Why Do Some Managers Ignore Poor Performance?

This is a really good question, asked by Jill Christensen – an employee engagement expert, best-selling author, and keynote speaker – on a LinkedIn Group post. Here are the top 4 answers (in order of popularity) and some of the comments made about each:

  1. HR & senior management failure – HR is not doing its job to get poor performance on the corporate agenda and get the message to middle and senior managers. Managers fear that termination is the only solution (and finding a replacement may be difficult), so HR needs to give them ways of improving performance. Senior managers allow Managers to ignore poor performance. There isn’t enough “authentic leadership” to create a “culture” of leadership skills (eyeroll here).
  2. They don’t know how – Managers are not equipped to handle workplace conflict resolution. Managers lack lack the skills, courage, or confidence to address the issue of poor performance, and do not know how to address it properly and completely.  Managers do not have experience in how to mentor people to improve performance.
  3. Fear – Managers, like other people, dread having difficult conversations. They fear conflict, damaging relationships, and exposing themselves to the judgment of others above and below. Managers, like many others, avoid conflict.
  4. It takes work to manage performance and follow through as necessary.

After 30+ years as a management consultant, I say that answer #4 nails it for me!

All Managers know a few basics about the costs of poor performance:

  • Every individual’s performance contributes to organizational performance.
  • Ignoring low performance is a disservice to the employees who must compensate for poor performers.
  • Not handling poor performance undermines your own role as a Manager.

Managers also know it takes work to manage performance, and not just poor performance. To manage performance, a Manager must:

  1. Specify what “performance” is, in every case, with every person and team. Work with your group to define and update statements of measures and results. Specify what needs to be delivered to in-house and external users, customers, and collaborators. Get specific. Then: Make all “performance” clear to all.
  2. Make clear assignments. WHAT are the results and deliverables each person will be accountable for completing? WHEN are those results and deliverables due? WHO will be accountable for fulfilling each assignment?  WHY does each assignment matter to the group, and to the organization?  Then: Make all assignments clear to all.
  3. Follow up on a regular schedule: Update the status of performance assignments, in terms of percent completion, for example, and discuss barriers, problems, and ideas for improvements. Then: Make all performance status clear to all.

What does it mean to make all of these 3 things – [A] Performance measures, results, and deliverables; [B] Assignments for those completions; and [C] Performance status “clear to all”?  It means: Make it public (gasp!).  This is easiest if you use two indispensable elements of good management.

One, an indispensable management tool: Use a visible scoreboard or display for tracking assignment information (What-When-Who-Why).

Two, an indispensable management practice: Hold regular group “performance-update” meetings with the whole team. Those meetings are where you clarify [A] What performance is, [B] What assignment specifics will get us there, and [C] What our follow-up meeting agenda and schedule will be. Note: One-on-one discussions are insufficient for managing performance.

So, why do some Managers ignore poor performance? Because doing A-B-C, plus maintaining visual displays and facilitating performance-update meetings, is work and it takes time. And we all know that Managers are Really Busy.

Organization Change: Leader & Manager Conversations May Be Different

I just finished writing a paper on organization change – it was about the difference between change leadership & change management communications. In the process, I could see how different conversations are so important in making an organization change work well for everyone.

Referring to The Four Conversations (www.usingthefourconversations.com), I saw that leaders mostly emphasize one of these conversations the most: Initiative conversations. Those are the ones that propose a new course of action or a new idea, and say something about what we can do, and why it will be good for us to do it. It doesn’t matter if the change is large or small, complex or simple. And it doesn’t matter if the person speaking is an executive or a manager or has some other nice title in the hierarchy. When you have an Initiative conversation, you’re stepping in to leadership communication by suggesting a new possibility and saying something about its value.

The ingredients of an Initiative conversation are simple: What do we want to do or make happen? When do we want to do it, or have it done? Why is it important or worthwhile to do it? These conversations are often used to inspire and motivate people, which is what we think of leaders as doing. Their communications give us a reason to get into action, and to keep us going when things look really challenging.

