Podcast: Is your company gaslighting you?

The Interface: Is your company gaslighting you?

Is your company gaslighting you? Patrick sits down with Sara Wachter-Boettcher to discuss her article and takeaways for content designers. Listen in or get the transcript.

The Interface is a brand-new podcast exploring trends and hot topics for UX content people.

Recently, Active Voice CEO Sara Wachter-Boettcher published an article in which she made a bold claim about designers: your company is gaslighting you.

Designers might know this feeling well. Content designers especially. Being told that you need to do more. Educate more. Prove your “worth” more. But Watchter-Boettcher says…no.

“It’s a manipulative technique that makes designers question their own sanity and assume that they’re the problem — but that maybe, if they just try one more time, things will change. But they never do. Because the truth is, you cannot overwork your way into being valued. You cannot explain or fight your way into being valued.”

Content designers know this intimately. We are passionate about our work and internalize a lot. But it isn’t healthy. And Wachter-Boettcher says we need to change our approach. So we got her on to talk about it.

Available to listen


Episode transcript

Patrick Stafford: [00:00:00] Hi everyone. Welcome back to The Interface for November. I’m Patrick Stafford, CEO and co-founder of UX Content Collective. This month we have a pretty special discussion. If you spend any time on LinkedIn reading about design, you might have seen an article floating around called “Hey designers, your company is gaslighting you.” It was written by Active Voice CEO Sara Wachter-Boettcher, and in that article, she touches on something I think a lot of content designers suffer from, which is that we tend to focus so much on proving our value. And time and time again, our employers say, you have to do more, and you have to prove more. Sara’s article, which was the third most widely read article on LinkedIn in the month of October. She says that we need to completely rethink how we’re doing things as content designers, and we need to stop trying to prove our value. And she talks about a range of different techniques that we can use to do that. But I wanted to have her on the podcast to talk about some wider-ranging issues in content design, like, why do we tend to internalize things so much? Why do we take things so personally as content designers, and how can we stop that? Because it isn’t healthy. So really excited about the discussion. I hope you enjoy it. A couple of things before we begin, I’ve got some links in the show notes to check out.

Patrick Stafford: [00:01:30] Have a read of Sara’s article, preferably before you listen to the interview. It’s a really great article. Check out Sara’s company, Active Voice, and I’ve also linked to a year-end retreat that Active Voice is holding, so I would definitely check that out. Alright, here’s the chat with Active Voice CEO Sara Wachter-Boettcher about whether your company is gaslighting you. Enjoy.

Patrick Stafford: [00:02:05] Actually, the best interview I ever had was … I won’t say the company, but it was for a very large company. And I went in and the guy who was interviewing me was basically like, I’m going to tell you everything that sucks about working here, and I’m going to tell you everything that’s good about working here. And then you can make the decision about whether you want to continue. And I was like, this is fantastic. The honesty was just amazing. And he laid it out very well. He was like, there’s a lot of politics here. There’s a lot of, um, sometimes there can be infighting. But he said, but on the plus side, you’ll be doing amazing work and you’ll get a lot of really great experience. So, you have everything out there now. Now you can sort of make an informed decision, which I thought was a good way of doing things. I think more interviews should be like that.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:02:59] Yeah, I think. I mean, I think in general, you know, there’s so much of business culture that has taught people to not be upfront or direct and almost that professionalism equals being fake or evasive or avoidant. And I think it does all of us no favors.

Patrick Stafford: [00:03:24] No, we should just all be honest. Interviews, like so much in business, is just like a game in some ways. And you have to learn how to play that game. Unfortunately, some people who do very good work are very bad at playing that game. And often people who are very good at playing that game do not do great work and get away with it because they can play politics and so on.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:03:58] Yeah.

