Do You Have to Go to That Meeting?

A recent article in the Washington Post shared Tom Fox’s assessment of the meetings he attended over the course of one month. He didn’t report the score on his rating system for meetings he wanted to avoid in the future (Red), those that were a fairly good use of time (Yellow), and the ones that produced some valuable outcome for himself and his team (Green). But he did dig deeper into why some meetings are a problem. For each of those “Red” meetings, he asked 3 questions:

  1. Who requested those meetings – me, or somebody else?
  2. What could I have done to make those meetings more productive?
  3. How important was my participation in those meetings?

The result? He now has some new policies regarding meetings:

  1. Respond to meeting invitations (requests) by:
    1. Politely bowing out of meetings that appear likely to be an unproductive use of time;
    2. Asking for an email sharing of information instead of a meeting, to allow people to review it at a time that fits their own schedule; or
    3. Asking for clarification of the meeting purpose, timeline, or invitation list to determine the value for you.
  2. And, to initiate your own meetings, send out a meeting agenda with a timeline, organized to help achieve the meeting objective. This also helps during the meeting, to keep people from drifting into other subjects or monopolizing the discussion.

These are good examples of “productive conversations”:

  • Performance conversations use requests and promises to create agreements for action, and
  • Initiative conversations that state What, When, and Why you are proposing something, in this case, a meeting.

It’s a great way to be more responsible for your time at work.  Extra bonus: these tips might even reduce a recurring non-productive conversation in your life: complaining about meetings that are too long, badly managed, or a waste of your time. Now you have some ways to say No when you need to. You can see Tom’s article at How to Get Out of Meetings.

Workplace Communication & Resistance to Change

The program last week was based on the responses of a 50+ person group that took our Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on www.usingthefourconversations.com). The #1 issue for managers – and #2 for staff – sounded familiar.  They all agreed on this:

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

This complaint is often associated with workforce discouragement, where managers and staff no longer even try to do anything about gaining a say in a change proposal. Then we hear the popular criticism of “Change for the sake of change”, and everyone rolls their eyes when they hear another one coming. What to do?

  1. Initiative conversation. When introducing a change, link it to a mission, goal, or objective. Every change needs a context that is clearly stated and easy to recognize as something important and worthwhile.
  2. Understanding conversations. Schedule one or more dialogue meetings with the people whose work will be affected by the change and the people who will be implementing the change. NOTE: That’s a dialogue, not an announcement or a speech. The people whose work will be affected will tell you why the change will never work. That’s exactly what you want! Here’s how to conduct those dialogues:
    1. Write down each specific reason for “Why It Won’t Work” on a whiteboard or a computer screen that everyone in each dialogue can see.
    2. Keep adding to the list with every dialogue, and letting everyone see the growing list. Encourage them to make revisions, clarify the items, and add to the list.
    3. After everyone has weighed in, send out the finished list and ask people to rank the items from 10 – “The Real Reason It Won’t Work”, down to 1 – “A Possible But Unlikely Reason It Won’t Work”.
    4. Post the new rankings of “Reasons It Will Never Work” in a place where everyone can see it, along with this question: “If we work together to handle each of these items, can we make this change work?”
  3. Performance conversations. Make a request to everyone who participated in the “Why It Won’t Work” dialogues. Ask, “Who is willing to take on some of the tasks of either implementing the change or resolving those barriers on the list?” Make agreements with those who are willing to come on board, and don’t be mad at the others who are holding back for a while longer.
  4. Closure conversations. Start having regular “Change Implementation” meetings to review the necessary tasks, assignments, and agreements with other groups to make the change happen. Check things off task and barrier lists, say Thank You a lot, and keep your list of assignments, deliverables, and agreements up to date. Then go back to Step 1 and re-introduce the change; Step 2 to talk about what needs attention now that things are underway; and Step 3, inviting others to step in to adopting a task or process.

We humans are so funny. We want to keep things the same. And we want to be part of changing things. Resistance is fun – and so is the game of making things work. Help people join the game.

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.

Only 58 Weeks Until I Can Retire

That’s what a friend, Earl, said to me two months ago: “I can retire in 1 year and 1 ½ months.” I could tell this wasn’t a simple fact for him, because it was accompanied by a sad face and a sigh of defeat. This guy can’t wait to leave his job behind.

We talked about this, and what was beneath his “Escape Goal”, as Earl called it, was the fact that he had lost the good relationships he had once enjoyed at work, and was now surrounded by people who had little respect for his talent in handling details and complex problems.

“They don’t see why to bother with things that used to be so important,” he said. “People aren’t trained well, and when they don’t cut it, they are replaceable. Nobody takes time to listen or help people these days.”

Earl had given up. The saddest thing is that it looked like he would spend the next 58 weeks having this same conversation, to himself and with other people. Pretty soon nobody would want to talk with him at all, because every conversation would go the same way: sad and boring.

Could an Initiative Conversation be useful here? Maybe start something new at work and get out of the pits? Earl and I talked about how to invent some kind of game or goal that would have him be more positively engaged with his co-workers. He resisted the idea that anything would be worthwhile, until he mentioned the documentation problem.

