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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Great Management is a Skillset with Huge Impact on Team and Organisation Performance

Great Management is a Skillset with Huge Impact on Team and Organisation Performance

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Stefanie Tignor, lead data scientist at Humu about what it take to be a great manager, how great managers show up with their teams and the powerful difference managers make in the organisation.  

Key Takeaways

  • Many managers come to the role without any training - the skills that got them promoted to be a manager are the skills that they're no longer using
  • Effective recognition of their people is the most important attribute of being a great manager
  • The best managers are really skilled at structure and processes and creating clarity for their team regardless of what gets thrown at them
  • Creating an environment of psychological safety can start small and start local
  • Managers are by far the most influential people for driving change - that managers are two times more influential for driving organizational change than leaders or teammates


Shane Hastie: Hey folks, before starting today's podcast, I wanted to share that QCon Plus, our online software development conference returns from November 30 to December 8. Learn from senior software leaders at early adopter companies as they share their real world technical and leadership experiences to help you adopt the right patterns and practices. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Stefanie Tignor. Stefanie is the head of data science at Humu. Stefanie, welcome, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Stefanie Tignor: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

Shane Hastie: Probably a useful starting point and my most common starting point with this is who's Stefanie and who's Humu?


Stefanie Tignor: My name's Stefanie Tignor. And as you mentioned, I lead data science at a company called Humu. In that role, I really combine my knowledge of data science with my knowledge of behavioral science. So I actually have a PhD in social and personality psychology with an emphasis in statistics. And so in that work and in my academic career, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out can we sort of mathematically or statistically represent people and their behavior? What might it look like if we use the latest technologies and the latest advances in machine learning and statistics and modeling to really model out human emotions and personality and situations and experiences to hopefully understand human behavior better and maybe help change human behavior for the better. So I did that for many years, and used to be a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. And then got really interested in how I could apply those data science and behavioral science skills to technology.

And so I spent some time at Google on their people analytics team, which is how I met the founders of Humu, Laszlo Bock, former SVP of people operations at Google, and Jessie Wisdom, our head of people science at Google. And so after spending some time there and really loving that approach to using data science and behavioral science together in concert, Jessie Wisdom got in contact with me because they were starting up Humu, which is this really cool, new innovative startup and asked if I wanted to join. And I said absolutely, knowing nothing about the company. Very tiny company, very few employees. And then I have been there ever since. And so I've been there for about five years and have grown into leading their data science function.

Shane Hastie: A little bit about what Humu does with this data or what is the data?

Many managers come to the role without any training

Stefanie Tignor: Yeah, so Humu is an action management platform that makes it easy for every manager to be a great manager. So we noticed this problem in the world of work, you may have noticed it yourself, listeners may have noticed it in some of their jobs that not all managers are great managers and it's really difficult to be a great manager, right? It requires a lot of energy and a lot of commitment. And many managers become managers without any training. They get promoted because they were a terrific technologist or a terrific individual contributor. And the exact skills that got them promoted to be a manager then are the skills that they're no longer using. And all of the skills that they need to be a great manager, no one has taught them. They haven't had any training or maybe they just don't know how to execute them most effectively on a daily basis.

And so at Humu we thought about what would it look like if we could use technology to solve that problem. What if we could make it really just easy and seamless for every manager to be a great manager and enable managers to adopt the habits of effective leaders and build strong connections and support moments that matter in work and how can we make that as easy as possible? And so we've developed technology that does exactly that, that helps nudge managers in those moments that matter and in their daily work to be the best possible versions of themselves to create higher team performance, productivity, retention, and a better team experience.

Shane Hastie: Now, you used the term in there that I know has a very specific meaning, nudge. I suspect a number of our audience won't know what do we mean by a nudge. So do you want to explore that one for us please?

What is a nudge in behavioral science?

Stefanie Tignor: Absolutely. So nudge comes from behavioral science and behavioral economics. And sort of the technical definition of a nudge is element of the choice architecture that makes it really easy to make the "right choice" or the beneficial choice, whatever that means for you. It makes it a little bit more difficult to enact the harmful choice or the choice that maybe you don't want to enact.

And so that's a little bit more technical, but I'll get concrete of a specific example. Many employers have an opt-in 401(k) program. And so that means that to join the 401(k) program, you have to actually press a button and you have to say, "I would like to participate in the 401(k) program." Whereas other employers have an opt-out situation where they say everyone is automatically enrolled in the 401(k) program and you have to explicitly press that button to say, "No thanks, I'd like to be removed."

