Your Schedule? That’s Where Your Promises Go.

A friend, Jason, told me he waited at a restaurant this morning for over an hour because his friend “promised” to meet him there at 9 AM. The friend never showed, and didn’t email or text to say he wasn’t coming. I’ve heard this before from Jason, and it’s clear to me that his friend does not use a schedule to keep track of his appointments. Maybe Jason’s friend doesn’t consider their breakfast-date an “appointment”. Or maybe he treats all his appointments that way: I assume that I will remember, or even if I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter much.

Here’s an extreme example of that kind of thinking – The New Yorker reported (April 17, 2017, page 23) that Martin Shkreli probably doesn’t pay much attention to a schedule either:

“It was almost 9 P.M. when Shkreli drained his second glass of beer. He suddenly looked alert, remembering that he had received a jury-duty summons. He looked at his phone and said, “S**t, I might have missed it. What day is it?””

Wow. This is not someone you’d want to invite over to dinner. The soufflé would likely have to be reheated and served with a side of bacon for the next morning’s breakfast.

No-shows happen to Jason a lot – probably because Jason doesn’t use a schedule either. His life is unusually simple: a ride to work in the morning, the day at work, then home to dinner, maybe a bike ride, then TV and to bed. He lives pretty much one-day-at-a-time, and if something other than bike-riding and TV is supposed to happen in the evening, he remembers it, because it’s “special”. Weekends can be more complicated – he might meet his father, or go to visit nearby relatives, or make plans with friends. The dates and times for get-togethers with family members are very reliable – everybody communicates by email about the specifics of each event, so there are few surprises. Appointments made with his friends, however, are reliable only half the time.

What is so hard about using a schedule to make note of appointments or other agreements? I’m not sure, because I rely on my schedule to tell me where to be and when – every single appointment goes on my calendar, and once or twice a week I fill in the spaces between them with things from my “Do-Due List“. But that’s because I have reached a “certain age” where I have learned that my memory is not to be trusted. Not everyone has a complex life, and some weeks we may not need the schedule as much as others. But how can we count on keeping our word when we don’t write it down in a place we will check – and update – every day?

The question for Jason now, however, is, How long am I going to maintain a relationship with people who can’t be counted on to show up at the promised time and place? How many times am I willing to be stood up and left waiting before I assign you a reputation as Unreliable? I suspect Jason has more patience than most of us. He certainly has more than I do.

How to Save Time: Make Better Requests to Get Better Promises

Shane, a student in Jeffrey’s management class last semester said he had solved a problem at work: wasted time! He stopped me in the hall at the university yesterday and said, “We reduced the time people spent making unnecessary calls to remind people about what they said they were going to do. Tell your husband thanks for teaching us how to make better requests and get good promises!”

It was funny to me, because Jeffrey and I had just asked a local handyman to repair the downspouts on the side of our house. The guy said he would come over “next week”. By Thursday morning, I was wondering if he was really going to come, and how I could get him to be more specific, so I texted him and reminded him that we were waiting. He didn’t answer, and only arrived on Saturday afternoon. I was annoyed at the lack of response as well as the vagueness of his “promised” time of service.

“Promised” may be a stronger word than he would have used. People don’t always hear that what comes out of their own mouth might be a “promise”. Right now, for example, I have an email in my in-box that was sent to me 2 days ago. It says, “I will get back to you tomorrow.” She hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

Did she make a promise? In my world, yes, she did. In her world, I would guess not. When you say, “I’ll have it for you Tuesday”, do you consider that you’ve made a promise?

What Shane did was take the idea of making good requests and put it into practice with his whole team. His goal was to get more solid agreements, and here is his description of what he did:

  1. First, I proposed the idea of making better requests to all my team members at our Monday meeting. I explained that whenever we ask for something from someone, whether they are on the team or not, we are going to say three things:
    1. Specifics about “What” will be done;
    2. A specific time “When” it will be complete; and
    3. A statement of whatever workplace goal our request supports, i.e., “Why” it matters.
  2. Then I reminded everybody to also specify any information about “Who, Where, and How” that is relevant to their request – or at least discuss those things with the person they are asking to do something. It helps you get the other person’s input to clarify and confirm the importance of the request.
  3. The last thing I told them was that we would keep a list of their requests on a flip-chart in the meeting room. Anyone on the team who requested something from anybody else in the company would write it on the chart, along with the “due date” for completion. And we would review the chart every Monday morning to see how our requests were being fulfilled.

