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UX Sandpaper situation: Finding the balance between guiding your team and letting them go

My personal reflections on the necessary “friction” that enables growth and encourages learning for junior UX research team members.

Two months ago, I posted a conversation I had with my Junior UX researcher on LinkedIn. The context of that conversation was about how in our line of work, our roles expect us to do both the client facing work and implementing the research project. I told her that I recognize that is an incredibly daunting situation to be in especially that it was her first job.

It is a lot of responsibility demanded of her all in a fast-paced learning environment. There’s no doubt on that. The very nature of the work entails us to know methods but apply them depending on the users, the context and client goals. All this factored in, I told her that it gave her no reason to be afraid of taking more responsibility. She had so much potential. In fact, embracing the challenge would be a stepping stone for her further growth.

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I took time to reflect after giving her that advice. Looking at our process flows, there are so many steps within each stage of the process. We were usually on our feet as we scoped projects, finalized work scopes and research plans, applied the chosen UX research method/s, analyze and presented the data findings. What was good about these processes, was that it was mapped out with my team based on their experiences on what worked and didn’t work.

I wanted them to be challenged further. Their initial job descriptions were “Research Assistants” with data logging as their main job responsibility. I found that to be too limiting. Along with their 6-month evaluation, I set expectations that their roles were not task-based but strategic and operational as Junior UX Researchers.

Despite the increase in “difficulty level” of their job role, I also made it clear I will not wait for them to “feel ready”. As a leader, I do not wait for individual “maturity dates”. I am a firm believer that experience is the best teacher. I believe that knowing the methods without context to implement them in renders an incomplete experience.

I believe that UX competence is developed with having a base knowledge of the UX methods, an ability to think critically and contextualize it into the current project.

I want to develop their competence with a mix of foundational knowledge with a real context to apply it to. I make sure to give guides for project work and then leave them space to figure things out as they manage a project. This hones their skills within a context of an industry, a product/service and actual timelines with real clients. They hone their skills while they handle actual work.

I have to place a disclaimer that it’s not a completely “hands-off” approach. We have set days of the week where we align to assess the work that has been done, the progress and why. When there are aspects of the project that they need advice on, they can flag it any time during the week or discuss in detail in a sit-down meeting. To me, I believe that these will train them to be capable of handling projects much more than written assessments and formal training sessions. It also allows us to reflect on why certain things happened.

Two months after that post, my Junior UX Researcher is in the final leg of her project. I look back and still feel strongly that more than business goals we have achieved, it’s also the opportunities that we give and support each other in that make it a challenging but enriching experience for people in our team. This is also a crucial aspect in our field. It’s a fast-paced job that’s why, to me, it’s important that the work experience has to also be positive for them on a personal level.

Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

As a team lead, I often find myself being worried whenever red flags pop-up in a client project. I’m wary that this may be a lot for someone in their first role. I try to manage this by checking up on them as consistently as I can.

I’m also a big believer in the tough love that lets people in your organization see how strong and analytical they can be when they don’t let their doubts gas light challenges they face at work.

UX research projects as consultants mean bigger responsibilities than an entry-level role, yes. I do not deny this. As a team lead, I understand the pressure and high expectations you go through. I joke that it’s baptism by fire, 100% assured! Joking aside, it feels good to see people in your team grow.

I realized that as a lead, it is rare for me to give compliments but feedback both good and back is critical. Your own team members will not know how much they grew. Their growth makes more sense to them in retrospect than it does while it’s happening. However, this is something that you, as a manager, can observe and give praise/feedback on.

Whenever this junior UX researcher begins doubting her abilities, I tell her to think of it as a sandpaper situation. Angry clients, frustrated clients are really people trying to do the best at their job but are tensed given work-related pressures. When you’re client-facing, it’s not rare to find yourself in high-stress situations. Coordinating client work may make you face situations with deal with less-than-kind comments or demanding clients. In high-pressure situations, do not doubt your ability.

Regardless of what experiences these are, I would encourage you to think of it as sandpaper. Those situation will hurt at that moment. But a few months later, it won’t. They won’t remember what they were so anxious about.

What they get from that experience is refinement necessary to help them with becoming more polished in their job.

Just like sandpaper, they get polished by challenging experiences—whether it’s assessing data or handling a disgruntled client.

I’m not advocating that you throw your juniors under the bus. What I’m saying is that as a manager I’m aware that I have to find the tricky balance between enabling people’s growth by giving the necessary learning tools and experience but also knowing when to be hands off. In short, when to let them deal with the project-related problems on their own.

By no means am I saying that it’s easy. In fact, as a manager, it’s you who understands that the job demands so much given fast-paced projects and lean teams. However, investing in your people and their skills is so crucial to overall organizational success. Don’t be too quick to get their workload or help them out at the first signs of discomfort or confusion—let them handle the challenges. As tempting as it is to tell people what to do, Let them go. Let them grow.

Let them go. Let them grow.

When people in your team grow their skills, are trained to be capable of more things and become efficient, it affects how they do their work and the variety and depth of what they are able to contribute. Ultimately, it ripples into your organizational performance. I’d say it’s pretty clear cut that investing in your team is worth the effort. As a manager, it’s important to let your team have space to grow. Do not throw them off the bus but train them to know what to do and also prepare them to be “polished”. 😉

Product Strategist & Researcher. 🤓 I’m curious about why people do the things they do. I seek my Great Perhaps with coffee & data.

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