Posts

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

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.

The Missing Conversation(s)

A program director in one of the colleges here at Ohio State is paying the price for not having the appropriate conversations with his boss, the dean of the college.

Kevin, as director of programs, is responsible for admissions into the undergraduate and graduate programs in his college.  In a recent conversation, he pointed out that registrations into one of the graduate programs was down almost 40%.  If, he pointed out, he was unable to substantially increase admissions in the next several months, his college would suffer a substantial loss in revenue and potential damage to its reputation.

When asked what happened, he indicated that the marketing campaign that had been planned was never fully or completely launched because the college’s communications director was, as he said “doing other things.”  I asked if he talked with the Dean about this, and Kevin said “Yes, I met with him on a couple of occasions and explained the situation and that if we didn’t get the marketing we needed, admissions would suffer.”

“Ok,” I asked, “but did you make a specific request of the Dean to have the communication director implement the marketing plan immediately?”

“No, the Dean knows this program is a priority, so I would expect him to put in the correction,” was Kevin’s reply.

“Well, has he put in the correction?’

“Not that I can tell,” Kevin replied dejectedly.

It is easy to blame the communication director and the dean for the current admission situation.  However, doing so ignores that one or more of the four conversations were missing.  Kevin appeared to rely on conversations for understanding to get the dean to take action, but never specifically asked for what he wanted done, when, or why though a performance conversation.  This is exactly the situation depicted in this Dilbert cartoon.

Further, even if we assume Kevin made a request, that he can’t tell if the dean has acted indicates a missing closure conversation in which he follows up with the dean.  It could be that the dean is willing to take a “hit” on admissions in order to achieve some other goal, but Kevin won’t know unless and until he has a closure conversation to get the current situation complete.

The results we get are a product of the conversations we have.  When we don’t get what we want or expect, the first place to look is at our conversations to see what is missing.

Understanding Does Not Mean Agreement, Acceptance, or Action

One of the myths the students and managers in my leading and managing change classes persist in believing is that people don’t “buy in” to a change is because there is something they don’t understand.  They are mistaken.

Implicit in this “myth of understanding” is the belief that understanding is the key to agreement, acceptance, and action.  No doubt, there are situations in which failing to understanding what another person is talking about, wants, or is proposing results in confusion and contributes to disagreements.  This frequently occurs when using unfamiliar terms or assuming the listener has a sufficient background in the subject at hand.  Under these circumstances, increased understanding can foster agreement and acceptance.

But increased understanding can also contribute to disagreement and non-acceptance.  When something is vague or ambiguous, it allows for multiple interpretations and understandings.  In this respect, it is more inclusive of potentially competing or inconsistent viewpoints.  Under these circumstances, greater clarity of understanding makes the inconsistencies apparent and fosters greater disagreement and non-acceptance.   For example, as managers spend more time explaining and discussing a change in an attempt to increase understanding, the impact and consequences of the change become more apparent and real to people.  Some people will react favorably, others will not.

Increased understanding, therefore, is not necessarily the key to agreement and acceptance, or to the action people think will stem from.  Understanding conversations are important, but they are only one of four productive conversations that are needed for change.

To Be More Effective, Ask Questions

Have you ever noticed that people could be much more effective if they would just ask for clarification?

A student of mine came up after I had handed back an exam and said “I don’t see why I lost these points (pointing to his score on a question).  I didn’t really understand this question, so I answered it the way I thought you meant it.”  Since the exam was a take home exam and he had a week to work on it, I asked “Why didn’t you contact me and ask for clarification like I said you could?  Numerous other students did.”  He replied, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

How often have you see people do work when they were unclear or uncertain about what they needed do or how and then hide behind an excuse like “I didn’t know”, “they didn’t tell me”, or even “I didn’t want to bother you”?  It is difficult to perform effectively when you are unclear about what is to be done.  And yes, there are people who can make asking for clarification uncomfortable.  But is avoiding the momentary discomfort of asking really worth the poor performance and damage to a reputation that comes with it?  Apparently the answer is “yes” for people like my student.

If you want to be more effective, it pays to have an understanding conversation when you are unclear or uncertain. A reputation for effectiveness is worth asking questions for.

Did You Ask?

The June 12th Dilbert comic strip (below) gives a good example of the difference between an understanding conversation and a performance conversation.  Dilbert, probably like many of us, assumes that explaining what is needed to someone who’s job it is to do it should be sufficient to get it accomplished.  He is wrong.  If you want people to do something for you, you really should ask them.  Dilbert learned the hard way, but you don’t have to.

Dilbert.com

Does Authority Lead to Reduced Communication?

Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority.  Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much.  This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.

Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation.  Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view.  According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.

In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations.  The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation).  Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”.  Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication.  This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.

One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly.  We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.

How Leaders Can Create New Contexts

Leadership occurs in communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  Verbal communication, however, does not mean just talking.  Talking is not the same as communicating and not all talking is equally effective.  If it were, all of us would have a much easier time doing the things with other people.