Patrick Stafford: [00:03:59] I’m sure we’ll talk about all of this as we talk about your recent article, which has caused, I think, a little bit of a stir based on some of the comments I’ve read of your article. So you wrote this article called “Hey, designers, they’re gaslighting you.” And you say that too many organizations have convinced designers that they are the problem, that if they just worked harder, they’d be taken seriously, but if just doing more was going to fix the problem, it would be fixed by now. That’s your description in your publication. And I wanted to talk to you about this because content designers, I think, have … this is a real struggle for content designers, having to prove value a lot. And a lot of people feel very burned out by that need. There’s a lot of debate about the necessity of that. But I’d love to hear in your words what drew you to write this article? What was the incident or the cause that made you think, yeah, I’ve got to write my feelings down on this.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:05:12] Yeah, well, you know, in my work I do a lot of one-on-one coaching, and I run some group programs, and I run workshops, and I love doing that work for exactly what that work is. But the kind of knock-on benefit of it is that it’s almost like I’m constantly doing research into the themes and trends in terms of how people are feeling about their work, because that’s what people talk to me about. So it’s not like I just had this idea one day, it came out of having really similar things emerge over and over and over and over again with the clients that I work with. And that includes a lot of people in content. I mean, that’s my kind of like, original home. And so a lot of people who come work with Active Voice, they are content designers, UX writers, content strategists, but also a lot of researchers, product designers, UX people of every stripe. And the reality is that, you know, I hear the same stuff over and over. I hear really similar threads. And I know at that point that it’s a real issue and not just something that’s coming up in 1 or 2 places. So that is really what led me to want to write about it, was realizing that this was something that a lot of people were struggling with, and that quite a lot of people were internalizing as their personal failing. That the reason that their practice is not getting more resources, the reason that they don’t have the quote-unquote seat at the table, etcetera, is that they personally haven’t done enough.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:06:49] And also, a lot of people have been explicitly told that by their leadership. And what I realized through the coaching process, working with a lot of people was that like A. That’s not why. B. Just working harder doesn’t actually change anything. There are people I would work with who had spent, you know, countless hours creating decks to sell content design into their organizations, going on roadshows, going out of their way to always be talking about the value of the work that they do, trying to explain for the 10,000th time what their team does and how to work with them. And it wasn’t working. It wasn’t getting them anywhere. And I thought, you know, these are smart people. These are hardworking people, dedicated, passionate about content. You know how content people are. It attracts people who really care. And so if they keep doing this and they keep being told that this is the path and this is the way, and if they just keep advocating, if they just keep selling it in, if they just keep talking about what it is and how to work with the team, things will change. And I keep thinking, well, if they haven’t changed yet, surely there comes a point in which we have to say, maybe that is not the path. Maybe that is not the way to solve this problem. The problem is real. But maybe this “do more and then keep doing more” approach is not going to do it.

Patrick Stafford: [00:08:26] So what do you think is going on here? Because I think the problem that you’ve described is something that yeah, as you said, a lot of content designers face. And so whether it’s that they aren’t being respected in their role, whether the discipline in their company is not being brought into not being treated as an equal in design, whether, you know, there’s, as you just said, whether they’re not getting the resources that they need and they’re being told, okay, you need to prove your value. So what do you think is actually happening here? Because these companies hired these people. So they obviously at some level think that they have a need for these roles. Is there a misunderstanding of the role? I’m interested to hear your thoughts on what you think is going on here in some of these organizations that are saying, well, you need to prove your value, but when people do prove their value, and we’ll talk about that phrase in a minute, actually, and we’ll sort of define what that means. But when they’re saying that, what do you think is happening in these organizations?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:09:40] Yeah. So I mean, I do think there’s a problem where organizations hire people that they don’t totally know what to do with and then put it on those people to demonstrate that they deserve to be there. And I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, don’t hire people if you don’t already believe that they deserve to be there and that their work is valuable, period.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:10:04] Why are you hiring them? If you can’t answer the question about why you’re hiring them, then that is a business problem. That is not that person’s problem. That’s my belief. Now, in the real world, you might get hired into a role where then you are told that that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I think it’s really important to note places where I think it is inequitable and it is unfair, and it is something that a business should not be doing. And also, you may have to deal with that as a person in the world trying to make a living, and deciding how you want to deal with that, I think is really important. And that, I think is really what I’m trying to get at is, yeah, these are conditions that may be entirely unfair. And some of these conditions are really trappings of late-stage capitalism where there is a dynamic of … it is beneficial to organizations to make the people who work there feel like they’re not doing enough and feel like they should constantly be doing more.

