What to Do About those “Lazy” People

A recent survey of workplace challenges listed one old favorite: Dealing with the “lazy people” in the workplace. These are the people who have clear assignments and do them fairly well, but never step outside their narrow boundaries.

Why this hasn’t been solved is a mystery to me, as it’s really pretty easy. There are 2 players here.

  1. First we have Miss Go-Getter, the person who sees other people working (or not working) and wonders why they never seem to take charge of anything.
  2. Then we have Miss Normal, the person who only does what she’s told and doesn’t speak up or raise her hand to take charge of anything.

Miss Go-Getter believes she is working harder and doing more than Miss Normal. She’s right about that, and she likes it that way – Go-Getters are organized to set goals, accomplish things, and be productive. She likes “owning” her work, and sometimes has difficulty delegating to others. Like the Little Red Hen, Miss Go-Getter likes to do it herself, get it right, and hope others follow her lead.

Miss Normal is not so bold, and maybe even a little unsure of her ability to do some tasks. So she watches others to learn the right steps, hesitates about speaking up, and doesn’t go beyond her assignments. She doesn’t think she’s lazy, just a little shy and uncertain but competent enough for the job.

Miss Go-Getter complains (to everyone), “Why does the boss let Miss N. get away with not doing much of anything around here. She has to be told what to do, then get micro-managed to do it. It’s like she’s only half an employee!”

Get over yourself, Miss Go-Getter. Here are three easy solutions:

  1. Proposal to the Boss: “I would like to mentor Miss N. to help her learn how to connect her work to the Service Department, and maybe have more confidence in herself and her ideas. Is that something you would consider?”
  2. Request to Miss N.: “Would you be willing to let me coach you to learn all the details about how this procedure works in every situation? It’s complex and involves several other departments. I have some experience with it that I’d be willing to pass along to you. I could start showing you the ropes next week – probably 2 hours a week for the rest of this month would do it. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
  3. Stop gossiping and complaining to other people in the workplace about Miss N. and practice being more professional and compassionate. Not everyone has your ambition and metabolism.

Pick one. Or two. Or all three. Thanks.

Do You Have Problems Working Across Silos? 

We did a little survey in a group of managers, asking them about the biggest communication problems in their organization. Here’s a winner:

“How do I get people in different silos to cooperate with each other rather than butting heads?”

They called it the Silo Effect: when you are trying to communicate with people outside your silo in the hierarchy, you don’t have enough authority to communicate effectively with them.

We thought this was silly – can’t you just make a request? No. Because they won’t honor it as valid or important – they don’t have to even listen to you.

The solution: put the hierarchy to work. One senior manager said, “Talk with your colleagues to get very clear about what you need from people in other departments. What products, services, and communications do you want from them? When do you want them – on a regular schedule, just a few times, or one-time only? Why, e.g., which goals will be advanced by this connection?”

“Once you’ve done that”, she said, “you can meet with your manager to present the need for the link and ask for help creating a pathway with other key people involved. Sometimes there are good reasons why a connection won’t work right now, but usually there is a way forward.”

Silos exist for a reason, but cross-silo links are critical to the success of some projects and goals. Specifying What-When-Why will help everyone in every silo see a bigger picture than what’s piled up on their desks. They might just listen – and deliver.

Do You Micro-Manage Slackers?

People are mad that Elaine avoids work – and sick of her “good excuses”. There are two different views about what their manager, Beth, should do:

  1. She should meet with Elaine at the start and end of every day to check on whether she’s doing her assignments or not.
  2. She should give assignments to everyone according to skills and interests and follow up with everyone – in group meetings.

That 1st option is called micro-managing. Singling out the slackers for a double dose of attention is a poor use of a manager’s time and energy.

The 2nd view suggests a way to use feedback: make a list of everyone’s primary assignments with milestones and due dates – a simple way to keep agreements visible to all. The Assignment Calendar is a manager’s best friend.

Beth took that advice and posted an Assignment Calendar showing everyone’s assignment timelines.  “It was much easier than I thought it would be,” she reported. “I made a chart listing each staff person, with the Friday due dates for the next 2 months as column-headers. Then I entered their milestones into the chart.”

She also said the best part was that her Tuesday staff meetings got much simpler too. “We just go down the column for this coming Friday and everyone reports their assignment status: who’s on track, needs support, how things are going. Elaine isn’t special anymore – she has to participate to keep from embarrassing herself.”

That’s It – I’m Done Waiting!

How much time do we spend waiting for other people to do something?

I know a guy who just had a new floor installed in his house, and he was waiting to hear from the installer about completing the job. The moldings that connected the floor – a beautiful bamboo – to the carpeted areas had not been put in place, and by Week 3, he was losing patience.

