Want More Credibility? Own Up and Apologize

Credibility is essential to being an effective leader.  One of the most powerful ways to build credibility is to own up to something that didn’t work and apologize for it.

When Ed Koch was mayor of New York, he was concerned about the number of accidents resulting from bikers darting in and out of traffic. Determined to solve the problem, he had “bike lanes” painted on the sides of city streets. But instead of making things better, the bike lanes actually made things worse. Drivers, undeterred by the double yellow lines identifying bike lanes, crossed them so frequently that police could not write enough tickets, and accidents involving bikers increased. As a result, Mayor Koch had the bike lanes removed, ending a futile exercise that cost the city millions of dollars.

Plenty of editorial space was given to criticizing the blunder and Koch’s poor judgment. Reporters, looking for blood, sought interviews with the beleaguered mayor. In one television interview he agreed to, which was scheduled to last thirty minutes, the host was armed with a list of questions that were sure to make Koch look bad. The host began by asking, “Mayor Koch, you spent millions of taxpayer dollars to paint those bike lanes only to remove them. That tax money could have gone to valuable social services. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Pausing, Mayor Koch replied, “You’re absolutely right. It was a huge mistake. I made the wrong decision, and I apologize.” The host, stunned by the mayor’s response, gathered herself and proceeded through her list of questions, each of which was an accusation of some kind. To each accusation, Mayor Koch gave a similar response, admitting the mistake and apologizing for it. The interview lasted for only five of the scheduled thirty minutes after which the topic was dropped, never to be raised again.

Mayor Koch’s success in this interview demonstrates the power of what we call Closure Conversations. By acknowledging the facts that New Yorkers already knew—that the bike lanes were an idea that didn’t work—and then apologizing for it, Mayor Koch completely disarmed the issue and brought it to a close. In the process, he restored some of his credibility and the confidence New Yorkers had lost in his stewardship of the city.

Closure Conversations can restore credibility and confidence, reduce resentment, build accomplishment and accountability, add velocity to projects, and increase the engagement of participants and potential participants.  Try them – they work.

[From “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, p. 131-2]

Obama’s State of the Union: More Closure Needed?

The State of the Union address is an opportunity for the President of the United States to inform the Congress, and the American people, his assessment of the state of the union – good, bad, or ugly.  It is an opportunity to acknowledge accomplishments, recognize people for their service and sacrifices, and, where appropriate, make apologies and amend broken agreements.  In short, the State of the Union is a closure conversation.

The purpose of a Closure Conversation is to bring parts of the past to a conclusion, thus making room to start something new or to restart something that has bogged down. Closure Conversations acknowledge the facts, determine what will complete something that is unfinished, and allow people to move ahead. Closure Conversations, can restore credibility and confidence, reduce resentment, build accomplishment and accountability, add velocity, and increase the engagement of participants and potential participants.

Complete Closure Conversations acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.  If you listened to the President’s address, you heard some of each of these “A’s”.  I think, however, he could have gone further, particularly in the area of appreciation, apology, and amending broken agreements.

It takes a big person to appreciate the contribution of those who oppose what he seeks to accomplish.  Leaders and managers rarely sing the praises of those who resist change, even when that resistance actually improves the quality and result of the change.  Lisa Haneberg points to the value of inviting naysayers and critics to engage with your work in her Invite a Challenge and Zoom Forward posting.  It would have been completely disarming for Obama to recognize the Republicans in a positive way.

One of the criticisms of Obama is that he that he has not accepted enough responsibility for how things are currently working (or not) in Washington.  Although he said that his administration has made mistakes, he didn’t really say what they were or specifically apologize for them.  It is one thing to say mistakes were made, it’s another to own up and apologize for them.  Had he been more specific about these, it would have provided more closure.