And so what's interesting about these is that the two choices are exactly the same. In both scenarios, you can participate or you can not participate. But what the data show is that when employers have this opt-out framework, when you have to click the button to say no, the enrollment rates are much, much higher. And so that's a really great example of a nudge where you haven't changed the available choices at all. You haven't forced someone to do something. The choices are exactly the same. You can participate or you cannot, but it's just the way that we've structured the situation that makes it way more likely that you're going to participate than not.

Shane Hastie: What would be an example of a nudge that a manager might need?

Recognition as a nudge for managers

Stefanie Tignor: Well, we have so many at Humu. We have thousands and thousands of nudges. And so really one great example of one that I love because of its simplicity is reminders about recognition. So we see in our data that some of the most powerful nudges are actually recognition nudges, because recognition is one of the key attributes of being a top manager. Great managers excel at recognition. They regularly recognize their direct reports and their contributions. But at the same time, it's this perfect example of something that is just really hard to remember, but we all know we should do it. And so how can we nudge managers then to remember that recognition?

And so an example might be you'll get a Slack message or a Microsoft teams message or an email from Humu that says, "Hey, here's a friendly reminder. If anyone has done outstanding work recently, recognize them. And here are three ways that you can do it." And so I love this example because as mentioned, like everybody knows that you should recognize your report, but our data show that most managers don't do it regularly. So despite knowing that it's something that you should do, most managers don't. And most managers who want to do it, they don't end up doing it. And so sending those nudges to just be that just in time reminder where, "Hey, it's been a while. You haven't recognized anyone recently. Here's a reminder. Just throw it into your conversation." It makes it just so seamless. It makes it almost harder to not do that than to do it because it's right there in front of you and we've given you the tools to make it successful.

Shane Hastie: What is the state of the management world today?

Resilience as a key management attribute

Stefanie Tignor: Ooh, the state of the management world today, it's a great question. It is complex. Things are complicated and things are, I would describe it as we are seeing an amplification of what we had seen previously in today's world. And what I mean by that is one of the key trends that we keep seeing again and again is that this shift toward hybrid work or remote work and just generally navigating this new world of work with all that's going on in the economy right now and the Great Resignation and new team norms and new ways of working and new technologies for working. We've seen the effect of that, be that great managers, truly the top managers, the best managers are really resilient to all of this. They are equipped. Even though it may be situations they've never seen before, they are equipped with the skills to handle it and their teams are excelling in thriving.

But what we do see is that the managers that are not equipped, that are not as skilled, these are the managers that are just getting worse and worse. And so we're actually seeing this widening of a gap between top managers and not so great managers because we're not seeing necessarily support for those resiliency skills and we're just seeing a widening over time in terms of the gap between a great manager and a not so great one.

Shane Hastie: So what are those resiliency skills?

Resiliency skills

Stefanie Tignor: Yeah, some of the data that we see that are the strongest indicators of a successful manager are two things. Number one, I mentioned recognition earlier. The ability to provide that recognition, which is interesting because it's not necessarily the first thing you'd think of. But at this time when people are going through so much turmoil and there are so many changes, having that personal touch to your management and being able to recognize great work and have a form of personal connection with your reports is only more important, especially as we're being mediated by screens, people aren't in the office together.

And so even though it sounds, "Well, of course, that's great. Yeah, it's maybe nice to have," we're seeing that it's really a make or break skill is the ability to have those strong personal connections as a manager and provide that regular recognition. So that's the first one.

And then the second one is establishing effective processes and structure. So that has been really a make or break for in terms of how the work gets done. We've seen that the best managers are really skilled at structure and processes and creating clarity for their team regardless of what gets thrown at them. And so when we saw all this new shift and change in remote work and unforeseen circumstances left and right, top managers were able to draw on those skills of those abilities to create structure and process and just adapt them for the new world of work. But we didn't see the same thing from less skilled managers. We didn't see them having that toolkit to say, "I know how to create structure when everything is going haywire and when things are just really unpredictable." And so that's why we're seeing that gap widening.

Shane Hastie: How do managers build those skills?

