Build Relationships … to What?

I was in a good conversation the other day. Eric was leading a new team in the Purchasing department, and he told a small group of us – we were having lunch at Panera – that he was having trouble building good relationships with the new people on his team.

“I want a strong team,” he said, “but I don’t know some of these people very well.  And it’s not just the new team members, it’s the contractors too. They have been brought on to help us learn a new inventory system, but how do we all get related to each other in a positive way?”

Aaron offered some good advice. “Don’t worry about getting them related to each other. Focus on getting everybody related to the goal.”  That shifted the whole conversation from talking about human relations to sharing ideas for how to get people talking about the goal.

Eric looked worried. “My manager wants everybody to be using the new inventory system in less than 3 months. I’m not sure everyone on the team will agree with that. I don’t know who the strong leader-type people are and who are the loafers.”

Then Sheryl told us how she had done it. “I had to get people working toward a goal earlier this year,” she said. “I told each one of them, individually, what I thought the goal was, and that I wanted their input – good and bad. I took notes on their worries about it. And their objections, too. Then I called a meeting. I wrote the goal at the top of a whiteboard, with the list of all the objections and worries on one side of the board. I asked them to create ideas on how to handle each of the objections. It was great – some of them even came up with solutions to the same objection they had given me in our one-on-one meeting!”

That was an Understanding Conversation – Sheryl asked for feedback on a new initiative, then led a discussion about how to make it more workable for a group of people. Implementation is always a challenge, but when you get people involved in talking about the goal and how to reach it, you’re halfway home.

Even if the end result is that you have to tweak the goal a little, that’s okay. When everyone has had their say, given their ideas, and been part of shaping the direction they will go, things can gain momentum.

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.

Motivation, Part 2: Use These Conversations

We have found that ALL attempts at motivation involve either Understanding Conversations or Performance Conversations, or some combination of the two.  When you think about it, that’s really remarkable.  No matter what you are trying to get done, or whom you are trying to get to do it, every single attempt at motivation we have studied involves only these two different types of conversations.

Understanding Conversations pertain to all attempts to have people “see”, “understand”, “realize” or “appreciate” what we need from them. Of course, we usually hope  they will then feel compelled to take action.  How many times have you explained why something was important to get done? Or described a task or project so that people would really “get” what it was about? Sometimes, people hop right to work on it, sometimes not at all.

The trick with Understanding Conversations is that you usually have to take that explanation one step further and have an actual dialogue, i.e., you have to listen to what they say about it and include their input into the discussion. They may have questions about how – or why – to do it. They may tell you they don’t have time, or suggest alternative ways to get parts of it done, or give you any number of other kinds of feedback on your explanation. Dialogue rules here, even when it gets complicated, emotional, or seems to take too long.

Performance Conversations go right to the bottom line and make a request: “Will you do this by Wednesday afternoon?” “Will you be able to get this into your calendar this week?” No hinting and no emotional states – just ask for what you want them to do or deliver.

Then close the deal by confirming that they have agreed to do it: “So you will have it to me before 5 PM on Wednesday, right?” “So you will get this finished – and let me know that it’s done – before you leave work on Friday?”

These two pieces – your request and their acceptance of an agreement – constitute their promise for performance. It could be an agreement to deliver a product, service, or communication by a specified time. Or it could be that a particular task will be completed, but even if it was just an agreement to “do something”, you make it clear that you want to be notified when it is finished. That “closing deliverable” makes the agreement visible and observable to everyone involved.

A Performance Conversation can be as simple as this:  “Here’s what I’d like you to do: Have the report on my desk by 5 PM Thursday. Will you do that?” If they accept, you have an agreement for performance. If they decline, you’ll need to go back to having an Understanding Conversation, i.e., renegotiate, or find someone else to do the job.

It doesn’t sound much like “motivation” does it? That’s because you are explaining what, exactly, you want done and by when, then asking them to do it, then getting an agreement for a result. At its heart, there is no rah-rah about it.  You can dress it up if you like – you know your people and whether you need to add other ingredients. Sometimes it helps to add praise, more precision, or just something to make it friendlier and respectful of their current obligations. But not always. Some people prefer to just “Git ‘er Done” without the rah-rah.

Motivation: Part 1 in a series

This will be a multi-part post about “motivation”, i.e., getting people into action. Here’s the starting point:

  • What does it take to get people to do what needs to be done?
  • How do you get people into action?
  • Why are people not doing what they are assigned?

We often get these questions from managers who are trying to get things done “through” other people.  Some managers get so discouraged with how hard it is to get other people to do a task, or do it right, that they tell us things like:

  • I might as well just do it myself,
  • It’s just not going to get done so we’ll do without it,
  • We’ll have to work around that problem.

In other words, they’d rather give up than deal with people’s resistance or non-performance. (Note: It can be hard to tell at first whether someone is resisting direction or just not able to perform a particular assignment).

Another thing we have noticed is that most managers believe the source of these problems is that people simply are not “motivated” (whatever that means).  Many managers we know are working on motivating their people, in the hope that they will become more productive and cooperative.

What makes the motivation problem even more frustrating is these managers tell us that it is their job to motivate the people who work for them!  So if you are a manager and your people are not motivated to perform well, then it must be YOUR fault.  Just to seal the fate of these managers, most management textbooks agree, identifying motivation as one of the primary functions of being a manager.

The irony, however, is that almost every manager we have ever known has a list of things they want to accomplish but never seem to find the time to do. Does that mean managers have trouble motivating themselves to do things?  Take a look at your own “to do” lists – anything on there that’s been around for more than a month or two? If we can’t always motivate ourselves, how can we know what works to reliably motivate others?