But once the Initiative has been spoken, the other three conversations are the ones required to get an organization change going, and a good manager needs to master them. They are best used – over and over again – in this sequence:

  • CLOSURE – use “the four A’s”, and work together with the Team Members to: Acknowledge the current status of a project or situation, stating how we are doing on key measures right now. Appreciate the people involved, recognizing their effort and results. Apologize for broken agreements or failures, and Amend those agreements by updating statements of goals, timelines, or assignments and other interactions.  (Refer to the Initiative conversation here, i.e., the What-When-Why of the overall project or goal we are working to accomplish. This reminds people of the context for their work, and the purpose they are out to fulfill. If the Closure conversation has changed any of those ingredients, be sure to include their updates in referring to the Initiataive.)
  • UNDERSTANDING – Have a dialogue to review Who all is involved in this project or situation, and their roles and responsibilities; Where the resources for this project are coming from, and Where the results and benefits will be going; and How the work needs to be done, including production, service delivery, and communications. Like any reference to the Initiative, this reminds people of the bigger picture, but it also includes updates from any changes made by the Closure conversation. The Who-Where-How may have changed as a result of that conversation. This whole conversation is a dialogue, to re-position where people are with respect to their roles and responsibilities, and collaborate on identifying what needs to be done to gain (or regain) momentum on the project.
  • PERFORMANCE – Look at what is next to accomplish the goals of the project, starting from this new, updated place. What needs to happen now? When will it happen? Why does it matter? Who will do it? Where will any necessary resources come from? How should it be done (any special requirements?). The result of these conversations is people making agreements to do and deliver certain products, services, and/or communications at certain times, and to certain people.

At the next meeting (managers have regular Team meetings, right?) the management communication cycle begins again. Close out the status of all Performance agreements – how did it go? Then have an Understanding dialogue about how to get back on track or gain momentum. And then have the Performance conversations to create agreements for what’s next.

Leadership and management communications are not the same. But, of course, the same people can be having all of those conversations. If you are a manager, you can create an Initiative and get other people on board to implement your ideas. That’s you being a Manager-Leader. And then, you can follow through with the Closure-Understanding-Performance cycle. That’s you being a Manager-Manager.

Most managers do wear both hats – management and leadership. But many people we call Leaders wear only the one. They say, “Here’s my idea. Go make it into a reality, please”. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. But sometimes I want to introduce those people to the complexity of the Real World. Or maybe they’re just good at delegating.  🙂

P.S. Happy Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year to you all! We’ll talk again in 2018.

Stop Managing People, Step 2. Reconsider Those 1:1 Meetings

My last post was about how to “stop managing people” by focusing on managing agreements with people instead of the people themselves. Two different worlds: people are human, and agreements are communications. You can manage the communications.

Then I talked to Markus, and he told me another way managers focus on people: One-to-One meetings, or 1:1 meetings. “Managers complain they don’t have good teamwork,” Markus said, “and then they focus on individuals by meeting with them alone, apart from their team members. Don’t they see what they’re emphasizing by doing that?”

Good point. The 1:1 meeting is necessary for hiring new people, or placing current employees into new positions within the organization. And 1:1 meetings are also useful for traditional “performance reviews”: the annual reflection on what happened and where things are going with an individual.

But 1:1 meetings are not for ongoing “performance management”. Here’s why. Hiring or re-positioning employee requires matching an organization’s skills and capabilities with the organization’s strategic and operational needs.  The 1:1 manager-to-individual meetings for hiring or re-positioning a person are likely to include discussion about the person’s skills, what kind of work they like, and where they want to go in their career and development. That’s fine: this conversation is about the person, which is personal.

But performance is a whole other idea: the root of the word “perform” is “to deliver thoroughly”. So, it’s applied to people who are already in position, who have agreements to deliver some product, service, and/or communication – and who are going about their job of delivering products, services, and communications that will satisfy those agreements. In that world, we measure performance by whether the agreement was fulfilled. It’s not about the person, it’s about delivering per agreements.