Actually, his wife was losing patience. “What’s taking so long? Why don’t they call back? How long are you going to wait?”  The nice new floor was turning into a major annoyance for housecleaning and it wasn’t helping marital peace and happiness much either.

Husband calls Installer and leaves a phone message. Waits 2 days. Husband calls again and sends an email. The next day, Installer sends an email to the Lumber Store Guy asking if the bamboo pieces are in yet, copying Husband. Husband returns an email to both (“Copy All”) to stir up some urgency. The story goes on, but you get the idea.

But here’s the Big News Flash: Not everyone on Planet Earth has learned to:

  1. Check their phone answering machine and email in-box every day;
  2. Make agreements for when they will follow up or get back to you – get a Good Promise; and/or
  3. Actually follow up or get back to you even if they said they would do that.

So people don’t know or do these things, and we wait. I’ve decided to step things up a bit: I’m going to ask for timelines with every request. Plus, I’m going to notify people that I will follow up. And I’ll tell them when I will do the follow-up.

One last thing – when I hear someone complaining about waiting for something, I’m going to tell them to make a Request: Say What you want + When you want it + Why it matters. Then ask when they will have it for you, and tell them you will follow-up at that time.

It looks like we’ll need to train the people around us in how to make life work for everybody, one Request & Promise at a time.

Busy is a Conversation

Meredith Fineman titled her article, written in September 2013, “Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are”.  I looked it up recently, after listening to a colleague go on – and on – about how many appointments he had, how many deadlines, and how many staff had been cut in his organization.  He told me he was “like an octopus, with all 8 arms working on something all the time.”  Poor guy, I wanted to throw him a few shrimps and crabs for sympathy.

Not really. As Meredith says, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero.”

I looked that up. Inbox Zero is a “rigorous approach to email management that aims at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times”. It was developed by Merlin Mann, who says that time and attention are both limited, and our productivity suffers when we confuse our inbox with a “to do” list.

Which reminds me – I know a group of people in one organization whose way of saying “I’m busier than you are” is to tell people how many emails they have in their inbox. They all have thousands of them – and they brag about it!

Being busy is a popular conversation, but it’s a little like bragging about having bad work habits. I know four conversations could be deployed to turn that around.

  • Initiative: Tell people you’re going to upgrade your scheduling system in 2 ways. (1) You will maintain a Do-Due List of what needs to get done and delivered, including due dates; and (2) You will take 60 minutes every Friday afternoon to schedule the tasks you intend to accomplish in the following week.
  • Understanding: Ask co-workers for ideas on how to implement this. Talk about what their concerns are, and make minor adjustments to your plan as needed. Beware of getting pulled into the “It Can’t Be Done” conversation: this isn’t about doing more work, it’s about giving yourself the satisfaction of completing some tasks while at the same time giving up the boring “too busy” conversations at work.
  • Performance: Get clear requests from people who want something from you – what do they want, when do they want it, and why does it matter? Then, if it doesn’t fit into your schedule, make a counteroffer instead of a promise. “I can only do that if I drop this other thing off my schedule. Which do you think is more important?”
  • Closure: Tell people some of the most important things you have on your Do/Due List, when they’re due, and why they matter – to you. Thank them for their support in your being more effective with your time and tasks. Apologize for any inconvenience this change will be for them.

Then give up the “I’m busy” conversation. You’ll come to grips with the fact that there will always be more things that could be done than there will be time to do them. That’s life. And you’re responsible for your schedule and your productivity. You have to choose and plan. The good news is that it’s fun to accomplish things, even small ones. See if you can schedule and complete an accomplishment or two every day!

Motivation Part 4. Practice with Five Guidelines

Now you know: motivation is really only about having people take action and produce results, with a commitment to honoring their word to you. It’s not about getting people to “feel” a certain way so they’ll like you enough to do something. And it’s not about your own personality or charisma somehow inspiring them to do it. Motivation is about communicating effectively: using the two conversations proven to work well to get people into action.

The best way you learn to get better at this is to practice having conversations that include:

  1. Having a personalized dialogue about the actions and results you would like to see in some particular area,
  2. Listening – and using – their input regarding any concerns or questions they have regarding your ideas,
  3. PLUS making a clear request for them to take specific actions and/or produce specific results by a certain time, and
  4. Supporting them in agreeing to make that happen.

Practice will let you see just how specific you need to be with some people, and how much understanding dialogue is needed for them to get into action. Here are five guidelines to support you in successfully moving people to action in your work situation (although it works at home too).

