The phrase “silver bullet” refers to a quick, almost…miraculous, solution to a problem. The use of silver in this way is rooted in folklore, to kill or protect yourself from supernatural monsters. Bullets, as a tool, are fast and effective, and they are fundamentally used for killing. So when someone says that there is or isn’t a silver bullet to a problem, in a roundabout way they’re saying that the problem can or can’t be killed quickly. That there is or isn’t an immediate fix, an immediate solution, to that problem.
I wanted to devote an entire episode to discussing silver bullets in people management. Everything I’ve discussed in previous episodes, and will discuss in future episodes, will always operate under the assumption that there are no silver bullets to managing people.
I’ll be going over two mishaps throughout this episode. The first revolves around how you respond to silver bullets. And the second is the misconception of measurement as a silver bullet.
In this day and age we’re bombarded by information. Almost drowning in it. Emails, newsletters, blog posts, podcasts, TV shows, forums, message boards, feeds, streams. Which information is good? Which information is useful? Or reliable? Unfortunately, there’s so much information in all these various media that it’s overwhelming. From the side of content producers, they’ve had to increasingly elevate the importance of their messages. They’re screaming for attention amongst a flood of others who are also all screaming for your attention. An easy way to get that attention is to overstate or oversell the value and impact of whatever it is they want you to consume. So we have more and more companies offering and selling silver bullets.
But then we have you, the content consumer. Like right now, as you’re listening to this podcast, you’re consuming the content that I’m producing. So as a content consumer, what should you focus on? An easy strategy is to focus on what’s popular. We tend to gravitate toward information that is popular. People are hardwired to go with the crowd, to jump on the wagon that everyone else is riding. After all, if a lot of people have watched this video, liked that message, or shared some article on whatever social media platform, then it’s gotta have some grain of truth or importance, right? But with so many competing ideas out there as to what’s best for your organization, your team, your employees, increasingly in the form of silver bullets, it can unfortunately lead to three possible extremes in how you consume information.
The first extreme is that you try to take in everything. Maximum input. You subscribe to countless newsletters, you watch all the videos of the latest and greatest influencers in your space, you have a feed set up to track news articles that include keywords or relate to a specific job function. You are in the know. With this extreme, you’re not necessarily chasing after silver bullets, it’s just that you consume so much information that silver bullets naturally find their way in.
The pursuit of knowledge is awesome, but it can easily become overwhelming if left unchecked. The main problem with this extreme is that it can lead to inaction or analysis paralysis. You have so much stuff flying at you that all you can do is take it in, but not really use it. Oh sure, you might spend hours and hours every week taking in what’s new, but at the same time you might not know what’s best to take action on because you don’t take a step back. You believe that you’re being productive, becoming a better leader or manager by learning so much, but it can be a harmful process if learning is the only thing you do.
If you are like this, that you’re a learning manager, or really an only-learning manager, take some of your learning time and make to-do lists based on your reflections. You learn a lot and you think a lot. Take all that knowledge and self-reflection and turn it on your team. Have weekly or bi-weekly team discussions so you can share your knowledge and insights, or send like a weekly “things to think about” email to your group if meetings aren’t possible. Also, set goals for yourself to increase accountability, to ensure that you’re not being a...knowledge hoarder, that you’re keeping everything to yourself. Spread the wealth of knowledge you have.
Whereas the first extreme is about maximum input, the second extreme is about maximum output. Instead of wanting to learn all the things, you want to do all the things. This is where silver bullets are more dangerous, because if you’re like this, then you probably gravitate to what’s especially popular and promising. You may be a quick adopter, always wanting to implement a new tactic or strategy in your team.
Just as the pursuit of knowledge is awesome, so too is wanting to put things into action. To execute on strategy. But a drawback with this extreme is that trying to take action on so many things, generally silver bullets, can lead to nothing working out. If you aim for everything, you’ll hit nothing. You churn through so many ideas that your team may be fatigued or burnt out on trying everything. And because you emphasize implementation, you may overlook tracking progress, to let a strategy naturally evolve and mature. Instead, you hop from one to the next.
If you are like this, that you’re an only-doing manager, slow down. Allow more time for tactics to work themselves out or to encounter new ways of using them. Rather than jumping completely from one idea, one silver bullet, to another, try to take what worked especially well from one idea and capitalize on that, then merge that idea with the strengths of previous silver bullets. This way you can customize a tactic or strategy into something that can be used longer term and reduce the possibility of your team getting strategic whiplash. And finally, measure, measure, measure. I don’t mean like daily or weekly surveys or anything like that, but rather get feedback from your team on what has and hasn’t worked. Alter accordingly, and continue to measure from there.
Both of the previous extremes remind me of SOS. SOS typically refers to an international distress signal, communicated via Morse code. But SOS is also an acronym for shiny object syndrome. This is the case when anything shiny gets your attention, and you often have difficulties focusing on one thing for very long. You’re always looking for the next best thing, often the shiny silver bullet. Whether you learn a lot or do a lot as a manager, be sure to keep your SOS in check. To kind of merge the usages of SOS, I view having shiny object syndrome as a call for help, someone who is distressed, signaling to others that they can’t make up their mind, that they are perhaps inconsistent, maybe even unreliable in whatever ideas they come up with or follow.
If you seem to have SOS, reach out to other managers or leaders for guidance, even mentoring, to reel in what you focus on, what you give your attention to. And if you notice a coworker has SOS, reach out to them. Again, I’m framing this like a call for help, so help them, to the best of your ability, even though it may seem like an initially awkward thing to bring up.
