Thriving in a Difficult Economy: A Tale of Ugly Babies and Sacred Cows

Leadership Matters

Leading User Experience teams

A column by Jim Nieters
February 9, 2009

The brutal fact is—we’re in a difficult economy. Every day, we hear about another company that’s laying off employees. Just yesterday, an article on Yahoo! News reported “Mass layoffs involving 50 or more workers increased sharply last year, and large cuts appear to be accelerating in 2009 at a furious pace.”

In fact, there were layoffs at Yahoo! itself in December. Letting people go is traumatic for everyone involved. It’s traumatic for the employees who are laid off, whose relationships to their livelihoods—not to mention their friends and colleagues—are abruptly severed. It’s painful to the remaining employees, whose friends and colleagues were so abruptly removed. Sometimes companies must make deep budget cuts to succeed, but it’s painful, and those of us who have been through layoffs before agree that it seems to get harder every time we do it.

When I look at who gets laid off though—regardless of the company—it’s always surprising. How do companies make the choices to lay some people off and keep others? In all of the layoffs I’ve observed, some of the most talented researchers, designers, and leaders have gotten laid off, while some much less skilled people remain. Why might that be?

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The first thing to realize is that we should attach no stigma to those who are laid off. The vast majority of us will be laid off at least once in our careers, and changing economic circumstances will force most of us to find new work many times. In my experience, it’s not a question of skill or value. Sometimes, we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, in order to grow, we have to take risks. By their nature, sometimes risks pay off, and sometimes they don’t. (I would suggest that user experience as an industry needs to reward risk-taking just a little more, but that’s another issue entirely.)

Trust Is More Than a Soft Skill

I think one factor plays a bigger role than any other in deciding which people get laid off and which do not—perhaps the most important factor in both business and in personal relationships. What is it? Trust. In the book The Speed of Trust, [1] Stephen M.R. Covey points out that, without trust, businesses—and families—would fail. With trust, you get unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of your life. Covey suggests that trust is not a soft skill. It is the underpinning of all successful business.

In my experience, people who are trusted by their leaders—on both an emotional and an intellectual level—tend to be the last to go. Have you ever seen someone you felt was not the most qualified person promoted to a rather high level—say Director, VP, or Senior VP? I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I don’t begrudge those people their good fortune at all. If we look at what single thing those people have that others don’t, it’s a strong personal relationship, built on trust, with the person who hired or promoted them. Senior leaders know they need strong relationships to grow. None of us can do it on our own.

Senior leaders, from Vice Presidents to CEOs, face what can feel like life-and-death struggles for survival just about every quarter. Their Boards of Directors hold them to strict revenue and profitability targets. If they don’t hit the targets, the Board finds someone to replace them. When a new leader takes over an organization, what’s the first thing that leader does? She brings in her own team. Why? The trusted people have demonstrated absolute, unwavering support. Evidence has shown they will deliver the specific results the boss needs. Most senior leaders are highly competitive and driven, and they’re determined to find a way to succeed. Who would hire someone they did not trust, with so much at stake?

But how much do we focus specifically on building trust with our senior leaders, as opposed to just trying to prove that we are right? I see designers stand on the hill of principle for minor design issues, when they could be working to build a stronger relationship and trust. I’m not saying we don’t have to convince people that our ideas are good. We just cannot be single-minded about getting our way. Our fundamental goal should be to build deep personal relationships and a strong network of colleagues and senior leaders who trust and believe in us.

So, in an online magazine about research and design, why am I talking about something that’s seemingly unrelated to these topics? Because just as trust is the basis of all business, it is also what keeps us employed and organizationally relevant. As leaders of UX organizations, we need to understand this fundamental fact and find a way to build trust—both personally, with our senior leaders, and for our organizations. I think that’s a big part of our jobs as leaders.

What Promotes Trust?

There are many ways to build trust. Among these is demonstrating competence in our fields of expertise. To me, though, skill in our chosen fields accounts for perhaps 51% of the trust factor. While there’s no more salient factor, professional skill is not in itself sufficient to build a strong personal relationship based on mutual trust.

The book Five Dysfunctions of a Team [2] points out that trust is, in fact, the foundational factor in whether a team succeeds. Even groups with superior talent almost always fail if they do not have deep-seated trust for one another. This sort of trust makes us willing to be vulnerable, because we know, on an emotional level, that those we trust will not take advantage of us, and in fact, will help us by filling in where we are weakest. If you have trust within a group, you’re willing to engage in constructive conflict, make commitments, hold one another accountable, and focus jointly on results. Without trust, none of these other factors can exist.

Yes, I am saying that business is not entirely rational. Whether we acknowledge it or not, business has its basis in emotion. I may listen to data, but whether I listen depends very much on the source of that data. If someone an executive does not know presents data, what does that executive do? He asks someone he knows about the person presenting the data, whether the data makes sense, and how to interpret it.

For example, Bill Walsh, the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was a great leader by virtually any definition. But he had a player on his offensive line whom he did not trust, and a friend asked him what he was going to do about it. Mr. Walsh said that, as soon as he could find a player who was “almost as good,” he was going to fire the player he didn’t trust. We can be really good, but if we don’t have trust, we don’t get to play.

