Posts

Communication Impossible: Preventing Incomplete Conversations

Did you ever see the TV show “Restaurant Impossible”? An hour of interesting communication that saves a restaurant and sometimes saves a family too. But my favorite moment is at the very end, when the show is over, and some guy – while they are turning off the final credits – says “That’s done!” He has a great voice, and now I’ve started saying it too, using the same tone he does. I finish the dishes? “That’s done!” Finish writing a blog? “That’s done!”

It is particularly interesting because I just finished a communication assessment for a client (“That’s done!”), and saw that the top workplace issues in their organization are created by what we call “incomplete conversations”. Those happen when:

  • Somebody does something really good and nobody says, “Thank you!”
  • Or somebody doesn’t keep their promise to get you that information you need when they said they’d have it – and you don’t contact them and say, “Hey, where’s that price schedule you said you’d have on my desk this morning?”
  • Or you change an appointment on your calendar and forget to notify some of the people you were supposed to meet.

The first incomplete conversation is likely to cause a little bit of hurt feelings, when the person wonders if you even noticed the good thing they did. But if you leave out that “Thank you!” on a regular basis, it can turn into a grudge, or worse.

The second one eats away at an organization’s integrity and undermines accountability. If you don’t follow up when people don’t keep their word, they will learn that you don’t really care about what you say you want. If you wonder why you don’t get what you want, read that last sentence again because it’s true. You lose your credibility, and nobody takes you seriously. So when you ask people in another department for something you need right now, well, guess what? You have trained them out of being accountable.

The third one is when you make a change and don’t really consider who will be affected by it. You can’t be surprised when they’re sort of mad at you. Maybe even more than sort of mad – they might gossip about you, say mean things to you, or just not invite you to something you should attend. Payback is a bear, but we bring it on ourselves.

So this organization is going to learn about where the incomplete conversations are. We already know they have something like all 3 of these situations, but I’m betting we will find more of them. When we find out where and when they happen, we can see how to put in the completion. That would reduce some of those negative feelings in a hurry and maybe even boost their accountability scores too: it’s not impossible.

Personality vs. Communication = Internal vs. In-Between.

Myers-Briggs is the “world’s most widely used personality test” and “the gold standard of psychological assessments”, says a Washington Post article. The article mentions government agencies and corporations that use the test, but then goes on to say that “the test is highly questioned by the scientific community” and that it’s not clear organizations should use it anymore.

Why not use a personality test in organizations? It’s a good way to find out about character traits and behavioral tendencies that might be relevant to improve training programs and group interactions. It’s also part of “talent management”, which includes “everything an organization does to recruit, retain, develop, reward and make people perform” (wikipedia). So what if it’s a money-maker, part of the $50 billion training industry – does that make using it a mistake?

Well, that depends on what you want to accomplish. Personality testing is a good way to let people know that other people operate in different ways, based on different habits and preferences. Just because I’d rather read a book and you’d rather go to a party doesn’t mean we aren’t both competent and capable in our jobs. But it does mean that we will probably prefer different kinds of work and work environments, and that we might disagree on what is most important. That could be good to know.

But personality tests will focus our attention on what’s inside a person’s skin as being the most important phenomenon. It’s interesting – in fact, the internal stuff is so interesting that we don’t always look at what goes on between people: conversations, such as making requests, promises, and agreements. Or giving and receiving, of both products and services. And learning – yes, learning is an in-between phenomenon, not an in-the-mind one. Even attitudes, usually thought of as internal, show up in facial expressions (think Grumpy Cat) and tone of voice that are in-between, sent from one person to another.

The in-between deserves a bit more attention. What we see, say, and hear let us know whether there is integrity in our relationships and our business. If I say I’ll call you on Tuesday, and you don’t hear from me all week, my word isn’t going to be worth much to you the next time we talk. If you tell me you’re going to email me a document but I haven’t received it after 6 days, I might want to notice that we didn’t agree on when you would send it (and that I need to make better agreements). And not just integrity is found in the in-between: accountability and credibility are there too.

So fine, use personality tests to help people see the diverse flavors and behaviors in their working world. But communication is not a personality trait. We might consider using a communication diagnostic to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of productive interaction in our workplaces.

That Difficult Client – Part IV.  Completion

Reggie started with a serious performance problem in his department. He said his staff was “under-performing”, and he was insistent that I find out what the problem was and “fix it”. So I did. The problem was Reggie. He was a technical whiz, but not a very good manager. Here’s what I mean:

  • He was managing people instead of managing their agreements for performance. He could have looked at their agreements to deliver quality products or services, or to produce on-time results, but he didn’t have those spelled out. So he was “coaching”, and focusing on their attitudes instead of working with them to define clear jobs and tasks, and identify relevant ways to know whether they were doing what they agreed to do.
  • He was being a boss, not a manager, by giving orders and instructions without asking for input from the people who would be doing the work. His dialogue was “I talk, you listen”, which isn’t the two-way street he needed to manage a staff of diverse responsibilities.
  • The goals of various individuals and teams were sometimes overlapping, sometimes disconnected to each other. There was no “big picture” that allowed everyone to see themselves as collaborating in some way for a common purpose.

