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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.

Workplace Assessments – What Works (and What Doesn’t)

It was fun writing about the six steps of the Group Workplace Assessment Case Study we did for a client. We have used other assessments before, but we found many of them asked what people like/don’t like, or what they saw as the biggest issues facing a project or a management team. If you want your entire department or group to be more effective, you need more than a bunch of opinions sorted in the order of “Which ones got the most votes?” or interviewing only the management team or a “select” group of staff. That’s no way to run a railroad.

If you want your whole system to be effective, you have to take another approach: Ask everyone about the workplace problems, situations, or issues they see in their workplace – the things that cause them annoyance or frustration, losing energy or productivity – or sometimes losing heart.

Our idea is to ask only one question: “How often do you see each of these situations occurring in your workplace?”  There is no blame and no shame – just a bunch of individual assessments added up to say what the group as a whole will need most. Oh, and you get feedback. And recommended solutions.

We have identified (from years of experience) 56 workplace situations that are negative in terms of getting work done and being effective. Each situation can be minimized or eliminated by changing one or more of “The Four Conversations”, which – no accident – are discussed in our book of the same name.

It has been a workplace assessment that people really get into, and most welcome the idea of learning a few new communication practices too. The long-term results are excellent, with people making more clear requests, following up on agreements, and starting new projects with a firm foundation.

If you are interested, you could try taking the Free Workplace Assessment first, so you can get a feel for the kinds of questions we use and how many of them resonate with what you notice in your own workplace. When you submit your responses to the survey, you’ll receive your feedback: Which negative workplace situations you see most often – and what communication habits might be improved to reduce those problems.

If you want to use one of the two types of Group Workplace Assessments, you can get a subscription. Both subscriptions will take the survey responses from each of your group or staff members, protecting the privacy of individual responses, while adding up ALL responses to give you a group assessment – with solution recommendations for the “Top Three” issues.

The Manager Subscription is good for 90 days, allowing you to do a follow-up if you like. The Consultant Subscription is good for one year, allowing you to use it with multiple other groups during that time.

You will be surprised to see what your group sees – it will be different from your own perspective. We have learned that managers and consultants do not always see the same situations that employees and workers see. And getting to a group consensus is welcomed by the people who have been putting up with difficulties, some for quite a long time. You can see the Case Study here – it will likely give you some ideas about the value it could provide in upgrading your own railroad. Let us know!

Step #4 – The Results Are In: What to Tackle First?

After 97% of StateOrg’s staff completed their “workplace issues” survey, Rodd sent out emails to all personnel and attaching the results for all five Regions. Everybody was going to see everything about what people said about all eight categories of workplace annoyances:

  1. Lateness of assignments, projects, or people;
  2. Poor quality work and clarity of work standards;
  3. Difficult people;
  4. Lack of teamwork, collaboration and coordination;
  5. Poor planning and workload overwhelm;
  6. Insufficient resources, support, and training;
  7. Lack of accountability; and
  8. Incomplete communications.

He also instructed everyone to pay the most attention to the top-ranked issues in their own Regional Office, telling them, “These survey results show us the different types of non-productive situations you see around us all. When I come to your office next week, we’ll talk about the ones that are the biggest headaches in your Region.”

Rodd also attached a copy of the five Recommendations Reports for each Region’s survey – again, everything to everybody. But he encouraged people to focus on the recommendations for their own Region, so they could get the idea of resolving these issues by changing their conversations with other people, in their own office as well as in other StateOrg groups.

When made his one-day visits with each Regional Office, Rodd asked the attendees to tell him the top three issues and he wrote those on the whiteboard. “That should keep our attention on improving these issues”, he said.

Then he reviewed all four “productive conversations”, giving people a handout that summarized the basics of each one. This opened the discussion of how all four conversations occurred in each office, either internally or with people in other Regions and other agencies or community organizations.  They saw their daily communication in a new light, as well as where its strengths and weaknesses were.