Building resilience, recognition and structure skills takes deliberate practice

Stefanie Tignor: It takes a lot of practice and repetition. So one of the things that we see in our data a lot is that a lot of organizations pay for management trainings. I love management training. I think that they're really great to go to, they feel great. They energize you as a manager. I'm a manager myself, so if you've gone to a training, you've maybe come away with two or three tips. You feel really energized, you spent a lot of time. And it can be really exciting and interesting and you connect with people who are also managers. The problem that we've seen in our research though is that most manager trainings, the effects of it wear off in about six months. And so even though it may feel really great, and we do see this boost where right out of the training, next week my team says, "Wow, Stefanie's really doing so much and she's really changing her management style," there then really isn't any follow through.

And so we see that learning has to happen in the flow of work and really regularly. And so it can't just be this one time burst of a management training because most of that content is just going to go in one ear and out the other within a couple of weeks. But instead sort of micro learnings in the flow of work and when you are actually engaging in the work that's relevant. So it might be relevant to hear at a manager training, "Here are some great tips for creating structure and process in this training in this classroom, but maybe I'm not doing my quarterly OKRs for another two months. Will I still remember that tip two months from now that I learned in that management training?" And so bringing it where it's contextually relevant is also huge.

Shane Hastie: That's very different to the design of what, dare I say, the few good management training systems that are out there.

Stefanie Tignor: Yes, absolutely. It's surprising. Yeah.

Shane Hastie: As a manager, if I do want to get better at this stuff, what are the habits that I need to build?

Habits to build

Stefanie Tignor: Yeah, so really a couple come to mind. Number one is you really have to build that habit of asking for feedback from your team and making feedback a regular practice. And so managers just can't get better if they don't know what they're not great at.

We see often there can be a huge gap in perceptions between what a manager thinks they're doing and what their employees think they're doing. And so really a first key step is getting that feedback in both directions. Feedback is not just something that a manager should give a direct report, but managers should regularly get feedback from their team members, from their direct reports in the interest of growing and learning and creating that psychologically safe environment so that reports feel comfortable giving that feedback for development.

We've seen in our data sometimes that managers will say, "Hey, I'm trying all these new approaches to my management, I'm doing all this new stuff." And then we ask the team members, "What has your manager done recently?" And they say, "Oh, I haven't really seen anything." And those managers aren't lying by the way. They're genuinely trying, but they're just not trying the right things, they're not getting at the right tactics. And this can lead to a really frustrating experience for a manager. And so really getting that feedback as a manager from your team to know what you should be focusing on and are you hitting the mark. And so making that a regular practice and weaving it into the work is really key for being able to understand how you can grow as a manager.

Shane Hastie: You touched on the psychologically safe environment. A lot of places, that two-way feedback is hard.

Psychological safety is hard to achieve and requires practice

Stefanie Tignor: Absolutely. That is why psychological safety is so, so important and why you have to build a culture of that and really adopt also tools and systems where employees know that when they give you feedback, it will not be used against them. So what tools and systems can you use and devise so that people can feel comfortable voicing those concerns? And you provide a forum and a space to do it regularly and potentially anonymously or potentially confidentially in a way where managers aren't going to be able to retaliate or things like that. And so how do you build those systems to make sure that we can get that feedback regularly and have that psychological safety and hopefully reinforce one with the other?

Often we see that this is an upward spiral where it can be really hard to start. If you're at an organization where it does not have a psychologically safe environment, you can't just burst in and say, "Okay, everyone's going to give me feedback and your name will be attached because we need this place to be psychologically safe." But how can it start really with one conversation, maybe once a month, the manager says, "Hey, if you have any feedback, let me know" and we start there and then we build from there? And then they see that you're not going to retaliate against them if you give feedback. And so grow and build and beget more feedback, and more feedback begets more feedback, and more feedback begets psychological safety.

Shane Hastie: What are the other things that influence psychological safety in organisations?

Psychological safety can start small and start local, and grow from there

Stefanie Tignor: There's sort of a double edged sword with psychological safety in that in the organizational system, any pair of individuals, any two people, that relationship can be psychologically safe or not. And that is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that if you do not have a psychologically safe organization because a lot of this comes from leadership culture, and so if you do not have a psychologically safe organization because leadership is setting a very poor example for psychological safety, that is extremely unfortunate and obviously it would be better if leadership set a great example. But at the same time, any two people can have psychological safety within their relationship. And so what we have seen that can be really effective for creating psychological safety is starting small and starting locally.