Here’s what Reggie himself said he learned to do out of this experience, in his own words:

  • “I stopped relying on people’s job descriptions and experience, and my own expectations, to be sure people knew what to do. Talking about what the end results should look like, and agreeing on timelines that worked for me and for my staff – that was a breakthrough. And follow-through was everything for me. I never saw that as my job – I thought it was their job. Now I follow up on every assignment we agree to put on the list. It’s part of my staff meetings. That alone improved people’s performance in a very big way.”
  • “The discussion thing was huge. I learned how much I didn’t know about what’s happening on our customer’s sites. Technology changes, and so do operations, and my staff is on the front lines of those changes. They have been great with educating me! Our customers are pleased too, and one of them told me he wanted the same team to come back for the next project.”
  • “We had gotten pretty good with the “GPS” thing – Goals, Performance measures, and Schedules – but when we looked at how it connected into one bigger picture of Mission-Vision-Purpose, we saw where the holes were. I hadn’t updated that stuff since I got this job, so it was way out of date. When I could see the value of having those statements “belong” to our department, we all talked it through and created new statements for our MVP. Re-framing our goals after that was simple, and much easier for everyone to see what our primary game is. And we are winning at last.”

There was one last nice thing he said when he thanked me for helping him learn to manage his department: “I’ve always been a technical guy first, and never learned management. Sometimes we just get promoted, and don’t have the knowledge we need for that next step up. Thanks for the kick in the butt!”

Super-vision: It All Depends on Communication

Most of us are supervising something or other much of the time. To “supervise” means to “oversee” something, and most of us oversee about a million things every day, like our credit card balances, household and office chores, and email in-boxes.

Supervising is a way of paying attention to three things at once. We frequently give our attention to:

  1. Some kind of goal or concern, like making sure we can make a deadline, that our clothes fit properly, or whether the dog has fleas.
  2. Other people around us or associated with the matter, whether they are nearby – in our home or workplace – or if they are remote, reachable by phone or email. Are they competent? Do they look busy? Are they in a good mood, or still crabby from what happened yesterday?
  3. The environment we’re in – Are phones ringing and people talking? Do we have access to wi-fi? How long will it take to get someplace during rush hour? And what is it that smells so bad?

We’re on some level of alert most of our waking hours. But none of that mental activity is visible. All we can reliably see or hear is communication.

I watched this mother duck supervising her babies last weekend. She may have been thinking, planning, or worrying, but all I could see was the way she let those babies know they needed to stick close to her. She also let several much larger Canada geese know to keep their distance. And she clearly let me know that if I came any closer with my camera she would take those babies off to the other side of the pond.

Too often we live inside our heads, listening to our million thoughts and feelings instead of putting our attention on whatever communication might connect us to our goals, to other people, and to our environment. So here’s a couple of communication tips for reaching whatever goals you have at the moment:

  • Ask for what you want. Find someone who can help you resolve a problem or take a step forward, and ask for what you want.
  • Clean up things with people who matter to you. Say what’s happening with you, ask what’s happening with them, and be generous in your listening and your speaking.
  • Talk with someone about trying something new and different, or taking some project or activity in a new direction. Add some zest to your life by inviting someone to step outside your boundaries with you.

FYI, Mrs. Duck Supervisor sends you her best regards. And, I’m sure, she advises you to adopt her family management practices too.

Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

The Hard Work of Making Good Requests: Part I

This is a tale of two mottoes. The motto I used when I worked as a management consultant was “Make it easy for people to do the right thing.” I still remember the day I invented it, after a meeting with a manager who was’t getting what he wanted from his people.

“They don’t know who they need to talk to, either in this department or in other departments,” he complained. “And they turn things in late – sometimes very late.”

I met with three of his Supervisors later that day and asked them about their jobs. I didn’t tell them their boss was dissatisfied with them, just that I wanted to know more about their responsibilities. There was a whiteboard in the room, so I drew a line down the center of it, and labeled one side “What Works” and the other one “What Doesn’t Work” about our jobs.

After they were assured that I wasn’t going to “rat them out”, as one of them said, we filled up those boards pretty quickly. I also got some solution ideas from them about what it would take to solve those “What Doesn’t Work” items.

Sure enough, the two complaints from the boss were part of the supervisors’ problems too. On the list of what didn’t work was (1) We don’t always know who to talk to about our assignments, and (2) There are no clear deadlines for most stuff. They knew the boss was unhappy about them, but didn’t know how to get the information to solve the problem.

OK, boss, tell me why you don’t include the “who to talk to” and the “due dates” in your instructions to Supervisors?

“Because they should know their jobs,” he said. “They’ve been around long enough, and should know who to talk to. And when I assign something, they should turn it around right away.” I heard his motto: “They should know what to do.” It didn’t get him what he wanted, but he seemed stuck with it.

I made up a template for job assignments – a simple form titled “Assignments” – with spaces to write What result was wanted, When it was due, Why it mattered, Who else should be consulted or included in some way, Where those people and other resources were located, and, an extra space in case there were any special instructions on How it should be done. Nothing complicated – ½ page, mostly blank.

