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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.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to https://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Toxic Talk Impacts Workplace Productivity

Toxic Talk impacts workplace productivity. Complaining, blaming and gossiping damage relationships and impact productivity. Jeffrey offers ways to reduce its occurrence in your organization and convert it into a positive action.