Getting Clear about “Difficult People” – Don’t Make it Personal

There is a LinkedIn post about “Difficult People”, which was really about difficult relationships – and how to deal with them ever so gently. Yipes! My clients had very specific examples of what they mean by “difficult people”, and weren’t interested in being gentle! The gentle example suggested saying, ‘I don’t like your approach’, ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’, or ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’. Soft stuff.

My notes from clients say that difficult people are the people who:

  1. Must be continually reminded or “micromanaged” to get their work properly or on time;
  2. Are argumentative, unfriendly, or otherwise disagreeable, causing trouble at work;
  3. Resist using new methods and procedures in their work;
  4. Gossip and make others look bad, or blame others for their problems, and being unpleasant to work with;
  5. Are chronic complainers, taking up the time, attention, and energy of others;
  6. Do only the minimum work necessary, or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done; or
  7. Expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

So there’s no need to be touchy-feely about it. Maybe what’s needed is a conversation about results – meeting deadlines, behaving respectfully, and producing quality work

I heard one manager tell a meeting of his entire staff, “Some of us, perhaps without knowing it, are not operating as part of a team. Sometimes we aren’t always producing what others need from us, or we’re waiting to be told what to do, or being unpleasant to others. I think we can create a better atmosphere here.”

He went on to lead a discussion on the following 3 topics:

  • How can we be more supportive of each other?
  • How can we do our work well, while also being aware of how our work fits in with what others need to reach our goals?
  • What does it mean to be cordial and positive at work?

He wrote people’s answers on a big whiteboard, then asked, “What will make these ideas work?”, writing down their solution ideas. He closed the session by asking them, “Are you – each one of you – willing to make an agreement with me that you will put at least one of these ideas into practice, starting today?”

As his staff members studied the list, hands started going up. Within 2-3 minutes, every hand in the room was in the air. He told them this would be included in their monthly review meetings, to see if their workplace “atmosphere” was improving or needed more work. He transcribed his lists of their best answers to his topic discussion questions and implementation ideas , and posted them – framed – in the rest rooms. They followed up at meetings, but soon didn’t need to do that anymore. The “atmosphere” improved without worrying about anyone’s approach, style, or values. Whew!


A Non-Apology is Not a Closure Conversation

A new conversation is now officially open: When is an apology an actual apology? The answer: When it creates a sense of closure for all involved. This week’s most famous non-apology failed that test.

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he said. Why isn’t that an apology?

Because he did not say exactly what he was “wrong” about. His statement sort of referred to “whatever” it was that he had said, which he later clarified as “locker room talk”. So he apologized for his locker room talk – is that an apology?

Not yet, because he didn’t say to whom he was apologizing. To the audience? To the people who listened to the tape, or read about it? To all woman-kind? To Americans, for causing an international embarrassment? Not clear.

One other misdemeanor was his follow-up: “That was locker room talk,” he said a few minutes later. “And certainly I’m not proud of it, but that was something that happened.”

Something that happened? There’s no ownership there – it just happened, it’s in the past for heaven’s sake, and that’s that.

There has been some discussion about the need for “contrition” and insistence that the word “sorry” must be included in an apology. I’m not sure we need to see any kind of atonement, or that a certain vocabulary is required.

When you can say exactly what mistake you made, and own it completely that you did it – it didn’t “just happen” – and apologize to those who were affected by it, you can add whatever extras are true for you, including making a promise not to do it again or offering reparations to those who are hurt in some way.

But the basics are:   Apology = For what + To whom + Personal ownership.

“I was wrong and I apologize” isn’t a Closure Conversation because it isn’t enough to create closure. I know that because this non-apology happened several days ago and it’s still making headlines, still moving people from one voting line to the other, and still a topic of discussion at the coffee shop. And I know that because I was just there and I overheard it. Case closed.

How to Have People be “Purpose-Driven” At Work

An article reporting on the Workforce Purpose Index findings says that companies with purpose-driven employees have better growth in revenue.  Their study found “three factors that contribute to an employee feeling like they have purpose at work:

  1. Independence;
  2. Influence when it comes to decision-making; and
  3. Recognition for their work.

How do you get those things into your workplace? Communication is your friend here. Let’s take those one at a time.