Finally, there are the promises Obama has made but has not kept even though he appears to have had an opportunity to do so.  Breaking promises is THE key contributor to a loss of credibility and trust unless something is done to repair trust.  The best way to do this is to acknowledge the promises not kept, apologize for not keeping them, and then say what will be done about them in the future.  Although he did recommit to keeping some of the promises not kept, he could have been more explicit and it would have generated more closure.

As far as closure conversations go, Obama’s State of the Union address was very good.  It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he gone further.

No Response Leads to Resentment

A former student of mine sent me the link to a great blog article posted by Fast Company entitled “2010: The Year of Saying ‘I Got It’ “.  The focus of the article, written by Lynette Chiang,  is how companies, as well as individuals, have gotten into the habit of not responding to inquiries – they don’t tell you “I got it”.  Telling people you received what they sent you, or that you got their message, is a closure conversation and it completes something for them.  As the author of the article points out, when we don’t know if the person we are corresponding with received what we sent them, it creates uncertainty, leads to resentment, a loss of trust, and damages your reputation.

Most of us have experiences similar to those reported by Lynette.  I once order some electronic marketing materials online with a “money back guarantee”.  When I downloaded it and found it did give me what I wanted,  I emailed and called the seller – multiple times.  At no time did he respond (sorry, I don’t remember the  seller’s name), so I finally contacted my credit card company, went through their processes, and eventually got my money back. Interestingly, even though I don’t remember the seller, I do remember one of the people who endorsed him (whom I also contacted and who didn’t respond) and I will no longer consider his products either.  Unfortunately, not only do the people who “don’t respond” hurt themselves, they cast a shadow of doubt over everyone else in the business.

But “no response” is not limited just to businesses.  How many people do you send replies to when they send you something important?  How many people tell you when they got the report, the email, the proposal, or any number of other things you invested in providing them?  Is your opinion of them higher or lower as a result?

Telling people “I got it” does not take much.  Telling people “I got it” is a simple closure conversation, but it  makes a world of difference to them and to your reputation.  Tell people “I got it” and see what happens.


What the Absence of Accountability Sounds Like

I have been doing some research in preparation for a workshop on personal accountability a colleague and I are doing for MBA’s at the Fisher College.  As I have been getting into it, I am beginning to notice more about what the absence of accountability sounds like when people talk.  Consider the following example.

The other day I was changing a light bulb in my basement work area.  One of the screws holding the cover on the light was tight, so used a screwdriver to loosen it.  When I was finished with the screwdriver, I threw it down onto the workbench (I was on a stepladder), where it hit and scattered some small ceramic tiles I had been removing from a table made by Laurie’s dad.  I found all the tiles except one and was upset because its loss would mean the table could not be restored in its original form.

When I went upstairs to tell Laurie, my first thought was to say “The screwdriver knocked a bunch of tiles off the workbench, and now I can’t find one.”  And that’s when I noticed how the absence of accountability sounds – there is no “I” in the action of what happened.  My initial thought made the screwdriver accountable for the lost tile, not me.  I was the one who threw the screwdriver and my having done that accounts for why the tiles were scattered.

As I thought more about this one example, I began to notice how many places I leave off any mention of “I” when things happen, as if they happened on their own accord and I was simply an observer.  You know, stuff like “The cup feel off the dish drying rack and broke” rather than “I hit the cup and knocked it on the floor.”  The more I considered explanations for things that I have something to do with, the more I realized that the key word missing in those explanations was “I” and what “I” did that produced the result – good, bad, or ugly.

Perhaps you have noticed the same thing when people give explanations – there is no “I” in what they say except, possibly, when it is something good.  Check it out.  Listen to the explanations you and others give and see when there is an absence of accountability.  Let me know what you discover.


Women for Hire Article

Women for Hire recently post an article (Your Conversational Pathway to Success) of ours on their blog.  The article uses an example of a woman who is considering starting to work from home to illustrate the use of the four conversations.  We had a good time working with them and are pleased they published the piece.