Shane’s approach to getting better performance agreements from people focused only on the request side of the conversation. It was an effective first step. He said the first Monday review of the “Request List” revealed that there had been 35 requests made in the previous week, and over half of them had been completed as expected. “Not bad,” Shane said, “but not great either. Seven people had to follow up with people who hadn’t delivered what they promised. Five people had to reschedule some of their work because they didn’t get what they requested in time to do what they had planned to do.”

“We talked about what was missing in our requests,” Shane said, “and started to understand why we aren’t getting what we ask for 100% of the time. The second week we got much better results. Making clearer requests is a real time-saver – we are getting good promises from people and it has made our work life smoother.”

I never got a “good promise” from that handyman because I didn’t make a good request. I could have explained that I wanted him to come over when Jeffrey would be home to explain the problem. I could have asked for a narrower window of time to come to the house. I could have explained that the house is being sold and the buyer wants to check that all the necessary repairs have been done. Coulda. Didn’t.

Bottom line: making good requests is not just for the workplace. Productive communication works at home too.

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

A corporate trainer, I’ll call him Edwin, was complaining about having to update his middle-management training curriculum. “I have to do another Team Training,” he said, “and the bosses want me to include games and activities and other kinds of “fluff stuff”. Seriously? It’s a joke. Teams don’t work like that.”

I agreed that the word “team” is probably over-used, usually with a little bit of a halo on it. Some managers refer to “my team” or “our team” instead of saying “my staff” or “our department” – just because it sounds better. Sort of like the way people say “leader” because it sounds better than saying “manager”.

We talked about his old Team Training programs to see how to keep what he thought was valuable, and what he could do to improve them. “There are 3 basics I emphasize in those programs,” he said.

  1. A Team has a stated “team purpose” – a goal, a commitment, something that gives the group a reason for collaborating and coordinating internally as well as working with others.
  2. Team members work together to create a structure for coordination:
    1. Clarify who is the Team Leader, and which team members have primary responsibility for sub-goals or projects.
    2. Determine how decisions will be made. Which things does the Team Leader decide? Who else gets to make other kinds of decisions? How will those decisions be communicated to the rest of the team?
    3. Design a framework for how and when team members will communicate with one another. Weekly meetings, with an agenda? Regular consultations among subsets of team members? Or some other reliable pattern?
  3. Team members review and revise this structure of agreements as needed. If things get bogged down with internal or external problems, it’s time to get together and refresh the framework – as a team.

“Teams are not built on a foundation of focusing on individuals,” Edwin explained. “That is the biggest pitfall. Americans are especially fixed on being individuals first, and having their individuality be the centerpiece of their attention.

“Teams need a focus on the group: they need a reason for working together, and to agree on a structure of responsibilities, decisions, and communications.

“The purpose of a team is not to resolve conflicts, boost morale, or fix someone’s personality traits that are aggravating other team members. Team members might need to learn how to collaborate more effectively, or improve skills in communicating directly and honestly. But really, a team is a team for a reason: to make something happen, or to move something forward. It is not a family or an exercise in social studies.”

Thanks, Edwin. Now I realize there are many fewer “teams” than I thought. Not every group is willing or able to do those 3 things to become a team. The attraction to focusing on people, personalities, and interpersonal drama is compelling – and more familiar to us than defining a group purpose or creating a framework for interacting productively.

Hmmm. Maybe he could add a couple of games or exercises that help people practice doing those 3 things? Just a thought.

Lack of Integrity – It’s a Loose Connection, Right?