First, independence doesn’t mean people need to be free to do whatever they want at work. It means they know What results to produce (and what rules and regulations you need to follow), and When to produce them, and Why they matter. They can take it from there, without a lot of “micro-managing”, where the boss looks over their shoulder twice a day and says what to do differently. The part about saying Why the results matter, what they will be used for, or what difference they will make, is what creates a sense of purpose.

Second, influence in decision-making is a product of dialogue. Instead of just saying “Make X happen by time Y because it will be good for Z”, it helps to have a conversation about the X, Y, and Z. That means you add in the other three ingredients of a productive conversation:

  • Who else should be involved in this? Who has input? Who will evaluate?
  • Where will you get the resources you need? Where will the results go when they’re ready?
  • How should those results be produced? Any useful techniques or procedures?

The trick of dialogue is that it is Question-and-Answer: all participants get to ask questions, all participants get to contribute answers, ideas, and suggestions. People listen to the other people, and include the best of what’s offered. That dialogue is what gives people a sense of having an influence in decision-making – about their job, and about changes being made in their workplace.

Third, recognition doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. Sometimes simply noticing – and saying – that someone completed a task or project is enough to create a sense of accomplishment. Of course, pay raises and better job titles are nice too, but just saying “Good job” goes a long way too.

I’d like to add one more ingredient to have people be purpose-driven at work: Make your mission, vision, and/or objective(s) present and real for people. Some workplaces have the mission on the wall in their conference room; lots of managers maintain a scoreboard in the corner of their whiteboard or update the status of their team’s current objectives in weekly emails to team members.

If we want people to be purpose-driven at work, we need to bring the purpose of their work into our conversations. Purpose lives in the way we give assignments, talk about the job to be done, and recognize the completion of a product or task.  We all like to know that our work matters, so let’s remember to mention how it matters and to whom. Really, even once a day is not too often.

Lost Productivity: Is the Culprit Social Media or Sloppy Communication?

Productivity is a big deal – the idea is to produce good hourly output at work, especially if you want to get a raise. An article (Why Your Facebook Habit At Work Makes Economists Worry) says that some people want to blame employees who are using social media for the recent drop in productivity. Another theory is that employers aren’t investing in better tools for their personnel. The reason for this is that “there aren’t any game-changing innovations to invest in”.

Seriously? Has anybody noticed that people don’t communicate productively? Recent examples in organizations I’ve been working with:

  • A company policy makes it clear that performance reviews must be updated annually. But in a brief survey of managers asked about performance evaluations, over 60% of them said, “We don’t really do many performance reviews here.” So, you don’t pay regular attention to productivity?
  • Sharon, a new manager, used a long weekend to map out the job responsibilities of her 14 staff members. She spelled out the details, put each “assignment” into a separate document, and emailed it to her people. When they arrived at work on Monday morning, they saw their updated job descriptions in their in-boxes. One of them said to me, “She didn’t even talk to us about this. Some of these tasks are outdated, and she left out other really important things we need to do. This is just stupid.” A lost weekend, and probably some lost trust too.
  • Robin asked Ted to pull together an RFP to get people who will help integrate and upgrade their auditing software. Five days later, Robin asks Ted if it’s done yet. Ted says, “You never said when you wanted it, so I haven’t even started. What is your deadline?” Five days misspent?

Communications that lack follow-through, or don’t include a dialogue with relevant parties, or fail to include timelines for assignments, will be ineffective. It impaired productivity in all three of these cases, and over a long career I have seen many more instances of such bumbling.

What about helping employees learn to communicate more effectively? Like, how to follow through on policy implementation to support people keeping up with corporate commitments. Or how to have a dialogue with other human beings about what is wanted and needed to update their job descriptions.Or how to practice adding “by when” to your requests.

The article ends with something that makes a lot of sense. A long-term answer to boosting productivity is (…drum roll please) better educated workers. I couldn’t agree more.

Communication Impossible: Preventing Incomplete Conversations

Did you ever see the TV show “Restaurant Impossible”? An hour of interesting communication that saves a restaurant and sometimes saves a family too. But my favorite moment is at the very end, when the show is over, and some guy – while they are turning off the final credits – says “That’s done!” He has a great voice, and now I’ve started saying it too, using the same tone he does. I finish the dishes? “That’s done!” Finish writing a blog? “That’s done!”

