A few weeks ago, an article originally posted on Harvard Business Review popped back up on my LinkedIn feed titled How Netflix Reinvented HR.
I remember reading it many years ago, but like every great article or book, I had several new takeaways this time and have been mulling it ever since.
The article is pretty great and has an awesome deck about the Netflix culture — but the thing that stuck out to me this time was about managing with context instead of control. Transitioning from a technical role where you quite literally control a computer by making it do exactly what you tell it to a leadership role can be quite challenging. I think learning to set the context is one way to make the transition more successful for everyone.
Before we dive into leading with context instead of control, let’s level set and understand the definition of both context and control.
What Is Context
According to Merriam Webster, here is the definition of context:
Context (noun) : the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on it’s meaning.
Just to further expand on this — it essentially means the items that surround an idea, word, or passage that can reveal information that can clarify or help people understand something.
What Is Control
According to Merriam Webster, here is the definition of control:
Control (verb): to exercise restraining or directing influence over.
Looking into the definition of restraining — this translates to “influence to prevent from doing, exhibiting, or expressing something”.
Looking into the definition of directing — this translates to “influence to cause to turn, move, or point undeviatingly or to follow a straight course.”
Why Lead With Context Instead of Control
Simply looking at the definitions of both context and control is pretty powerful in my opinion.
The first word that came to my mind is trust.
Leading with context means giving the team the information they need to make the best decisions to succeed and trusting them to build the best possible product. Control assumes that you know the working realm best and you expect the team to do exactly what you say because you don’t trust them to make the best decisions.
In my experience, context enables high performers to be more effective, innovative, and do better work. On the contrary, I’ve seen control drive a lot of high performers away from an organization.
How To Lead With Context
At every level, it’s the managers job to provide the insight, understanding, and context to enable their team to make the best decisions. Let’s dive into some good context that Netflix suggests:
Goals: What are the overall goals of this? Is the goal to work with other companies? Is the goal to modernize technology? Is the goal to simply move to the cloud? Is the goal to build a single brand experience?
Priority: How time sensitive is this? Does this need to happen now or is it a nice to have and your team can get to it when they can? What is the timeline you mention to other people?
Error Tolerance: What’s the error tolerance for this? Is this sensitive data such as healthcare or credit card data? Or, is this a creative market where you can easily and inexpensively fix errors.
Stakeholders: Who is going to be using this? Who can your team demo to when they want feedback? Who can your team talk to when they are trying to decide between two options?
Metrics / Definition of Success: How will you decide if this is successful? How will others decide if this is successful? What metrics will you use when looking at performance?
These are just 5 quick ways to help give your team the context they need — but as a leader your job is to be a context conduit for your team. Think about how you can help your team connect the dots between their work and the strategic initiatives.
This is one area that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and trying to improve. I think there is so much more that could be written about this and I’m looking forward to learning more and writing more about it.
I’ll end this post with two quotes from the Netflix culture deck that I try to read daily:
“Managers: When one of your talented people does something dumb, don’t blame them. Instead, ask yourself what context you failed to set.”
“Managers: When you are tempted to “control” your people, ask yourself what context you could set instead.”