in every single organization, even in mine. Sometimes, there are decisions that are made by people so high up that they’ve never set a foot in a classroom. They don’t even know what it’s like. So, they’re making decisions that are  inflicted on all of us, and we’re saying like, “Why are you making us? Why are you doing this? Just ask us. We’re going to tell you it’s not working. This is just stupid.”

So first of all, listen to what people have to say. I think a lot of the things a CEO has to do is processall of that information coming from the ground. But second, the CEO also infuses the organization with meaning. They design a culture that is meaningful and serves a purpose, so that means, right? It doesn’t mean, “Oh, let employees figure out everything on their own.” It means – be a true leader.

I’ve said for a year and a half that what’s been striking to me about the way organizations have managed the pandemic and all that kind of stuff. It really has been a medical crisis, for sure. But it’s also a leadership crisis. So many organizations have realized, “Oh, wait a second. We don’t have a leader here. It’s not a leader. It’s like a manager. It’s somebody who does, who implements a system that was already decided before. It’s not somebody who can come up with a new system. It’s not somebody who can understand how the winds are going and what direction we’re going in.”

So, this is where it’s time to be a true leader. And a true leader doesn’t just implement things. A true leader is able to listen to what’s going on without feeling threatened and is also then able to come up with a new system that makes sense in the new environment. Just slapping a fresh coat on something that’s rotten underneath, it just doesn’t work.

Brooke: All right, so leadership coaching is the first order of business for-

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: I mean, I think, it’s more about changing how you view your role. It’s understanding that people are looking to leaders for direction, because when you’re in your work, most people, that includes me as a professor, I can’t see the big picture things going on in my organization. I don’t have the vantage point for it. I can see what’s going on in the ground. I can have an idea of a few things. But I’m expecting the leader to be able to take my point of view and everybody else’s point of view and their own point of view, and then come up with a picture that makes sense, so that I can understand where I fit in all of this, what I’m supposed to be doing.

This is why culture is probably the most important thing a leader can do. Implementing a good culture. When organizations have a strong culture, people understand what’s expected of them. They understand what the organization is about. They understand what’s rewarded and what’s punished. And when people know all of these things, you don’t have to micromanage them, because they get it. So, if they’re faced with a different situation, they don’t have to come to you because they don’t understand anything. They can just understand themselves, “Well, that’s how we’re going to deal with this.”

Brooke:  Now, there are two words that you use there that I’d like to talk about and pull apart. One was direction and the other was meaning. So, giving direction is potentially something that a manager can do. They can say, “Okay. You must do this. Here are the deadlines,” and these kinds of things. But giving meaning, that’s into the leadership territory. It’s not just about what you do or how you do it, but about why you do it and how it fits in with these other pieces of the puzzle. Is that really the delta? Is that really the gap between management and leadership, in your perspective?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah. So, my main focus of research is about the meaning people associate with their work and construal level theory, which I’m applying to organizational behavior. And one of the main distinctions between the way people think is that you can think about how you do things or you can think about why you do things. When you’re on the ground and you don’t really see everything that’s going on from a big picture view, then it’s easy to get down in the weeds, and kind of get lost in the weeds. You just focus on how you’re doing things.

But what I find in my research is, this is not what’s motivating to people. What’s motivating to people is understanding why they’re doing something. That’s what they need to learn. And a lot of times you have to help people understand it. Why are we doing all of this? What’s the ultimate purpose we’re serving? Because when people know that what they’re doing serves a bigger purpose, they’re a lot more motivated to do it.

And so that’s why I think, sometimes we focus too much on telling people how they should be doing something, when in reality, we should tell them why they’re doing it, so that they understand. If they’re faced with a different situation and they know why they were doing the thing in the first place, they’re going to figure out another way to do it, another ‘how’. They can do that on their own. They don’t need you for the how, they need you for the why.

Leading with Direction and a Common Sense of Purpose: McGill

Brooke: So, the CEO’s job as you mentioned then is to kind of gather these many signals from around the organization and to create one coherent picture that lends meaning to all of these otherwise disparate pieces. So, there’s a listening function that you need to be able to take in those signals, then there’s a digestion function to be able to fit them all together into a semi-coherent picture, and then a communication function where understanding of the top-level coherence can’t be something that just remains locked in the CEO’s office. It needs to be transmitted effectively down throughout the organization.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Yeah. And I think a good leader is able to do this. I can be critical of how things are going in my organization, but I have to say something that impressed me a lot with our leader, Principle Fortier is she gave a talk, which I thought was so interesting. She has this logic of McGill being about ‘McGill, the Great’ and ‘McGill, the Good’. And to me, it’s such a good way of capturing what the organization is all about. You have universities in the US that are focused mainly on profits. You have other organizations who are focused mainly on research excellence. But McGill is very unique in a way that ‘McGill, the Great’ is about research excellence, McGill, the good is about doing the right thing.