So organizational cultures and leadership examples are so influential, but if we don't have that support, then how do I say, "You know what? I have a team of three people. And my team, we're going to work on psychological safety. And maybe people will not feel safe to bring their opinions elsewhere outside of my team at this organization, but they will feel safe here and we can start there." And often we do see the spreading throughout an organization. "So all of a sudden my team is starting to get more done. We're having higher performance, we're retaining more people. Things are going better." And so people start to carry that demeanor and that disposition outwards into their other team relationships. And so we can see it spread throughout an organization if it starts locally. But if we have leadership buy-in, that is really key and super important and can be extremely influential.

Shane Hastie: I'm intrigued by the start small there. A lot of what we hear about psychological safety is just how important that leadership and our whole organization culture is. But you're saying that while that's important, we can still make a difference in our own sphere.

Stefanie Tignor: Exactly. And that's really what we recommend when we talk about the power of managers too, we see that really clearly. In our data, we've often looked at who's the most influential person in an organization for driving change. I think about this a lot. Who, if we wanted to change the culture to say we want to make this organization more psychologically safe, who should we focus on if we could focus on no one else?

What we've seen in our data is that managers are by far the most influential people for driving change. And that could be a manager of two or three people. Not far up the organizational structure. This person could be just in a side branch somewhere, maybe not at the headquarters, small team, small scope and they often are the most influential people in driving organizational culture. In fact, we've seen in our data that managers are two times more influential for driving organizational change than leaders or teammates. So everyone's important. It's obviously better if everybody is on board with an organizational change to take psychological safety. It's obviously better if the whole organization is rallying behind psychological safety. But when it comes down to it, managers are by far the most influential.

I particularly love that stat because they are two times more influential than leaders. And leaders are often the people who set the strategy themselves. So even though leaders are setting the strategy, the people who are tasked with carrying it out and the people who are more influential and are ultimately going to make or break that strategy by a factor of 2X are the managers.

Shane Hastie: There's a push in some organization approaches to reduce the number of managers to move to more self organizing teams and we don't need no managers.

Stefanie Tignor: I think this is fascinating, this push. And it may certainly work for some organizations and some types of structures. Every organization is a unique organism in its own way. But we have seen in our data that managers are very hugely influential and ultimately they are really crucial for a team functioning and for performance and for psychological safety and for engagement and for retention. They are such a key lever that it is so important to set managers up for success. And I would definitely advocate for having managers at most organizations.

Shane Hastie: Shifting tech a little bit and some really interesting things to think about there, but exploring your data, what are some of the trends? What are the things that are happening in this very tumultuous time as we are moving through out of fully remote into hybrid? How do we prevent hybrid hell?

Managers’ jobs are far harder in the remote/hybrid environment

Stefanie Tignor: Absolutely. Yeah. So I'll say a couple things here. I'll focus on managers and I'll sort of focus on everyone. The first is that manager's jobs we're seeing are just 10 times harder today than they were in the past. This is because they're being relied upon now more for increasing amounts of cultural and emotional support.

So it used to be the case that managers sort of came into the office and they were dealing with their own domain and assigning tasks and helping people grow a little bit and maybe resolving some conflicts on the team or deciding how teams should collaborate together. Now, when people are remote, they don't have as much exposure to an organizational vision and mission and the culture of the organization as they used to just by nature of being in the office. And so we've seen now that managers aren't just expected to do all the old stuff that they used to do, managers now, to be effective, also have to be carriers of the organizational culture and translate the mission for their direct reports and translate the vision and really inspire and lead in a new way because that culture and mission is not being transmitted in other ways like it used to be.

And so this has made the job of managers much harder. And so it's not surprising then that we've seen in our data that managers are at a really high attrition risk. So they're at higher attrition rate risk than individual contributors. And we've seen a 25% increase in burnout among managers, because now they're doing all this extra emotional labor of their jobs. It used to always be a very emotional job of being a manager, you're responsible for your team's emotions and dealing with those on a daily basis, but now it's just amplified so much. And so one of the trends we're seeing is that the job of management is expanding while at the same time managers are being asked to do more with less. And so that's one key trend that we really have to keep our eye on.

The second is that we've seen in individual employees and individual contributors that now they're more focused than ever before on prioritizing their wellbeing and balance. So we ran a survey and we saw that 79% of participants said that they would leave their job for one that better supports their wellbeing. And in terms of factors that impact their job satisfaction, work-life balance was at the top of the list. So 76% of people said, "This is one of the top three things that matters when I'm thinking about whether or not to take a job or whether or not I like my job." And so employees are really valuing this work-life balance and this wellbeing more than ever before of what we've seen and I don't see any signs of that slowing down anytime soon.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned managers and burnout. How do we prevent that? How do we support people at all levels of the organization to avoid burnout?

