The workplace can often seem like a Darwinian struggle that's marked—or rather, disfigured—by bro culture, terrible bosses, and soul-sapping burnout. It's enough to drive some workers to dream of taking extreme measures.
Yet a growing contingent of leaders believe there’s a better way. From Brené Brown urging managers to embrace vulnerability to Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy arguing for a healthier approach to managing workplace emotions, a movement to reimagine how we work and treat each other is afoot. Like Brown, Fosslien, and West Duffy, Max Yoder—CEO and co-founder of Lessonly and author of Do Better Work: Finding Clarity, Camaraderie, and Progress in Work and Life—believes that approaching work from a place of empathy and honesty generates better results than competing to see who can log marathon work weeks or armoring up in order to appear “unflappable and infallible.”
Approaching work from a place of empathy and honesty generates better results than competing to see who can log marathon work weeks or armoring up in order to appear "unflappable and infallible."
Yoder argues that the tendency to avoid vulnerability leads to unhelpful behaviors, such as people agreeing to take on tasks they can’t finish or pretending to understand something when they’re completely confused. Fear drives these behaviors, but in an environment that encourages vulnerability, folks can raise their hand and ask for help without fear—and that, Yoder says, can transform an organization.
Lessons learned—the hard way
Yoder’s beliefs stem from lessons learned not just from his time at Lessonly, but crucially from his failed startup Quipol, which he launched at age 22. Quipol—a flawed labor of love that lasted less than two years—hit the Indiana native hard, but in that failure lay valuable lessons that he took to heart.
Convinced that “leaders know the answer,” Yoder developed Quipol in what he describes as a vacuum—and the lack of feedback meant he missed crucial features that users expected. This lead to a botched launch that left him off balance. As he stresses in Do Better Work, leaders must share before they’re ready, bring in critical outside perspectives to uncover blind spots, and help overcome the very human tendency to think we’re better at things than we really are.
Leaders must share before they’re ready, bring in critical outside perspectives to uncover blind spots, and help overcome the very human tendency to think we’re better at things than we really are.
His contention that decision-makers must elicit feedback early and often works hand-in-hand with another bit of advice: ask questions. Whether it’s a product manager expounding on a planned release or a customer asking about a particular feature that a competitor has, taking time to ask clarifying questions can prevent misunderstandings—even minor ones—that can lead to unfortunate circumstances. Better yet, he writes, “Clarifying questions can help you see the world through the eyes of others, and there’s always something to be gained from that.”
[Read also: Could an empathy meeting help you see with new eyes?]
You’re gonna need a bigger (opportunity) boat
One of the most compelling sections of Do Better Work tells a story not of Yoder’s experiences at Quipol or Lessonly—rather, it’s a tale of a young, relatively inexperienced film director struggling with his first big-budget movie. As Steven Spielberg attempted to make Jaws, nothing was going right. It was over budget, off schedule, and worse, the villain—the mechanical shark—was broken more often than not. But as Yoder points out, rather than throwing up his hands and saying “everything is terrible,” Spielberg looked for opportunity—and he found it in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense who understood that “it’s what you don’t see that frightens you.”
By showing the shark for only a handful of minutes in the two-hour feature, Spielberg took a mechanical failure and turned it into a chance to play on the audience’s fear of the unseen and unknown. Yoder’s point—that what might initially seem like failure can bear the seeds of future triumph—is found in countless success stories, like when chemist William Perkin failed to synthesize quinine and instead discovered how to create synthetic dyes, or when inventor Wilson Greatbatch’s error in building a device to record heart rhythms led to the creation of the pacemaker. “They look at a challenging life event, a sinking shark, or a dead-end plan and find the opportunity within it,” Yoder writes.
Yoder’s point—that what might initially seem like failure can bear the seeds of future triumph—is found in countless success stories.
Assume good intentions
While Yoder advocates for a gentler, more purposeful workplace, he doesn’t argue for an environment devoid of difficult conversations or accountability—rather, it’s about how those uncomfortable parts of professional life can be navigated with grace and empathy. At Lessonly, managing conflict is taken quite seriously, so much so that every employee receives a copy of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book about nonviolent communication.
That might seem a tad touchy-feely to cynical folks, but Yoder contends that incorporating those techniques with appreciative inquiry—in which focusing on what’s working right spurs change and energy—can reframe how we look at work and our fellow employees. He illustrates our tendency to focus on the negative through an anecdote about being frustrated with a coworker. After being prompted to think about what the employee in question does right—which ended up being a lot—Yoder had an epiphany. “That’s when I realized how myopically I’d been viewing things,” he writes. “I was focusing on a couple of things that weren’t going how I wanted, instead of the majority of things that were. It was not a fair assessment of my teammate.”
Being fair to each other—and honest and clear about what’s working and what needs improvement—is the thread that ties Yoder’s book together. That holistic, healthy approach to work can mean much more than simply achieving work goals: it can lead to people having better lives. “Be the person you’d want to work with,” Yoder writes. “Assume good things about people, forgive them when they mess up, identify ways you might help, and don’t pass the buck—even when you have a reason to do so.”
Mark Smith is a writer, editor, and musician based in Bellingham, Washington.