And this really captures very well the identity that a lot of us have. And I think when she does that, she gives us a framework for us to understand how we’re supposed to behave. Because then if you’re going to have a decision, you can think about, “Well, is this fitting with McGill, the Great’ or ‘McGill, the good?’” Because the great cannot be at the detriment of the good. This is something that’s extremely important to us. So, her work has been to understand, “What’s going on? What makes us different? What is it that makes McGill special?” And then, she synthesized it into this phrase, right? This phrase, it’s so short, but yet, it’s so meaningful. And then she infuses it throughout the organization to make sure that any person who’s starting here can understand what we’re all about.

So, I’m not saying that to kiss her ass or anything, I’m just saying that, to me, that’s a really good example of excellent leadership, in the sense that she really gets it. She understands what the organization is about and she’s able to say, “We’re going to strengthen this. We’re going to make sure we’re really focused on this.” And to me, that’s something that’s very meaningful. And I know that when I’m focused on, when I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to have an impact on my students, on my colleagues, on the employees I supervise, I really think about it. Is this consistent with ‘McGill, the Great and ‘McGill, the Good?’ And if it’s not, then I have to do it in a different way.

So I think, really, it sounds simple, because it’s such a short sentence. But coming up with this takes a lot of intelligence, and takes a lot of emotional intelligence as well, and a lot of understanding. So, this is why, it’s been such a leadership crisis, this pandemic. Before you could get away with not doing that stuff, because the world was a bit more static. But now, everything has changed. Now, you need to go back to the core values and that takes some sensitivity to what’s going on around you.

Brooke: And let’s explore that last step, especially in this pandemic world that we’re living in. So, the communication step is not a one-shot deal, you don’t just say, “Okay, well, I’ve come up with this brilliant thing. McGill, the Great, McGill, the Good, or whatever the formulation is, that helps to encapsulate the values of the organization and the purpose of the organization.

In an ecosystem, where we are often so out of phase in both space and time, how can CEOs more effectively ensure that the communication of that message on an ongoing basis is effective to make sure that just as you pointed out, in your example, when you have a bigger decision to make, it’s on your mind that you should be thinking about this overall guiding principle of the organization and applying that to your local decision making at the frontline?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: So, the words. A lot of my research is focused on linguistic analysis, right? So, I do a lot of big data linguistic analysis on the words people use and the meaning they associate with it. And I think finding the right words is very tricky. And it’s a lot more complicated than people think. There was a famous French author and I don’t remember his name. But who was saying that sometimes it would take him a week to find the one right word, the word that exactly means what he’s trying to say.

And so I think, you have different things, it’s not so much about how to communicate in the sense of sending emails every day. I see that a lot. There’s so many organizations. I get these forwarded a lot where the CEO is sending an email every day. And it’s like two pages of rambling. And it’s just not the point. Nobody wants to read this. We’re not here. It looks almost like a diary or something. It’s not the point. I think the way Principal Fortier succeeded in this and I think the way some CEOs, some other leaders, have been succeeding in this is they’re capturing something that’s true, and something that people understand and identify with. 

Something that we all know about organizational culture is you have the culture that people say they have, right? And then there’s the culture that’s enacted. So a lot of times, people will say, “Oh, we’re such team players, right? And we focus on creativity and worklife balance.” It’s all nice and good, but if you don’t do it in practice, I mean, you can talk about it all you want. People will not be receptive to it. They will say you’re two-faced. They will say you’re talking about one thing, but you’re doing another one. So, the reality is, it’s more complicated than just finding a way to communicate. It’s really about, “Let’s understand what really makes us special. Let’s understand the values we care about.” So that everybody, when I tell them this message, which doesn’t have to be long, it could be one sentence, that they can really say, “I’m behind this. I understand this. This is something that speaks to me.”

It all depends on the organization, right? ‘McGill, the Good, McGill, the Great’, I know, it’s really something and it’s we’re in Canada, we’re in Quebec. We’re definitely not a very conservative society. We care a great deal about the well-being of people. So, ‘McGill, the Great’ speaks to us, for sure and ‘McGill, the Good’ does as well. And so, this is why, in my opinion, it’s all about capturing the essence of what you want the organization to do. And of course, ‘McGill, the Great, McGill, the Good’, are we doing this all the time? Well, we’re trying to. That’s our standard. That’s what we’re trying to reach.