Patrick Stafford: [00:11:09] Do you think that’s a conscious thing? I mean, I’m sure it is in some places. I’m sure that’s the truth. Do you think it’s always a conscious thing, or is it a consequence of trying to do too much with not enough?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:11:23] Okay, that’s a tough question. I think it is not usually a conscious thing and you’re like a direct line manager. You know, it’s like most of the people who are running teams or who are directors in companies, they’re not hanging around thinking like, how can I exploit this person as much as possible? However, I think that at a higher level, a lot of the incentives that organizations have are in the direction of “how do we exploit these people as much as possible,” because they’re beholden to returning the most shareholder value they can as quickly as possible, or they’re supposed to be making their venture capitalist investors happy as quickly as possible. And it does lead to a whole lot of incentives that are really aligned around how do we get as much as possible out of our people as quickly as possible? How do we do, in a moment where there’s a lot of tightening of the belt, as they say, right. How do we do more with less? Which actually ends up meaning how do we get more out of people and how do we maximize profits? Maximization of profits fundamentally requires you to be thinking about minimizing what it costs you to get that return, which means minimizing the costs of people.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:12:56] So there’s a lot of incentives to overwork people. And so even if, like your direct manager or their manager does not want that, there’s quite a lot about sort of like the superstructure of the organization that tends to lean in that direction. And so, you know, I think the best leaders are really aware of that, just aware of the systems that they’re operating within and then figuring out how they want to deal with that. And when leaders tend to be the most toxic is when they’re sort of just parroting those party lines and they’re operating in a way that is not aware of or really thinking about those structures and they can be doing real harm to their teams that way. But usually, it’s not because they’re bad people or because they’re intentionally personally trying to overwork people. But I think it’s more because the incentives that they have are aligned in that direction.

Patrick Stafford: [00:13:51] It’s a great point. I think that one of the things that makes your article so striking is that in a lot of opinion pieces, there are people … would I describe it as an opinion piece? Let me rephrase that. In a lot of articles, people will write their opinion, but there’s not really much to back it up. You know, it’s them having a rant about something, which is perfectly fine. I mean, I do that, so that’s perfectly fine. But what’s striking about yours is that you actually have a lot of quotes in here from people, people you’ve spoken to, and there’s someone here saying that, you know, you’re taught that saying yes is how you become valuable to organizations, and that’s a trap. And you have another person saying that the biggest issue for me was confronting the fear that someone might say that you’re not doing your job. What’s interesting to me is that reading a lot of these stories, the problem that seems to come to the surface here, and I’m interested to hear your opinion on this, is that for a lot of these people, it doesn’t seem like success has been defined for them. They’re going into a role where there is no real definition of success. There’s no real guidance here. And that’s leading them to try and feel like they have to do everything, or the pressure in the organization to make them do everything. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that because I feel like a lot of what’s being described here could be helped by some pretty definitive definitions of, well, you did x, y, z. So you by default have proven the value of your role. Or is the problem bigger than that? What are you hearing?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:15:46] Oh, okay. I think that is definitely a problem. I think in a lot of places, it isn’t clear what exactly success looks like, and a lot of times people haven’t defined that for themselves too. I do think that if your company is going to hire somebody or start a new practice, it should have an idea of what success looks like. I also think it’s healthy to think about that for yourself. Like you personally, but also how do you think about your success? Your success in the context of the organization? Have a perspective on that. Have an opinion on that. It doesn’t mean that your opinion is going to be the only answer, but I think that it’s a way to be a present part of that conversation and not feel like it’s just passive and something that’s happening to you. So I do think part of the problem is lack of clear definition of success. I also think that part of the problem is these kind of broad and hazy definitions of success. Specifically, I think for content people, this comes up a lot where you hire in, let’s say, the first content hire at your tech company, or maybe you have this little fledgling team of 3 or 4 people in a design org that has a couple hundred people in it. And it’s also not realistic. You set up a team that has a very wide scope of work and very few resources, and you create the system where what content people will often feel like is that their job is to cover everything, and they’re sort of like the guardians of the content.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:17:26] And anything that is bad in content is a personal failure of theirs. And I think it really there’s often times I want to say, I want to be clear here. I think organizations set people up for this. And people, particularly content folks, often internalize this because they care about content. So it’s both, but it creates a system in which content people really end up feeling like martyrs, where they’re kind of living and dying for that content. And I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter that much. It doesn’t matter that much when you’re comparing it to your own health and well-being. Even if you’re working on something that is really important, and even if you’re working on something that is a really good cause, if you have to do it at your own personal expense, it’s not sustainable. And I would really say that that is actually negating the mission of whatever that organization is. And so I think that’s a big piece of it is really being able to say, you know, what are some measures of success that are also realistic and viable given the resources we have, the access we have. Right? The power that we have in this organization, the amount of agency we have. Are those things actually in alignment with one another? If you’re somehow supposed to have some massive, visible demonstration of success, but you are systematically shut out of a lot of things, that’s not in alignment. You’re not going to be able to achieve success on those terms. And I think we should probably be having a lot more conversations about that.