Then Rodd asked, “Which one conversation – out of these four – is the one that each of you thinks you’re already pretty good at having? Everybody, choose one conversation.” He had people raise their hand as he read out each of the four conversations: Initiative proposals, Understanding dialogues, Performance requests and promises, and Closure completion of projects and agreements. Then he had people get into sub-groups, one for each of those conversations, to talk about how their conversation could be applied in the office. The discussion was lively, with people writing notes and ideas on the flip-charts around the room.

At the end of the session, Rodd gave them an assignment: “Keep your groups going in your Region, and put your insights to work on those “Top Three” situations in your workplace. It’s time to make those disappear!”

He closed the meeting by announcing an upcoming all-staff meeting at the State Capitol in the near future. “This should be a fun gathering,” he told them. “All five Regions getting together in the same room! We are going to take on communicating better and improving our coordination and collaboration across all the Regions. I know it sounds either impossible or like really hard work, but I promise to provide a really good lunch.”  Everybody laughed – they had enjoyed a good afternoon.

Each “conversation group” took away their flip-chart notes, agreeing to keep working on collecting new ways of communicating in various situations and testing them out every day. Rodd was pleased to see that people were energized and, as one staffer said, “We’re finally going to clean up our language!”

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.

Other Places to Put Your Promises? Nope. They Go in Your Schedule.

After the last blogpost about putting your promises into your schedule, I got a lot of feedback – mostly about all the other places you can put your promises. Here are the top five:

  1. Use Post-It Notes – on pieces of paper, bulletin boards, or the side of your computer;
  2. Write To-Do Lists;
  3. Send an email or text message to yourself;
  4. Keep physical piles of documents, books, and files in your office as “promise reminders”; and
  5. Ask other people to remind you what you said you would do.

That’s just a sample of the “good ideas” I received. They aren’t bad or wrong – except maybe that “physical piles” one. Plus, asking someone else to remind you is only reliable if you are paying them well to serve as your memory system. It is fine to use Post-Its, lists, emails or texts to yourself as a way to capture the specifics of the promise, i.e., the What, When, and Why – along with the Who, Where, and How as needed.

But all of those ideas for places to “put your promise” are only interim measures: where each promise needs to end up is in your schedule. A large and/or complex promise might even need to appear several times on your schedule: once for the final deadline, and other times to account for the various tasks and communications necessary in order to meet that deadline.

Why so picky about where to put your promises? Because when you tell someone you will do something, or send something, or bring something, you are giving your word – and your reputation depends on it. When you tell someone that you’ll be there at 2:15 and you don’t show up, or you’re really late, you are creating your own reputation. It won’t be a favorable one.

Your word matters. It is a way people know you, and know whether they can count on you. Think of the people you know: some of them are reliable and you can be sure they will do what they say, while others are much less dependable. You don’t want to be That Guy, the one who is sloppy about honoring his word.

Using a schedule makes sure you have a time for your promise, too. You know the people who say, “I’ll call you”, and never specify when that will happen? What if you started to ask them, “Can you call me on Wednesday between 10:00 and 10:30? I’ll make sure to be available then.” That gives you a promise, an agreement to put in your schedule. Of course, if you have never waited for someone to show up, or deliver something, or call you at the time they promised, you probably don’t need a schedule: your world is working beautifully. I do not yet live in that world.

So, I’m sorry to all those who sent in the “good ideas” – I’m going to stick with the idea of a schedule as the best place to put a promise. If it gets there by way of a list or a Post-It, that’s fine. But don’t wait long to get it on the schedule: time flies, you know.

Supervisors: Neglected Knights of the Organization?

Pity the poor Supervisor. They don’t get invited to meetings of the Management Team. But they aren’t seen as completely trustworthy by the people they supervise, either – even if they had worked together with them for many years before moving up the hierarchy.

When someone leaves the “front-line” level of employees and moves up to the Supervisor level, they may also cross a line of confidence. From below, the Supervisor is perceived as having moved up to “management”, and presumed to be in cahoots with that “enemy of labor”. From above, the Supervisor is like a Medieval Knight – someone responsible for keeping the rowdy masses in line and paying attention to their jobs.