Be Zealous About Keeping Agreements

Effective performance conversations depend on people keeping their agreements and doing what they said they would do.  Encourage people to respect the idea that keeping agreements matters.

Keeping agreements is the foundation for effective performance conversations.  Every time we say Yes to a request, we have created an agreement with someone.  It might be as simple as agreeing to make reservations for a lunch meeting or as complex as developing a production plan or installing a computer system.  But in any case, we’re on the hook for doing something the minute we nod our head or mutter, “Yeah, okay.”

Those agreements matter. People count on us to do what we say, and if we don’t do it they’ll have a judgment about our reliability that won’t serve us well in the future.  Similarly, we depend on others to do what they say they’ll do. If you’ve ever had to follow up on an undelivered shipment, or an unanswered question, or an unpaid invoice, you know agreements are important to the fabric of life.

We don’t trust people who don’t keep their agreements.  And we lose credibility when we don’t keep ours.  Even if people have a really good explanation for what happened, we’re still left with the consequences of their dropping the ball.

When you are working to keep a promise, any missed agreement is a potential for disaster. To make a timeline, you can’t afford to have people take their promises casually.  A climate of accountability is essential for meeting deadlines and depends on having a positive regard for keeping agreements.

When agreements are broken, be zealous about getting to the bottom of what happened so you can learn what’s needed to avoid similar situations in the future.  It’s another way to honor your promises and strengthen your credibility.

Best Management Book of 2009

“The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results” was awarded Best Book in Management by 800 CEO READ.  We are very pleased to win this award and will be traveling to New York to receive it on January 25.

Good Promises Convert Expectations into Agreements

Don’t risk being held to account for things you don’t know about. Take the time to find out what people really expect you to do, and what they expect you to deliver.  If they don’t tell you, ask.  It’s part of getting and giving a good promise and is key to effective performance conversations.

I recently had a conversation with a manager who was disturbed by her inability to meet the expectations of those “higher up” (her term).  They would give her assignments and then, when she would complete them, they would point out something that was missing they expected to be included. Has this ever happened to you? Although it is easy for this manager to blame the “higher ups” for not being clear, she shares some of the responsibility for not finding out what they wanted.  Even when you aren’t given a good request, you can have a performance conversation to convert hidden expectations into clear agreements.

If you look at each of your current assignments, are you confident you are 100% clear about what is expected of you in every case?  Is everyone else involved in the assignment also 100% clear about what you expect of them?  Or are you assuming you’ll figure it out, or they already know?

Assumptions and expectations are “silent standards”. We take a big risk when we assume that everyone knows what to do. If creativity is desirable, it’s fine to give a general direction. But if there are specific creative requirements that matter, you’ll want to get them spelled out.

Take the time to spell things out. What should the final product look like? What are the components? When do they need to be ready? Are there other people who should be involved and if so, who?  Is there a particular method or process that should be used or avoided? What restrictions and specifications apply? Don’t take a chance: assume nothing is obvious.

Remember: everyone associated with an assignment has expectations and assumptions.  Some people expect you to ask for their advice, others want to be kept informed, and some only want to be involved in an emergency.  And, they expect you to operate according to these expectations even if you don’t know them!  Ask people to take time with you to spell out their expectations.  Yes, you have to ask.

Sometimes people are afraid to ask because it might make them look less competent or capable, or they don’t want to deal with an unpleasant reaction.  One way around this is to say something like “I want to be sure you get exactly what you want and in order to do that, I want to be sure I understand the assignment clearly.  I don’t want to complete it only to find out there is something missing that you wanted included.  Could we take a few more minutes to clarify some things?” It is better to risk some potential discomfort upfront than it is to risk damaging your reputation by not delivering what people expect.

Getting clear creates a common ground in that both of you know what is expected.  This has the effect of turning an expectation into an agreement and gives you (and them) the opportunity to say whether you can or cannot do what they ask – a key for any good promise. If something new comes up later, you can always say, “I didn’t agree to that, but I’m willing to consider it.”  What you want to avoid is having to say, “I didn’t know you needed that,” or, “I thought this is what you wanted”.