Patrick Stafford: [00:19:01] I think what you just said about the … how do I phrase this … do you think there’s a difference between demonstrating value and demonstrating impact? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this because I have an opinion on this as well. You describe yours first. I’ll see if mine matches yours.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:19:27] I would love to hear yours because, you know, one of the things I talk about in that article that I really believe in is that we need to be able to own the value that we bring and stop feeling like our job is to prove it. And the difference there, I think, is really important, because when we talk about our value, that tends to go to a very personal place. That tends to go to a place of, am I good? Am I okay? So when we try to prove our value, we actually pull focus away from the work. And we put the focus on me as a person. I don’t think that’s very healthy for us, because it means that our sense of self-worth gets so wrapped up in whether people are respecting us in the way that we want or treating us the way we want at work. I also think that what it does is it really pulls us away from what is the actual work we’re doing with the content on the product. And that’s where I think talking about impact can be really clarifying because you start talking much more about how does the work that you do, how do the decisions that you make, or the ideas that you have, or the words that you write or whatever, how do those things make a meaningful change in the business, or the user experience, or your colleague’s ability to solve a problem? And I think that’s that’s the thing about impact, though, is impact sometimes gets really narrowly defined as in we changed this button text and made 1 million more dollars.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:21:15] Which I think is like, if you have that story to tell, great. But most stories are not like that. That’s not what most work is like. And I don’t think that that should be the way that we think about impact. I think we should think about what is different when content people are in the room. What is different when you specifically are in the room, and how does that change how other people think? How does that change the kinds of decisions that are made? How does that change the course of the project, and how does that change the outcome? And that means impact can be a lot of different things. It’s going to be very context-dependent. But I think that impact tends to focus us back on the work itself and the way that your thinking, your skills, your expertise, etc. actually show up in the work.