One aspect of leadership communication is creating a context for other people.  By context I mean a “container”, a “frame”, or a “point of view” that allows people to understand and make sense of things.  As Gail Fairhurst, a professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati points out in her book on the Art of Framing, leaders, particularly those involved in change, create frames – alternative views of the world – that help people give meaning to things that are happening or that they are doing.

Framing is evident in the story of the traveler who comes upon three stonemasons hard at work on blocks of marble and asks each in turn what he is doing.
“I am sanding down this block of marble,” said the first;
“I am preparing a foundation”, replied the second;
“I am building a cathedral”, declared the third.
The three statements create a different context and put what each mason is doing in a different light.  Although each mason is doing what appears to be the same thing, how the work occurs to them and what it means is different by virtue of the context they have created.

Leaders create contexts through the use of what we call initiative and understanding conversations.  In initiative conversations, leaders say the future they want to accomplish, why its accomplishment is important or the difference it will make, and the time frame in which they would like to accomplish it.  Of particular importance for people in this conversation is the “why” accomplishing the future is important.  Understanding conversations then allow the leader and those who may follow the opportunity to more fully explore the nature of what is being proposed, how it might be accomplished, what will be required, etc. thereby clarifying and developing a context for them.

Creating contexts through initiative and understanding conversations is a critical part of leadership and personal leadership effectiveness.

Effective Workplace Communication Requires Using the Right Conversation

How often have you heard (or made) one of the following complaints (or some variation thereof):

  1. We have a real communication problem here.
  2. They don’t tell us anything, and when they do tell us, it’s not much.
  3. They never give us enough information.

The absence or inadequacy of communication is one of the most frequently voiced complaints in the workplace.  Perhaps the only complaint more frequently voiced is some version of “there is no leadership”.  Interestingly, the complaint is always from people on the receiving end, never on the sending end.  In fact, if you talk to leaders and managers, they are likely to tell you they are “always communicating” with people.

So, when it comes to communication in the workplace we have this interesting conundrum: leaders and managers insist they are communicating, but people on the receiving end insist they are getting no or poor communication.  Is this simply an issue of misperception?  In some cases, but misperception does not account for all of it.  In fact, my research and experience indicates that misperception accounts for very little.  The bigger factor is that managers don’t distinguish among the types of conversations they are using and whether they are using the appropriate conversations.

There are numerous articles that offer recommendations on how to improve workplace communication.  One article, for example, proposes that managers change the style, method, content, timing, and frequency of their communications.  Another article recommends such things as avoid gossiping, getting overly personal, or raising controversial subjects.  Although these recommendations all contribute to more effective workplace communication, they all ignore one simple fact – not all conversations are the same.  If managers use the wrong type of conversation, or use the right one inappropriately, getting the style, content, etc. right won’t make any difference.  They will still be ineffective.

Many people erroneously believe that understanding is the source of action.  Understanding may be necessary for action (e.g., you can’t sum a column of numbers if you don’t know addition), but it is not sufficient to get people to act (e.g., knowing how to add doesn’t mean you will tabulate the column of numbers).  A result of this belief is that considerable attention is given to trying to improve the chances people will understand our communications.  The assumption being that if people clearly understand and comprehend the communication, then they will behave in the desired manner.

Check it out for yourself.  How many times have you “explained things again” when people didn’t do what was expected?  Or how often have your heard (or said) something like “What didn’t they understand?” or “How could they not understand this?”  I have found in my work with managers that when they don’t get what they expect, their explanations frequently become longer and more detailed.  They earnestly believe that people didn’t do what was expected because they didn’t understand something.  And if the longer explanation doesn’t work, managers blame the other person for being lazy, stupid, uncommitted, incompetent, etc.  Rarely do managers consider that they may be using the wrong conversation to get what they want, or that if they are using the right conversation, they are using it inappropriately. Understanding is only one of four types of conversations used by managers.

There is only one type of conversation that reliably gets people into action and that’s a performance conversation.  Performance conversations involve making requests and getting promises.  Although there are a variety of ways (styles?) one can go about making requests and getting promises, they all boil down to asking the other person to take an action or produce a result within a specified time period.  For example, “Will you schedule a brainstorming session of our lead designers for the last week of April?”

If what you want to accomplish is people taking a specific action or producing a specific result within some time period, then the appropriate conversation to use is a performance conversation.  On the other hand, if you what you want is to inform people, develop a plan for accomplishing a goal or objective, or have them understand something, then the appropriate conversation to use is an understanding conversation.  However, if you use an understanding conversation on the assumption it will lead to people taking specific actions or producing desired results, you and the people with whom you have the conversation are likely to be very disappointed.  They will not know what actions or results you want or by when, and you will not get the actions and results you expect.

And what do you think the result of this disappointment will be?  Well, among other things, they are likely to say “We weren’t told”, “The communication wasn’t clear”, or “We weren’t given the right information.”  In other words, they will blame “poor communication”.  You, on the other hand, may say something like “I don’t get it.  I told them everything they needed.  What more do they want?”  In other words, you will say there was sufficient communication.

Sounds like the very conundrum we started with, doesn’t it?

?