Publish and pull managers

@kwugirl has done some great work around ask culture and guess culture (, and how frustrating it can be when you are framing communication the wrong way so that you are constantly rubbing on someone.

Ask culture says that it’s ok for someone to make a direct request for a favor, and it’s equally ok to tell them no. Guess culture is more face-saving. A request in guess culture would look like a hint or ignorable indirection when translated to ask culture. Corporate America tends to default to ask culture because of… a lot of reasons.

But ask and guess culture are about making requests of someone who has power to grant them. How do we want to talk about this when we are dealing with our managers? They want things from us, we may or may not have the ability to grant them, but the power differential is all different.

I think of this in terms of internet architecture – publish vs. pull.

Some people work best for managers who provide regular feedback and consistent updates on what’s going on in the manager/employee relationship, the project, the company as a whole. The publish manager will tell you regularly how you’re doing without needing any prompting.

Some people work better for pull managers. When they have a question, they can ask and get an instant answer on how things are, but on the whole, the relationship is much less focused on status updates either direction, and much more on blocking disruption. The manager exists to protect the time and autonomy of the employee, and the employee doesn’t get much direction unless they ask for it.

Of course, neither of the methods is bad or good, they just are. The problem is when you have a mismatch between the method a manager uses and what the employee uses or is comfortable with.

For example, if you’re a pull person, all that feedback and mentoring and goal-setting and communication feels like noise or even micromanaging. Getting status updates all the time feels like an expectation that you should be doing more. And on the flip side, your non-communication feels to a publish manager like you’re not doing anything, or worst-case, that you are deliberately concealing problems. Why won’t you disclose, why do they have to pry your status reports out every week?

If you’re a publish person, and your manager only talks to you when you ask a direct question, and they put off status meetings if there’s nothing really important to talk about, you get kind of paranoid. What terrible things are they hiding? Are they angry with you? You sent in a report and you didn’t get any feedback on it, was it bad? What’s going on up there? A pull manager with a publish report will appreciate that they know what’s going on, but they consistently forget that their taciturn default causes actual anxiety in this person. Everything’s fine until you say otherwise, so what is this about?

Ok, so it’s yet another binary to divide the world into, like the introvert/extrovert oversimplification. What does it mean for your actual life?

Now that I’ve realized this, it’s changed the way I interview. Of course, we don’t always get to pick our managers, but at the moment when you do, ask the questions.

  • “Do you prefer to update people on a schedule or when they ask?”
  • “How does your most successful report communicate with you?”
  • “What’s your favorite kind of update meeting?”

You don’t want it to be too leading, because when someone is interviewing you to be their report, they really want it to work out, at least if they are the kind of person you want to work for. When they are in the room with you, they are thinking how to work you into their team, their workflow. They’re trying you on, including your communication style. And it’s their job to work with you, so they might unconsciously bend to meet your preference if you make it too obvious.

If you’re a manager, the same thing applies. A candidate might be perfect in every other way, but if it seems like you’re going to have to ask them every week for their updated status report, or if they are going to want a ton of feedback from you and you’re a more hands-off person, you may want to add that to your decision matrix and decide if that’s an amount of effort you’re willing to expend on negotiating your natural communication style.

We can all work with people who have different communication styles. We do it all the time without thinking about it. The best plan is to do it mindfully and patiently, realizing that most people are not actually trying to make you irritated or confused with their style, and that your style may be hard for some people.