Patrick Stafford: [00:22:03] I think that’s very similar to my definition, which is that value is answered by the fact that you were hired in the first place. And impact is a decision on whether you will continue to do that work. By definition of you being hired, you have value. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are by default demonstrating impact. And I agree with you that impact should be more than just revenue. There is a whole range of qualitative and quantitative measures that content designers can, use to show that. I want to go back to something you were just saying, though, about content designers internalizing a lot of their work. And I gather there’s a lot in talking to content designers. I was at Button in person, the Button conference in person last year, and was on the live chat this year. And just seeing people talk about content. People are so passionate about it in a way that people in other professions aren’t. I used to be a business journalist, and I used to attend a bunch of conferences of tax professionals and HR professionals, and so on. They do not internalize their work like content designers do. Certainly in a product team, developers don’t. Maybe some do. But when they’re talking about the type of work that they do, they’re not acting as though they need to be the guardians of everything and anything in a product. What’s the difference here? Why do we why do we do this to ourselves?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:23:52] I think there are a few things. I think that one is there is something about it being a practice area that’s newer in organizations that doesn’t have as strong of a foothold. There’s a sense where I think even to have this field in the first place, it took work like people had to fight for it to even exist. And so there is a little bit of that mentality, like, we have to fight to exist that’s still there. And I think that if you go back a little bit, you know, when I was a budding content person and I first started paying attention to the UX community in 2007, 2008 in there somewhere. I think UX was more like that at the time, broadly speaking, feeling like it needed to fight for its seat at the table. And I think design as a whole still feels like that oftentimes. I think there’s something about it where when you have something that feels a little bit new and you feel like you need to get people on board. You can create this kind of underdog mentality, and you’re not wrong if you feel that way. Like that’s it’s true. And I think that that’s a piece of it. I also think that content work tends to attract people who there’s a few things that come up. Oftentimes, not everybody in content feels this way. Not everybody fits into one mold. But there are some really strong threads that I see. One of them is people who care about people, so there tends to be a strong sense of wanting to do what’s right, wanting to do what’s going to be accessible, inclusive, helpful.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:25:38] So you get people who really care that users have content that makes sense to them, that helps them solve their problems. That care for the end user and that wanting to do what’s right can really also make it feel like not just a job, but a little bit more of a calling for people. And so I think that that triggers some of that passion for it. And then I think one of the other traits that’s very common amongst content folks is, I think, a high degree of perfectionism. And that can lead to a sense of high responsibility. Taking on everything needs to be perfect sometimes. Also, a little bit of control stuff comes out in there too. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but I’ve certainly seen content people become the bottlenecks because they’re the content person, because they feel responsible for the quality of all the content, that every bit of content in the organization starts having to come through them, or somehow they feel like they’re not doing a good enough job. And that kind of perfectionism really shows up as well. Whereas I think, for example, I don’t know a lot of software engineers who would take it personally if some software, from a totally different part of the organization, went out the door with some bugs in it.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:27:06] But I’ve seen content people feel just absolutely deflated by a typo in something that they had nothing to do with. And I think some of that is also just a lot of love for language and wanting the content to be good and also knowing better, you know, where it’s like, oh, I know what this should look like. And seeing the gap between what it could be and what it is is hard. And I think all of that stuff is fine to feel. You can feel frustrated when you see garbage go out the door, feel as frustrated as you need to feel. But I think the difference is then internalizing that frustration as therefore meaning that needs to be yours to own. And I look at that and I say your organization is under-investing in content. So your organization has crap going out the door. If you keep taking that on as your personal problem, you reduce their incentive to solve that.

Patrick Stafford: [00:28:03] I think one of the connections that … the way I look at this is that content people versus, say, developers as the example. The first experience that a content person has with language is usually something that makes them feel something. There’s usually an emotional connection. So they’ve read a book or they’ve written something that makes someone feel a certain way. Whereas I think for a developer, it’s more about doing. They’ve done something and they go, wow, that’s cool. I can actually I can do something. I can build something here. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but that tends to be the way I see it.

Patrick Stafford: [00:28:53] … Just to use an example, right? Like when I was younger, I read the Lord of the Rings, and you have this emotional connection to the story, right? And then you think, oh, well, I want to write content that makes people feel this way. Whereas for a developer, I think it’s a little bit more objective. I want to build this, I want to do this. And the emotional connection comes from not from the thing itself, but the satisfaction of having built.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:29:32] I think that’s often true. Obviously, people feel differently about things or do things for different reasons. I don’t think everybody’s motivation is the same. But I do see a lot, like you say, a lot of emphasis on …  particularly when programmers are just learning stuff, it feels really exciting or satisfying to … I can make this thing do this other thing, right? Like I can make these things move or interact or whatever. Moving data around. And it feels like there’s a sense of power or accomplishment there. When you’re talking about content or you’re talking about writing, I mean, you’re talking about connection and being understood. And that’s a very different kind of success or a different kind of satisfaction. And I do think that when content people feel stuck in organizations where they don’t feel like they can have that impact, the impact they’d like to have is on how people feel and on like, drawing connections, and they feel a little bit shut out from those places. I think that can be really hard. It does feel like, what is my purpose here?