Let’s say that you’re my Manager and I have an agreement to give you a summary report every Friday morning, showing the status of my week’s sales calls: who I called on, and when; how long we talked; what results were produced in terms of dollars, service agreements, and product purchases; and what next steps we have agreed to take with a by-when for each one.

When I give you the report, you can see what I delivered this past week. Our agreement was that I would get at least 14 sales calls completed, bring in a certain dollar amount, and close three new service agreements. Did I do that?

  • If so, I delivered thoroughly – 100% performance to agreement.
  • If I did 80% of what I agreed to deliver, then my delivery-performance is 80%.
  • Or maybe it’s 150% on the dollars-produced agreement, but only 20% on product purchases.
  • Or, what if I don’t bring you that report at all? Or, what if you discover that I have misrepresented my actions and results on that report in some way?

Whatever the results, this view of performance is good information to have: where I’m a high-performer (sales dollars) and where I’m not (selling products), and whether I can be counted on to deliver on our agreed performance deliveries thoroughly. But it’s not just good for you to know, it’s good for the whole team to know. Those agreements aren’t private between you and me – they are part of our team’s work, and should be visible to all of us so we can support one another and learn how to do better.

I’ll let Markus weigh in here: “I have three teams to manage, and each one has between 6 and 10 people in it. My meetings are never 1:1, except when I have a Problem Child. I work with the group and we decide: what do we need to deliver, to whom, and when? Plus, what do we want out of doing that, and what do we need in order to make it happen? We decide as a team which of us will do what, and then we hear the results as a team. We all learn how to do better next week.”

I’m with Markus on this. Ultimately, the Manager’s job is to work with their team(s) to define the work to do next – preferably as “delivery” rather than “doing” – then ensure that good agreements are established to produce all intended results and that “delivery performance” is tracked for each of those agreements. This is more work than many managers do, but it also improves performance all around. Markus says it also saves him from costly performance “mistakes” and avoids the annoyance of his having to micro-manage things. Who doesn’t want that?

Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

This Middle Manager is Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A manager, Claire, told me that being a “middle manager” was the hardest job she has ever had. She explained it this way: “I’m supposed to balance the interests of the employees who report to me with the interests of my Big Cheese Boss. Which, in my case, means I am between a bunch of people who have job descriptions, projects, and responsibilities… and a woman who is focused on moving up the ladder to the C-Suite. She wants to celebrate the pinnacle of her career before she turns 50.”

Claire has weekly meetings with her staff to review the status of her department’s current and upcoming projects. “That part goes well,” she says. “But when we discuss where things stand, we like to make a list of people’s ideas for ways to improve their work and their results. The problem is they almost always ask for something that I cannot seem to pry out of my Boss: clear goals and success measures.”

She told me she knows using goals and measures would help her “group” become more like a “team”. Some other Middle Managers in her organization created scoreboards for their people to review and update every week. Claire envied them. “I don’t know why their Big Bosses helped them create clear goals and measures and mine won’t,” she said. “I wish my Boss would say what she wants from us, so I could make a scoreboard too. But she meets with me for 15 minutes every other week, and doesn’t want to work on anything with me. She says I need to decide for myself how to manage my people.”

Finally, Claire made up her mind to handle it herself. “I took two of those other Middle Managers out to lunch,” she said. “We talked about the work my department does, and what each of them wanted from us and from our projects. I took notes – right on the paper tablecloth cover – and then I spent the weekend reviewing all 6 of our current initiatives in light of that conversation. I came up with 2 goals and 4 measures of success.”

Still, Claire’s Big Boss didn’t want to review them with her, or even give her a nod of approval. Claire went ahead and presented them to her team anyway. She told the staff about talking with the other managers, then her group discussed the goals she had created for the department.

“They revised them a little,” she said, “and turned one sort of bulky goal into two separate goal statements. But they really liked the measures. My idea was that we could measure these 3 things”:

  1. Dollars saved;
  2. Other department personnel participating in our projects; and
  3. Survey results from external users on their level of satisfaction.