“Our documents are all out of date,” he complained. “My bosses don’t even realize it, and wouldn’t care even if they knew.” It was obvious this was something he cared about, but he hadn’t seriously considered taking any action.

How long would it take to fix those documents? Probably more than a year, Earl admitted. But then he got a light in his eye. “I could do it,” he said. “I’m halfway out to pasture anyway, and can do most of what they expect from me with one hand.” I encouraged him to take on the document-update project, even though it wouldn’t be recognized or rewarded. It was a sanity-protection plan.

I checked in with Earl yesterday. He didn’t say anything about his retirement date, and he didn’t look defeated. In fact, his office was bustling with people bring in papers and flash drives, and taking other ones away.

“I’ve got everybody working on this,” he said with a grin. “I had an Initiative Conversation in our staff meeting right after we talked. I told them what I wanted to do – update the 11 documents that are relevant to our job in this department. And I said by when I wanted it – before I leave here. And I explained why it matters – because I want to do something that will make life easier for the people who come after me.”

“About four people wanted to get in on this project, “Earl continued. “Now there are six of them, making the changes and editing each other’s work. We’ll be done by the end of next month. Guess I’ll have to think of something else to accomplish, just to keep everyone happy!”

Earl’s tip: When you’ve got the blues, find something that needs to be done. Then get busy and get it complete. No excuses.

Influence Requires Using Different Conversations

Influencing others – having an impact on their ideas, opinions, and actions – requires using different types of conversations and not recognizing this limits our effectiveness.

I recently read an article in which the authors maintain that effective leadership requires influencing others and that leaders can influence those others through five different influence styles. The authors point out that we each have preferred influence styles and that we use them even when they don’t work.  Increased effectiveness, therefore, comes from learning and using other influence styles.

Influence, however, is more than a matter of style, it is also a matter of using the appropriate type of conversation.  If you want someone to consider a new idea, for example, an initiative conversation is appropriate.  However, if you want to influence their understanding or opinion, then an understanding conversation is the way to go.  If its action you want to influence, then partnering performance and closure conversations are what’s needed. And, if you want to influence someone’s opinion of you, then closure conversations are your best bet.

Clearly there are lots of ways in which you can have conversations – aggressively, timidly, etc. – and these ways of conversing contribute to your influence style.  However, if you use the wrong type of conversation, style won’t make up for it.  Influence depends on our ability to use the appropriate conversations as well as the manner in which we have those conversations.

New Initiative – Identify my Performance Circle

I led a program recently for project managers and saw their biggest challenge is that most people don’t see the “bigger picture” when they are at work on a project – or any work assignment, for that matter. Most of us tend to focus on what’s in front of us (the desktop, both computer and physical) along with some ideas about the future we expect from our work. But we forget to identify, right up front, all the relationships and agreements with people, groups, and organizations that we will need to achieve our objectives.

So it surprised me to realize I was falling into the same myopia myself: focusing on what I have to DO and not giving much attention to the other players critical for my success.

The project managers in my program all had at least one story about what happened when they failed to check with some of the other people necessary for the success of their project. Sad tales of the consequences of not clarifying exactly what was needed and when – or, as one woman said, “I learned the hard way that I need to establish an agreement about the deliverables that were going to be exchanged”.

Example: One PM, let’s call him Dave, had a large software project that was projected to take 8 months to complete. Dave told me, “I knew what our schedule was, and that we would have to send the whole product to the Test Lab for final system testing. So I called the Lab a month ahead and said, “We will be ready for test in mid-March, so I will send over the system materials to you on March 18th.” I was shocked when the guy laughed at me – he said the Test Center was booked 6 months in advance! I mean, we had talked and everything, but he never mentioned that we would need that much notice.”

Dave’s project missed its deadline and blew its budget projections because he hadn’t talked about the specifics: What he wanted, When he wanted it, and Why it mattered. Those basic elements are necessary for a performance conversation (a conversation that uses requests and promises to develop a performance agreement). But the same elements are also necessary for an “Initiative Conversation”: What am I intending to accomplish? When do I intend to accomplish it? Why is it important? As soon as I can say those 3 things, I will be ready to figure out who I need to talk with, and consider all the other people or groups that will be affected by my planned initiative. Where does their success touch on what I’m proposing to accomplish? Where does my success require their attention?

My initiative: I’ve been looking at creating an e-learning system to engage managers of all kinds in a conversation about where they find that “Management is Missing”, and how they resolved it. I have collected lots of these stories over the years of consulting and leading programs, and I was ready to buckle down and get to work.

Oops! If I fail to take the time to identify my “Performance Circle” – the people and groups who are my resources and my users/customers – then I will be working without a net. And for someone who is all about network management that would be a mistake. So the initiative is: What – an e-learning system for managers to talk about where “Management is Missing” and what to do about it; When – up and running in 2012; Why – to engage managers in creating a conversation for “Management is Simple”. Next task: I’m going to identify all the players necessary for a successful initiative, and start lining them up to have Understanding Conversations with me!

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.