Patrick Stafford: [00:30:50] Where do you think the company’s responsibilities end and the individual’s responsibility begins? So one of the key themes in this piece you’ve written, … forgive me if I’m mischaracterizing it, but what you seem to be saying is that for a lot of the issues that content designers are coming up against, there are structural problems at play here. And so you shouldn’t internalize the fact that when going up against some of those structural problems, you’re not going to be able to change them.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:31:22] Yeah.

Patrick Stafford: [00:31:22] Does that sound like a fair assessment?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:31:27] Yes, that is a fair assessment.

Patrick Stafford: [00:31:29] So my question is then … what can the individual do and what should what should you feel comfortable doing?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:31:38] This is right at the crux of the kind of work that I really care about. There are systems problems here and taking on systems problems as your personal problem is never going to fix anything, and it will tend to leave you feeling really deflated. So if your company is underinvested in design or in content, that’s a company underinvestment that is not a personal failing. If your company has hired people it doesn’t know what to do with, that’s a them problem. And it doesn’t mean that problem doesn’t impact you. It might. But focusing on that as somehow being your problem to solve, I think, is a real distraction. What I would say is that that doesn’t mean that we as individuals don’t play a role. I think one of the things that I have seen a lot of is content folks really internalizing what’s happening in their companies as being something that they need to personally fix. And what that does is it really reinforces a people-pleasing mentality. It reinforces overwork, and it reinforces this lack of self-worth because you get into this place where it’s like you’re being told that you haven’t proven enough value. So you try to do more and try to make people happy, and you become more and more focused on, “Are people telling me I’m good? Are people telling me I’m okay? Are people telling me that I deserve to exist?” And then what you’re doing is you’re getting this message over and over again.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:33:16] You’re creating this cycle where you keep trying to justify your existence, and it never quite feels like enough. And I think that that really becomes sort of this negative spiral for people where they keep working harder and harder, but actually feeling worse and worse about their value as a result. And so I think the actual shift is much more about seeing what’s going on, recognizing that there are incentives within an organization that are very much driven toward short-term financial gains. Those are not about you. They exist. They’re real. They impact you. But like, it’s not your job to change them, and trying to change them will be tremendously exhausting. And it’s not going to work. And saying, can I stop putting my energy into that? Can I stop thinking that somehow if I make one more deck, that’s going to be different? And instead, can I put my energy into some spaces where maybe there is a greater chance of a change happening?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:34:25] And that’s where I really wanted to focus in that article is like, what is the reality we’re operating in? And then what do we actually do in that reality that makes our lives feel better, that makes our professional lives feel less draining? For example, the people I talked to who said, you know, find something juicy to work on and give yourself permission to let things go so that you can invest deeply in something juicy because that’s actually going to feel good. You will enjoy yourself when you know when you’re doing that, you will actually go, ooh, this is fun. Because this is the reason I got into this work in the first place. I’m problem-solving. I’m being creative. I’m collaborating. And then drop some stuff. Drop some stuff that’s actually not as important to the organization. That’s not as interesting. Stop covering every single base. Not only are you going to feel like your days are a little more interesting and less stretched thin, but also that’s the greatest chance you have to show your value anyway. Because if all you’re doing is little fixes, little Band-Aids, little popping up and helping out here and there across a huge expanse of everything. Your value is going to be perceived as, oh, this is a person who cleans stuff up and is helpful.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:35:51] And that’s that’s not enough. That’s not the deep value that content work can actually provide. That’s really shallow value. And so there’s this sort of false sense that people will see how valuable I am if I stay stretched thin. The reality is investing in one thing and finding something juicy will actually be more sustainable for you personally. And also the number one way that you can, quote-unquote, demonstrate value in that organization, because it creates something that is a much deeper level of work, and it associates content work with deep work instead of associating it with firefighting and cleanup jobs.