“They dove right in,” she said. “They all started playing with the measures and came up with this variation:

  1. Year-end savings;
  2. External participants in our projects; and
  3. Satisfaction of our users.

“It was funny. They wanted the first letters of the 3 goals to spell something, so now they had Y-E-S. Two people volunteered to make up the scoreboard for tracking the external participants and user satisfaction measures. I guess they really were hungry to see a way to track our accomplishments and get some bragging rights.”

Work without a scoreboard is just that – work. If we want accomplishment, we need to create a game. Good work, Claire. Hats off to the staff for playing full out. And thanks much to Landmark Worldwide for teaching me the difference between just doing things vs. creating an accomplishment.

Emotional Intelligence and Workplace Performance (Two Very Different Things)

Sheryl, a 30-something production manager in a small printing company, was telling me about a problem employee. “He’s disorganized,” she said, and he has no emotional intelligence at all.”

Huh? She explained it to me this way: “Kenny isn’t reliable about coming to work on time. He gets angry with me if I mention that to him, or if I point out that he made a mistake in a customer’s printing job and has to re-do part of it. He needs more emotional control so he can improve his performance.”

Sheryl had obviously done an Emotional Intelligence training program recently. We waded into a discussion about it, and she insisted that Kenny’s performance problems were due to a failure to manage his emotions.

Emotional intelligence has two sides: first, being able to read other people’s emotional responses, and second, knowing – and perhaps controlling – our own emotional responses. If we are good at those things, does it mean we will have higher workplace performance?

Perhaps, if I have a job that involves sales, or providing personal services such as counselling. Then it would be valuable to “read” how others are reacting and what they are feeling, and maybe steer the conversation in a way that would help the other person see some value in what I’m offering. (Note: this could be seen either as manipulation or as motivation.)  But if I’m a computer programmer or an air-conditioning technician, my work is applied more to things than to people. You want your AC to work efficiently, and I probably don’t have to be an expert at reading facial expressions or body language: just fix the thing.  Still, whatever kind of work we do, it surely helps to recognize our own emotional responses to people, things, and situations. When we experience fear, anger, or resentment, for example, we may not be acting rationally, but instead, reacting emotionally. That’s not usually a reliable way to interact with others.

Knowing ourselves allows us to be more in charge of our lives and our communications. Does Kenny know where his own emotional “hot buttons” are? Losing his temper, for example, could compromise his critical thinking and take a conversation – or, in this case, a relationship – in a negative direction.

But even if self-awareness and maintaining good manners makes workplace interactions more positive, it does not necessarily improve performance. Workplace performance is more about fulfilling agreements to produce and/or deliver something than it is about managing emotions. OK, being a jackass makes a workplace less pleasant, but Sheryl has said that Kenny’s performance issues are:

  • Being late to work; and
  • Making mistakes on customer printing jobs.

I questioned whether emotional intelligence was the only way to help with that. Sheryl said she would have a conversation with Kenny and explain what performance she wanted in those two areas. She was also going to ask him to come to her office and talk with her, instead of the fly-by, in-the-hallway conversations she’d had before. And she was going to start the meeting by telling him they needed to make a couple of agreements, and that she wanted his input on how to do that.

I saw Sheryl the next week, after she had talked with Kenny. “He was a different person in my office,” she said. “He seemed pleasant and interested in working with me. And we did find a way to phrase the agreements for being on time to work and making fewer mistakes on print jobs. It’s simple: if he’s going to be late, he will text me and let me know. And if he doesn’t understand the print job specifications, he’s going to ask me about what it means.”

Kenny had been afraid to tell her he was responsible for taking his little sister to school on the days his mother was working the early shift at the hospital. And he had been afraid to ask for help when the print job instructions were not clear to him.

Sheryl said, “Emotional intelligence training might have helped with the situation. But knowing how to make performance agreements with my staff has definitely helped me be a better manager.” Three cheers for that!

