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Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.

Organization Hierarchy & the Difficulty of Difficult People

In the last several posts, I have reported on an interesting phenomenon I’ve seen in every client workplace I have ever consulted. People at different levels in any organization see very different problems – and very different opportunities. Going back to the 6-part case study (July 31, 2019) that used the Group Assessment survey to identify key workplace issues, Managers see one set of issues but are blind to quite a few things that are creating barriers for Employees and their effectiveness.

My favorite is the problem of “Difficult People” in the workplace. Everybody sees a different side of the problem and can offer different reasons for why it happens. Here are 3 types of Difficult People, each with a note on who sees these people most accurately:

  1. People who don’t do their work, don’t use the processes or technologies that are available, and/or have to be either motivated or managed closely by somebody. Best seen by Employees, who have to pick up the slack or take them by the hand and show them how and why to do the job.
  2. People who are simply crabby or unpleasant at work, such as complainers or people who think they are better/smarter than everyone else. Best seen by Employees, who will be affected every day by those negative attitudes on display in the workplace.
  3. People who stir up problems by gossiping or blaming others. Best seen by Employees, who will be distracted by the loss of trust within their work group and the futility of correcting it. A peer stepping in to correct this will probably just aggravate the situation.

Why don’t Managers see these problems? They do, but they usually prefer to keep their distance from them. Why step into a “people problem”? That is the world of psychology and sociology, and they have more worthwhile work to do. Many also know they lack the expertise to “fix” a Difficult Person. Managers put up with these people, and even if they see it, they don’t rank it high on their list of workplace problems. As one Manager said, “That guy isn’t a very smart worker, and he isn’t real friendly, either. Maybe he needs coaching, but that’s not my job – I’m a manager and have a lot of responsibilities. He is not one of them.”

For the most part, Employees will not report these problems. Why not? Because that could make them seem like a complainer or a gossip, and they don’t want to be the one giving a Manager another problem to solve. And, in many cases, an Employee who addresses the problem by speaking directly to someone who is “difficult” will likely just aggravate the situation.

The only thing we have found to solve the problem is a Manager who is willing to practice using the four productive conversations with each individual(s) who is causing one (or more) of the 3 problems identified above. Most important is the “Closure Conversation”, which includes being specific about the behaviors that are causing problems, and acknowledging one or more things that are positive about the person’s behaviors or results (several videos are available here on Closure Conversations). But all four productive conversations are needed, perhaps with some follow-up to validate the importance of the message and any progress observed.

So, those Difficult People problems can be resolved – relatively easily – but it also requires what may be a new kind of communication between Managers and Employees to find out what the problem really is. The Group Workplace Assessment points out the problems that Employees see, but doesn’t give names to those Difficult People, nor does it give specifics about when, where, and how the problem shows up. When a Manager is serious about improving performance, morale, and teamwork on the job, a few communication upgrades will improve the work environment. Admittedly, dealing with Difficult People can be difficult – and delicate. But the payoff is worth the investment.

 

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.

Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Tip #2 on Being Professional:  Managers and Supervisors, Listen Up!

Another type of communication that is unproductive – or harmful – is blaming other people. That’s when Person A tells Person B that someone else is responsible for a problem or mistake. Shane was a good example of the fallout from blaming. A new manager, he was disappointed with his 3 team leaders. “I give them deadlines but they never get things done on time. What should I do?”

It made no sense to me, because these were smart, qualified people who seemed serious about their jobs. I asked Shane if it would be OK for me to meet with each of them, one-on-one, to see if I could get an idea about what was happening. “Sure”, he told me, “but don’t expect much.”

What I learned from the 3 meetings was that each of those team leaders had been promised certain things that had not been delivered:

  • Erin was still waiting to hear about whether she was going to get tuition reimbursement for the classes she was taking to bring new technology solutions to Shane’s department. She was halfway through the semester and had started processing a loan to cover the gap.
  • Stephen didn’t know yet whether he was going to be able to book his flights to visit his family in London. The price on the flights was going up every day, but a key meeting date for his team still had not been finalized.
  • Sheryl was the newest team leader, and had not yet received the bump in salary that went with the move up from being a team member to a team leader. She didn’t know how long it would take to be processed, or whether it would be retroactive to her leadership start date.