Patrick Stafford: [00:36:32] Yeah, I agree with that for sure. If I may, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to something you said, which is to say, when you’re going up against organizational problems, you know, you’ll end up wasting a lot of your energy, and it won’t work. I wonder if that may be too broad of a statement because I have seen how individuals can impact organizations and can impact structure. So I’d love to hear you expand a little bit more on what we are talking about there. When we say that when we’re going up against this structure, changing it won’t work. What do you think is within the realm of your ability to change? And what do you think is outside of it?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:37:25] Yeah. Oh, yeah. I don’t mean that individuals can’t make change. I mean, I think that individuals make change every day. I also think that, like, all change has to start with somebody doing something different. I don’t think that you can convince an organization to have different incentives than the ones that exist at the super level, at the superstructure level, meaning if your organization has optimized around shareholder value, which is if it is publicly traded that is what it is optimized for, then if what you are proposing is misaligned with that incentive, it’s not going to happen.

Patrick Stafford: [00:38:12] It’s not going to happen. That’s a good definition.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:38:16] That’s painful because I think that is sad. I don’t want to live in a world where the only thing that actually matters is shareholder value, I don’t want that world, but I don’t think it does us any good to pretend as if I was just more compelling, if I told a better story and had a better deck, that I could convince people who are beholden to shareholders to not be incentivized to care about shareholders, because that’s just creating a system where, again, when I do that and I’ll invest all my time and energy, right? And it’s like I could become the best speaker with the most influence that I could imagine and so much executive presence, which we talk about what that means or whether it means anything at all. I could do all of that. And I’m still going to not be successful because that’s an impossible goal and it’s kind of a distraction from the places where I do have the power to make change. If you do care about the macroeconomic picture, if you’re looking around and going like, huh, I don’t know if this version of capitalism is actually working for people or our planet, if you’re asking yourself those questions, there’s lots of places to spend that energy, but I would say spend that energy on solidarity with your colleagues. Creating stronger bonds between people who are actually workers in the business. That’s going to be more fruitful than trying to get the business to stop being so capitalistic. So that’s what I’m really saying, is just deciding where to spend your energy and looking for places where you have the capacity to make some change, and accepting maybe some hard realities along the way that not everything is going to be possible within the sort of realm of influence that you have. And that’s okay, because if you can name that and face that, then you can start finding what is possible.

Patrick Stafford: [00:40:21] Yeah, I think that’s a really great explanation and definition of change. You know, being able to identify what is within your possibility to change whether that’s someone’s opinion or a particular direction of a project. All of this comes under the larger organizational goals. I agree with you about the comments you’ve made regarding these incentives. It’s interesting, I think that they can also exist and I’m sure you would agree, in not-for-profit organizations because when a structure is set up in an organization, there are incentives that exist. As you pointed out, those incentives can be shareholder value, or I’ve seen in some not-for-profit organizations, this is kind of an aside, but that will tend to be, well, you’re doing this because of the love for it, right? Or you’re doing this because you have this deep connection to whatever you’re doing. So, you know, why don’t you want to work harder, shouldn’t you want to make the world a better place? And I think it speaks to what you were saying before about you have to protect yourself first and foremost, right? Otherwise, you can’t make any impact.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:41:42] Well, I think that’s really common in nonprofit work. And I think that extends to anything that feels cause-driven. And I will tell you that a lot of content people take on their work as a cause, particularly if they’re interested in things like inclusive, accessible content. Right. And so there is an aspect of cause there which can really lead to that feeling that I should be doing this with 100% of my time because until the world is just and equitable, I haven’t done my job. The reality is this, whatever the particular cause is, whatever kind of version of justice you’re imagining, my belief, like my actually very deep belief here is that, if it takes your well-being to reach that future, we have not actually achieved a just future.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:42:40] Because in a just future, we don’t have to destroy people in order to make change or do good things. And so there is no path toward whatever that brighter future looks like where you as a worker working toward that cause gets trampled, it actually ends up being defeatist toward the cause you’re trying to work toward.

