Our Favorite Management Tips of 2021

Another year, another set of challenges and responsibilities for managers to tackle. Hybrid work, the Great Resignation, mass burnout — on and on. Each weekday, in our Management Tip of the Day newsletter, HBR offers daily tips to help you better manage your teams — and yourselves — through this period of profound change and uncertainty. Here are 10 of our favorite tips from 2021.


Making the WFH Case to Leaders Who Want to Return to the Office

As companies start returning to the office, managers are finding themselves caught in the middle between employees who want to keep working from home and senior leaders who want everyone back at their desks. How can you navigate this tension? Start by finding out what’s driving leaders’ concerns. Do they doubt that people are taking work seriously? Are they worried that employees aren’t collaborating enough? Once you know what’s behind their push to return, find ways to address those concerns. Show that remote work is beneficial to the company, not just to individuals. For example, you can emphasize your ability to retain skilled employees who would otherwise leave. You might point out that remote work offers the ability to draw from a wider talent pool. Consider asking your HR department if they have data on how working from home is paying off for your company. Also, demonstrate that your team is engaged no matter where they’re located. For example, you might invite leaders to video meetings that include both in-person and remote workers so they can see that everyone is committed and participating regardless of where they’re calling in from. If leadership is applying pressure for employees to come back to the office, and you believe there’s a balance that could work better for everyone, try these strategies to make your case.

Adapted from “What to Do If Your Team Doesn’t Want to Go Back to the Office,” by Liz Kislik


How to Give Critical Feedback — Remotely

Giving critical feedback is one of your most challenging responsibilities as a manager — and if you’re working remotely, it’s even harder. How can you update your approach to giving feedback in a WFH world? Here are some key steps to keep in mind:

  • Start by asking questions. You need to understand your employee’s perception of their performance before expressing yours.
  • Show specific appreciation before laying out criticism. They’ll be more likely to be receptive to your feedback if they trust that you value them.
  • State your positive intentions. Something as simple as “I’m in your corner” can go a long way.
  • Clarify and contrast. “I’m saying X, I’m not saying Y.”
  • Ask your employee to state their key takeaways from the conversation.

We’re all under intense stress from the pandemic. Taking care to deliver your feedback with clarity and sensitivity will help people focus on the reality of your message, even in a remote environment.

Adapted from “Giving Critical Feedback Is Even Harder Remotely,” by Therese Huston


The Art of Following Up Graciously

We’ve all been there: You email someone asking for a conversation, information, input, or an introduction … and you get no response. It’s frustrating, but you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that you’re being ghosted. We’re all juggling a lot these days, so here’s how to reach out with a gentle nudge. Start with a compelling subject line. Avoid generic phrases like “Following up” or “Checking in” that are not only vague, they may also make the recipient feel bad for being slow to respond (even further delaying a reply). Instead, be more specific, for example, “Next steps on X project” or “Question on job application.” Next, be mindful of your tone. Research shows emails that are slightly to moderately positive in tone have a 10 to 15% higher response rate than more neutral messages. So aim to be friendly and polite. Finally, be succinct and specific about your ask — and offer your recipient an easy out. This will give them an opportunity to save face and preserve the relationship. If you do all this and you still don’t get a response, be judicious about following up again. You may need to cut your losses and move on.

Adapted from “How to Follow Up With Someone Who’s Not Getting Back to You,” by Rebecca Zucker


Start Your Day with This Simple Practice

Nearly a year into the pandemic, it can be hard to muster the positive outlook that fuels motivation and creativity. When we lose that positivity, burnout and fatigue can quickly follow. How can you inject some optimism into your day? This two-minute exercise can help. Each morning, finish the following three sentences (either on paper, out loud, or even in your head) before you turn on your computer or start your commute:

Today, I will focus on _____.

Today, I am grateful for _____.

Today, I will let go of _____.

Make sure to be specific with your answers; writing that you’re grateful for your mom every day won’t help. Ultimately, we’re only awake for an average of 1,000 minutes each day. If we can invest just two of them to prime our brains for positivity, then we’ll be helping ensure the quality of other 998 minutes.

Adapted from “This Two-Minute Morning Practice Will Make Your Day Better,” by Neil Pasricha


4 Strategies to Improve Your Efficiency

It can feel like 24 hours isn’t enough time in the day, and all the productivity hacks in the world won’t change that. Here are four proven strategies to help you make the most of your limited time. First, batch your meetings. It’s hard to get into flow when you know you’re going to be interrupted every hour. By knocking out all your meetings at once, you’ll clear out some undisturbed time to work on deep-focus tasks. Second, do your best to learn some keyboard shortcuts that can reduce how much you rely on your computer’s mouse and trackpad. This may seem like a small thing, but over time, it makes a huge difference. Third, leverage your environment to change your self-destructive habits. If you’re losing time because you’re distracted by your phone throughout the day, leave it in another room. If emails are derailing your workflow, pause notifications. Finally, read your work out loud. No matter what your job is, chances are you write at least one email per day. Listening to the words you put down on paper will speed up and clarify your writing process.

