Step #3 – Using Conversations to Solve Workplace Problems

After Rodd filled out his own free Personal Workplace Communication Assessment, he received a Results & Recommendations (R&R) Report with suggestions for improving the biggest problem he saw: a lack of accountability. Those suggestions, summarized in Step #2, “Using Conversations to Improve Accountability”, moved him to invite all of his staff to take the survey and get their own Regional R&R Report based on responses from their own people. Maybe then they would all see the problem and work together to get it fixed!

Rodd decided to subscribe to the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment – because he wanted to have different Reports for each of his five Regional Offices, and might want to have follow-up surveys over time. He had talked about this survey idea at his last All-Staff meeting, and people sounded interested and willing to do it, so he was confident there would be a good response. He sent out the invitations to take the survey with a distinct link for each Regional Office’s personnel.

Out of 75 staff members, 70 completed the survey. To Rodd’s surprise, the five R&R Reports showed that the five Regional Offices really did see different worlds. And they didn’t all see “lack of accountability” as the biggest problem. But then, after studying the five Reports, he was intrigued to see the different patterns of responses, and figured that working on those differences as a group would help the Regions get better acquainted and begin standardizing StateOrg procedures and communications. (He was right about that!)

Rodd also made up a list of the “Non-Problems” – the items that got the lowest number of votes overall. “That’s the good news”, he told me. “I want them to see our real strengths before we talk about the problems and solutions. His plan was threefold: (1) Send the “Good News” email listing the strengths, or “Non-Problems”, of State Org to all 75 people on Thursday; (2) Send all five R&R Reports to everyone the following Monday; and (3) Schedule a one-day visit with each Regional Office the following week, to discuss their unique “Biggest Problems” and their ideas for improvement.

It was a smart thing to do – people responded well to hearing that this wasn’t all about problems and complaints. And, since each person had received their own individual survey feedback report and recommendations, they were already talking about the idea of using conversations to solve workplace problems. You can see Rodd’s Step #3 (out of 6 steps) here: Step #3 – Group Workplace Invitations & Results.

Step #2 – Choosing an Assessment to Identify Biggest Workplace Problems

We’ve received a wave of inquiries about practicing productive communication techniques to resolve workplace problems. Since last week’s post of Step #1 in a 6-step process used by Rodd, a former client (see Step#1 blogpost), it seems people recognize the need to repair a “fractured organization”. The idea of using 4 distinct kinds of conversation to get a group on track might be catching on – perhaps my retirement years will be well spent letting people know about this!

Rodd’s first introduction to using productive communication was the free Personal Communication Assessment – only 20 questions – to see how his own skills stacked up in this area. He got prompt feedback on his answers, showing him his strengths and his weaknesses. Then, he kept exploring by taking the free Workplace Communication Assessment – this time, 56 questions. Again, he got immediate feedback on 8 types of workplace problems in StateOrg (our name for his organization).  The report validated what Rodd saw as the biggest problem: a lack of accountability.  Even better, it gave him a recipe for how to use all four productive conversations to solve that problem.

First, though, Rodd thought about having all his staff take one of the Group Assessments so he could get an even stronger validation on that “biggest workplace problem”.  He only had to decide which Group Assessment he should get:

Rodd thought if everyone recognized that there was a “lack of accountability”, they would surely work together to solve it.  He also felt that getting feedback from everyone in all five regions would be a good way for them to experience themselves as part of one organization instead of five separate outposts. He was right about that part.

You can see the links to all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s second step is here, including the ideas he had for how to put the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment to good use in having his five-regions work together in a more coordinated way. (For a little more on the mess he was dealing with, see Step#1 blogpost.)

How New Manager Got a Fractured Organization to Collaborate

I’ve been going through my past cases with client organizations – now that I’m retired from my consulting career, I figure I can write up some of what I learned from working with them.  One of my favorites was Rodd, newly hired to run a multi-regional organization that worked with state agencies, local employers, and lots of other businesses and civic groups. He was overwhelmed – not because there were too many people, but because none of those regional offices worked in the same way.

This case is now posted on our workplace communication website because after Rodd found that site, he tried two of the free assessments, and then figured out a way to get all of his people – and processes and procedures – working in synch.  In our last conversation, he told me, “I thought I was screwed, but this worked and we all actually had some fun doing it. Thanks for saving my career.”

I didn’t save his career, of course. He did that himself, using the assessments on that site to evaluate what was going on in his regional offices. But he started with himself: what was his profile in using the four kinds of productive communication?  He found that he was strong in two kinds of conversation, weak in the other two. Then he kept going, learning more about the communication in his whole office and ultimately in all five regional offices.