Keith Farrazi, who wrote Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, [3] talks about the value of deep, personal, trusting social networks. When he was a kid, he was a caddy at a swanky golf club and found there was one thing that differentiated the super wealthy: People in such circles build trust by actively helping one another every day. They share trusting social networks that help them in every aspect of their lives, including business. In our daily activities, how much do we give? How often do we compliment peers? How often do we explicitly ask for help? It seems that sometimes people are afraid to give of themselves, when in reality, it’s giving and explicitly requesting help that engages people emotionally and builds trust.

Let’s look at a negative example: Bernie Madoff, who created a Ponzi scheme that cheated thousands of people out of close to $50 billion, unfortunately was given more trust than he deserved. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had even been asked to investigate his financial model. However, because officials at the SEC trusted Madoff, they did not look deeply into the concerns that some had raised about his financial model. It’s a shame that he was trusted, but let’s look at this from another perspective: Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy the almost blind trust of the executives who run the companies where we work? Of course, none of us would take advantage of that trust the way Madoff did. We would work hard to prove their trust was well placed and to deliver value. But it would be nice if executives trusted and defended us and came to us for counseling and direction. You probably know the saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” I’d change that to “It’s not who you know, but how much they trust you.”

Looking through some literature from UX conferences, books, and trade magazines, both in print and online, I found almost no mention of how important trust is in making UX successful—both personally and organizationally. I also found virtually no mention of how we can build such trust. Do we expect others to understand our value without first earning their trust? I would contend that, when we build trust, those who trust us see our value. They question our assumptions and our actions less. They also support us when we need it.

Of course, we have to be good at what we do—that is foundational. But there are a lot of people who are good. (In reality, you’re probably not the best in your industry.) And remember—it’s not always those who are the best in their chosen fields who are promoted. The people who get promoted are usually those who align behind an organization’s goals and help senior leaders achieve their specific goals. If we want our contributions to be relevant to our executives, aren’t those senior leaders one of the audiences we have to understand? We provide services in which they’re investing. What motivates them to purchase our services? I contend that it’s more than just skill in our domains—whether design or research—it’s trust.

Let’s turn to the question of how we build trust. We can start with me as an example, but it’s important to realize that it has taken me many too many years to internalize these truths—much longer than it should have. I have, in fact, learned them the hard way—so let me convey some ways in which we can stop diminishing people’s trust for us.

Early in my career, I was a usability specialist, and in that role, I discovered many problems with my company’s products. That was my job, right? My attitude was that, if executives would only listen, what I’d discovered could save them millions! And I was right. However, rather than conveying a positive vision that executives could get behind, they saw me as the guy hurling spears at their sacred cows. It was like I was calling their babies ugly. (See, now the title of this column makes sense!) Now, I’m a nice guy. But, what I had neglected to do was to probe for people’s boundaries on issues before discussing them. If an executive has invested her reputation having a product built, attacking that product will not win any converts to your cause.

Some years back, someone pointed out the same issue to me in regard to a personal relationship. I was upset about an issue—and was right about it—but my wife did not agree. A friend of mine told me something very wise. He said, “Well, you have a choice. You can either be right, or you can be married. Which do you want?” I think this same point often applies in business. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take stands. But we should do so only on important issues—when we can find a positive and constructive way of conveying our viewpoint. The book Crucial Confrontations [4] provides specific lessons about how to probe for safety and talk about crucial issues you do need to raise.

Don’t get me wrong. In the example I’ve described, my team and I made an impact and delivered good results. The problem was that I was perceived as a necessary evil. Who wants to put that on their business card? Who wants to go to a party and answer the question What do you do? with I’m a necessary-evil-doer? The challenge for me was that criticizing the executives’ sacred cows made me the no guy. I have learned that we seldom win when we paint a negative picture. People have a hard time hearing negativity. We resist it and argue with it as a rhetorical standard. We want to hear something that excites us. Think about it for a moment in your personal life—if someone you don’t really know or trust criticizes you, how do you react? On the other hand, if someone presents an exciting vision, what does it do? It doesn’t make you feel bad, because you haven’t yet reached the vision. It excites you to achieve it.

Change Requires a Constructive Vision

If you communicate your ideas as criticism rather than constructive vision, I have found that, even if an executive later embraces the change you’ve called for, they almost never remember you had the good idea. Too often, they remember only the negativity. It’s crazy, but unfortunately true. They need to see a positive, constructive vision. Remember, if you will, that executives are in what feels like a life-or-death fight for survival. They’re looking for the next big idea. They don’t want to hear problems. They want you to tell them what to do, not what not to do.

If you want to drive change, I recommend thinking constructively first. Build a compelling vision that excites leaders and individual contributors alike, then deliver on it. If you can deliver a high-fidelity prototype or even a completed product, people begin talking about possibilities, not about how the vision doesn’t make sense.

