Resolving Workplace Issues with Four Conversations

Addressing Lateness

In the face of recurring lateness in several different ways and places, two conversations need strengthening, in combination: Performance Conversations (requests and promises) and Closure Conversations are the conversations to support people in being responsible for on-time performance.

  1. For the Performance Conversations, in addition to saying exactly “What” you want with all necessary details, be sure to add a clear and specific “By When” to all your requests and “expectations”. Give people a definite date and time when you want them to complete an assignment, arrive at meetings, or get back to you with information. It is useful to add a statement about “Why” your request matters to you or others, so people can relate the importance of being on time to planning their work.
    • If you are responsible for holding meetings, be sure to start and end on time; if you are attending meetings that start or end late, it can be useful to make a request (using What you want, When you would like it to happen, and Why it matters to you) of the person responsible for managing the meeting. These important ingredients of Performance Conversations will help the people around you pay more attention to the value of your time and everyone else’s time too.
  2. You will also want to strengthen Closure Conversations because your follow-through may need work. In a Closure Conversation, you use the “four A’s”: Acknowledge the facts, in this case, acknowledge the lateness; Appreciate the people for what they contribute; Apologize for any misunderstandings regarding the original scheduling communication; and Amend the broken agreement by making a revised agreement to be on time.
    • If people are late and nobody mentions it, they will conclude that lateness is really not a problem for anyone, so be willing to speak up. Your time is valuable – for your planning and your productivity, and when people are late it is okay to say so.

It is not rude to say, “I thought we agreed this would be ready by 5:00 PM yesterday. I was planning to use it this morning, but it was not here.” Or, “What do we need to change in order to have this meeting start on time with everyone present? Should we re-schedule it for another time and place?”

Finally, it helps to track your requests – Who you asked, What you asked them for, and When you asked for the result. It is just as important to do this as it is to track the promises you make to others for your own results or responses. The reason for tracking is to help you with those follow-up Closure conversations that help to complete the past for yourself and others – so that you can create a new future.

Addressing Poor Quality Work 

Turning around a workplace with poor quality work issues will require all four conversations, so check to see which one(s) you are not using on a regular basis.

  1. Use an Initiative Conversation to remind people of your team’s mission, goals, and/or objectives –  especially those that are most relevant to their work. This is a way of reminding them that quality matters.
  2. Use an Understanding Conversation – a dialogue – to discuss ideas about quality standards for important work products and processes, and create recommendations for improving quality. Use the results of this discussion to update your measures or standards, and make them visible as a way to help everyone recognize acceptable work quality.
  3. Have Performance Conversations and make agreements (requests + promises = agreements) for measurably improving performance against the updated quality standards.
  4. Have Closure Conversations to review work quality and track changes in work quality over the next 3 months. Give people feedback on their work quality and continue collecting and sharing suggestions for making improvements. Compare actual results to the standards and measures you’ve established and continue updating those standards and measures as necessary.

Addressing Difficult People

All four conversations are needed to address “people issues”, starting with Closure conversations. Look to see which one(s) you aren’t using on a regular basis, and practice adding that one to your workplace conversations.

  1. Have a Closure Conversation with the individual(s) who are the source of the problem. Use the “four A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the facts of the situation as you understand them, including the facts of any unproductive communication that has been observed in the workplace;
    • Appreciate the person for what they contribute;
    • Apologize for any misunderstandings regarding the situation, such as not addressing this earlier or pretending it wasn’t a problem;
    • Amend the broken “agreement” for workplace integrity and productivity by declaring the past is past and making a new agreement to examine the situation and to discuss all possible solutions as rationally as possible.
  2. Use an Initiative Conversation to remind the individual(s) of your team’s mission or goals especially as they relate to the need for cooperation, collaboration, and trust. Set an objective to increase trust and cooperation by reducing or eliminating the “people issues” that have been observed.
  3. Use one or more Understanding Conversations – a dialogue about how to bring more professionalism and mutual support to interactions in the workplace. Your intention will be to have a conversation to create several new ideas for ways to improve internal communications, while also meeting the needs of all of the individual(s) involved. Be sure to talk about a “barometer” for ways of seeing whether it really has been turned around – you need a way to know if things are slipping back into old habits.
  4. For the Performance Conversations, you want to implement these new ideas, starting now, for the purpose of adding energy and trust back into workplace interactions. You can support people in making agreements to change the group’s communication habits.
  5. Go back to Closure Conversations (see #1 above), checking on your “barometer” periodically to be sure people aren’t backsliding into unproductive conversations again.

