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.

Absence of Communication Undermines Reputation and Future Change

I recently talked to Jeremy, a staff member whose organization is changing from one type of work structure to another.  Prior to the change, each work unit in the organization made recommendations on how the allocation of work in their area, who should do the work, and the timelines that should apply.  According to Jeremy, the recommendations were well thought out and developed through extensive individual and group meetings within each of the work units.  Once completed, the recommendations were forward to the Rebecca, the senior manager responsible for reviewing all the recommendations and determining how best to incorporate them in the new structure.

Everything seemed to work fine until Rebecca began informing the work units of her decisions.  According to Jeremy, Rebecca’s decisions ignored many of his work unit’s recommendations with no explanation why.  When he went to his unit manager to find out on what basis Rebecca was making her decisions, his manager replied “I don’t know”.  People in Jeremy’s unit were perplexed, confused, and upset.  They felt betrayed and there was a substantial increase in gossiping and complaining about Rebecca.  Some people even quit their jobs.

Change leaders like Rebecca have to make tough decisions and are accountable for those decisions.  But Rebecca could have reduced the damage both to her reputation and the future receptivity of people to change if she had engaged in understanding conversations with people prior to her decisions and closure conversations after.

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.

Understanding Conversation – Clarifying Ideas and Roles

I took my ideas about an online conversation for “Management is Missing” into several meetings over coffee and lunch in the past 10 days. I had lunch with a man who develops websites: he liked the Performance Circle idea, and we sketched out some thoughts on how to have the kind of interactive discussion I’m looking for. Then coffee a few days later with another man who does photography, videos, and video editing for YouTube and other websites.

Then I talked with several people about learning management systems and how they are used for online learning. One of them creates and manages several online learning sites, another has used online learning systems, and a third has built a business around them. All this was useful to help me see the kind of design work and planning that I need to do, and who I could link up with to get some of the results I want to have.

The last conversation was with a manager, call her Lynne, who is in a really bad situation. Lynne was hired as an “account manager”, to provide services to a large customer organization. The job included some compliance duties (making sure that products and equipment were updated on time and with appropriate vendor support) and collaborating with several other organizations in industry, service, and government. The bad situation started when she pointed out some serious compliance issues to her boss – she noticed several places where the relevant laws were being broken and gave the boss a memo about it. Nothing happened.

The situation soon spiraled downward: Lynne grew impatient with a boss who didn’t seem to care about illegal situations, and she began noticing other places where internal policies were not followed or agreements with partner organizations and clients were unmanaged. She began speaking up at meetings about these things even though it was clear that nobody wanted to hear it. Now she is stuck in an increasingly negative relationship with many of the people above her in the organization. Even some of her peers are hesitant to work too closely with her for fear that the management reaction to being accused of mistakes will taint them too.

Could an “understanding conversation” – a dialogue about what players are involved in the problems, who should be involved in creating solutions, and how to go about putting things right – have made a difference? Maybe, if it was held early and privately with the boss. But maybe not. If Lynne is determined to set things right without building a performance circle and having the dialogues for clarifying roles and responsibilities, she is creating a hard road ahead for herself and others.

All of these conversations were exploratory – they were “understanding conversations” to learn more about where my ideas fit into a possible new future. But this last conversation reinforced the importance of having a place where people – both managers and the people they manage – can look at different ways to talk about management problems they are having. And perhaps we can even create a place where people can create solutions that will be relatively quick and painless.

When I finish these understanding conversations, I’ll move on to the performance conversations. Back soon.

Understanding the End Game

My daughter and I recently visited my mother at her home in Kentucky.  My mother is 89 (will be 90 early next year) and is concerned about who will “pay her bills” (take care of her) in the remaining years of her life.  It was an invitation for an understanding conversation, which my daughter and I accepted.

Like many people her age, my mother can’t really imagine that she won’t always be a fully functioning adult right up to the end.  So she hasn’t really considered her options, what they involve, who could assist her, where she might go, etc. – all the things that understanding conversations consider.  So over lunch, we talked about what some of the options and some of the down sides.  Since understanding conversations are two-way interactions, we listened to her concerns, objections, and questions, not to dismiss or resolve them, but to fully understand them.  There were times in the conversation when neither she nor I liked or agreed with what the other had to say.  But understanding conversations aren’t intended to convince the other side or to get your way, they are intended to have people understand what is involved in accomplishing something of interest to them.

As a result of this conversation, I now understand more about my mother’s concerns and what needs to be taken into account moving forward.  My mother also knows more about her options and at the end of the visit thanked me for helping her come up with a plan for who would pay her bills.  We will need more understanding conversations before we get to the point of taking action, but we have begun and though it may be frustrating, the conversations are important for understanding how she wants to complete her time here.

Increasing My Accountability

A manager in my Leading and Managing Change course approached me after class with the following issue: “There are things at work I should be accountable for and I am not.  I think I should be accountable because they are in my area, but my boss doesn’t hold me accountable for them.  Do you have any recommendations for how I might deal with this?”

This was an invitation to have an understanding conversation with the manager to explore what he might do to increase his accountability and how he might go about doing it.  He already knew what he wanted, when he wanted it, and why it mattered, so we didn’t need to have an initiative conversation, we could get right into an understanding conversation and explore how he might approach his boss.  We raised and discussed several options for approaching his boss, such as asking him why he doesn’t hold the manager accountable, and asking for feedback on the manager’s performance in the areas of concern, but dismissed most these as potentially too confrontational and likely to make the boss defensive.  What we finally agreed on was that he could approach his boss and ask for his partnership in developing the manger’s accountability.  The manager saw that he could say something like: “I would like your help in developing myself in being more accountable.  I think it will make me a better manager and improve my performance.  Would you be willing to help me in this?’  Again, this is an invitation from the manager to his boss to engage in an understanding conversation.

The intent of the understanding conversation is to explore how the manager and boss can work together to increase the manager’s accountability, which is what the manager wants.  The manager has his ideas, but doesn’t know what his boss thinks or what his boss is willing to do.  By inviting his boss into an understanding conversation as a potential partner, the manager gains a valuable resource in helping him achieve what he wants.  And, as they proceed in exploring options, they are likely to see some arrangements that could work for both of them.  Once they have identify possible options, the manager can shift to a performance conversation and make a request, such as “I think option 2 would work best.  When can we start with that?

Sometimes we know exactly what we want and can just ask for it.  In other cases, such as this one, the options are not so clear.  In such cases, inviting people into understanding conversations is a very useful way to learn what can be done and how.

 

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!

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.