Support needed to avoid burnout

Stefanie Tignor: Yeah, so for managers, one of the key things that I think is most important is providing them with tools that help them automate or take off their plate more of the busy work. And so maybe that's new processes at your organization and maybe it's new technologies, but managers are tasked with just a lot of repetitive or busy work or things they have to remember on a daily basis. And that leaves so little time for emotional support from those managers. If you're so busy managing all of the tasks and figuring out who's on what project and remembering to schedule a get together for someone's last day and remembering to post a Slack message about the next team meeting, all of these little things really add up. And then at the end of the day, the manager is left with no hours left to just pull someone aside and say, "Hey, you did a really great job today" or to notice that someone's been more quiet at a team meeting and say, "How are you feeling? Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do to support? Is your workload too much?"

And so really focusing on pulling off the plate of managers as much as possible, this busy work or automating it or making it more seamless through processes or new systems, so that they can just have an extra 20 minutes in their day to provide that emotional support, an extra hour in their day to do that part of the management job because we've seen that that's so important for the individual employees.

One other thing I'll mention too is that in this emotional support in this work-life balance, we've seen that employees are just expecting this more. So we asked employees to list the attributes that they most want in a manager. And their top response was support for work-life balance followed by flexible work arrangements. And so people want the sense of support from their managers, both in terms of the emotional support, but also in terms of support for their personal life and support for being a human outside of work. And so it's important that we listen to that within organizations and make it easy for managers to provide that need to employees.

Shane Hastie: Data science is sometimes used to help us see into the future. What are the trends? What is the future that you see?

The trend for more and more pressure on managers

Stefanie Tignor: Yeah, so the future I see is it's a little bit scary for managers, I will say. I don't want to sound alarmist, but I am worried about what we'll see becoming the expectations of managers in the next few years because they're so overburdened and because really few organizations are providing them with the tools and resources that they need.

And so I worry that over time managers are just going to be expected to continue to do more with less unless we change how we think about management and development of managers and really shift our perspective for what it means to be a great manager and how we can enable any manager not just get through the day, not just muddle through the day and sort of barely get from task to task, but how do we change that and elevate that to make every manager an amazing manager?

And so truthfully, I'm a little bit worried because since we've seen this gap widen between the best and the not so great managers, I would only expect it to continue to widen as work becomes more complex, particularly as we think about hybrid and maybe confusing work arrangements where some people are hybrid, some are remote fully, some are in office fully. Maybe we have one in office day a week. There's just a lot to manage there. And we've seen the gap widen already. And so I'm very concerned that this will just continue to widen and we'll see the top managers continue to do fine because they have these resiliency skills, but the not so great managers will continue to flounder and their performance may continue to suffer even more.

Shane Hastie: So what do we have to do to prevent that?

Stefanie Tignor: I think we have to be more cognizant of what the job of management entails. I think we need a little bit of a reset of what the job of management entails. I think that we have been so focused on managers engaging in these day to day tasks that we really haven't zoomed out to say, "You know what? A manager can be an emotional support system for a team. A manager can help foster wellbeing on a team. They can help combat burnout for that team. They can build a strong psychologically safe culture. They can encourage their employees to speak up and give feedback and they can provide a healthy and inclusive work culture." And oftentimes those are listed as secondary attributes of the manager, right? We're focused on productivity and this task to that task and meeting to meeting to meeting. We haven't really allowed enough space to include those soft skills, those human skills as really the most important and primary skills of a manager.

We've seen in our research actually that the soft skills are even more important for retention than the skills like effective processes and managing tasks. And so these soft skills aren't just an extra add-on. They are actually the crucial piece of management. They are what keeps employees at organizations. And I think oftentimes we viewed them as an aside, and we really have to shift that perspective and really flip that on its head.

Shane Hastie: Stefanie, some really, really useful advice and some good questions in here. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Stefanie Tignor: Yes, you can reach out to us anytime at and get in contact with us. That's hello@, Our website is And so we'd love to hear from you if you're interested in learning more about Humu or any of the data that I've talked about today. We'd be happy to dig in deeper detail with you about that as well.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Stefanie Tignor: Thank you.


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