Wellbeing as business strategy

By @rtaylormcknight | Posted: November 19, 2020

Someone recently asked me how I seek to improve human wellbeing, a personal life goal, through my role as head of the design department at Industry Dive, a business journalism publisher.

TLDR: At Industry Dive, I seek to improve the wellbeing of others through my role as a manager, not through design strategy.

Improving human wellbeing is not Industry Dive’s core mission.

To be clear – Industry Dive does seek to improve the wellbeing of its staff and the broader community. We have a leadership team that acknowledges and cares about social issues, a strong Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging team, and a quarterly charity donation program called “Dive Gives.” Industry Dive was also recognized as a “Best Place to Work” in Washington, D.C. by The Washington Post the past four years in a row. But improving human wellbeing is not the core mission; it is not the reason the company exists.

Industry Dive has two main goals. As a business journalism publisher, our mission is to provide unique and valuable insight to our target readers – industry leaders. As a business, our objective is to drive value for marketers by connecting them with our readers. That’s it. We want to do those two things really, really well.

As the company’s design leader, it is my responsibility to support these two goals – to serve the needs of our readers and clients – to the best of my ability. How do I do that? I hire, retain, and develop the most intelligent, self-motivated, and talented designers I can find. I create a team culture that type of designer wants to join and will thrive in. In practice, this means I set the bar for design excellence aspirationally high – all of our work must be best-in-class – and give the designers as many development opportunities as possible. Most importantly, I strive to optimize for the wellbeing of my staff. Anecdotally, I have found that a high level of wellbeing among a team of talented designers is a leading indicator of a sustainable level of intense productivity and low turnover.

Over the years, I have developed several strategies to help me optimize for wellbeing.

I ensure my team feels psychologically safe.

Processes and productivity improve when the team feels comfortable dissenting and questioning how we operate. For that to happen, we need trust. The staff must trust they can provide their manager with honest feedback without fear of reprisal. The staff must trust their manager will listen and be open to changing their mind when presented with new evidence or alternative perspectives. They must trust their manager will have their back if they are pushed against a wall due to a lack of resources or workplace bullying. To build trust, managers must remain as self-aware as possible, ever cognizant of what Stanford organizational psychologist Bob Stutton calls “executive magnification.” A manager’s staff will magnify the manager’s actions and take them much more seriously than the manager will.

@Fellow managers – It is crucial to keep executive magnification top of mind. Your staff will remember what you say and do, especially your negative reactions and feedback they perceive as critical, much longer than you will. Your staff might act on what you thought was a “throwaway” comment. You might forget the details of a particular conversation within days. A direct report might remember what you shared for months or years.

I promote self-care.

Beyond Industry Dive’s flexible time off policy and great healthcare benefits, I encourage my team to take care of themselves on a day-to-day basis and prioritize their wellbeing above their job. I try to model the behavior I promote; I take “mental health days,” frequently exercise, and unplug from work when I go on vacation.

I seek to unlock paths to self-actualization.

Something that my team has heard me say ad nauseam is that I want to align personal interests with business needs. This is one of my top priorities as a manager for two simple reasons:

Reason #1 – It improves productivity and retention.

When you assign a problem to an employee who is excited about that specific challenge, you harness the power of personal motivation. A motivated employee is more engaged. They are more productive and less likely to leave.

Reason #2 – It improves personal wellbeing.

When an employee is intrinsically motivated to solve the challenge you assign them, they have an additional purpose for getting up each morning. A purpose-driven employee is more content with life; their wellbeing has improved, even if just a little.

Written down, these three strategies for improving staff wellbeing seem pretty straightforward. And they are. But putting them into practice is always messy, because life is messy. Managers will never be able to implement them as effectively as they desire.

I will readily admit that there have been times when I have failed to live up to my own leadership standards. Have I voiced frustration during a design critique and upset a team member? Yes. Have I prioritized work above my own health? Definitely. But instances like these are not the norm, and my staff know it. And that is what is important. As Kobe Bryant loved to point out in interviews – a missed shot, a lost game – they are inconsequential. What matters is that you remain self-aware and are consistent over time, over your career.