It is particularly interesting because I just finished a communication assessment for a client (“That’s done!”), and saw that the top workplace issues in their organization are created by what we call “incomplete conversations”. Those happen when:

  • Somebody does something really good and nobody says, “Thank you!”
  • Or somebody doesn’t keep their promise to get you that information you need when they said they’d have it – and you don’t contact them and say, “Hey, where’s that price schedule you said you’d have on my desk this morning?”
  • Or you change an appointment on your calendar and forget to notify some of the people you were supposed to meet.

The first incomplete conversation is likely to cause a little bit of hurt feelings, when the person wonders if you even noticed the good thing they did. But if you leave out that “Thank you!” on a regular basis, it can turn into a grudge, or worse.

The second one eats away at an organization’s integrity and undermines accountability. If you don’t follow up when people don’t keep their word, they will learn that you don’t really care about what you say you want. If you wonder why you don’t get what you want, read that last sentence again because it’s true. You lose your credibility, and nobody takes you seriously. So when you ask people in another department for something you need right now, well, guess what? You have trained them out of being accountable.

The third one is when you make a change and don’t really consider who will be affected by it. You can’t be surprised when they’re sort of mad at you. Maybe even more than sort of mad – they might gossip about you, say mean things to you, or just not invite you to something you should attend. Payback is a bear, but we bring it on ourselves.

So this organization is going to learn about where the incomplete conversations are. We already know they have something like all 3 of these situations, but I’m betting we will find more of them. When we find out where and when they happen, we can see how to put in the completion. That would reduce some of those negative feelings in a hurry and maybe even boost their accountability scores too: it’s not impossible.

Micromanagement: Story #1

A friend of mine is an accountant for a yoga-fitness studio, and last week he told me his studio owner is a “micro-manager”. I asked him what he meant – here’s what he said:

“Patty is our studio owner who sometimes drops in on a yoga class, and if she thinks a student is doing a pose incorrectly, she will interrupt the class and show people how to do it “the right way”. As you can imagine, this is pretty upsetting to the teachers, and, frankly, I don’t think the people who are paying for the class like it much either.”

Yep, that sounds like micromanaging to me. Some people want to control everything – making sure things are done their way is more important  than whether they embarrass an employee or disrupt their work. Do it my way!

My friend tried telling Patty it wasn’t a good practice to step in that way, but she remained firm saying, “If the teacher made the corrections, I wouldn’t have to do it”. One instructor suggested to Patty that she was welcome to “assist” in leading the class, which would let class members know there would be two instructors and her corrections wouldn’t be seen as an interruption. But Patty wasn’t open to that idea either.

One instructor, Marla, finally solved the problem by having a Performance Conversation. “It took courage,” Marla told me, “but I had to do it”. Here’s what she said to the owner:

“It’s time that you and I clarify our agreement regarding my teaching yoga classes for you. You said you wanted our customers to be happy with the classes and continue to sign up for follow-up courses and special events. So I have been accountable for that, working to tailor my class to fit their needs and interests. I am tracking how it’s going: they keep coming here month after month, and my classes are growing because they sometimes bring their friends or work colleagues. If you want to come to any class I teach, please show me the respect that the students give, and let me work with each person as I see fit, without interruption. If you want to change the conditions of my employment, and have be me accountable for whether each person does the yoga poses the way you want them done, please let me know that and I will see whether I can make those adjustments in my teaching.”

The studio owner was stunned, and slowly turned and left the room. She came back 15 minutes later and said, “Marla, I do appreciate that you took your agreement to serve our customers so seriously, and I’m sorry that my interactions with your yoga students seemed disrespectful to you. I will not do that from now on.”

Not every Performance Conversation produces the result we want. This teacher felt she was putting her job on the line without any assurance she would win. Her micro-manager boss appears to have learned something. If so, hats off to them both!


Personality vs. Communication = Internal vs. In-Between.

Myers-Briggs is the “world’s most widely used personality test” and “the gold standard of psychological assessments”, says a Washington Post article. The article mentions government agencies and corporations that use the test, but then goes on to say that “the test is highly questioned by the scientific community” and that it’s not clear organizations should use it anymore.