You can see the list of all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s first step is here, the beginning of his six steps to get his people more aware of each other and better able to collaborate on standardizing some of their work procedures and reports. It was a highly successful project for him, and he was right: it was fun.

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

Performance Management = Count the Hours Worked? Or the Results Produced?

I love reading The Economist magazine for its useful perspective on the world. Last week an article included a summary of the evolution of “performance management” at work.  Here it is:

  1. Before the industrial age, most people worked in their own farm or workshop and were paid for the amount they produced.
  2. When machines were developed and were more efficient than cottage-industry methods, factories emerged. Suddenly, workers were not paid for their output, but for their time – they were required to clock in and out.
  3. Today, work hours are still the measure, and employees have found ways to make it look like they are working longer hours than they really are. The article mentioned some tricks they play to maintain their image as a performer:
    • Leave a jacket on your office chair;
    • Walk around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard; and/or
    • Send emails at odd hours.

The name for this new phenomenon is “presenteeism”: being present but not productive. This is because, the article states, “managers, who are often no good at judging employees’ performance, use time in the office as a proxy”. Some take the shortcut of “judging” performance based on the hours worked rather than understanding the actual results produced. That decision can create a damaging idea of what workplace “performance” means.

Perform: The original meaning is “To provide thoroughly. To deliver completely, as promised.” That tells us performance is the fulfillment of a promise for an action or delivery of a product, service, or communication. It means a manager has to clarify which results, by whom, and by when – not to mention discussing resources, and identifying relevant key players. It requires thoughtful, productive communication, including a “performance conversation” in which the manager clarifies the results and timelines then gets an agreement – a promise from the employee – to deliver the intended result(s).

Performance is not determined by a judgment based on apparent work hours. It entails tracking promises for results and the results produced and delivered.  But managers who take that performance-judgment shortcut are also short-circuiting the work of management.

A “performance review” is more than checking a time clock or filling out a form. It looks at the promises made and/or revised, promises kept, and promises not kept. It is more objective than subjective, looking at what results each person (or team) actually produced.

It does take time and attention to manage performance in terms of results, so I see why some managers rely on their personal judgment instead. It’s sort of like leaving a jacket on their office chair or walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard. Looking busy will often be perceived as being productive.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

My husband Jeffrey has finally submitted his paper on the “leadership of change” to an international academic journal. It has been in development for over 3 years and could alter the research approach to leadership. I hope it does – that research needs help!

Consider the way researchers evaluate the effectiveness of leadership: they do a survey. Think about that. Can we say whether someone’s leadership is effective based on the opinions of their colleagues? If we admire someone in a leadership position, or think s/he is a great person – does that mean they are a good leader? Aren’t we supposed to look at the results they produce?

Effectiveness, after all, is about producing effects, i.e., results. How about asking whether a “change leader” actually made the intended change happen? Maybe even look to see if the change was accomplished on time? And on budget, too.

Jeffrey’s paper identified three basic functions that together add up to good leadership: (1) structuring work; (2) maintaining group integration; and (3) adapting and innovating as needed. One important point he made is that those three things do not need to be done by a single individual. In other words, leadership can be a distributed phenomenon – a collection of people that together contribute to getting those three things right.

So, you might be good at setting up the structures for getting all the necessary tasks done, while Darryl in the next office is great at keeping the group working well together with good internal communication. And maybe the IT team on the third floor brings their expertise to watch the progress of the initiative and make sure that surprises are addressed in an appropriate and timely way. The three of us – two individuals and a group – make up a good leadership team.

Where do those opinion surveys fit in?  They can help us see how people think you are doing with organizing task assignments, or how Darryl is doing with group cohesion, or if the IT team is seeing all the places that need attention. Asking people what they think of the way things are going and whether they think the leaders are on top of things is useful to learn something about the culture and climate, and can also provide feedback to the leadership team on all three leadership functions.

Opinion surveys have a role to play, but not in determining the effectiveness of a leader or a group of leaders. Thinking highly of someone doesn’t mean they are effective. To know about that, we need objective measures of results and outcomes. Which means the goals have to be clear and the steps to accomplishment spelled out for all to see. And then we need to check on how things are going at regular intervals: are we behind schedule or over the budget this week? Effectiveness isn’t a personality thing. It’s about measures and status updates. Accountability starts at the top. So there.

Leadership? Or Management? What’s the Difference?

