Meri Williams has a talk I love about Creating Space to Be Awesome. The framework she presents is intended for managers, but I found it useful over the years for managing myself. A way to figure out what it should look like to work in space where I can thrive, and to base my thinking on research.

Science always saves me, explains Meri and presents her favourite book on management: “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently”. Using data from a huge study across industries, they wanted to find what makes a high performing team. The researchers didn’t set out to learn about happiness in the workplace, but they ended up finding it anyway. Because it turns out their 12 predictors of high performance are also questions that indicate if you are happy at work.

Dan Pink describes we are motivated by: autonomy, mastery, purpose. Go check out the RSA Animate: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Meri uses those three factors, and adds inclusion to remix the 12 questions from the research into these categories.

Purpose: Do I believe in why?

Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel like my work is important?

While I can enjoy a good convo on morality and career choices under capitalism, the context here is our need to make a contribution. Different people can be motivated by the bigger picture or the smaller. Which kind of contribution that matters exactly how for whom?! I want my employer to provide something society needs. Not weapons. But logistics services or journalism works fine for me. Smaller picture needs to check out too, the feeling that work done on my team matters to individual humans somewhere.

Autonomy: Do I get a say in what?

Do I know what is expected of me at work?
Do my opinions seem to count?

Fluffy category, which is why the yes/no questions are so great. I answered this question 4 years ago with: “Yes! But… there’s a discrepancy between what different people expect from me. Some of the expectations are incompatible! It becomes a chronic clash that is hard to maneuver.” I have since had a lot of practice in initiating discussions on expectations. The topic doesn’t always come up on it’s own, but asking people “what do you expect of me” is a straight forward enough question for them to elaborate on. Also running versions of the Role Expectations Matrix in different groups, this activity has been eye opening every time. I’ve also learnt that if I fundamentally disagree with what is expected of me, I am probably in a place that will never become space for me to be awesome.

Inclusion: Do I belong here?

I’m gonna skip the original 3 questions here. I don’t have reason to doubt the research, but these are after all my personal notes on impacting my surroundings. In the other categories, I find the specific nature of the questions helpful to trigger a thought process — but for inclusion, I prefer the overall “Do I belong here?” as a better question to chew on. Along with something that Meri talks about:

Can someone like me can be successful here?

I love this so much. It catapults me into all kinds of interesting thoughts about what success means to me, and the multitudes of who I might consider to be “someone like me”. What do I need to observe and experience to conclude that yes, I believe that statement? Such a glorious question.

Mastery: Am I proud of how?

Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
Is there someone at work who cares about my development?
Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
In the last 6 months, have I talked to someone about my development?
Have I had opportunities to learn and grow?

These five are fine to run through. There are nuances and probably cues to find things that can be improved, like can I make sure there are even more opportunities to learn, or perhaps my team can discuss what quality means to us. Meri also goes into detail about deliberate practice, and on how to think of teams in terms of casting not conforming.

Out of the 12 questions, the one I find most interesting to dwell on is this one:

Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

Whoa. Am I really allowed to ask myself this? And expect the answer to be ‘yes’ most of the time?!

Notice how it intersects with the other questions. If my opinions don’t count, it’s impossible to do what I do best. If I don’t believe in the why of what we do on my team, I’m not going to find motivation needed to do my best work. If the people around me are all variations of similar to each other but different from me, it becomes hard to believe that success is realistic, that opportunities for me will exist.

I’ve rewatched this talk and used these 12 questions and 4 categories in different ways over the years. To clarify for myself what frustrations I want to improve. As a talking point in 1:1s. Even as a team activity once. But also to identify if I’m in a place where I will never be able to answer yes to these questions, and subsequently decide that fuck it — I deserve space to be awesome.