Why Executives are Cautious about Implementing Change

Here’s a question I just saw on the internet: “What do you think causes a company to not want to change its current HR policies or platforms?”  It opened a discussion on why companies “resist” change. Is it price or convenience? One person said, “If it saves my company time, or money, or both, then we should do it. Period.”

Comments mentioned psychology (fear of the unknown), and physics (the power of inertia), and general criticism (greed, laziness, low self-esteem).

But those explanations presume that changing HR policies or platforms will not rock the boat of the larger organization in unforeseen ways. However simple a change may seem, it helps to remember that everything in an organization is connected to almost everything else, either directly or indirectly: no change is isolated. When planning a change, there is a simple checklist to consider.

  1. Affected Network. Identify all the groups and processes that will be touched in any way, by each of the outgoing-old processes and requirements and each of the incoming-new processes and requirements. (A comprehensive list, please).
  2. Feedback. What input and feedback has been obtained from each of these groups regarding the proposed changes, i.e., the outgoing and incoming processes and requirements? (You did talk – and listen – to each of those groups in Step 1, right?)
  3. Updated Change Plan. When will the Final Change Plan be published and released to each of the groups involved? (The “Final Change Plan”, of course, includes the adjustments made to the original change proposal based on the feedback you acquired in Step 1).
  4. Change Support. Who are the individuals and groups that will be accountable for providing support and assistance for everyone in the affected network? (This “change assistance team” will be on the ground and out front for a little while).
  5. Debrief. When is the scheduled post-change-debrief with each element in the affected network? (You want to know how it went – and collect some “lessons learned” – so you can make future changes go smoothly).

It seems like a lot, but paying attention to change as a network phenomenon adds a lot of intelligence to the change process. Resistance melts in the face of the opportunity to add to the dialogue about what is going to happen and why it will be beneficial. People contribute ideas, of course, but more importantly they provide information that was never anticipated by the change planners. That’s because the people who have to live with the change know more about what is happening in their unit or department than the change planners, who may not have known which boats will be rocked by their good ideas.

Organizations are networks of accountabilities and processes. Nobody sees them all without investing some attention. You can make it easy for people to participate effectively in the change – both in shaping it and adapting to it. You’ll find it is well worth the effort.

Understanding is a Dialogue – It Goes Two Ways

I was talking with Kevin, manager of a Customer Service Department, about (his words here) “how to get people to understand their jobs”. He wants to see “better performance”, and hasn’t been able to “get them to raise their standards”.

I’m thinking, “Uh oh, Kevin’s got a real problem: he thinks it’s his people but more likely, it’s really him. And then he launched into criticizing one of The Four Conversations. “I read on your website about Understanding Conversations,” he said. “But they don’t work. I had a meeting with the senior-level Customer Service people to try it out. It didn’t work.”

Here’s what he told the Customer Service people that he wanted from them:

  1. When you interact with people to schedule their appointments with our Tech Specialists, you either have to set up a new account for them or update the existing one. That’s because we need all their contact information plus details on the history of their problem,what equipment they have, and what they want to accomplish.
  2. When you are closing out their appointment, make sure you find out whether they got their problem solved before you talk about their payment. Take the time to hear – and record – their questions and concerns, and to see what else they need. The Tech people want this feedback.

“See?” Kevin asked me. “I told them exactly what good performance is about. But they are still doing incomplete records on people’s accounts. And they still don’t make good notes on what the customers say about their problem-solving process.”

I asked Kevin what his people had to say about his two “standards”. He rolled his eyes and assured me that they had “nothing useful to say”. I pressed for details, so he told me, “They just said the usual stuff. The computers are too slow. The Customer Service spreadsheet doesn’t connect right to the Tech’s session notes. The customers don’t want to wait for the computer, or to have a long talk after their session. Blah blah blah.”

I knew I was going to go back to the website and re-write the little paragraph about Understanding Conversations (The Book). I needed to move the part where it says, “These are 2-way dialogues” up to the beginning. Too many managers – especially high-level ones – think that an Understanding Conversation means telling people what to do, and then asking them, “Do you understand?”