The main things to deal with are closing out the current unproductive talk (Closure), recognizing the importance of improving interpersonal relations at work (Initiative), discussing ways to upgrade people’s conversations (Understanding), and having people make agreements about how they will conduct themselves in the future (Performance). Go back to Closure Conversations and repeat as needed.

Addressing Lack of Teamwork 

Strengthen two conversations to improve teamwork: Initiative Conversations to remind people of the goals and objectives of the group or project they are working on, and Understanding Conversations to discuss ways they can re-focus attention and effort on achieving those objectives.

  1. Have an Initiative Conversation at least once a week, preferably at a staff or team meeting, to bring the group’s purpose and performance measures back into view. Goals are easily forgotten in the crush of workplace activity, so reminders such as a bullet on a meeting agenda, or – even better – a visible team scoreboard showing the status of the team’s performance measures can be helpful.
  2. Have several Understanding Conversations – dialogues and discussions – to find out what is really happening that has people saying they don’t see good teamwork here. Work together to generate a sizeable list of good suggestions for improving teamwork. The ideas could be simple: make sure everyone knows the assignments and success measures for everyone else on the team: Who does what? Where are the resources coming from, and Where do the deliverables need to go? How should we improve communications, processes, or procedures to improve teamwork? Or they could be more complex: setting sub-goals for different groups or specifying communications between different groups or individuals that will improve collaboration.

Ultimately you want to move things toward having more productive relationships with respect to the goals by strengthening team members’ use of Performance and Closure Conversations. But first they need the context of the Initiative Conversation to be reminded of their overall goals, along with an opportunity to get to the bottom of the current situation in a dialogue (Understanding Conversation) for ways to support more effective teamwork.

Addressing Poor Planning and Workload Overwhelm 

Two conversations need to be given more muscle: First, Closure Conversations to review recent results produced on schedule – and those that were not produced on schedule – so people can see the status of the situation, including what is working and what isn’t working. Second, Understanding Conversations are the dialogues – people speaking and listening to one another – that create and develop ideas on How to make improvements, clarify what needs to be done, and who should be involved, etc.

  1. Closure Conversations come first, using the “four A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the facts of what has been happening with respect to the need for better planning and communication to prevent workload overwhelm and breakdowns in some areas;
    • Appreciate the people for what they contribute even in a challenging situation;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings regarding the way work planning and assignments have been causing problems, including changing priorities or insufficient planning for resources, timelines, and workloads;
    • Amend the broken “agreement” (for an effective and productive workplace) by declaring the past complete and committing to implement a new approach to the situation. It’s fine to say things like, “I don’t think we are being as productive and collaborative as we could be, and I apologize for not having a quick and easy solution to that. Let’s talk about how we can work smarter, both individually, and with one another, as well as with people outside our team.”
  2. Have one or more Understanding Conversations – discussions to identify good ideas, solutions, and other “brainstorming” suggestions. The challenge will be to respect the “easy solutions” such as “Get more resources” or “Double our staff”. But what you want is to come up with a list of workplace practices that can improve work scheduling and communication such as a planning template of some kind, to help people use their time better, and know who they should be collaborating with.

It will be important to move on to Performance and Closure Conversations, making requests and promises to implement the new habits and practices, then following through to see how well they are working. But the basic elements that are missing here are the recognition that something has not been working for everyone (Closure) and the discussion on what to do about it (Understanding).

Addressing Insufficient Resources and Support 

Related to “Poor planning and workload overwhelm”, this workplace challenge requires Closure and Understanding Conversations to clarify the factual status of the situation and then to generate input and ideas on how to improve it. But it will also require Performance Conversations that help make agreements to obtain the necessary resources and support once they are identified.