All three were “on hold”, waiting for Shane to let them know when he would have the information that would eliminate their suspense. Stephen said, “Shane tells us that he is waiting too. He blames another VP – or another department, or sometimes just “corporate – for not getting back to him. We think he could get a decision, but he tells us it’s complicated and he doesn’t make it a priority.”

The fact that the team leaders were not reliably delivering on-time results to Shane might have been a deliberate form of payback. But I could see that they were just discouraged, and maybe taking Shane’s message to heart: Timelines don’t matter, and getting some details resolved quickly is not important when there are so many other things that need to be done.

Shane had not seen the pattern of delay-blaming- waiting until we talked about all 3 team leaders having such similar problems.  He got those decisions resolved the next day. “I see that underneath my excuses for not getting things done was a nasty habit of not taking timelines seriously,” he told me. “I’m going to put due dates for work and decisions of all kinds on our team calendar – then we can talk about them in our weekly meeting.”

Blaming others is too easy – and everyone sees through it anyway. Take charge of your commitments and get stuff done. Sometimes it makes everyone else around you step up to being more accountable for their work too!

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

That Difficult Client Talk – Part I

Dear Reggie,

First, the bad news. You’ve been blaming your staff and technical teams for not doing their jobs well, but you have not considered that you might be the problem. So I’m here to tell you that you are breaking almost every rule of good management. I’m telling you because you said to me, “I want my workplace to work. Help me fix it.” So I am pointing to the heart of the problem: You.

Second, the good news. There’s a path to being a better manager. In your case, the path has three steps, but I’m only going to deal with the #1 item right now. Here it is:

Stop Managing People! They don’t like it, and it doesn’t work anyway. So there. A few important points:

  • Get permission before you coach somebody. You assume that your people want your coaching. That’s a bad assumption – you need to check with them before you coach them. Tell them what kind of coaching you think they need, then ask if they want you to give them some guidance. If they aren’t enthusiastic about it, then let it go. Or find out what kind of support they would prefer.
  • Don’t play psychologist. Dealing with people’s personal feelings, experiences, and conflicts is not your specialty. And it’s not what management is about. You are a technical guy, running a technical department. Human relations are not your strong suit. Get a person from HR to help you sort that stuff out, and work with them to learn from them.
  • Take responsibility for establishing clear assignments. The assignments you give people are vague and incomplete. Every assignment needs to be associated with a clearly stated goal, and maybe even some sort of measure for success. Every assignment needs enough discussion to have confidence that the other person – let’s call him/her Robin – understands exactly what you want, need, and expect. And, finally, every assignment needs a deadline.

Start managing agreements. An agreement begins with you making a request for a product, service, or result. Then, at some point, Robin makes a promise to produce or deliver what you’re asking, though perhaps with some modifications (due to that discussion you had with him/her).  Request + Promise = Agreement.

Then, Reggie, you follow through. Stick with managing the agreement, not Robin. Check in at pre-arranged times and places – by email, at the weekly meeting, etc. – to ask for a status update, as in “Is everything on track with Project X for the September 17 deadline?”

Unless you’re at the water cooler or the coffee machine, you don’t ask, “How’s life?” or “Did you have a good weekend?” or “Why the long face?”. Wading into the personal is fine for personal time, but keep your eye on the agreement in a more formal way when you’re on the work clock.

Thanks for listening, Reggie. You wanted my coaching, so there is Part I. Give it some practice for the coming week, and I’ll check back with a few of your team members next Thursday to ask them how you’re doing.

After that, I’ll stop by your office and we’ll both take a look at how well you are doing your job.

Un-Productive Communication – Let’s Ditch it for Now

Complaining. Blaming. Gossip. Those conversations are usually unproductive. The word “productive” comes from the ideas of “leading and moving forward”. In that sense, being productive is a good thing.

Unproductive conversations are everywhere – they aren’t wrong, but they don’t produce much value.