I met with Kevin’s senior-level people and made a list of what they said was needed to implement his requests more completely. The first – and funniest – result was that they decided to make their own appointment with the Tech Specialists! Those meetings produced three outcomes that will be completed by the end of this month:

  • The Customer Service Department is getting a system and software upgrade;
  • All of the company’s departments will be using the same software and able to connect quickly; and
  • The Tech Specialists are working with Customer Services to clarify exactly what feedback they really need from each customer appointment.

Kevin took this as a lesson on learning how to listen: he plans to start taking notes on what he hears. We all think this will help him hold up his end of the Understanding Conversation.

 

Even if We Aren’t “Managers”, Most of Us Need to Manage THIS

Chuck, a maintenance guy, did some work for us the other day and we got talking about how he scheduled his job appointments. Since he was both friendly and skilled at his work, he had a few spare minutes to let me know the secrets of managing a contractor’s calendar. “It’s all about how I keep my job plans in existence,” he said. “Not just the jobs, but also the supplies I need for each one, and checking that my equipment is ready and working. I look at my schedule every evening so I know what to pack up for the next day.”

This reminded me of a question Jeffrey (my professor-emeritus-husband) gives to his MBA students:  “When you are asked to do something – or tell someone you will do something – how do you record it so you don’t forget it?”  We don’t always think of these things as “making promises”, but that’s what they are – and we need to keep track of them somewhere.

Chuck and I talked about keeping promises, agreements, and plans “in existence“, and came up with a list of ways to do it.  I added a few other thoughts from those MBA students too – here is the result:

  1. Write your promise on your schedule. This is really obvious, and probably the best thing to do, but many people don’t use their schedule as a living document in that way. If you promise to research a product, or write up a survey analysis for a colleague, where do you put that task on your calendar? Just writing it into a blank space on Tuesday afternoon and hoping it works out is not always reliable.
  2. Schedule a time to schedule your promises. Another way to use your calendar to increase your reliability is by scheduling a regular time – every day or every few days – to look at your “To-Be-Scheduled” items (see items #3, #4, and #5, listed below this one). Say, at 4:15 every afternoon, you have on your calendar that you’ll check all your (#3) temporary holding places, (#4) delegations, and (#5) the back seat. That’s when you collect all your promises into one place, then put the time(s) you’re going to do the work of fulfilling them on your calendar.
  3. Put your promise in a temporary holding place. Putting an agreement to do something into a queue for later scheduling can prevent us from feeling guilty about postponing the scheduling task. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not. In order of decreasing reliability:
    1. A To-Do List. This is a useful catch-all, sometimes called a “Do-Due List” to remind us to include a due-date on every action item. NOTE: It says, “A To-Do List”, not multiple ones – using multiples decreases reliability.
    2. Pieces of paper. A favorite is writing something on a Post-It note (I love those things!) and sticking it to your computer, file cabinet, refrigerator, or bathroom mirror. But other candidates include writing on the backs of envelopes or on napkins, and one person even mentioned a “rolodex” (does Staples still sell those things?).
    3. Emails or voicemails to yourself. Your email in-box or phone can serve as a holding bin, a form of reminder for things to do. (Recommended: keep an eye on how many are in there!)
    4. A display on the wall. Bulletin boards can be a great way to keep things visible. They can also get messy.
    5. File folders, physical or electronic. Your office filing system or computer can also provide a holding bin for things to do. (I suspect that’s what’s really inside most computers!)
    6. Stacks of stuff, set out where you can see them. Piles of project resources on your bookshelf. Magazines and articles on a side table. Folders of things-to-do propped up against a lamp. These can get Ugh-Ugly and contribute to a sense of overwhelm.
    7. A collection of two or more of the above. If you have multiple Do-Lists; Post-Its on your desk, phone, and computer; more than 25 emails in your in-box; a bulletin board with layers of notes, cards, and papers… well, you get the idea. The problem : You’re not always going to deliver on the most important ones, and you might not even know which ones are the most important.
  4. Delegate your promise. This can be risky, as different people have different habits for reliable completion. But there are several ways to delegate your promises. In decreasing reliability:
    1. Assign a secretary or staff assistant to perform the tasks(s) and/or bring the item to a meeting for discussion and resolution.
    2. Send a memo, email, or leave a voicemail telling someone what action or result you want from them.
    3. Tell someone to remind you about doing that thing, or calling that person.
  5. Throw it in the back seat. This is how to put a “promise” – or something that you and somebody else agreed would be a good idea – into a quiet resting place if you know you’re not likely to get to it in this lifetime:
    1. Put it into a file folder or a notebook, which you then put back in the file cabinet or on a shelf.
    2. Trust that you’ll bump into that person in the hall or at a meeting, and will take a more structured action at that time.
    3. Trust it to memory.