  1. Closure comes first, using the “four A’s”: Acknowledge the facts of What resources and support are missing and How and Why they are really needed; Appreciate the people for what they contribute; Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings in the ways resources have been allocated and work practices disrupted by that; Amend the broken “agreement” by making a new agreement to discover what is needed and how to get it.It’s fine to say things like, “I know we need to rearrange our resources and support. I also want to explore ways to be more productive and collaborative in discovering where we might need more outside resources as well as finding ways to improve our own efficiency and productivity. I apologize for not having a quick and easy solution to this. Let’s talk about how we can work smarter and let’s get very specific about what else we need to be more effective.”
  2. Have one or more Understanding Conversations, discussions to identify the resources and support needed, and to see which of those deficits can be resolved in other ways, such as by improving How to add more efficiency, communications, or new procedures to reduce the resource issues. The challenge will be to support rational discussion that includes internal changes in work habits and practices while simultaneously identifying resource needs. Capture the list of workplace practices for scheduling and communication that will help people use their time better and know Who they need to collaborate with. The Understanding Conversations also need to include identifying Where needed support will come from, and how to make effective requests for what is needed, i.e., Who to ask, What to ask for, and What to promise or offer in return (such as improved performance or services).
  3. Use Performance Conversations, having people make requests and promises (agreements) to implement the new habits practices as well as to obtain the desired resources and support.

Of course you will follow through (Closure Conversations) to see how well these agreements are performing. But the basic elements that are missing here are the recognition that something has not been working for everyone (Closure), the discussion on what to do about it (Understanding), and making the agreements needed to remedy the situation (Performance).

Addressing Lack of Accountability 

All four conversations are needed to improve accountability, so check to see which one(s) you aren’t using on a regular basis and practice introducing them into your workplace.

  1. Use Initiative Conversations to remind people of What-When-Why: What your team’s mission or goals are, When you have targeted to reach them, and Why these goals are important to a bigger picture. If those are not clear, or need to be updated, that is important to handle. People need a goal or a game to serve as a context for their work.
  2. Use an Understanding Conversation – a dialogue – to discuss the current objectives. Get people’s input on clarifying the objectives as well as their ideas on How to accomplish them, Who does what, and How to measure success by using metrics, milestones, and timelines.
  3. Have Performance Conversations to make agreements (requests + promises = agreements) for people to take specific actions and produce specific results.
    • This is the first half of the recipe for accountability: people making promises to produce mission-relevant results by specific times.
  4. Have Closure Conversations – The second half of the recipe for accountability is to have regular reviews of the status of everyone’s agreements for specific actions and results, and to track their success as well as the barriers they encountered.
  • It is useful to have an agreement for scheduled meetings to track performance for at least several months to establish a habit of accountability-reporting. Many organizations use this agreement tracking method as the standard agenda for their regular staff meetings.
  • Scheduling regular “debrief” meetings to review the status of promises and results is a way of staying current, identifying problems, and discussing solutions. These meetings are useful to update the assignments and timelines for people’s work, and may also give new ideas on how to update the statement(s) of mission and/or goals. The idea is to establish clear promises for mission-relevant results with reliable follow-through – that’s what brings accountability into the workplace.

Addressing Incomplete Conversations 

Two conversations need attention here: Closure Conversations to complete the past, and Understanding Conversations to clarify what needs to happen to fix the situation.

  1. Closure comes first: use the “four A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the facts of the ineffective communication habits identified in the survey, and the ways in which those habits really are affecting people. For example, there may be people who leave out some part(s) of the What-When-Why elements of a clear request or promise. Or some people forget to include some people in certain dialogues, leaving out key people who need to be part of some project or decision. Or perhaps people are failing to follow through on requests or promises to be sure they are complete, or neglect to close out projects with debrief meetings.
    • Appreciate the people for what they contribute and what they’re getting right.
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings regarding the way communication has been sloppy or creating uncertainty.
    • Amend the former habit of leaving some communications incomplete by declaring that it’s time to upgrade workplace conversations. It is fine to say things like, “I didn’t realize that this way of operating was creating problems for some people, and I apologize for letting that go on. Let’s talk about what will be more workable for everyone.”
  2. Use Understanding Conversations to have the dialogue that identifies good ideas and practices that can increase both certainty and completeness in work-related conversations. What you want is to come up with a list of workplace practices that will make sure that communications are complete – and clearly understood – for all parties involved in the conversation.

It will be important to move on to Performance and Closure Conversations, making requests and promises to implement agreements for the new habits and practices, then following through to see how well they are working. But the basic elements that are missing here are the recognition that something has not been working for everyone (Closure) and the discussion on what to do about it (Understanding).

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