I have a nodding acquaintance – I’ll call her Liza – who says things like, “I’ll get back to you on that this week”; and “I will ask Nate to call you tomorrow;” and “I’ll text you about dinner plans.” Then nothing happens: she doesn’t deliver. Her mouth is not connected to her brain. It’s not connected to her Do-Due List or her Calendar either. Or maybe she doesn’t have a Do-Due List or a Calendar to help keep her brain connected to her word.

Liza is not somebody I interact with – she belongs to a colleague of mine. I wouldn’t put up with it. After the 2nd time she failed to do what she said, I’d have to say, “The last two times you told me you would do something like that, you didn’t deliver. You kept me waiting and expecting, and now I don’t trust that you will remember your promises.” She would be upset, maybe, but at least we could stop pretending that she cares about keeping her word.

I hear about Liza from my colleague, who doesn’t want to cause a conflict, or create bad feelings. So, it’s better to put up with someone whose word is meaningless and just keep letting her get away with it? No thanks.

Connecting my word to my behavior is on my mind because we are moving – downsizing to a smaller home in another state – and there’s a lot to handle. I am using those two tools (a Do-Due List and a Calendar) to manage our transition. The individuals in my ever-changing set of Outlook contacts are of many types and flavors, and I want to say proper Goodbyes, Hellos, and other conversations that honor their value to me. Same with organizations: cancel memberships, stop payments, open new accounts, etc.

I keep my Do-Due List on a journalist’s notepad. When a page gets too messy to read, I copy the still-undone To-Do’s and Due-To’s onto a fresh page and toss the old one. The Calendar is a printout of our 3-month transition schedule; one of those months is now gone. If it gets too messy with blue-inked notes and red-inked stars, I’ll just reprint it.

These documents help me avoid overtaxing my memory, and possibly create chaos or hurt feelings or wasted time and effort. Out integrity is costly – at work, at home, and among friends. If I connect my promises (the agreements I make with others) to my Do-Due List and my Calendar, then people won’t roll their eyes when I tell them I’ll do something. And they won’t say what people say about Liza: her word is worthless.

Ouch! I’m going to review my Do-Due List and Calendar right now to be sure it’s up to date!

It’s Valentines Day – But What do You Do When You Hate Someone at Work?

A good friend – let’s call her Katy – shared with a group of us the other evening that there’s a woman she works with who is “awful”. She didn’t go into details, but said she was unwilling to even have a conversation with “Cruella” to clean up the bad vibes. And Katy said, “There’s a lot of other people at work who agree with me about her.” Uh oh.

So not only does she dislike this lady, but she is participating in gossip about her, gathering evidence about what a horrid person she is. I don’t know whether Cruella is incompetent, or wacko, or just plain mean, but I do know there is a cycle of misery in that workplace: Katy and the haters aren’t happy, and Cruella can’t be too pleased either. What can turn this cycle around?

Some of us suggested using one of the 4 ingredients in a Closure Conversation, i.e., one of the “4 A’s”:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter;
  • Appreciate them for what they have contributed;
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or
  • Amend any broken agreements.

Katy could probably have used any one of these “A’s”, but I didn’t think she would. She seemed pretty dug into her position that this was a hopelessly unpleasant situation. In fact, she was hoping Cruella would lose her job soon. And she was working on a personal project to “take back her power”, and to get healthier (she had a nasty cough that night). So there.

Then a note landed in my email. It was addressed to everyone who was in the discussion the other night:

All,

Today I took some ground in my “taking back my power” project. I acknowledged the co-worker I told you about for the success of the project she has been managing. Yes, I did go talk to her! I pointed out several specific accomplishments of the project – the number of people reached, the materials and services provided to our community, and the huge impact we are having by delivering on the promises of our mission.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.” But I wouldn’t let her deflect the acknowledgment.  I said, “Yes, and you are the one who managed it.”

She was very guarded when I first approached her, as one would expect, but she was genuinely grateful for the acknowledgement. She said thank you. I will keep looking for other ways to acknowledge her.

Katy

Wow! That’s better than a Valentine, right? I’m betting this will change the atmosphere at work – for Katy, the other gossipers, and, especially, for Cruella. Plus, it probably also improved Katy’s health – is that cough is gone yet?