Of course, if you don’t rely on a calendar to help you schedule your days, weeks, and months as a way to help yourself reliably fulfill your promises, then none of this is useful (in which case, I offer my apologies for the time it took you to read the above).

But if you’re interested in a reputation as someone who can be counted on, maybe this gives you some ideas to update your “existence system”. I hereby promise to keep my Do-Due List up to date with a thorough weekly review plus a rendezvous with my calendar.

Is Management a Soft Skill?

Beth, the head of Human Resources in a law firm, was talking with me about the problem of management in an organization full of lawyers. She rolled her eyes, not wanting to criticize her attorney co-workers.

“They know the law”, Beth said, “but do they know how to be a manager?”

Good question. This is where the conversation could shift to comparing hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the job-specific skills. If you are an attorney – or a financial analyst, IT specialist, physician or astronaut, you have “hard skills” in your field of expertise.

Soft skills are the people-relationship skills. This is where the social-psychology perspective comes in. “Emotional intelligence” is a favorite description, but “soft skills” usually includes communication skills, leadership skills, and teamwork skills.

So, what happens when an attorney is named the head of a department? Or when a financial analyst or nuclear physicist is promoted to a management position? Is managing a hard skill or a soft skill? Will sending an attorney to a 2-day program on emotional intelligence make her a better manager?

Let’s say that management, as a job function overseeing a team or group, involves three basic activities:

  1. Establishing clear goals and objectives, including specific measurable results and timelines;
  2. Establishing clear agreements to identify Who will produce and/or deliver What, and by When; and
  3. Holding regular team meetings to review the status of all goal-relevant agreements, and to update the objectives and agreements as needed to improve goal performance (also known as “course-correction”).

Sounds simple, right? Goals + agreements for actions and results + status review-and-update meetings. The only catch is that the manager has to keep track of that information, and many managers aren’t very good at that. Furthermore, they may think they shouldn’t have to do it: after all, people are self-generating, aren’t they? No, they aren’t. So, what’s required of a manager is:

  • The ability to have conversations that produce understandable goals and objectives, measures, and schedules;
  • The ability to support people in making requests and promises that establish agreements for productive goal-relevant relationships, both with team members and with others; and
  • The ability to facilitate a team or group discussion about which agreements are either complete or on schedule, and which ones are in trouble – and then to identify ways to close any gaps between planned and actual goal performance.

If we could give Beth’s attorneys an injection of “emotional intelligence” (motivation, empathy, social skills, etc.), would they know how to keep track of people’s agreements to produce on-time results, for different – and sometimes multiple – objectives? Would they know how to clarify the status at every team meeting, and how to engage people in developing course-correction solutions?

Soft skills are important, but management takes more than “people skills”. It’s about the nuts and bolts of steering a group of people – who are doing different kinds of work and communicating with other people inside and outside of the team – toward accomplishing specific objectives. Management might be a “hard” skill set of its own, that includes some valuable soft skills too.

Perhaps, if we recognized this, we would have more managers who are effective as well as emotionally intelligent.