The final extreme of being a content consumer is that you aren’t one. Now chances are pretty good that if you’re listening to me talking right now, you consume content from time to time, so this extreme is more likely about people who aren’t you but around you, like team members, fellow managers, etc. Maybe these individuals don’t care about learning anything in general due to lack of energy, motivation, or interest. Maybe they’re so overwhelmed with all the information they could consume that they simply shut down and don’t consume any. Or maybe they’ve tried things in the past or things have been tried on them by other managers or leaders, and they’re skeptical, tired, or cynical of popular content, especially silver bullets.
If you know team members or other managers like this, then kind of like with SOS, reach out to them. Talk with them to see what kind of information they value, whether they read blogs or books, whether they watch videos or listen to podcasts, things like that. Then you could potentially suggest some kind of learning or discussion group to maybe spark some interest. I’m not trying to suggest that every employee in every position in an organization needs to have a pursuit for knowledge, but knowing what they don’t like to learn about, and why, can help you better frame interactions with them in the future, especially within your own team regarding growth and development.
The main takeaway from this first mishap is that you should be aware of whether you fall into an extreme when it comes to information, whether you have maximum input, maximum output, SOS, or if you really want to learn anything new.
It seemed appropriate to turn the discussion of silver bullets toward something that I know quite well and what is also framed quite frequently as a silver bullet: employee engagement software.
There is a misguided perception from some managers and leaders that just having employees take a survey is enough, that that’s the silver bullet for organizational culture. Or having automated text analytics, or a real-time dashboard, or really any kind of technology that measures employee perceptions and behaviors.
Whenever I encounter this opinion, my immediate thought is of a doctor’s visit. If you think that just taking an engagement survey is enough to strengthen a culture or increase engagement, then that’s like saying just going to an annual check-up with your doctor is enough to make you healthier. Just weighing yourself, taking your blood pressure, and thinking back on what’s been problematic is somehow enough to make you a healthier person. That’s not how it works. To become healthier, you would need actually do something outside of that visit. Exercise more, eat healthier, drink more water, whatever.
The same goes for engagement surveys and any technology to measure employee feedback. Just asking employees for their opinions doesn’t somehow mean those opinions will improve over time just because you asked. If anything, we’ve found over the years that employee perceptions tend to decrease if no action is taken on survey results.
There are different ways in which organizations tend to treat engagement surveys and software, and I call these cultures of engagement. This also applies to the team level for managers. There are broadly four types of engagement cultures, going from worst to best.
Arguably the worst kind of engagement culture is one that is complacent. Managers and leaders in these…cultures of complacency… often think they have all the right answers. If they measure engagement, they never do anything with the results. They explain away issues in the results and let data gather digital dust. These cultures can create toxic teams where anyone in power knows best, and contradictory evidence can be explained away or simply ignored. Likewise, complacency can come in the form of receiving highly favorable results, and then not doing anything. Everyone pats themselves on the backs and just sit back in their own glory.
Another culture of engagement that’s a bit better is a compliance culture. Employee engagement is a check-the-box activity in these organizations, generally in the form of an annual survey and that’s it. Employee opinions are collected, results are kept among the HR team and executive leadership, and there’s little to no follow-through or follow-up to the rest of the organization.
Much better than either of the previous cultures is a culture of commitment. These organizations have leaders and managers who are committed to improvement. Engagement results, whether from a survey or other software, are thoroughly explored, and action plans are made. But they’re not the best culture because employee engagement is often viewed as an event or project, rather than a continuous process. These cultures and teams generally have a burst, or stop and start mentality. A lot of effort is put into engagement and feedback, but only for a short period of time.
What I believe is the best engagement culture is the core culture, when employee engagement is a core part of the organization’s culture and people-based strategy. Managers and leaders in these cultures know that employee perceptions are dynamic, always changing, and never-ending. That engagement doesn’t stop when a survey’s results are collected, because they know people never stop changing. Continuous listening processes are encouraged in these cultures, like an annual engagement survey that’s supplemented with quarterly or monthly pulse surveys, which are supported by monthly one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports.
You might be wondering – wait, where does the silver bullet fit into all of this, into these four cultures of engagement? I view it that cultures of complacency are more likely to rely on silver bullets because that allows those managers and leaders to put the blame on things other than themselves, that they don’t want to put in the actual work of improving their organizational cultures in meaningful ways. That reliance on silver bullets decreases a little bit with cultures of compliance, more with cultures of commitment, and I believe is non-existent in core cultures. Because remember that core cultures have leaders and managers who fully realize and own the fact that employee engagement, and positively changing employee perception, is tough and takes a lot of work. That is the exact opposite of a silver bullet.
The main takeaway from this second mishap is that measurement by itself is not improvement. It never will be. And you need to think about what kind of team culture you’re comfortable with, what it currently is, and what you’d like it to be. In this case, I’m talking about the four engagement cultures – is your team engagement culture one of complacency, compliance, commitment, or core? Is that okay to you? Is that what you want out of your team and out of yourself?
As a recap of this episode, I discussed mishaps about some extreme responses to silver bullets, and the misconception of measurement as a silver bullet. With extreme responses, there is maximum input, or only learning, and maximum output, or only doing. Both of those relate to SOS, or shiny object syndrome. The third extreme is not really learning anything. In terms of misconceptions, I wrapped that into four cultures of engagement, including complacency, compliance, commitment, and core.
Think about how you respond to silver bullets, and information more broadly. Do you gravitate toward quick fixes? Do you share knowledge within your team, and to other teams? There’s always a balance to be struck between the right amount of input and the right amount of output, and finding that balance can be done by measurement. Asking your team for feedback, sending out a quick email or survey, etc. But then that extends into how you treat that measurement, to ensure that you don’t let that process become a silver bullet itself.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss less obvious negative management traits.