Gossip is a killer (see the 1/23/2017 blogpost) and damages workplace integrity along with reputations (everybody’s). It was great to see such a perfect example of someone who was swept up in a stab-fest take charge of the cleanup and rehabilitation of those involved. I predict good things here.

Last word from Katy: “Thank you for your much needed “gentle” nudge – aka – kick in the butt.” Last word from me: “That’s what friends are for.”

Tip #2 on Being Professional:  Managers and Supervisors, Listen Up!

Another type of communication that is unproductive – or harmful – is blaming other people. That’s when Person A tells Person B that someone else is responsible for a problem or mistake. Shane was a good example of the fallout from blaming. A new manager, he was disappointed with his 3 team leaders. “I give them deadlines but they never get things done on time. What should I do?”

It made no sense to me, because these were smart, qualified people who seemed serious about their jobs. I asked Shane if it would be OK for me to meet with each of them, one-on-one, to see if I could get an idea about what was happening. “Sure”, he told me, “but don’t expect much.”

What I learned from the 3 meetings was that each of those team leaders had been promised certain things that had not been delivered:

  • Erin was still waiting to hear about whether she was going to get tuition reimbursement for the classes she was taking to bring new technology solutions to Shane’s department. She was halfway through the semester and had started processing a loan to cover the gap.
  • Stephen didn’t know yet whether he was going to be able to book his flights to visit his family in London. The price on the flights was going up every day, but a key meeting date for his team still had not been finalized.
  • Sheryl was the newest team leader, and had not yet received the bump in salary that went with the move up from being a team member to a team leader. She didn’t know how long it would take to be processed, or whether it would be retroactive to her leadership start date.

All three were “on hold”, waiting for Shane to let them know when he would have the information that would eliminate their suspense. Stephen said, “Shane tells us that he is waiting too. He blames another VP – or another department, or sometimes just “corporate – for not getting back to him. We think he could get a decision, but he tells us it’s complicated and he doesn’t make it a priority.”

The fact that the team leaders were not reliably delivering on-time results to Shane might have been a deliberate form of payback. But I could see that they were just discouraged, and maybe taking Shane’s message to heart: Timelines don’t matter, and getting some details resolved quickly is not important when there are so many other things that need to be done.

Shane had not seen the pattern of delay-blaming- waiting until we talked about all 3 team leaders having such similar problems.  He got those decisions resolved the next day. “I see that underneath my excuses for not getting things done was a nasty habit of not taking timelines seriously,” he told me. “I’m going to put due dates for work and decisions of all kinds on our team calendar – then we can talk about them in our weekly meeting.”

Blaming others is too easy – and everyone sees through it anyway. Take charge of your commitments and get stuff done. Sometimes it makes everyone else around you step up to being more accountable for their work too!

Tip #1 on Being Professional – Courtesy of the Gossip Trio

Three people – two women and one man – were talking at a lunch table, and one of them waved me over. Even though I was an “outside consultant”, they updated me on their discussion: Althea, a senior manager, had done yet another “really stupid thing”. All three were giddy with delight over the fact that she had to deal with the fallout.

Althea had sent in a report compiled by the 5 managers who reported to her, and had not done a good job of editing it. There were typos, part of one contributor’s submission was left out, and her own recommendation directly contradicted what two of her managers had advised. The VP she sent it to called her in and asked her to revise it and submit a more professional version by Wednesday at 5:00 PM. Hee hee – confirmation that Althea doesn’t deserve to be a senior manager.

This trio said more than I needed to know, and when they began recalling other “idiot mistakes” she had made in the past, I excused myself. I learned the hard way that gossip conversations almost always – sooner or later – have some negative repercussions for the participants. I have known people who lost their jobs because their role in passing along a rumor was discovered. I have also known people who missed out on promotions because they shared negative information about a co-worker with someone they thought would keep it a secret.