Reduce your risk by taking time to unspoken expectations into clear agreements that everyone can see and understand.  Move ambiguous requests into good promises by clarifying expectations.

“High Priority” Isn’t A Deadline

Laurie and I recently conducted a training program on The Four Conversations for a group of project managers.  Since most of the managers were from the same organization, they all encountered the same problem when given an assignment.  Rather than being told a due date or deadline by when the assignment was to be completed, they are told “this is high priority” and expected to do it.  “High Priority” isn’t a deadline and it doesn’t support getting good promises, a key to effective performance conversations.

In the absence of a deadline or due date, all you have is a ‘whenever’.  A ‘whenever’ is something that gets done… whenever they bug you enough for it, whenever you find time to work on it, whenever you feel guilty enough to do it, etc.  ‘Whenever’ is stressful, an ever-looming, unknown burden to be carried around.  ‘Whenever’s’, particularly from bosses, are fear generators – we worry about when it will come due, anxious it will be asked for before we have completed it, concerned about its impact on all the other work we have, and afraid of what will happen if we don’t get it done when they want it (even though we don’t know when that is).

Contrary to a ‘whenever’, a deadline is a tool for accountability and accomplishment.  Deadlines provide information that allows both the person giving it and the person receiving it to know how to plan and do their work.  Deadlines make both the person giving the assignment and the person getting it accountable for getting work done by a particular time, rather than whenever either feels like it should be done.  When we say this is “high priority”, we avoid our responsibility for doing the work necessary to determine by when it really needs to be done.

In some organizations, a “high priority” assignment means it is to be completed within a well known period of time, for example, 24 hours.  In those cases, giving someone a “high priority” assignment is tantamount to saying “Do X within 24 hours”.  But in organizations where “high priority” is not well defined, where managers use it indiscriminately, saying an assignment is “high priority” conveys no useful information for when it should be done, only dread and worry.

In the training session, managers from the one organization pointed out that managers are now saying things like “This is priority 1-A” in an attempt to distinguish their high priority assignment from all the other high priority assignments.  Who are they kidding?  All they are doing is adding confusion while undermining their own credibility and any chance of real accountability.

Do yourself and others a favor, make clean requests and give a due date.

[reprinted from professorford.com with permission]

Make Counteroffers When Necessary

When given a deadline you know you really cannot meet, propose an alternative you can meet – that’s called making a counteroffer.

If you don’t counteroffer when you know something cannot be done, you’re setting up yourself and others for failure.

What do you do when someone asks you to do something you know you can’t get done? Do you say “Yes” and hope things will work out somehow?  Or say “Yes” knowing you’ll deal with the consequences later?  Or say “Yes” and break other promises for on-time performance?

A better way to deal with the situation is to make a counteroffer.  Counteroffers are one way to respond to the requests that make up Performance Conversations.  A counteroffer is where you say, “I can’t do A, but I can do B”. For example, say, “I can’t get it for you by 5:00 PM today, but I can get it for you by 3:00 PM tomorrow.” Another type of counteroffer is, “I can’t do A unless B happens”.  For example, say, “I won’t be able to do that today unless we can extend the due date on Project B by at least a day.”

Counteroffers communicate two important things. First, that you are not currently in a position to accept their request. And second, that you are willing to work something out.  It says that you will be responsible for what you promise, and it prevents the need for excuses later on.

To be effective, counteroffers must be made with integrity.  You can’t just say, “I’m too busy,” or, “I don’t have time.” A counteroffer is an alternative promise that includes a request. You are offering to do something, and you are re-negotiating the due dates of one or more other projects.

Counteroffers can be very effective.  You don’t always get all the leeway you ask for, but that should remind you to ask for as much as you think you need. It’s worth giving them a try, even if you think the people around you are pretty inflexible. You just might be surprised.