Let’s take an example: A few years ago, my team identified the need for software that would configure several hardware devices as part of a larger bundled business solution. When I pitched my idea, executives nodded politely, but did not provide us with funding. Being a bit stubborn, I asked one of my design leads to assemble a team, comprising researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, tech support engineers, technical writers, and developers to design and build the software that would convince executives about our vision. In the end, we showed them how well our solution worked. They embraced it and made a ton of money. Had we complained and sat back, they would have ignored us—or worse!

I also find that people tend to be more risk-averse in difficult economic times than in good times, and I understand that. But I also believe you have to find a way to differentiate yourself in a constructive fashion, so you’re not the one—or it’s not your group—that is laid off.

Of course, it is hard to find free time, and it’s hard to assemble a cross-functional team without higher-level approval. In fact, it is difficult to replicate the kind of success we achieved. Honestly, that’s why I work for the boss I work for today, and why I work with the colleagues I do—so I can learn how to institutionalize this kind of innovation. And in turn, I would jump through a ring of fire to make my boss’s organization successful. I didn’t say to make me successful. I said to make her organization successful. In addition, I work with colleagues from whom I learn something about how to replicate innovation every day. For example, one of my colleagues, Chris Jaffe, is perhaps the most talented leader I have ever seen in his ability to replicate a process that delights users and executives, and increases profits. I’m learning there is always some way to help our stakeholders see a higher vision that does not endanger their sense of safety.

Virtuous Cycles or Vicious Cycles? It’s All Up to You!

The idea of bringing positive energy to a challenge is important in many areas—and for many reasons. As a leader, one of my goals is to help my employees grow—and to increase both their ability and their confidence as they grow. It’s not about being nice, but helping employees expand their skill sets and, thus, their value to the company and their sense of self-worth. If we harshly criticize what employees don’t do well, it can send them into a downward spiral, but if we help them to get better at it, it’s a win-win.

Consider the energy you expend on an issue and how it makes you feel. If you criticize and complain, if you stand inflexibly on the hill of principle, it separates you and makes you feel bad. If you find a way to constructively build a vision, it energizes you, and it uplifts your team. If you bypass the critique and instead demonstrate an improved solution, the focus is no longer on the negative, but on the positive vision. I know this sounds a little like The Power of Positive Thinking, but it’s true. Executives notice constructive energy, too, and they remember receiving your support.

One of our goals as leaders should be to avoid vicious cycles and downward spirals, because it’s hard to recover from them. Instead, our goal should be to create virtuous cycles that uplift. This is something it’s sometimes hard to remember in practice, but we must remember this, and I’m fortunate enough to have colleagues who remind me how to be constructive almost every day.

Of course, trust, deep personal relationships, and strong networks are not the only factors that can make UX professionals resilient in difficult times. Laurie Pattison and I covered how to make UX strategically relevant in a previous column, “In Search of Strategic Relevance for UX Teams,” so I won’t cover those issues here.

Be Careful to Avoid Paternal Leadership

Though trust and personal relationships are a fundamental part of business, as leaders, we also need to make sure we’re not functioning as what Devin Jones calls Paternal Leaders. As leaders, we should not shield our employees from feedback that would help them understand their blind spots and grow. We also need to make sure we’re not insulated from business realities and challenges. Sometimes, just being aligned with the organizational direction isn’t enough. I believe in seeking constructive feedback from my senior leaders on how to improve my performance. Likewise, it is our job as leaders to create coaching relationships and offer insights to our people that help them grow and respond to changing business climates. When done right, this is another way of helping one another and deepening our relationships.

In Summary

While sometimes we must critique products—one key to success is spending the time to create a positive vision. Building high-fidelity prototypes is a powerful way of showing your vision. This can create positive momentum and make you and your UX organization strategically relevant, now and in the future. It’s also a great way of building and sustaining trust and the perception of personal accountability. 


[1] Covey, Stephen M.R., and Rebecca R. Merrill. The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. New York: Free Press, 2008.

[2] Lencioni, Patrick M. Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002

[3] Ferrazzi, Keith, and Tahl Raz. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

[4] Patterson, Kerry, Al Switzler, and Ron McMillan. Crucial Confrontations: Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Call for Participation

In preparation for a panel at CHI 2009 in Boston, “Figuring Out the ‘One Thing’ That Will Move UX into a Position of Strategic Relevance,” we’re attempting to learn about a wide range of real-world situations in which UX is not as strategically relevant as it could or should be. Please help us by sharing your situation through our survey. You can either participate anonymously or give us your name.

During this panel at CHI 2009, panelists will describe the one thing we think could make all the difference in the strategic relevance of UX. Then, we’ll analyze a variety of scenarios from different companies—including yours?—in an attempt to determine the one thing that would make a difference in each case. Participants will attempt to elucidate key aspects of each scenario as well as their process of analysis to help audience members figure out what one thing would be likely to work in their own situations.

Are you trying to figure out what one thing you need to do to ensure UX gains a seat at the strategy table with business and engineering? If so, let us know. Please tell us about the situation in your company, and we'll try to include it among the scenarios the panelists will analyze.

We'll also address related questions such as what constitutes a good one thing, whether there can really be only one thing, and how adequate such analyses can be. It promises to be an interesting session.

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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