An article in The Economist (March 30th, 2019, p. 67) said, in the opening paragraph, “Everyone can think of inspiring leaders from history, but managers who think they can base their style on Nelson Mandela, or Elizabeth I, are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

First, did the reference to Mandela and Elizabeth I tip you off that The Economist is a British magazine? More importantly, do the words “leaders” and “managers” suggest that leaders are managers? Or that managers aspire to be leaders?  It got me thinking. Which means it nudged me to take out my Etymological Dictionary on the origins of words.

Leader – One who conducts others on a journey or course of action, keeping watch from above and providing defense, protection and guidance for the action below.

Manager – One who handles, controls, or administers a journey or course of action.  Note: the word “manage” is derived from “manus”, Latin for hand, as in “handling or steering a horse”, i.e., holding the reins.

So a manager is in control and steering the action, while a leader is protecting and defending the actors. Sounds like two different roles to me. Which job would you want?

If you are a manager and want to be a leader, here’s a tip from that article: Being “competent” involves one important skill – the ability to have dialogues, or what we call Understanding Conversations. This kind of leadership “communication competence” has three important ingredients:

  1. The ability to listen and understand, sometimes called empathy.  “Team leadership requires having sufficient empathy to understand the concerns of others.”
  2. Dialogue with people ‘below’.  “Employees are more likely to be engaged with their work if they get frequent feedback from their bosses and if they are involved in setting their own goals.”
  3. The ability to course-correct.  “When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, a good leader also needs the flexibility to adjust their strategy.”  This would be done in dialogues with others, both above and below the leader.

The article made some other good points:

  • On competence and charisma: “The biggest mistake is to equate leadership entirely with charisma,” and, “Competence is more important than charisma.”
  • On competence and confidence: “People tend to assume that confident individuals are competent, when there is no actual relationship between the two qualities.”
  • Most fun quote (read it twice): “Charisma plus egomania minus competence is a dangerous formula.” (This reminded me of someone who is much in the media these days.)

The article also mentioned a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which should be a best-seller, based on the title alone: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)”. That one should be jumping off the shelves!

You’ve Got an Improvement Project?  First, Listen!

I’ve been working with a group of people who are focusing on how to improve the “continuing care” services in a “senior living” facility.  (Note: those quote-marked phrases are intended to avoid using the term Old Folks Home).  The people in the group divide nicely into two types of people. See if you can spot them in these comments from four of them:

  1. Aaron: “We need to pay attention to whether people are getting the right kind of social activities. And whether their diet is appropriate for their medical profile.”
  2. Bonnie: “When I was over there, walking through the facility, I noticed a couple of rooms where the beds were unmade and there were holes in the sheets. This is not good quality at all!”
  3. Frank: “Let’s do a survey to find out what the residents say is working well and what they want to improve. Sort of a satisfaction survey. Then we can come up with some goals.”
  4. Elaine: “I think what’s missing is a statement of mission and vision, and a good strategic plan. Maybe those need to be created or updated.”

The meeting spun around for a while with comments like these – the group leader let everyone talk – and when some of them began to get noticeably impatient, she intervened. Thank goodness. I was thinking that people like Aaron and Bonnie were too “deep in the weeds” of details and I didn’t want to spend more time there. Others, like Elaine and Frank, were more “big-picture”, probably a better place to start.

“I’m sure your suggestions are all useful,” the group leader said. “But let’s look at how we could arrange them to get pointed in the right direction. We can’t create our Facility Improvement Project to include everything, so how do we get clear on what we want to accomplish?”

Aaron said, “I like Frank’s idea of doing the survey. That would give us something to stand on, and a way to see what’s important to the residents.”  Then Elaine admitted that a strategic plan was going to need some clear goals and said that a survey could be useful to find out what those are.  Even Bonnie agreed, leaving the “holes in the sheets” behind for now.

Frank summed up the group’s insight, saying, “It’s important that we start by listening, asking the residents what they want most. That gives us some goals to work toward. But also (a nod to Elaine), it might help us refresh the mission statement and even come up with a strategic plan – or at least an action plan.”

Aaron agreed, saying, “Listening first – hey, that’s good. I want to put social activities and healthy diet questions on the survey, though.” Everyone looked at Bonnie until she laughed and said, “I’ll write the question about bedsheets, OK?”

Lesson learned: The group leader didn’t tell us what to accomplish – she asked us how to find out what to accomplish. We learn what will improve a situation by asking the people who are most directly affected. So, don’t just make up “improvement goals” and solutions for others without granting them the gift of your listening.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.