Why not use a personality test in organizations? It’s a good way to find out about character traits and behavioral tendencies that might be relevant to improve training programs and group interactions. It’s also part of “talent management”, which includes “everything an organization does to recruit, retain, develop, reward and make people perform” (wikipedia). So what if it’s a money-maker, part of the $50 billion training industry – does that make using it a mistake?

Well, that depends on what you want to accomplish. Personality testing is a good way to let people know that other people operate in different ways, based on different habits and preferences. Just because I’d rather read a book and you’d rather go to a party doesn’t mean we aren’t both competent and capable in our jobs. But it does mean that we will probably prefer different kinds of work and work environments, and that we might disagree on what is most important. That could be good to know.

But personality tests will focus our attention on what’s inside a person’s skin as being the most important phenomenon. It’s interesting – in fact, the internal stuff is so interesting that we don’t always look at what goes on between people: conversations, such as making requests, promises, and agreements. Or giving and receiving, of both products and services. And learning – yes, learning is an in-between phenomenon, not an in-the-mind one. Even attitudes, usually thought of as internal, show up in facial expressions (think Grumpy Cat) and tone of voice that are in-between, sent from one person to another.

The in-between deserves a bit more attention. What we see, say, and hear let us know whether there is integrity in our relationships and our business. If I say I’ll call you on Tuesday, and you don’t hear from me all week, my word isn’t going to be worth much to you the next time we talk. If you tell me you’re going to email me a document but I haven’t received it after 6 days, I might want to notice that we didn’t agree on when you would send it (and that I need to make better agreements). And not just integrity is found in the in-between: accountability and credibility are there too.

So fine, use personality tests to help people see the diverse flavors and behaviors in their working world. But communication is not a personality trait. We might consider using a communication diagnostic to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of productive interaction in our workplaces.

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

That Difficult Client – Part IV.  Completion

Reggie started with a serious performance problem in his department. He said his staff was “under-performing”, and he was insistent that I find out what the problem was and “fix it”. So I did. The problem was Reggie. He was a technical whiz, but not a very good manager. Here’s what I mean:

  • He was managing people instead of managing their agreements for performance. He could have looked at their agreements to deliver quality products or services, or to produce on-time results, but he didn’t have those spelled out. So he was “coaching”, and focusing on their attitudes instead of working with them to define clear jobs and tasks, and identify relevant ways to know whether they were doing what they agreed to do.
  • He was being a boss, not a manager, by giving orders and instructions without asking for input from the people who would be doing the work. His dialogue was “I talk, you listen”, which isn’t the two-way street he needed to manage a staff of diverse responsibilities.
  • The goals of various individuals and teams were sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected to each other. There was no “big picture” that allowed everyone to see themselves as collaborating in some way for a common purpose.

Here’s what Reggie himself said he learned to do out of this experience, in his own words:

  • “I stopped relying on people’s job descriptions and experience, and my own expectations, to be sure people knew what to do. Talking about what the end results should look like, and agreeing on timelines that worked for me and for my staff – that was a breakthrough. And follow-through was everything for me. I never saw that as my job – I thought it was their job. Now I follow up on every assignment we agree to put on the list. It’s part of my staff meetings. That alone improved people’s performance in a very big way.”
  • “The discussion thing was huge. I learned how much I didn’t know about what’s happening on our customer’s sites. Technology changes, and so do operations, and my staff is on the front lines of those changes. They have been great with educating me! Our customers are pleased too, and one of them told me he wanted the same team to come back for the next project.”
  • “We had gotten pretty good with the “GPS” thing – Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – but when we looked at how it connected into one bigger picture of Mission-Vision-Purpose, we saw where the holes were. I hadn’t updated that stuff since I got this job, so it was way out of date. When I could see the value of having those statements “belong” to our department, we all talked it through and created new statements for our MVP. Re-framing our goals after that was simple, and much easier for everyone to see what our primary game is. And we are winning at last.”

There was one last nice thing he said when he thanked me for helping him learn to manage his department: “I’ve always been a technical guy first, and never learned management. Sometimes we just get promoted, and don’t have the knowledge we need for that next step up. Thanks for the kick in the butt!”