  1. Be clear about what you want done, and by when it should be complete.  This is the single greatest lever for successful “motivation”.
  2. Make a clear and specific request – ask them to do this for you. You may want or need to add something about why you are asking them and not somebody else, or why it matters to have this particular thing done. Those ingredients are usually helpful but not always necessary.
  3. Stay with the interaction long enough for them to either accept, decline, or counteroffer your request.
  4. Let them know you take their promise seriously, e.g., tell them if, at any point, they discover they cannot deliver, that you want to know as soon as possible so that you can make adjustments.
  5. If the request is large, complex, or otherwise challenging, make it clear you are willing to work with them to find a way for them to honor your request. If your request is likely to get buried in the stack of things already in front of them, or is postponed until the result you want is compromised, you have failed. You may need to make the promises that will support them in accepting and satisfying your request.

Motivating people to take actions and produce results is a matter of mastering Understanding and Performance conversations. It does not require “getting inside their heads” but rather getting clear on what you want, and getting into communication about it. You can strengthen your own capacity to make requests and promises, which is definitely something that will make your managerial life easier and more enjoyable.

Motivation Part 3. Conversations to Get People Moving

“Motivation” is about motion – getting something, or someone, to move. Our research shows that the type of conversation you use will materially impact the likelihood of your success. Here’s how it works.

Conversation for Understanding ONLY – Likelihood of Success = LOW.

Using an Understanding Conversation on its own is the least likely to succeed because understanding does not cause action. Even if someone really does understand the situation you are describing, and they understand Who else is involved, Where resources and results are located, and How to do it, it isn’t enough to ensure actions or results. They may not see that action is really necessary, or understand exactly What action to take, When to do it, or Why it would be more important than doing something else.

Another problem with using only the Understanding Conversation is that some people say it makes them feel manipulated: they suspect that you want something, but dislike having to figure out exactly what it is. Not everyone is good at reading signals and picking up hints.  Understanding conversations alone can be interesting and informative, but are frequently insufficient to move people to act.

Conversation for Performance ONLY – Likelihood of Success = MODERATE TO HIGH

You can often be successful in moving others to action with just a Performance Conversation, because making a clear request of someone is a call to action. The power of a request is due to the three characteristics of a request:

  • It is directed to a particular person, not a general statement about the circumstances.
  • It specifies a particular action to be taken, or a result or outcome to be produced.
  • It includes a definite timeframe – a “by when” for every request.

Saying, for example, “Will you buy me a 12-ounce box of Belgian chocolates to share with our guests after dinner tonight?” is more likely to get you the chocolate than saying, “It sure would be nice to have some chocolate.”

The biggest challenge of learning to use Performance Conversations effectively is learning to be specific about What you want, When you want it, and Why it matters to you. Your power comes from being specific, and improves with practice.

Conversations for Performance PLUS Conversations for Understanding – Likelihood of Success = HIGH

A very reliable way to get people into action is to use both of these conversations. Use the Understanding ones to engage them in a dialogue on what you’re thinking about Who-When-How a particular matter could be handled, and getting their input on that. Then use the Performance ones to clarify your request for What-When-Why they should get moving. If they accept your request, you’ve got a promise for action.

People tell us they are encouraged to take action when they know the specifics of what you want, including why it’s important to honor their promise to you.

Accountability Is Not Given by DNA

“Nobody is accountable here,” Shelly told me. “I used to work in a company where people kept track of their requests and promises, and they were responsible for making sure they got what they needed and did what they said they would do.”

I’ve heard this more than once, of course: some people are just not accountable. The problem is that it makes accountability sound like it is a genetic trait: either you are accountable or you’re not. Unfortunately, the problem is not with “the people”. The problem is with the person who is complaining about a lack of accountability.

Accountability has two parts: a clear agreement (a Performance Conversation, including a due date of course) + a follow-up on the result (a Closure Conversation). Accountability does not rest with the person who makes the promise – it lives with the person who will hold the promiser to account. Apparently it’s the “holding” part that Shelly doesn’t understand.

Shelly insisted that the “holding to account” was not her job. She gave examples of the agreements she had made in the last week, telling me exactly what she said to each team member:

  • “So we have an agreement that you’ll have the Board’s statistics to me by the 24th of this month. That’s great.”
  • “Thanks for agreeing to talk with the Fiscal office about this. I’ll look to hear back from you about how it went at our staff meeting on Tuesday.”
  • “I appreciate your updating the meeting schedule with our client. Please post the new schedule on the bulletin board on Friday morning so that everyone knows, okay?”

“None of them did what they agreed,” she said. “I didn’t get the Board stats on the 24th, Chuck didn’t have the information from Fiscal in time for the staff meeting, and Sheryl didn’t post the new client schedule until the following Tuesday. They just aren’t responsible people.”

I told her what I saw was missing. Since these people are not used to being held to account, all Shelly needs to add to each of those Performance Conversations (request + promise = agreement) is one sentence that lets them know there will be closure.”