  • Complaining could be productive if you are committed to following through to find a resolution. But if you are complaining just because you’re in a bad mood, you’re putting negativity on a loudspeaker.
  • Blaming others for errors or failures might give you some momentary satisfaction. It might even get you out of trouble. But it still can’t be considered productive communication because it creates ill will and avoids responsibility. Neither of those outcomes will advance anything worthwhile.
  • Gossip, revealing personal information or passing along rumors or negative opinions of others, is a popular pastime in the Age of Connectivity. But it’s not productive in the sense of advancing anything and it can cause serious damage, both to the speaker’s reputation and to other people.

So it is unfortunate that we are in the silly season of “politics” – original meaning: “civil government” – has become anything but civil. Five more months to go.

My thought is that our best protection from uncivil, unproductive conversations is not to participate in them. Any dialogue engaging those 3 types of conversation will likely lead to making something – or someone – wrong, or bad, or otherwise disagreeable.

Now I’m developing some skills in shifting toxic talk to other topics – such as the two conferences I’ve been to in the past month (both terrific!), the executive retreats I’m leading this summer (hey, I thought I was retired!), even the weather (at least we can agree it’s getting hot now).

I invite you to join me in staying out of the deep weeds of unproductive conversations.

End of sermon.

Cynicism and Resistance to Change – What Works?

Cynicism is a unique form of resistance to change. It’s a way of saying, “This will never work so I’m not even going to participate.” People tune out, or surrender, without even a flicker of interest in the possibility of making something happen. Cynicism is a nasty disease in many organizations (and in many households, too). It is contagious – in part because people can make their cynical statements sound wise and experienced, often humorous or sarcastic. Having been a management consultant, charged with implementing organization changes, I’ve heard lots of those:

  • “Talk to Arnie about that idea. He loves science fiction.”
  • “Last time they did that, 24 people lost their jobs. You won’t get much help from us.”
  • “It won’t work here. This is a government organization.”
  • “We’ve tried that every year since 1972. Is it the 1-year anniversary already?”

We have a lot of data on handling resistance to change from my consulting practice and from Jeffrey’s MBA classes. Here are three lessons we learned:

  1. Cynicism is a signal that the change process was not designed with employee input – people’s ideas and perspectives were not considered in planning the course of the change. There was little recognition that the change would rearrange (and in some cases, damage) people’s daily work activities and communication links, causing them personal and professional setbacks.
  2. Cynicism is a sign of unfinished business. Something happened in the past – a project, a merger, a change of some kind – that was never completely closed out. When the change was finished, people had no way to say what happened to them, or to ask for help in repairing the damages or disruptions they experienced. Many are still injured in some way, perhaps having missed a raise or promotion, or simply not being heard.
  3. A person’s cynicism puts blame on “the system”, “management”, or just “them”. It avoids any attempt to consider what personal role someone might have had, or wanted to have, in the change process or its outcomes. It also prevents any serious inquiry into what might work, due to the firmly held view that “nothing will work here” – which prevents future changes from going smoothly.

What to do? Meet with the key people involved in the past changes, and create closure. I used two whiteboards, labeling them “What Did Work?” and “What Didn’t Work?”, and asked people to tell me about the last big organizational change in those terms. I wrote down each response, building both lists. If the “what worked” list didn’t have much in it, I asked them, “What would have worked?”, which usually triggered ideas.

These conversations sometimes took an hour, sometimes longer. The tone of the conversation usually shifted after about 20 minutes, from expressions of individual anger to making corrections clarifying what was already written on one of the lists, or adding new memories and ideas. At some point, the responses became relatively free of cynicism and sarcasm, and I could ask my punchline question:

“If we could find ways to prevent or fix all of the things on the “Didn’t Work” list, and if we used some of these ideas from the “What Worked” list, then could we make any future changes happen successfully?”  This usually opened a discussion of what would have the next change go more smoothly, with less pushback, resistance, and fallout.

Sometimes, to move ahead, we need to help people close out the past and see it in a new light. Even when executives want to move forward quickly, it is useful to take the time to assist key players in getting on board. Changes don’t work if people aren’t listening.