One client – Shirley – has found what I suspect will prove to be a good support structure for her Supervisors. She is setting up a monthly Supervisor’s Round Table to discuss the issues they learned about from the Organization Analyst’s Assessment she sponsored for her organization a few months ago. These Supervisors oversee the Front-Line staff, and this version of the communication assessment lets them see which issues are unique to that group. The “Big Three” communication issues for their Front-Line staff were:

  1. Equipment or systems are outdated, and/or some materials and supplies are insufficient.
  2. Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.
  3. There are significant differences in the quality of work people do.

Since they got those Workplace Communication Assessment results, Shirley arranged for a half-day session where the Supervisors and Front-Line employees together reviewed the results and discussed the issues that were their biggest barriers. They also learned about which of the four conversations would help them address those issues. Interestingly, each of those issues calls for getting more practice in using “Closure Conversations” more effectively.

The plan for the first meeting of the Supervisors Round Table is to review the list of issues that were reported most often, and see if they are still big problems in their departments, or whether some of them have shrunk a bit. Shirley will facilitate the meeting, bringing copies of the Issues List and supporting the discussion. Subsequent meetings will have the Supervisors review their issues – and solutions – as a group, and develop ideas for solving whatever remaining issues they see. They also may host a follow-up Workplace Communication Assessment after a few more months to see what issues have moved up to take over the “Big Three” positions.

The biggest payoff for these meetings is not solving problems, but doing it together as a group of people who hold similar positions in their organization. They each have somewhat different responsibilities, due to the different circumstances and personnel in their areas. But being able to talk about their challenges is definitely the best benefit from their regular get-togethers to share and compare. Imagine: what if Supervisors weren’t the “neglected middle” employees, and had their own group to meet with? They could become a force to be reckoned with!

Where Accountability Comes From – How to Support People in Honoring Their Word

Many people are disappointed to discover that not everyone actually does what they promise. Several students recently argued for the “personality theory” of accountability, saying that some people are just accountable by nature, and others are not.

If you want people around you to be more accountable around you, how do you make that happen? Let’s assume that the other person clearly understands what is expected from them – they know what the task is and what the result should look like. If that’s true, then all it takes is some productive communication.

First conversation: Your request, their assignment. “Dave, will you have the monthly Team Report ready before our Friday morning meeting with the VPs?”

  • If the answer is yes, you have created an agreement for something – a product, service, or communication – to be done or delivered, by a specific time and for a specific purpose.
  • If the answer is no, you have a debrief conversation: “What is in the way for you to get that done?” This is where you listen, perhaps come up with a Plan B, and maybe getting some help for Dave or assigning it to someone else.
  • If the answer is a counter-offer, like they can’t get it done before the Friday meeting, you either accept the new timeline or you go to a Plan B, maybe changing the agenda for the meeting.

Second conversation: Confirm the agreement. This is important, but doesn’t have to be strict or formal. All you want is to make sure they know that you are counting on them to honor their word. “Great, Dave. So you’ll get what you need from Shirley and have that on my desk no later than 8:15 Friday morning?” (This is where Dave at least needs to nod his head.)

Third conversation: Complete the agreement, whatever happens.

  • If Dave delivered, a thank-you and a little appreciation is in order. “Good for you, Dave. I was able to get the VPs updated at the Friday meeting because you delivered the Team Report. Thanks for that.”
  • If Dave didn’t deliver, you need to set up the full Closure Conversation. “Uh oh, Dave. I was caught short in the meeting without the report you said you would give me. We need to talk. In a nutshell, we need to look at what happened and how to make sure that never happens again. Are you available to talk now, or should I come back later today?”

Accountability is about keeping track of what you promise others and what they promise you. But that’s only the first half of it. You also have to follow up after the success or failure of delivery on every promise.

One manager, an MBA student, said, “I shouldn’t have to do that follow-up stuff. They should keep their word.” The professor, an older man and a close friend of mine (J) said, “Yes, and I should have more hair. As a manager, you can drop the word “should” from your vocabulary. It won’t help you.”

If you want more accountability, there are 3 conversations to have. It doesn’t take too long for people to get the idea that making an agreement with you is something that deserves their full attention. And that is a good thing.