I didn’t give it to the boss, I gave it to the Supervisors. Now, every time they get an assignment, they take the template out and ask the boss questions to fill in the blanks. The boss rolls his eyes, but at least now he’s getting what he wants. Plus, the Supervisors are actually learning who to talk to about different projects. And one of the Supervisors got a promotion to management about 5 months later. He said it was because he was good at getting things done.

The Power of Promising: Listener + Do + Due 

There’s this Ugly Chore that has been lingering in my life for way too long now: the 6 boxes of files left from my management consulting career. When you retire from your own business, what do you do with all that stuff? I had a plan: write it up in a bunch of “how-to” articles and make those ideas available to others who might want to put the ideas to use. Now, a year later, everybody I know – family, friends, and neighbors – has surely tired of hearing about this genius plan of mine.

Last week, I thought up a new way to go through those boxes, quickly get rid of what I don’t want, and make little files of a few ideas worth saving for potential articles. I tested it out, and it worked – now I have 1 bag of paper to recycle, 1 empty box, and a few skinny files with article names on them. Yay!

Looking at the other 5 boxes, I had the same old feeling of “I don’t want to”. But I have a work-around to bypass that particular voice in my head. I make a promise to somebody who will want to hear that I was successful. So I told Ray, a former partner in managing a conference, that I would have the remaining 3 client file boxes emptied by the end of this week, and the 2 reference file boxes gone by the end of the week after that. A promise to Ray is nothing to take lightly – he’s a guy who pays attention when someone gives their word. So now I have boxed myself in to finishing the Boxes Project.

Not everybody has a guy like that in their lives, but everybody has someone – a Listener – who will hear to a Do + Due promise. That’s when you make a promise to someone (“Listener”) that you will take an action (“Do), and then also promise a date by when you’ll report back to them on your results (“Due”). For me, it’s a good way to practice honoring my word and exercise my integrity muscle. It’s also a way to get myself into action on something I’ve been putting off.

By February 12th, all 6 of those boxes will be empty, and the recycle truck will get everything that’s just taking up space. Completion is a wonderful thing! So is the power of a promise for action and results with a self-imposed deadline to report on what happened. Even the nastiest tasks will have to bow to that!

Test it out: maybe pick one thing you don’t want to do. Find your Listener, promise what you’ll Do, and promise a Due-date for your follow-through. If you take me up on this, it would be fun it you’d let me know what you learn.

Give Your 2016 Goals a Little “Infrastructure” for Success

Happy New Year! Looking at some examples of New Year resolutions on the internet, I see a lot of good ideas for how to have a terrific year. Some of them focus on only one topic: health, or money, or relationships, for example. Others focus on combinations of those, or on less personal goals for accomplishing something in an organization or a community. They’re all good.

But most of those ideas for 2016 goals will not include one thing that will increase the probability of success. If you can get even a little bit more specific about the communications that can support your success, you just might give yourself a win. Take the example of the three types of resolutions the internet tells us are the most popular:

  1. Lose ten (or more) pounds;
  2. Make more money; and/or
  3. Improve my relationship with a family member.

#1. In order to lose weight, I’ll probably have to alter my diet and exercise habits. So who do I need to talk with in order to make those changes? Will my spouse or roommate(s) be affected in any way? If so, what do I need to ask of them, or do for them, to make my diet and exercise changes work in my real life?

#2. To make more money, I’ll need to get a raise, or a new job or additional work responsibilities. What are the conversations that will make this happen, and with whom? My boss? An employment service? Marketing and sales support?

#3. What’s missing in that family relationship, and what conversations need to be stopped, changed, or started? What do I want them to say or do differently, and what could I say or do that would help that happen?

Whatever your goal(s), give some thought to the productive conversations that could give you a boost in reality instead of hoping your “resolution” will do all the work. The quick recipe for implementing your resolutions is sketching out your “effectiveness plan” for productive communication:

  • What is the current situation in this matter? How are things happening right now? What works well the way it is now, and what needs to change to work better for accomplishing my goals?
  • Who else plays a role in this? Who is – or might be – affected or influenced in the process of me getting what I want?
  • Who could help me or hinder me? What do I want from them that would increase the likelihood of my success? What might they want from me?

Then, the communications:

Initiative Conversation: Share your goal – what it is, by when you want it, and why it is important to you.

Understanding Conversation: Tell them how it relates to them, and ask for their feedback. Listen to their input, ideas, and critiques – this is likely to be useful information to help you adjust your game.

Performance Conversation: Make the requests for whatever will support you in reaching the goal. Make the promises you think might be useful to them and to you in moving ahead. Create an agreement – including specific times – to stay in touch and continue developing your progress into the future.

Closure Conversation: Report back on how things are going. Be honest about successes and failures and be appreciative about their participation in this dialogue. Refresh your agreements or cancel some of them when appropriate.

Giving thought to the communication aspect of achieving your goals is a way to recognize that goals are not achieved by one individual alone. Similarly, a change in one aspect of your life will likely impact other parts of your life. You can prepare to reach your goal(s) by looking at what connects your life’s many dimensions: communication. Then design your communications to give structure and support to your success.