The rule is this: If you share gossip about Andrew with your best friend Emily, you have also announced – to Emily – that you are willing to bad-mouth others. Think about it: when someone tells you something negative about another person, they going behind that person’s back to criticize them. Don’t you know full well that they are likely to do this to you as well? Gossip breeds mistrust.

I talked later with the “ringleader” of the Gossip Trio. She was a fairly high-level person herself, and we talked about what the consequences would be if the VP learned about their gossip-fest, and that they were taking pleasure in hoping that Althea’s mistake would cost her the VP’s respect. This “ringleader” realized it would not look good, nor help her own advancement, to be seen in that light. She resolved to pull herself out of gossip and backbiting conversations in the future. She went further, and told her two companions that it was time to give up saying negative things about Althea altogether – to each other or to anyone else.

Gossip is one of three types of “unproductive conversations”, but it’s worse than just being unproductive. It’s also destructive. It makes another person look bad, or foolish, or incompetent. At the same time, it makes the person who shares the gossip look unprofessional and immature.

As a mentor of mine once said, “Gossip is nasty – and it is SO seventh grade!” So nobody who does it in a workplace situation should expect to be seen as a respectable adult, right?

What You Want & By When: Managers, Leaders, and Schedules

One manager in a recent MBA class was provoked by a discussion about the importance of using schedules, and offered her opinion on the difference between leaders and managers. “I want to be a leader,” she said, “not a manager. What does scheduling have to do with leadership?”

Good question, actually. We were talking about a powerful way of getting things accomplished: making agreements. For the uninitiated, an effective agreement goes like this:

  • Request: Will you send me the Customer Survey Report by noon tomorrow so I have time to prepare for the Board meeting? (note the specific “what I want”, “by when”, and “why it matters to me”)
  • Response options:
    • Yes, I will do that. (acceptance creates an agreement)
    • No, I can’t, but I can have Karen do it first thing in the morning. (a counter-offer can create an agreement if it’s accepted by the one making the request, who, in this case, must now rely on Karen)
    • No, I can’t because the report hasn’t been finalized by IT yet. Sorry. (the decline bars an agreement on this request)

Our MBA-Manager did not want to be bothered with such mundane things as using a schedule, creating deadlines, or holding others to account for keeping their word. Perhaps she feels that leaders are too lofty for such things.

That is why my LinkedIn page has the header “Leaders Speak the Future. Managers Make it Happen.” The ability to ask “By When?”, however, and to follow up with someone who agrees to perform a task by a specific “When”, is not limited to managers only. But it does have more to do with a commitment to accomplishment than it does with being a Hero.

When we practice saying By When we’ll have something done, and asking others By When they will have something done, we develop a muscle that is particularly useful for producing results of any kind. Without that, you’ll have a conversation like the one I had with Stuart a while back:

  • Me: I’m giving a talk and hosting 3 panels at a conference the last week in May. If you have any research findings I could use to prepare for that, I would appreciate it.
  • Stuart: I haven’t gotten out my latest series of fact sheets yet, but feel free to bug me if you haven’t seen anything.
  • Me: OK, consider yourself bugged. I’d like an update by Friday May 8th at the latest.
  • Stuart: If you are relying on my memory, you are likely to be disappointed. So if you don’t hear from me, you may want to email me.

Seriously? They guy uses his memory instead of a calendar? And it becomes my job to “bug him”? Well, not much of a manager, but not exactly a leader either. Would you follow him up a mountain trail at dusk? No, me either.

I’m going to practice using By When even more often in 2017. It keeps me on track for what I’m committed to and what I’m interested in developing, plus it chases away some foolishness with people who aren’t serious about integrity or accomplishment. Say it with me: By When?

Change Champions: Commitment, Respect, and… Closure   

Intentional change requires a goal, a schedule, and at least one success measure. But change is still a challenge, whether it is a big reorganization or a small change to one little practice or habit. Just like New Year’s resolutions, we often rely only on creating a solid plan for success. News flash: that is not enough.

You – as an executive, a consultant, or an individual with a goal – need a Change Champion, sometimes called a “committed listener”. You need someone who agrees to having regular “closure conversations” to track the pace and direction of a proposed change. This person understands the goal, the schedule, and the success measure(s), and is committed to a successful outcome.