Adapted from “What Super Productive People Do Differently,” by Amantha Imber


Break the Cycle of Self-Criticism

It’s tempting to think that if you’re tough on yourself, you’ll perform better. But self-criticism can ruin your mood, focus, and productivity if you let it. Try to take a more balanced approach to evaluating your own performance with these strategies.

  • Avoid generalization. Resist the urge to zero in on a single negative event and instead consider your performance on aggregate. Think of a bell curve: Some days will be below average, and that’s normal.
  • Think about what could go “right.” To avoid focusing on the negative, consider positive “what if” situations. For example: What if this idea isn’t stupid, but is the breakthrough that moves the project forward? What if this proposal revolutionizes how we work as a team? What if the senior leadership team loves my presentation?
  • Timebox your feelings. Set a timer for between 30-50 minutes (the time it typically takes for feelings like shame to dissipate) and allow yourself to fully experience and process your emotions. Once the timer goes off, make a conscious choice about how to put those feelings behind you and move forward.

Adapted from “Stop Being So Hard on Yourself,” by Melody Wilding


Want a High-Performing Team? Focus on Social Connections

Every leader wants to solve the puzzle of what makes a high-performing team. One piece that’s often missing is the importance of social connections. If you’re trying to supercharge your team, here are research-backed ways you can foster greater connectedness.

  • Invest time in bonding over non-work topics. The best teams aren’t more effective because they work all the time. In fact, discussing things not related to work — sports, books, and family, for example — reveal shared interests, allowing people to connect in genuine ways, which yields closer friendships and better teamwork.
  • Create a culture where expressing appreciation is the norm. Recognition is often a more powerful motivating force than monetary incentives. And an acknowledgement of good work shouldn’t just flow from the top down. Make it a norm for peers to express appreciation for one another as well.
  • Put a premium on authenticity. It’s important to create an environment where employees feel comfortable candidly expressing both positive and negative emotions — as well as complimenting and joking with teammates.

Adapted from “5 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently,” by Ron Friedman


Onboard a New Remote Hire the Right Way

Whenever you’re onboarding a new employee, the goal is to help them feel at home and excited about the work ahead. But when their interactions with you and the rest of the team are only virtual, how do you do that? Here are some tips.

  1. Get them off to a fast start. This means having their technology set up before their start date, and making sure they know who to go to with questions from day one. Assign them a dedicated onboarding buddy who can be their go-to person with the many spontaneous questions they’re likely to have.
  2. Facilitate strong relationships across the organization. Since you can’t rely on the organic and spontaneous relationship-building that happens in the office, be proactive and intentional about setting up a mix of formal and informal one-on-one interactions between the new hire and other individuals. Don’t forget to introduce them to colleagues across departments early and often.
  3. Explain the culture and how work gets done. Make unwritten rules explicit, such as your company’s level of formality, dress code, virtual etiquette on videoconferences, communication norms, and working hours. It will be far less stressful if your new employee doesn’t have to guess at these issues.

Adapted from “How to Set Up a Remote Employee for Success on Day One,” by James M. Citrin and Darleen DeRosa


Lead with Questions, Not Answers

Chances are, most leaders are too focused on having all the answers — and not focused enough on asking the right questions. It’s time to recalibrate. Despite what you might think, expressing vulnerability and asking for help, clarification, or input can be a sign of strength and confidence, not weakness. The right questions are signals of trust — and they can inspire people to trust you in return. For example, rather than telling your team about a new opportunity you’ve identified, ask them, “Do you see a game-changing opportunity that could create much more value than we’ve delivered in the past?” A big, simple question like this can inspire a burst of collaboration and creativity across the organization. And if you consistently demonstrate a question-first mindset, you’ll help establish an overall culture of curiosity and learning that will keep your team innovating and responding to challenges effectively. So try it out this week: Ask your team a big-picture, open-ended question, and see if it doesn’t lead to some new and exciting ideas.

Adapted from “Good Leadership Is About Asking Good Questions,” by John Hagel III


Lead Through Uncertainty

Uncertainty is unavoidable. As a manager, you need to be prepared to lead your team through murky waters, but doing so requires getting in the right mindset yourself. Here are six tips to help you shift your perspective:

  1. Embrace the discomfort of not knowing. Move from a know-it-all to a learn-it-all mindset. You don’t need to have all the answers.
  2. Distinguish between “complicated” and “complex” issues. They require different solutions.
  3. Let go of perfectionism. Instead, aim for progress, expect mistakes, and recognize that you have the ability to continually course correct as needed.
  4. Resist the urge to oversimplify and come to quick conclusions. Take a disciplined approach to understanding both the complexity of the situation and your own biases.
  5. Don’t go it alone. Connect with your peers who have their own set of experiences and perspectives to draw from.
  6. Zoom out. Taking a broad, systemic view of the issues at hand can reveal unexamined assumptions that would otherwise be invisible.

Adapted from “6 Strategies for Leading Through Uncertainty,” by Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell