Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Breaking the Gaslighting Cycle of People Pleasing & Overwork

Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Breaking the Gaslighting Cycle of People Pleasing & Overwork

In this episode I’m joined by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, an author, speaker, coach and strategist dedicated to changing design and tech for good.

If you are a designer who has been told to prove your value or justify your presence or demonstrate impact, only to find yourself, throwing yourself against the wall of the immutable organisational structure and culture what you do.

We talk about this and her recent medium post titled, “Hey Designers, they’re gaslighting you!” as well as how to re-find your purpose when you have burned out on the structure of the organisation.

This is the first live stream and video version of Power of Ten, which will now be going live on my YouTube channel as well as all the usual podcasting services. You can watch it in the embed below:

Or listen to it here:




Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

Andy Polaine (00:00:02): Hello and welcome to Power of Ten, a show about design operating at many levels of zoom from thoughtful detail through to transformation in Organisations society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine and I’m a design leadership coach, service design and innovation consultant and educator and writer.

If you are a designer who has been told to prove your value or justify your presence or demonstrate impact, only to find yourself, throwing yourself against the wall of the immutable organisational structure and culture what you do.

This is what today’s guest, Sara Wachter-Boettcher asked and answered in a recent medium post titled, “Hey Designers, they’re gaslighting you!” that became, I think, the third most read post across all of medium that week.

Sara is an author, speaker, coach and strategist dedicated to changing design and tech for good. She’s the founder of Active Voice, a coaching and training company, helping organisations build radical courageous leadership practices. Her most recent book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased, Algorithms and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, was named one of the best tech books of the year by Wired. She also wrote Design for Real Life with Eric Mayer and Content Everywhere and has been published in the Washington Post, the Guardian and McSweeney’s. And she also co-hosts the podcast per my last email, which we might talk about in a minute. Sara, welcome to Power of Ten’s first ever live stream.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:01:29): Hi, Andy. It’s great to be here,

Andy Polaine (00:01:31): So it’s nice to see you again. Tell before we get onto the gaslighting post, which I guess I’ve seen everyone’s been asking you about recently. Tell us a little bit about your background, not just all about that, right?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:01:45): Yeah, so my background is a little bit, I think for some people they’ll ask, wow, you’ve done so many different pivots. And for me I’m like, Hmm, I just keep doing things and they all seem interesting. So I started out as a journalism student and got a job as a copywriter because you sometimes are 22 and you need a job. I certainly did and did not really love copywriting, but enjoyed aspects of it, and that led me into the earlier days of content strategy. As that discipline was starting to form, I started working at an agency where I was working on a lot of large website projects, and that just kind of opened up a lot of doors into UX and design and ultimately into thinking a lot about how the design and tech fields have evolved over the past couple of decades, I guess, at this point.

(00:02:44): And so as I went through, my focus has shifted a little bit from content strategy, content design into broader UX issues, and then really into responsibility and inclusion and more like the ethics of what it is that we’re making. After a while, I was working with product teams and working on a lot of things like workshops for organizations, really looking at what is their responsibility and what are the potential harms of the things they’re making. I just kept finding myself really wanting to talk to people about their experiences in these workplaces or maybe the other way around. People kept talking to me about their experiences in these workplaces and the barriers they were hitting up against as they were trying to feel like they could be heard or feel like they could speak up for users. And so that led me into this whole world of what I think of as leadership and communication dynamics and power dynamics in our workplaces. And so that’s where I spent all my time now. Yeah,

Andy Polaine (00:03:52): And so I mean the last time we actually did an interview like this, it was about technically wrong. You’ve taken a journey that, I mean you and I both coach and I think we both coach around a similar area, and there’s a lot of straightforward coaching of how to be that shift of identity from being an individual contributor to being, there’s a taste of leadership in management, and then it sort of becomes more leadership and management, and then at that point in time there’s often quite a bit of disillusionment seems to kick in. So this was kind of, well, not, this was really, I guess at the heart of your post about gaslighting. So I know I listened to as per my last email, and you talked about it as well, that gaslighting is a term that’s sort of crept into therapy speak, but it’s not actually a therapy term is it comes from the film. So maybe we’ll start there so that we kind of know what we’re talking about before we can move on to it in this specific context.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:05:00): And I mean, it’s a term that is used broadly to mean multiple different things at times. And I also think that it’s not always worthwhile to get obsessed over having one pure definition. That is correct, but the way that I think about gaslighting is really if you look at the film, the film, which is from 1944 is a film about a young woman who gets married and she starts discovering that the gaslights in their home keep flickering and keep flickering, and she tries to talk to her husband about what’s going on. He is an abusive person and he convinces her that she’s imagining things, and not only is she not imagining things, but ultimately in the film what emerges is that he’s the one who is making the gaslights flicker, and there’s a whole plot device around this, but the term gaslighting is really about the sort of psychological manipulation that convinces somebody to believe that they can’t trust their own version of reality and that they have to be reliant on some other party’s version of reality. So you tell me over and over again that I’m crazy, the gaslights aren’t flickering, and I keep seeing them flicker, and at some point I kind of break and I go, okay, I can’t trust myself because I keep seeing these flicker and I’m being told they’re not flickering, so now I’m reliant on you. Right now you are the one who gets to decide what reality is, and I am kind of at that disposal. And so in organizations I think of gaslighting as being chronically told that something you’re experiencing isn’t real.

Andy Polaine (00:06:45): And so in the article you are making the case. So you and I, again, in the coaching practice, I hear this quite a lot and everyone’s obviously trying to do it and I’ve heard it myself obviously of going to prove your value and all the rest of it. And at some point, well actually the first thing you say, if that was working then it would’ve happened by now. So what’s gone wrong there? What do you think is really going on in the design? Maybe it can be a bit more specific. Did you mean design in every kind of corner of, or is it designed in tech? Is it kind of design in-house design in-house sort of design teams or functions?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:07:31): Yeah. Well, that’s an interesting question. So I will tell you who I was thinking about when I was writing it, but I will also tell you who was responding to the article, and that’s a bigger circle of people. So when I first wrote it, what I was thinking about where the kinds of people that I was meeting, both in my coaching sessions, in the workshops that we host in the group program that we have, all of these people that I would meet who were not exclusively, but I would say maybe the largest group, were working in some kind of design related function within either a quote product company or within some kind of more traditional corporation.

(00:08:13): What I have heard in the time since that’s been out is that there are a lot of people who have commented things like, oh, this is so true for insert other profession here. And so I don’t think it is something that is exclusive necessarily to designers and exclusive to this one particular context, but I think there’s a particular issue happening right now in a lot of design orgs where you have, particularly if you have the product function and you have maybe the three legged stool model of product design engineering, but where design will almost always be the smallest spindliest leg, the neck that’s got some

Andy Polaine (00:08:58): Beer coasters underneath it, right?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:08:59): Yeah. It’s actually just little like a pile of cans and bottles propping something up. And so this is pretty common. So what you’ll hear from people is that they’re being told that the reason that their discipline doesn’t have the head count of other ones or the reason that they’re being tasked with, let’s say stretching to support six different product pillars, eight different pods, nine squads, really I’ve heard all of these stories that the reason that that’s happening is that they haven’t proven their value yet and that their job, even though they were hired to be a designer, their job is to prove that design is valuable. And the issue that comes up is that that becomes this never-ending cycle where it becomes all about first off, for the individual, it becomes all about like, have I done enough yet? Have I done enough yet? Which once that becomes your mindset, it actually, it’s really dissatisfying because you lose sight of the work that you care about.

(00:10:00): You don’t really focus so much on is this the kind of craft that I want to be doing or how howling I luring or growing? It’s all like, am I good enough? Am I good enough? Do people like me? So it kind of screws with your head and it also becomes never-ending because there’s never what is enough, what is value. And what happens is that it makes it very easy for organizations to remain under-invested and to just continue to allow you to stretch yourself really thin. And I think that what I have seen is that this problem exists in a lot of places, but anytime you have a function that is an underdog in the organization, you tend to see this come up, which means that in a lot of organizations you will see it particularly badly for sub-disciplines within design. So research content, maybe service design if they have it, if they’ve thought about it at all where they’re sort of the underdog’s underdog, and then you see it particularly badly because these are people who are really oftentimes brought in because they’re very passionate about the area of business that they work in, they’re passionate about the thing that they do, and so they bring all that enthusiasm and excitement and can easily be bought into the idea that everything that somebody asks them to do or every potential project on their plate is an opportunity and they can start to feel responsible for the entire organization’s content or the entire organization’s level of user understanding.

(00:11:32): And it’s too much. They can’t actually do that. It’s not really their job. The organization, if it really wants to have, for example, good content across everything it does, it should probably have more people to do that, but they get really bought into that. And then that becomes this sort of chronic cycle of seeking validation, feeling invalidated, doing more to seek more validation, still feeling invalidated. And I think organizations really can play into that because well, if you have somebody who’s willing to keep doing that, again, why hire more people?

Andy Polaine (00:12:09): I mean obviously the best way to get more when design thinking was a thing I got asked so many times, how do we get more design thinking in the organizations that were hire some more designers, right? Because no one really says that about we need to get some more accounting thinking in the organization. So we’re going to retrain a load of our people in that. I want to ask though, so Peter Meyer holds asked me to ask a question. I dunno if he’s watching right now. Great. Might be early.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:12:38): I’m sure it’s spicy.

Andy Polaine (00:12:40): Well, no, he just said, who’s the day? Hey, hey, designers there gaslighting you. And he wanted to know who the they was and he kind of added to it and said, well, on, is it design leaders who are doing this as well? And I’ve got a follow-on question to this, but I’d be interested to know that bit in the first place. You did say I had someone in mind when I was thinking of they,

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:13:03): Well, what I had in mind was the people that I work with who are experiencing this, and I think I left purposely ambiguous because I do think it’s a few different things that are happening. I think one piece of it is there’s an aspect of this that’s happening at very high levels in an organization, meaning that you have to think about what are the incentives of a corporation and when those incentives of a corporation are not actually aligned with doing great human centered work that there is a level of gaslighting like, no, no, no, no, we definitely care. And then you see every major decision that is being made fundamentally comes down to are shareholders happy this quarter, which is very different. I think that that’s ultimately, I think where it starts and where the root of the problem is. But what I also see happening is leaders in organizations sometimes within design, sometimes product leadership really reinforcing that kind of high-level corporate message about, no, no, no, we care, we care, but also we’re just going to continue doing things that make shareholders money this quarter.

(00:14:25): And then along the way in that process really telling people that this is how they’re going to get ahead. And I’ve seen this happen with design leaders who mean well, who want to be giving good advice to their teams, but they are so bought into that kind of gaslighting themselves that they don’t quite recognize what it’s actually doing to people and the impact that it’s having on them, which is just a quite staggering amount of burnout and cynicism and disillusionment. I mean, it is quite something what I see when I talk to people about what their experience has been like because it makes people feel like they’re failing personally. They keep trying to do the thing they’re being asked to do and then consistently being told they haven’t done it yet. And that tends to only go a few ways. Either people burn out, they get cynical and resentful, they get very self-blaming and the imposter syndrome takes hold because they internalize all of that and they’re like, well, I guess I am a problem. I guess maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough. I mean, it really leads to a lot of negative things and it doesn’t actually seem to lead to an actual shift in the way organizations function. I mean, if it worked, it would’ve worked by now. People have worked very, very hard and completely fried themselves. And if that’s not enough, I don’t know what is. Yeah,

Andy Polaine (00:15:58): Yeah. It feels that there’s a whole kind of, as you did towards the end of the article, it’s very, very difficult not to ladder this up to because late stage capitalism, because that is really fundamentally the thing. And I think the reason why it resonated across a bunch of other disciplines is because a lot of people are experiencing that in many, many areas. I mean the mantra of do more with less, which is most kind of horrific thing ever,

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:16:27): Just nails on a chalkboard every time I hear

Andy Polaine (00:16:29): It. And so that’s heard that so many times and with a bunch of different excuses, it’s the global financial crisis and now it’s something else, and now it’s something else right now. So there is a structural thing there, which is, I mean, you talked about values really, I’ve always really liked even overstatements that idea of it’s very easy to pitch something positive like employee, well-being against terrible employee experience, obviously we want that one, but it’s much, much more difficult, and that’s what obviously I’m sure even overstatements do that thing of two things that you want both of and when they compete against each other, you are forced to make a decision. So shareholder value versus employee, well-being both things we want, but when it comes to it, we’ll choose the former. That’s the thing that reveals your values. And so I think there’s a thing there where there’s that structural aspect which people are kind of slamming themselves up against.

(00:17:34): But there’s a thing was a question I want to ask, and particularly in the light of gas lighting, I’m aware this is going to sound like I’m just doing the same thing and kind of victim blaming, but I want to explore the idea of how much design as a discipline has been complicit in this. And by which I mean down one end as my ex-boss actually Bronwyn Van der Merwe just saying the other day, we sort of gave away a bunch of the strategic stuff having spent 20 years or something trying to become more strategic and moving further up the chain, and this is obviously what you do is for a pre-living. We gave a lot of that way partly through to the consultants, through the whole design thinking thing. And I’m partly to blame for that because trained some of those people and also within the organization then we felt as a discipline, we also allowed the craft, the making of it or the thinking about what we should be making to be taken over by product folks and product management.

(00:18:40): I think there was a generation, or has been a generation or is of younger designers who are very, very keen to just see their stuff out there in the world, the achilles heel of say service designers. People don’t see their work out there in the world for two years, and I think it was a bunch of people who really wanted to see their stuff out and become product designers and make stuff that gets out there in the world. And so that allowed themselves to be pushed down onto the assembly line again, and in the worst, when I speak to people like Teresa Torres and Melissa Perry, Jeff got Goff and people like that, I think they’re talking about a very different thing, but in the worst end of it or in the middle to worst end of it, the designers have been told, I mean, I’ve had coaches who say, well, my PM has just described how the button should look and how thick the outline should be, and they just become kind of figma jockeys and there’s no joy. There’s no joy in that much at all. I mean, there is at the beginning of your career maybe, and I guess my question is how do we let that happen to us as a discipline?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:19:44): Yeah, yeah. Well, and I think, I don’t know that I have a satisfying answer because I think it’s something I kind of tussle with. It’s at what level is that something that design was complicit in or did to itself or participated in what level is that more of a response to the conditions that were already changing within organizations? At what level was that something thrust upon design? And I think it’s some of all of those things. One of the things I did notice was at one point, gosh, I don’t know exactly when this was maybe eight years ago or something like that, maybe 10 years ago, even now, as there was a sort of shift toward product thinking and product organizations, and I use the quote unquote because I think that those definitions are actually much murkier than we often pretend that they are.

(00:20:41): One of the things that happened was that there was this shift from like, oh, we don’t do all of that old school UX stuff. That’s all kind of library science. I was talking about this about information architecture the other day. That was something that’s like, oh, we don’t really need that because isn’t that all about, I don’t know, metadata and nerdy stuff? And what we’re doing is we’re making apps. So it’s you think about that shift towards something that was perceived of as shiny and new and much more, as I think you were describing kind of close to the metal, you would do something on an interface and then that interface would be live and out in the world on a relatively quick cycle. And there is something nice about that, but I think what you also lost in that process was a lot of deep knowledge or maybe disconnection from a lot of deep knowledge.

(00:21:39): I think that that deep knowledge still exists, but if UX sort of gets flattened into the interface or the UX slash ui, which I don’t really have any desire to ever debate about specifically, but if that happens, then there’s a lot of deeper thinking and strategic work that kind of gets alighted there. And I think in a lot of organizations just wasn’t really happening. And instead what you ended up with then was product taking the lead on strategy, but product being particularly business led. And that’s fine, but there’s a gap there that nobody is filling when it comes to that kind of deep thinking about systems and structure, deep thinking about users, humans, and really thinking about how do all those things fit together. But I don’t know, did design do that to itself? Was that done to design? Well,

Andy Polaine (00:22:43): My question was really how complicit were we in it? I don’t know,

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:22:47): Andy, how complicit were we?

Andy Polaine (00:22:49): Well, I know I’ve been curious. This why I don’t have the answer to it too, apart from sort of what I originally said. I think maybe we had a moment of everyone starting to finally get design because design thinking was a thing that sort of percolated into business. And in some respects, in the end, it was up until recently, really good advertising and marketing for Ido because they turned something that had previously been people staring out the window being creative into, they made the case for the fact that there’s a process here. And I think one of the problems design has had is actually we’ve been pretty rubbish in the public discourse in talking about how design has actually done. I think we kind of look at the end result. Partly, I think it’s ubiquitous. When I look around my room here, everything has been obviously designed by someone, and I think most people would better know how a film is made, for example, then they know how design is done. And so sometimes I think we somehow or people have a better understanding of say what the scientific method is than how design is done. And yet, oh, I

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:24:03): Don’t know Andy, I do live in the United States. I don’t know,

Andy Polaine (00:24:06): Maybe, but it’s not just me. I think, and when I think back to that, the film example, Hollywood did quite a lot of work in making of movies and directors commentaries and all that stuff, which I think that and the magic of the special effects of star wars and stuff, I think actually that already, that banal as that sounds really, really helps people understand, oh, these things don’t just pop into the world. People do that kind of thinking about it that you’ve talked about. I think that’s one thing, but we haven’t really done, and I dunno why we have done a bad job of that, but I think there’s another aspect maybe that it’s the influence of big tech. It’s all the stuff you’ve written about also before, which is this idea that scale and speed are the dominant things. And not only are they the things that everyone should be aspiring to, but they never get questioned those two original premises. This things should get as big as possible as fast as possible. That is so normal is right. Yeah. And I think obviously if you’re trying to scale and get as fast as you can, then there’s thinking about stuff, we might as well just get some stuff out there and if it’s wrong, we’ll just kind of rebuild it.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:25:27): Yeah, I think that was happening as a cultural shift, as an industry shift for tech at a much larger scale than it was happening specifically within design. But I think that the way design responded to that is also that, or at least there’s some particular subset of design, which I think what we mean when we talk about design is also a question that’s hard to answer sometimes. But I think when we talk about the people who wanted to do design work within a technology company or within a startup or within an organization that was operating, those companies operate or trying to operate, those companies operate, there were a lot of people who found that really attractive over the past 10 years really looking at that as like, oh my gosh, this is an opportunity to kind of go where the action is to do something that is the more the big exciting.

(00:26:24): There was a time when being a designer at an agency was the cool thing to do, and that’s what people wanted go to a cool design agency. And I think that that changed and that interest in being in a product company and that interest in being on a rocket ship, as they say, as I would not personally say, but people say that I think got a lot of people’s attention. And I think there were a lot of people who were really lured in by that idea that they were going to do something that was going to scale really fast and they would get to be part of it, and that they would get to design something that therefore is so much more powerful. And the result is, of course, then accepting that a lot of the design work that they were doing is slap together some screens and ship it.

(00:27:10): And I think for a lot of people, that has become the de facto design process. And like you said, they kind of are figma jockeys where what they do is they move stuff around and they get it out the door and they don’t get to do a lot of exploration or thinking about it because that’s sort of fed down to them. And I think that is something that is at some level, if you don’t question any of the other basic functioning of a tech company about scale, quick scale as fast as possible, get as big as possible without questioning any of that, I don’t know how differently designed can operate in those environments. Yeah,

Andy Polaine (00:28:02): Yeah. I mean as part a little bit of what you’re saying kind of sounded basically everyone got greedy and sold out. There’s one aspect of we all kind of jumped into that one, not we all but design. And I guess when we’re talking about design, we are talking about digital design in the digital world,

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:28:17): That’s where I tend to focus, but I don’t think everybody got greedy and sold out per se. But I do think that, I mean, look, there are a number of people who wanted to join an organization with substantially higher wages than other types of companies with the prestige of having a certain kind of name. I think that has also been a big shift in the past decade or so where I think about the kinds of conferences I used to go to 10 years ago, and it was a lot more, I don’t know, people doing weird and interesting stuff. And I look at a lot of the conferences I see now and the things that are promoted the hardest are the companies that the speakers come from. And oftentimes the talks they give are the most sort of sanitized approved by PR talks I’ve ever seen

Andy Polaine (00:29:12): A lot of the craft stuff, I sort went by the wayside a bit, or at least. I mean, the other thing is I feel like we’re having the same conversation I about you, but I feel like I’m having the same conversations that I’ve been having 15 years ago. Brandon Ard asked a question here in the chat and he said, isn’t the behavior we need to change at the business leadership level? I mean, yes, but I want to sort of slightly connect this question to something else that you talked about in your article and also something else we talked about before, which is yes, that’s true, but how much can design, and that could be design leaders or people further down the hierarchy have an influence on that.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:29:59): Yeah. Okay. So I think that business fundamentally needs to change period. If we’re talking about the big picture, we’re talking about late stage capitalism, it doesn’t seem to be working well in the sense of what is happening with our environment, what is happening with our standard of living and healthcare in the United States, and how can people continue to afford to get by? Who’s getting lost in the margins? There’s wealth accumulation at the edges and then a lot of other people not doing particularly well. So yes, that needs to change. Here’s where I would push back against that particular question though.

(00:30:50): I think it’s actually really destructive to tell designers that their job is to change the organization, the business leadership. It’s actually not possible to change anybody but yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t be influential. It doesn’t mean that the things that you say and do might not create shifts in other people. But I think one of the things that happens is that when we decide that what we need to do is change business leadership, then we start focusing on, okay, well my job is now to change business leadership and I keep doing things and I keep doing this, doing that, trying this, and again and again and again, it’s not working, it’s not working. And that can start to feel like, well, I guess I’m just not doing a good enough job. I’m not personally effective enough at being influential or at helping these people understand. And the reality is other people change when they decide they want to change.

(00:32:00): If they have the information and they don’t want to change, they’re not going to change if their incentive structure is still one that is all about our shareholders happy this quarter, which I think is an important part of it too. Not just are we making shareholders money, but it’s are we making shareholders immediate money? If that is not shifting, that’s not in your control and there isn’t some magical deck you’re going to present to leadership that’s going to make that change. And I think that it’s actually really healthy to come back around and say, okay, that is the reality. That is a root problem. I don’t have control over that problem. Can I be influential in some ways? Can I communicate some things that are important to me to people who are in more senior roles than me and have more power than me? Okay, great.

(00:32:50): What are those things and what is the best work I can do to communicate that? What’s the best avenue? I have best availability? I have to spread that message, but also how do I let some of that go and say, okay, if this is what is true, how do I want to deal with that reality? What are the things I can trade off? What can I accept? What can’t I accept? Is this an environment that I actually want to stay in? What are the ways that I am doing my job that are fundamentally trying to get the corporation to change its incentives and I could just actually take that pressure off myself and put that energy literally anywhere else because that’s not going to happen and I’m just going to burn out trying to do it.

Andy Polaine (00:33:35): One of the things that comes up for me quite often or I find myself having conversations about with the coachees and they come in there, they’re sort of in that state. And I mean there’s two things. One is I think designers have made a bit of a mistake. I know I talked about design not being in the public discourse, but designers have design leaders I think often talk too much about design to business leaders who don’t really care. And I think it’s maybe a bit of a rude awakening for people in design leadership to realize that the CEO just doesn’t care most of the time about design and process. They obviously care about the outcomes of it. And I’m being careful not to say the impact and show your value. And I’m talking about outcomes because often business leaders, they want to shareholder increase shareholder value, and in vc funded things, there’s always that massive pressure.

(00:34:27): But that aside, there’s often a sense of quite worthy and purpose and ambition behind a lot of companies. And I think one of the things design leaders have to do is understand how you connect to something those people care about and you connect design to it as the way they’re going to get it rather. And that’s not really just showing your impact thing, but you’re saying you paint this picture of this world that those stakeholders want and really understand that there’s some fomo building that’s going on there that you have to do in order to then say, well, if you want that, well, this is what needs to be done. Now obviously they might go, yeah, well, we want that outcome, but we don’t really want to invest in design, and that’s probably the time when you go and get another job somewhere. But I think there is kind of an aspect of that.

(00:35:14): What I see happening a lot though is the under yes, we want that and we’re not going to invest. And so what happens is, whether it’s the design leaders or the design team or lots of people in that, they end up doing the work anyway because they really want to do it well. And I look at their calendars and I say, show me your calendar as a classic sort of coaching technique. And I’m like, okay, so out of this week you have six hours actually free, and most of that is for 20 minutes between other things when you get your actual work done. And they say, well, weekends and evenings. And so by doing that, they never give the feedback, they never complete the feedback loop of saying, Hey, you know that thing you want, we don’t have the resources to do it, right? Because they then secretly do it anyway. And then the message that leadership get is, oh, when I asked for that thing, I got it. So why do you need more designers? Right? Yeah. Do you hear that quite a lot in your Well, constantly.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:36:14): I mean, I think that was one of the big things that I noticed was, there’s a couple of things in there too. I think one, when designers are trying to speak upwards about design and about designs importance, they’re often leaning way too hard. I think on education that came up in the article and that was something I talked with people about as well, where education is kind of a safe approach where it’s like, here’s our double diamond process or whatever, and it’s like showing people this is how it should be and these are the steps and this is what design is. Nobody cares. I mean, maybe they could strike care if they have all the time free and all the brain space free, but they don’t. And they have their own incentives, and that’s not actually how you get people to care about design. They need to actually feel what is different when design isn’t in the room.

(00:37:14): And that also means that when design is in the room, having a perspective, having a point of view. And I think that’s something that also has been maybe de-prioritized as people have been very focused on creation of screens and just sort of get into figma, make some stuff according to whatever specs you were given, that the idea of then being able to be like, well, wait, how does designs perspective contribute to the conversation at the senior level goes unanswered? And I think that’s a problem, but I also think that there’s this big piece in there that is around people really getting stuck in that place of I want to convince other people that I matter

Andy Polaine (00:38:12): And make the world a better place.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:38:15): And that then is a great place to overwork because if you feel like people don’t value me, so I need to convince people to value me, and my job is to convince you to value me, I’m very likely to then be like, okay, you want me to then do, I’m going to be the sole content designer to seven different pods or squads or whichever way that your particular org has decided this is going to go. And you say yes, because I want you to value content design and it doesn’t actually work that way. Saying no oftentimes is the way, and it’s hard and it’s scary. And for a lot of people, they’re really nervous of what’ll happen if they say no. But once you start saying no, there’s also that difference between, okay, here’s the areas where we actually were able to devote time and look at what we were able to accomplish here.

(00:39:06): You could have that over here, but you have to choose to invest in it as opposed to me stretching myself so that it hits everywhere. And I think that that’s a really healthy way to approach it. That is also a lot more compelling and interesting for the people who have the purse strings than sitting through another presentation about here is what user research is, here are different user research methods, but that education piece, it is very easy for people to get caught up in it because it feels safe. It’s safe to say, here is a bunch of methods we could use, or here is how our process works as opposed to here’s a direction I think that we should take on this project that’s much more vulnerable.

Andy Polaine (00:39:48): It’s also sort of the wrong way around actually hearing you say it like that. And I’ve been in both situations because part of what I’ve done is educate both design teams, but also cross-functional teams in organizations, which is to say, I’m going to tell you about a process and trust me, I’ll have amazing results, rather than having people go, that’s amazing. How did you do that? That’s a very different way around, right?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:40:16): Yeah. And I do think that there’s a contingent of folks in design who have gotten frustrated at the call to learn how to communicate those stories upward to do the storytelling, to be able to have that compelling vision. And I actually think that’s an important part of the work. Very, I really do. And I think I differentiate that though from proving your value. I think that that’s much more about communication is part of everybody’s job. Everybody has to learn to communicate, and particularly if the work that you do has a whole bunch of pieces to it that could be intangible, you’re going to have to make those things that other people can understand well enough in a way that makes sense to them in a way that feels relevant to them. And that’s not about giving them a textbook. If they wanted to understand UX, you could give them a UX textbook and that is not actually what they need, but that’s how a lot of the conversation goes.

(00:41:13): It feels very much like I am walking you through the one-on-one class, as opposed to, I understand what your job is and I am talking with you about the ways in which the work I do is relevant to your job or makes a difference in your job. And I’m bringing a perspective to your problems where I’m like, oh, I actually know stuff that might help you solve your problems that you don’t know. And the reason I know that stuff is because I do design work and I have this set of knowledge that you as a business leader don’t have. And that’s something that I think, again, is scary for people and they often shy away from, and it does us a disservice.

Andy Polaine (00:41:58): You said you had response from other disciplines. I’m always interested because I can hear us and I can hear someone saying, wow, these designers just whinging again about design and design’s a place in the hierarchy and pecking order and all of the rest of it. And I kind of get it, and I think we complain about it quite a lot, but there definitely does seem a bit of a midlife crisis going on for design at the moment. Do you think that this same thing is true, or have you heard that the same thing is as the obvious kind of counterparts to design? But I’m sure there are other areas too.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:42:36): So I didn’t get a lot of comments, at least from people in engineering saying this is true in engineering. I think a little bit for maybe some aspects of it, maybe people who are doing more front-end work. But the reality is in tech companies now, there are just so many engineers, they don’t have the same kind of problems. When you need engineering resources in order to build something that’s on the roadmap, engineering resources tend to show up. And I mean, I’m sure, I’m sure there are people who would say, no, no, no, that didn’t happen on my team. Yes, I believe you. But I think by and large, there’s a very different perspective because there’s this idea that, well, we have to ship and we have to have engineers to build the thing to ship. We can ship without design or with very little design, we can cobble something together from a design system and ship, but if we don’t have engineers, we can’t do that.

(00:43:31): And so I do think that engineers tend to have a different experience. I think that, I’m sure there’s some overlaps in there. I do wonder about the way that product management leads on engineering oftentimes as well. And there’s schools of product management that very much come out of engineering versus folks who are much more business focused. And I would be curious the experience of engineers who are working with very business focused product leaders who maybe do they feel like they are just being told exactly what to build without really having a lot of insight into the strategy or a conversation around trade-offs or things like that? Probably I don’t know enough about that, and I didn’t hear a lot about that. I think again, that it tends to be people who are operating in functions that are perceived as lesser or underdogs in their organizations is where this tends to be really common.

Andy Polaine (00:44:34): It seems. This is what saying about having the same conversations that we had 15, 20, 30 years ago, deeply frustrating that we’re still having the conversation that design isn’t just about making stuff look pretty. And I still scratch my head a little bit of why we got there. I am interested though, in the work you’re doing with Active Voice. So tell us a little bit about that. You’ve also got something coming up on the December the eighth, is that right?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:45:03): We do, yeah. So okay. Active Voice is a tiny little company and we do coaching and training programs specifically for people in design and tech, a lot of folks in a range of design roles. And so that’s coaching. We do some group programs and then we run various in-house programs with companies. So this event on the 8th of December, this Reclaim Your Power Event, this is kind an offshoot of that article and the way it blew up plus just a bunch of stuff we’ve been working on internally. We are pulling together what we’re calling kind of a year-end retreat. It’s like a half-day of mix of things. I’m going to do a little bit of a talk, kind of the follow up to that article about becoming un-gaslightable and then, which I don’t think is a hundred percent possible. I think that we are never going to be a hundred percent resilient to other people’s manipulation, but I think there are things we can do that make it a lot harder for us to fall into those cycles.

(00:46:03): I’m going to talk more about that, but then we have some guests coming in. So Amy Hoop is a design systems consultant, and she has this talk that is about her own experience with burnout and reaching this point of nothing even matters. And then what she did to reconnect with a sense of purpose that wasn’t all just about being purely career-driven all the time. Jess Dale, Jess is a senior design manager at Etsy, and they’re going to be talking about their management practice or leadership practice, which they call radical softness. And I remember when Jess told me that that’s the way that they were thinking about their practice. I was just absolutely enamored by this concept of radical softness. And so they’re going to be talking about what does that look like? What does it look like to lead in a radically soft way? And then we’re going to have a panel about boundaries and the way in which boundaries can actually happen inside these kinds of companies where people will often say like, oh, but I can’t tell my boss no.

(00:47:08): Or, oh, I want to set boundaries, but it’s actually impossible. So we’re going to talk about, well, how do people actually do it with people who have done it and kind of live to tell the tale and didn’t have it derail their careers entirely? And then my colleague Jen is going to be facilitating some activities that are really helping people take all of that and say, okay, now what are you actually going to do to make some changes in your life? What do you want to close out of this year in terms of how you’re showing up and what do you want to open the door to next year so that you can show up in your work in a way that’s going to be more sustainable for you, maybe a little more joyful for you, and a whole lot less caught up in those cycles of people pleasing over-identifying, et cetera. So it’ll be a little coachy end to that. Good. Yeah, that’s what

Andy Polaine (00:47:59): We’re doing. That sounds good. Sounds very practical. One of my favorite bits of feedback from a coachee who’s been doing very well, well actually before my coaching I have to admit, but is also doing even better afterwards, was I like to think no, but as he said, one of the big things I got out of this was not to take work so seriously. And I know that maybe to a US audience for whom their sort of calvinist ethic is really strong, but I think it was a really important thing because I see people get, I mean as the mental health and wellbeing effects of feeling, that stress are really, really real. And it is important I think to have purposeful and meaningful work and people really, it’s important for people. At the same time, I think it is also important to go, do you know what, I’m kind of just making rich guys, mostly guys, very rich people, even richer. And I don’t think I need to do that on my weekends and at the expense of time with my friends and family or any of those things.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:49:04): And I think that there’s this piece in there that’s like detaching work and identity at some level, but without just turning work into meaninglessness. Because I think that that’s the other end of the spectrum. So what I’ve seen a lot of people do is go from, okay, fully identified with my career. I’m moving on up and I work with, not exclusively, but I work with a lot of women and there’s oftentimes a particular thing that shows up there too, which is like, I’m going to make it. I bought into some of that. We need more women in leadership. And so it’s my job to kind of move up and become a director, become a vp, lean in, and then you know, girlbossed your way up for a while and then you’re like, wait a second, am I happy? Do I like this? And also, what did it do to me?

(00:49:55): Who did I have to become to get here? All of this stuff starts to come up, and I think it happens for everybody. It can happen for people any gender, but oftentimes I think there’s a particular extra little spin on it for women. And so then there’s this moment of really rethinking and going like, okay, well do I care about any of this and what do I actually want to be doing with myself? And what I notice is that for a lot of people, those big identity questions really kick up. And some people respond to that by kind of being like, I can’t rethink this work is my identity because I don’t know who I am without it. And it’s too scary to think about. Or people really lose that and then can kind of drift into that cynicism and pointlessness very easily. And I like to think of it as like, okay, we need to think about identity and meaning and maybe some sense of purpose that’s bigger than work.

(00:50:48): It’s not just about what’s happening in your career. Who are you without this job and what do you care about and what do you want to, I don’t know, what do you want people to say about you down the line or what’s going to be important to you 20 years from now? But then what are the ways that your work can align with that? And what are the things about your work that you can bring into greater alignment with your values? How do you express your values in your workplace? Even if it’s not in every aspect, even if it’s just in the relationships you have with your colleagues, how do you make some peace with that, but make that something that can affirm who you are but is not the sole driver of who you are? Because I think the other, I ping-ponging from work is everything over to work is nothing but a paycheck also has not served people well. I’ve seen them do it and they are depressed.

Andy Polaine (00:51:48): Yeah, I agree. I think one of the things that I find found the most useful on that front is asking people or getting people to reflect upon where they find their energy. And that sounds very woo-woo. But partly I think the body, well, my wife who’s a psychoanalyst would say the psyche or the unconscious doesn’t lie when you come out, I was going to say come back home, but out these days often from a day of work and you feel depleted and you also know when you’ve got to spring in your step and you feel like, oh, that sort of energized me in some way. I think often just focusing on that really, really tells you a lot about, okay, and it’s a fairly obvious sounds really simple, which is we’re going to try and do more of the things that energize me and less of the things that de-energize. But it’s more about that idea of a sort of bucket of energy and there’s always going to be some holes in it that are kind of leaking out, but as long as it’s being topped up at a greater pace or the very worst, that’s sort of even the better rather than these gaping holes where it’s just like I’m constantly having to pour so much in and I’m never ever going to kind get more to at the bottom.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:52:55): That practice of really noticing that has to start with just the ability to observe yourself without judgment, which is hard for people. And I mean there’s definitely overlap between that and what somebody might do in therapy, but I think it’s really helpful in the coaching process, which is can you observe what your energy looks like? Can you observe what your behaviors are? Can you observe what you’re feeling? Can you just observe those things and just start to notice, oh, I get really tense in these situations. Oh, this is really draining for me. And the first part of that though is just letting yourself notice those things, acknowledge them. You don’t have to justify them or defend them. You don’t have to necessarily fix them or anything, but just let that exist and let that then say, okay, once I notice all of these things, what do I want to do with them? And part of that is making peace with reality and saying like, oh, okay. Because part of what you said is when there’s these things, it’s like energy just seeping out of the bucket.

(00:54:06): It can be painful to admit to yourself that is what is true, that your job is actually depleting you at that level. That is a painful thing for a lot of people to have to face. And my sense is that a lot of people spend a lot of time almost avoiding looking at that directly because it’s painful. And my experience is that once you can look at it and work through that pain of like, oh, I’ve been telling myself that I love my job and actually wow, I’m really unhappy, or whatever it is. On the other side of that, there’s a whole bunch of freedom because now you can be like, okay, I don’t have to keep doing it this way. I can make changes. I can figure out where are all the invisible choices and I can start making some choices for myself.

Andy Polaine (00:54:53): I think busy work is the avoidance mechanism often for that. And you can feel, and that’s the sort of cult of productivity, is this idea that if I’m cranking through my inbox or slack, which is supposed to be the solution to email, it kind of made things worse. Well,

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:55:10): That’s right. I mean the modern workplace has an endless amount of places you could put your energy to avoid facing.

Andy Polaine (00:55:19): It feels like you’re doing work though, right? That’s the trick, isn’t it?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:55:22): Well, you are. I mean, you doing work. It is all work actually. I mean I think it’s all work. It’s just a way to, it’s just work that maybe you don’t have to do or work that you spend more time than necessary on, but it’s like work that kind of keeps you from the truth,

Andy Polaine (00:55:39): But it’s kind of junk food of work, that stuff in the sense that you can kind of eat your feel of that kind of work, that sort of busy way and crank through we or slack messages, whatever your items you have on in whatever atlassian system that you’re using or whatever else. And it’s not nutritious for the soul and the kind of being, and I think one of the things that you mentioned and I talk about with my coaches a lot is the first thing to do that, to do that what actually energizes me and whatnot here, you have to make some space, you have to stop or cut down on the busy work and that kind of sense of trying to keep up with something which is not possible to keep up with in order to just to have that sort of moment of enough quiet, I think to be able to do the self-reflection. I don’t think it’s a thing that you can kind of, that sort of self-reflection is not a thing that you can do on your to-do list. I think you can schedule time for it and I think you probably should actually if you’re one of those people. But I think it’s

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:56:47): No, I mean you can’t put be present on your to-do list and then check it off

Andy Polaine (00:56:53): When you can’t cram it, right? You can’t go, well, I should be doing an hour’s meditation, I reckon can do it in 10, 10 minutes. It’s just one of those things that you actually have to make time for. It’s

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:57:01): Funny, it’s interesting actually, somebody who’s in the group program that we run right now. She said something in our session the other day that was just really stuck with me. She said that she was trying to make more time for herself and taking care of herself and for workouts, and that she kept feeling like she needed to do a short hiit workout because she has so much to do. And she decided that because I can get the whole thing done really quickly with a hiit workout, she decided that when she feels that way, actually what she needs to do is take a one hour walk. And that was a big shift that the less time I feel like I have, the more I need a full hour walk. And that’s something I really wish everybody sort of took to heart. The more frantic I feel, probably the more that I actually really need to press pause in a meaningful way.

Andy Polaine (00:57:49): So if I, to continue the food metaphor, instead of grabbing a snack, you actually sort of take the time to make a decent meal and sit down and enjoy it Slowly. So talking of time, we’ve come up to time. We’re actually almost over time, the podcast, as I think is named off the Ray and Charles Eames film Power of Ten, all about the relative size of things in the universe. And so the final question is always, maybe you’ve answered it, what one small thing is either overlooked or could be redesigned that would have an outsized effect on the world?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:58:24): Yeah, I think we should go with what we’ve been talking about. It’s the small act of taking a moment to be present in your reality and to acknowledge what is happening to you and around you. I think that if all of us did that, if we took that second, that minute, that hour, whatever is needed at these different intervals, to really just notice what we’re feeling, what we’re experiencing, the impact that whatever’s happening in our day is having on us. I think it would really change the behaviors that we have afterward and also help us really make some different choices for ourselves.

Andy Polaine (00:59:08): Very good. And if people want to avoid doing some work, where can they find you online and check you out?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:59:14): Yeah, come to and there’s all the information about our upcoming programs and places you can hang out with us. You can also reach out to me on Linkedin. I’m there pretty often these days and I would love to hear from you, so please feel free to hit me up.

Andy Polaine (00:59:33): Thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (00:59:37): Thank you so much, Andy.

Andy Polaine (00:59:40): So I’ll put all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much for joining us on the live stream. Thank you. If you’re listening on the podcast, I hope you enjoyed it. If you’re looking on YouTube, then leave a comment. Do you agree, disagree. If you’ve got any other thoughts about it, you can find Power of Ten at You’ll find all the show notes there. You’ll find the podcast there. You’ll find my blog there. You’ll also find links to my very occasional newsletter called Doctor’s Notes and everything else, your heart or desire.

Thank you so much for joining me.