  • “If I haven’t seen those statistics on my desk by mid-day on the 24th, I will come check with you to pick them up.”
  • “I will put you on the meeting agenda as part of our Status Reporting update, so you can tell people about the Fiscal response to our proposal.”
  • “I will email everyone today to tell them they can check the new client schedule on Friday to plan their calendar for next week.”

Shelly didn’t like all those “I will” statements, but finally accepted that she was going to have to invest in building accountability in her new job. “I guess if my predecessor didn’t train her people,” she sighed, “I will have to do it.”

It’s not so hard, really. If you want a particular result, it is important to make it clear by when you want to see it, and find a way to emphasize that it’s important that you see it completed. If I know you’ll come to my office to get something, or that I’m on your meeting agenda, or that people need information to plan their schedules, I will be more aware of how important timeliness is in my assignment. Otherwise, I am likely to think the assignment is just “business as usual” – and if business has usually been sloppy, I might be too.

Accountability is built by your conversations and the actions that make agreements real. You can build it anywhere you choose if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone just a bit.

Recipe for Zero Action

“I wish I could fire this guy,” Evan told me. “I ask him to do something – I’m very specific – and then he doesn’t do it. I asked him to finish that survey and bring it back to me. I get nothing. Is he lazy? Or is he stupid?”

I asked Evan to tell me how he went about asking this employee to finish the survey. “I just tell him to do the survey,” he said. “How hard is that? And if he looks like he doesn’t understand, I explain it to him. Last week I explained that we need to have every employee fill this survey out so we can get credit toward our next training series. Every single person filled it in except Dale. What’s with this guy?”

Evan needed to look at what was wrong with his request, not what’s wrong with Dale. First, he never gave Dale a “By When” on that assignment. Without a due date, the request is incomplete.

Second, he assumed that explaining the importance of the survey would get Dale into action. Understanding doesn’t cause action – something all of us who would like to lose 10 pounds know very well. We understand exactly how to lose 10 pounds (eat less, exercise more, right?), but that doesn’t get us to take the appropriate actions to produce the result.

You can be pretty sure that people will not do much for you when you make these two mistakes. Practice adding a due date and time to your requests. And don’t trust explanations to make anything happen: giving someone information is not the same as making a clean request.

Evan still has a chip on his shoulder about Dale, but at least he won’t forget to say “By When” next time.

How Hard is it to ASK?

I’ve heard two complaints recently that seem to come from the same root cause: reluctance to make a request.

#1. A technical specialist– let’s call her Sara – tells me that both she and her Supervisor agree that the Senior Manager of their department is a jerk. This Senior Manager makes decisions without consulting the parties involved, dodges any sign of confrontation (i.e., straight talk), and, when under pressure to explain her decisions, lies about what she did, pointing the blame toward someone else.

#2. An external consultant – let’s call him Derek – says he has offered to provide an analysis for his client that would improve the effectiveness of the program he will be leading next month. His client seems interested, but won’t commit. Derek needs to know, because parts of his program depends on the results of the analysis, and the clock is ticking.

In both cases, there is a reluctance to approach someone head-on and ask them for a decision. Maybe it’s because Sara and Derek don’t think they’ll get the decision they want. Or maybe it’s because they don’t think that asking will produce any result at all.

Making a request sounds simple, but it isn’t. You have to think about it: what action do you really want them to take?  This thinking is made even more difficult if you believe that making a request won’t do any good, or could even cause bigger problems than you already have.

After some consideration about how to get a decision made, Sara and Derek agreed to find the right person and go ahead and ask. Here’s how those two situations were resolved:

#1. Sara went over the “jerk” Senior Manager’s head and asked the VP of her company, after a recent meeting he led, if he would want to know when one of his VPs was causing problems for underlings. The VP said of course he’d want to know. So Sara asked, “Would you be willing to look at this recent change of scheduling for client advisory meetings, and let me know if you think some of the managers of those client accounts should be included in that kind of schedule changes?”  The VP looked at the situation, and a week later told Sara that new rules were now in place. “Scheduling decisions”, the VP said, “will now be made to include all the people involved in client account management and service. Thanks for calling my attention to this.”

#2. Derek went right to his client and asked, “Can we schedule this analysis for next Tuesday and Wednesday? Those are the only two days I have available to collect the results in time to summarize the results before the program”. His client, faced with a real deadline, said No. Derek was disappointed, but at least he had the one thing he wanted most: certainty. Now he knew how to schedule his time and how to prepare the program.

Complaining about a workplace problem is much easier than looking to see who can actually solve the problem, and then figuring out how to phrase the request to get that person to take action.

“I didn’t think I should have to ask,” Sara told me. “I thought the VP should already know what the Senior Managers are doing, and he should fix it when they do stupid things. I guess that’s a little naive.” In an ideal world, people would know everything we think they’re supposed to know. Alas, none of us live in that world.

Learn to make good requests and you’ll improve the quality of your life. I promise.