And so to me, if you’re going to use a slogan or if you’re going to use a sentence, or if you’re going to try to have a line of argument that really is supposed to motivate people, well, you better really have the right one. The one that’s true, the one that’s a standard people aspire to. And then, an email a year is sufficient. You’ve made your point. They get it. You don’t have to say “ I heard that point from her two years ago”. It doesn’t matter. “She doesn’t have to say it to me again. I remember it. She doesn’t have to send me an email every day, I get it.

It’s in my mind. I’ve aspired to it. I agree with her. And so, I’m going to do that.” There are tons of things I criticize about how we do things, but I also have to give credit when it’s due. This is a very good capture of what McGill is about. She really, really did a good job here. And so if you have to do one thing, well, I would say try to capture what’s the standard people aspire to, and then try to find a way to make it understandable, easy to get for people.

Brooke: And to bring this back around full circle, I think what we’ve been talking about for this entire conversation, and thank you so much for the time and the insights that you’ve shared with us. What we’ve been talking about in this conversation is how essentially, the legacy of scientific management of organizations creates really profound tensions with that point that you’ve just made. That effective leaders are able to distill this aspirational goal for what people within the organization, across the organization, all resonate with.

They feel that this aspirational goal well captures their engagement with the organization, and their engagement with each other. It can’t be such a departure from reality that it feels completely disconnected or divorced from the day-to-day working ecosystem. But at the same time, it can’t be purely descriptive, either. There needs to be this aspirational component of “This is what we’re striving to be,” not just “This is what we do.” And the challenge there is that once that’s articulated, we start to realize that a lot of the ways that we’ve traditionally run organizations actually don’t contribute value towards that aspirational goal.

So, for instance, if we think about McGill, the Great, McGill, the Good. Does sitting at your desk from 9:00 to 5:00 rather than 8:30 to 4:30, or sitting at your desk at home versus your desk at the office contribute to those things? The answer seems to be a resounding no. The challenge then is to continue that difficult conceptual and organizational labor, of trying to deliver a system that actually aligns with those aspirational values of the organization.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: I agree with you, I really agree with you. And it’s something that, just like everything that sounds simple, it’s something that’s actually very difficult to do. It’s something that takes a lot of work and it’s something that takes a lot of practice and mistakes and errors. 

It’s interesting, because sometimes you try – I know when I started teaching in McGill, the very first year and especially when I started teaching negotiation, I was not sure what my role was. Meaning, it was unclear to me what students were expecting from me. And again, the very, very first class that I taught in negotiation, which was a very difficult class, it was like an MBA class. I’ve never taught an MBA class. It was an evening class and an intensive semester. I mean, very difficult. And nobody told me anything. I did worse than I had ever done in any class in that class. But then, nobody had told me anything because people don’t bring up when they have issues. They just don’t say it. They’re worried you’re going to retaliate, so just don’t bring it up. But then I read all of the reviews, right? And it’s never nice to read reviews when you feel like you did a bit worse than you usually do. But it’s very insightful and that’s how, over time, I understood what was expected of me. What are they expecting of me in my position as leading this class? And I think this is exactly what a leader in any situation, in academia or elsewhere has to think about. What is it that people are wanting you to do? How is your time going to be used most efficiently?

I can tell you that checking if people arrived on time, unless it’s completely necessary because they need to open a store, it’s a waste of your time. Focus on things that are actually useful. And really don’t waste your time on anything else. And it’s tricky, right? We go back to the idea of trust and the idea of risk taking. But the reality is, the world has changed so much that you have to take this risk. You have to give it a shot.

Brooke: All right, Jean-Nicolas, thank you very much for your time and insights. This has been really great. And I’m sure that our listeners will greatly enjoy it as well. So, thank you and hope to speak to you again soon.

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Thank you so much for having me.

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About the Guest

Jean Nicolas Reyt

Jean Nicolas Reyt

Jean-Nicolas Reyt is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management who specializes in Organizational Behaviour and Negotiation. He received a PhD in Management from Paris-Dauphine University in France. Before beginning at McGill, he was a visiting scholar at New York University. He has been published in many of the top management journals, including the Academy of Management Journal, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. His research is focused on the relationship between distance and important work outcomes, and he is the founder of Distances in Organizations, a series of workshops that aim to explore concepts such as the social distance between employees (e.g. power, culture), spatial distance in work teams (e.g. distributed teams, mobile work) and  temporal distances in work (e.g. goals, deadlines).

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck portrait

Dr. Brooke Struck

Dr. Brooke Struck is the Research Director at The Decision Lab. He is an internationally recognized voice in applied behavioural science, representing TDL’s work in outlets such as Forbes, Vox, Huffington Post and Bloomberg, as well as Canadian venues such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and Global Media. Dr. Struck hosts TDL’s podcast “The Decision Corner” and speaks regularly to practicing professionals in industries from finance to health & wellbeing to tech & AI.

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