Patrick Stafford: [00:43:03] It is still stunning to me how many content designers will take their work so personally. And look that happens in design I think because there is a personal element to it. You know, when you attend design critiques, it’s your work that’s being critiqued, right? I actually worked with someone a long time ago who had such a problem with taking things personally that they would cry after every piece of critique that someone gave them, even when that critique wasn’t personal. So there is a deep connection here. I think what your piece does a really good job of doing is outlining, not only as you’ve just said, … don’t hurt yourself. Don’t put yourself into a sorry state trying to make things better. But I agree that what you should be doing is less of proving quote-unquote value and more demonstrating impact. But what I’d love to see more people doing is going back to their direct managers or the people in authority and saying, okay, what is success for you? What does it look like? And having objective metrics for that so that in three months time or six months time or whatever, you can say, you told me to do this. You said that your expectation was this. I have exceeded that because of what I’m putting in front of you. So what’s the problem? Right? Where is the problem here? I think especially people who are interviewing should do that. I know that there’s a typical interview question of what is success in, you know, 90 days time or whatever? I think defining those as much as possible puts the the power really on your side of the equation because then at least you have something to move toward.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:45:17] I also think if you’re interviewing for a content role in an organization where the practice is new or where your role is new, asking what led them to be hiring for this role. How did they decide that they needed this role is really important because if they don’t know that’s a big red flag. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad or you shouldn’t take the job, but it means that there’s probably a discussion that needs to be had. And in some ways, that can be an opportunity if you have the discussion, because the opportunity that can arise is that you actually get to do some of the definition of why they should have you. You can tell them the answer to the question, and potentially they can take that up as a real thing. But if that’s something that you can’t talk about and they don’t know, then I would say that’s very worrisome because that is leading you to a place where it’s like, well then yeah, like, why? Why did you hire me? What problem did you think that hiring me would solve? And now, how do I know if I’ve done that?

Patrick Stafford: [00:46:22] Yeah, yeah. Having those definitions right at the front of a working relationship is crucial. Sara, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to have a chat about this. I just want to give you an opportunity now to comment on anything we haven’t touched on that you think is important and that people need to hear. This will obviously link to the article in the show notes. And when we when we publish the podcast that people will be able to read it before listening. Is there anything else that you want to point out that we haven’t touched on?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:46:59] You know, I think the biggest thing that I really want people to know is that we do have power. We’re not powerless. We just might not have power in the ways in which we thought or the ways that we wish we had. And I think that’s really important right now, because I see so many people who are feeling really cynical and disillusioned, and there’s a lot of sense of pointlessness and defeatedness that I see floating around in design as a whole and in content particularly. And it’s oftentimes coming from a place of having big dreams about what was going to be possible and then feeling like those dreams are dashed. And so I think it’s really important for people to see that it’s not that you’re powerless. It’s not that your organization can’t change at all. It’s not that your work doesn’t matter. It’s that some of the things that you might have been told about what we’re going to make you successful, or how your value would be perceived, those things aren’t necessarily true. And it’s finding the spaces where you can do something meaningful. It’s reconnecting with your own sense of purpose and why you got into this work instead of looking around for somebody else to tell you you’re okay, to put your stake in the ground and say, I know I’m valuable and I know why. Here’s why, here’s what I bring. Here’s what’s missing when I’m not here. I think that’s really important because I think that walking around feeling powerless and feeling like it’s all pointless, I think that just engenders more cynicism, more depression, more burnout. And I think none of us need that right now.

Patrick Stafford: [00:48:41] I think that’s a great assessment. I walked away from reading your article feeling, I felt it was helpful. I think that rather than just a rant about what’s happening, it gave very solid, practical advice. So I would encourage everyone to read it. Sara, thank you so much for taking part in this conversation. I really appreciate your time, and thank you for expanding on some of the things you’ve written. I think people will find it very valuable. Where can people find you online and wherever else?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: [00:49:22] Yeah. So go to activevoicehq.com. That is my company website, and you can sign up for our newsletter. That is always where I’m exploring new ideas and shorter versions in our newsletter every couple of weeks. And then some of those things become big essays. And then go to LinkedIn. If you look for me on LinkedIn (Sara Wachter-Boettcher) I post most often there.

Patrick Stafford: [00:49:45] We’ll link to your LinkedIn profile in the show notes as well. Sara, thank you so much again. This has been great, and hopefully we’ll talk again another time soon.

Comments are closed

UX writing resources for you!

Get amazing writing tips, news, job listings & discounts in your inbox.