In organizations, the rule is that an effective Change Champion must have – or cultivate – genuine respect in every area of the organization that is affected by the change. Organizational Change Champions are willing to track the progress of a change – sometimes in partnership with a change-implementation consultant – and to see it through to the end. One consultant I know held a meeting with the 4 executives developing a change plan, but none of them wanted to be “hands-on” for the implementation. The consultant told them he would have to meet with them once a week throughout the whole 12-week change timeline. They agreed, reluctantly, but admitted at the end that those meetings were key to the change’s success.

Another consultant met with managers and supervisors in each area affected by the change and asked them where organizational changes had gone wrong in the past. She took their lists of pitfalls and communication breakdowns back to the senior managers and, after reviewing it, they chose one person as their best candidate for Change Champion. This gave the consultant a partner, someone to review the change’s progress and to make course-corrections as needed.

To make a personal change, your Change Champion needs to be someone you respect – someone who will listen to, and care about, your promise for change, and someone you don’t want to disappoint. This gives you a partner in checking progress, a resource for advice and guidance, and perhaps someone who can provide direct assistance. A friend of mine told the leader of her fitness class that she wanted to trim up her waist but couldn’t afford a personal trainer. The class leader became her “committed listener” and gave her extra advice during and after classes until she reached her goal.

Whether organizational or personal, effective change requires regular “closure conversations” – scheduled talks with a Change Champion – to check on where things stand with respect to the goal, the planned schedule, and the measure(s) for success. Because, after all, without a conversation for real-time tracking, you aren’t giving your own commitment the respect and attention it deserves.

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Ring Out the Old. Ring in the New.

Three people have now told me they are clearing out quite a few “unnecessaries” from their Outlook contacts and Facebook friends list. Interestingly, they have all attributed this purging to the “changing times”, especially visible in the last few months. I didn’t pick up any signs that this downsizing of friends and acquaintances is a product of fear or anger. A few quotes from these conversations suggest they are interested in making more substantive changes in the quality of their lives:

  • “My in-box had too much politics and disagreement for me,” Dan reported. “I have real work to do, plus I have a couple of charity projects that matter to me. Some of the emails I’ve been getting are asking me to join protests or movements that I don’t have time for. And frankly, some of them seem just mean or self-righteous. Count me out – I don’t want to be that kind of person!”
  • “I was caught up in getting a bigger set of friends,” Eva said. “I thought having a large Facebook group would show that I was popular and had influence. But I don’t like what I am seeing on my Home-feed page, where everybody who is in my circle gets to post their thoughts. Some of their comments embarrass me, and I don’t want my real friends to think those people speak for me.”
  • “All the turbulence in this last election cycle has been ugly,” Kim told me. “I just feel it’s time to do some housekeeping and clean up my circles of friends, associates, and acquaintances. If I delete the connections to people who are doing the most whining, criticizing, or arguing, it will make room for something new in my life. Like maybe, more positive conversations and more personal peace.”

Perhaps a little “un-friending” can be useful, to rearrange who we interact with and to give ourselves a more purposefully designed set of relationships.

Another friend mentioned that he was changing the media he reads. “I found an article that included a Media Quality Chart,” Alex said, “and when I clicked on the chart, I studied it for about 15 minutes. Then I decided it was time to update the kind of media I was looking at every day. I want a bigger picture of what’s happening. I want to know what is true and what is fake. And I don’t want so much drama in my life – the sob stories and fear-based news headlines are confusing and can be exhausting.”

It sounds like some advice I got from a wardrobe consultant once: “If you want a new silk jacket, you sometimes have to toss out an old polyester one.” Embarrassingly, she also took a suede shirt of mine out of my closet, held it up high in front of me and said, very slowly and deliberately, “This is not where you are going.”

There’s a kernel of truth in those ideas. It’s okay to get rid of things – and relationships – that no longer reflect who we want to be or where we want to go. Eliminating what we do not need might just create a space for something more true to our commitments and aspirations. Bring in the new!