We’ve been studying managers for years, and have noticed what they do to motivate their colleagues, spouses, friends, and children.  In other words, we have seen them “motivating others” in formal settings and in informal settings.

What works is – you guessed it – some well-designed conversations. Nothing tricky, nothing you don’t already know how to do. But the way you use either Understanding Conversations or Performance Conversations– or a combination of the two – can make all the difference. Imagine that: a dialogue where you actually listen to the other person, or a clear request and promise, or some of each of those, might just “motivate” them.

And it works on you too. I’ll show you how. More coming soon…

Bridge the Gap between Understanding and Action

We were training the group about the difference between Understanding Conversations – where people get interested in an idea – and the Performance + Closure conversations that have people take action on it.

Eddie found me on a break, and asked, “So you’re trying to bridge the gap between my knowing I need to go to the gym and my actually going there, right?”

“Exactly”, I told him. “You already understand what you want to do, right? Now all that’s needed is for you to make a promise – to someone – that you will do it. And then schedule one or more Closure Conversations with that person to follow up on how it’s going.”

“In fact,” I said, feeling impish, “We will be back here in 3 months. You could promise me what you will do, and then you and I can talk about your results at that time.”

Eddie suddenly realized that he was being invited to make a promise for action and report on how many times he actually went to the gym in the next 3 months. He seemed both intrigued and uncomfortable with changing his ideas about getting fit into promises for making them real. He didn’t promise, but I know he’s looking at doing that.

I asked Eddie if I could share our conversation with the whole group and he said that would be fine. It was a good example of the difference between Understanding Conversations and Performance + Closure Conversations. In telling the group, I added one idea: Maybe we should take a “BEFORE” picture of Eddie today.

We didn’t do that, of course. Eddie needed time to think through how he can bring gym-going back into his life on a reliable schedule. But he now has the support of the whole group in making this change. One of those people might make a request, and probably several of them will have Closure Conversations with him for follow-up and support.

I’m thinking that Eddie will going to look more trim and fit when we see him next time.

Hold Your Seat: Dialogue Is 2-Way

The understanding conversation is the one that some senior-level managers and executives dislike. A VP in a financial firm once asked me, “Why should I ask people who work for me to give me input on a plan? Won’t they think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

The difficulty is that it is a dialogue, with listening – and maybe even accepting on what the other person says – a key ingredient. Talking is easy and quick. Listening takes time and attention. Plus, whenever you really listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about whatever you were thinking at the beginning of the conversation. Maybe that’s what people don’t like about it.

A Tibetan lama, Sakyong Mipham, makes some important points about listening in a recent article in the Shambhala Sun:

  1. True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop.
  2. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles.
  3. The best way to practice listening is to learn to “hold your seat”.

Hold your seat. When you’re listening, he says that power has been handed over to the speaker, who will now direct the conversation’s mood and content. When you are listening, you hold your seat by calmly refraining from interrupting, by being engaged and self-assured, and allowing someone else to take charge. If it’s hard to stay present and really hear the other person, try taking a gentle in-and-out breath or shifting your posture in some way, uncrossing your arms or dropping your shoulders. Bring yourself back to listening.

When you want to engage people in accepting something – say, a plan of action or a suggestion – you can’t just hand them the plan, ask them to read it, and believe they will adopt it as their own. You’ll need a dialogue, and a willingness to accept the others’ input as useful. You might even change your mind about something. Learning and updating our ideas is what understanding conversations are all about.

Paula Deen’s Non-Apology

Paula Deen, the celebrity chef and cooking show host, continues to have problems because her attempts at apologizing for making racial slurs are really not apologies – they are explanations, denials, and justifications.  This is evident in her recent interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show.

Apologies are closure conversations in which one admits making a mistake or engaging in a wrongdoing, accepts complete responsibility for it (e.g., “I did this, and it was wrong/a mistake”), acknowledges the impact of the mistake on others, asks for forgiveness, and promises a change in future behavior.

Paula Deen has mistakenly been using understanding conversations in which she is explaining how she was brought up, her distress over how young people talk to each other, that she is not a racist, and so on.  In other words, she is trying to get people to understand that she is not a “bad person” and that it is all really a misunderstanding.  Understanding conversations are not closure conversations.  Apologies stand on their own and do not need to be explained.

Had Paula used a closure conversation and given an authentic apology, rather than using an understanding conversation to try an explain herself, it is very likely she would be having far less difficulty.  Don’t make the same mistake Paula did.  When you apologize, apologize and don’t try to explain or justify while making the apology.

When Explanations Fail You, Try a Picture

A manager in a recent Four Conversations training session approached me and asked, “One of my employees frequently fails to accomplish the things I delegate to him.  Do you have any suggestions for improving his performance?”

“Sure”, I replied, “but first, when you say he fails, what do you mean?  Is he late, is the quality of what he does poor, or is his work incomplete, inaccurate, or unacceptable in some other way? If so, then you may be failing to specify when you want the assignment or what constitutes complete, acceptable work.”

“Mostly the work is not done well even though I explain what I want done very clearly,” she told me.

“Ah”, I replied, “well then you may have to give him a picture of what you want.  You know, a sample of what you are looking for so that he can see what it actually looks like.  When my son was younger, we had trouble with him cleaning his room.  Even though Laurie and I would explain as clearly as we could, he never produced what we considered a clean room.”

“Then one day we cleaned his room and took a picture of it.  We used the picture to explain what we meant by such things as a “clean desk”, “clothes picked up”, and “bed made”.  We then posted the picture on the back of his door with a sign that said “Clean Room”.  After that he was very reliable at producing a clean room.”

“The picture provides the standard and gives immediate feedback.  Sometimes, our requests and explanations are simply insufficient to convey what is wanted.  And when that happens, you have to be more creative and find a way to show people what you want.”

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.