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Feeling and Thinking Happen Inside Us.  Communication Happens Between Us.

“Being a manager involves a lot more than just setting targets and entering numbers into a spreadsheet. It requires empathy and an understanding of human nature.”  That’s a quote from The Economist, December 14, 2019.

Wow.  A recommendation that a human manager should have empathy and understand human nature -imagine that! What would a workplace look like if that were the case? Well, start with empathy: “Experiencing the feelings of another as one’s own”. (That’s from a Merriam Webster Dictionary). And understanding: “The knowledge and ability to judge” (same dictionary). So, a manager should be able to experience other people’s feelings as their own, as well as knowing and being able to judge human nature.

The problem is, with just those two capacities alone, the workplace really wouldn’t look much different than it does now. The reason is that experiencing empathy and understanding human nature are both ‘internal states’ – they occur inside people. Are we sure those internal states will leak out into our interactions with others in a way that is effective or useful? A manager can be a lofty and inspired person, but that doesn’t mean their communication is lofty and inspired, does it?

Fortunately, that article in The Economist’s was also applauding the use of the arts in training business managers. Training sessions included participants who practiced conducting a choir, reading and discussing a novel, and even acting our roles in a play. One tutor said, “We help people to become more aware of their habits; what they do without realizing it. How people manage their physicality – their breath, their voice. Not many people are aware of how they come across.” That is surely true.

Empathy and understanding occur in an internal world of feeling and thinking. Practicing communication with others – whether in daily conversations and discussions, or in using the language of music, discussing characters in a book, or acting out roles in a story – well that would create a self-awareness that internal states alone cannot bestow.

To support and increase self-awareness in conversations at work, managers could assure direct reports that if they communicate both freely and respectfully, their perspectives and ideas will be welcomed and considered. In other words, managers can give others permission to practice communicating, and thereby to learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

Most of us live inside of our own thinking and feeling much of the time. But the world of interactions between individuals and groups occurs in the communication space around each of us, a space that we create with our words and actions, and our listening for others. When we notice that space, we can bring ourselves there and, eventually, learn to see ourselves as others see us. It’s a powerful lesson in self-development.

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Evaluating Leaders – It’s Not a Popularity Contest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager’s Golden Rule: Make Production Goals Visible

Carrie is a longtime friend who has one persistent delusion: she thinks the people in her work group are all committed to producing the results she mentioned in the weekly staff meeting. But the truth is that she is the only one who really focuses on Getting Things Done.

Poor Carrie is astounded – at least once a week – to discover (for the millionth time) that not everyone is dedicated to Getting Things Done. “What’s the matter with them?” she asks me. “Do they forget what we’re doing here? Or are they just not organized for getting their work done?”

And, for the millionth time, I remind her that if you don’t have a visible “scoreboard” of the results you want, most people will focus on their own preoccupations. As I learned in a recent Landmark Worldwide program, most of us are going through life on auto-pilot, at least most of the time.

I remember when I learned that some people are not interested in Getting Things Done. Our publisher broke the news to me (ever so gently) as we were all trying to come up with a subtitle for our book, “The Four Conversations”. Me: “What? Some people don’t care about Getting Things Done? What are they doing with their lives?” OK, I gave up my subtitle idea and bowed to their expertise, eventually settling on the subtitle “Daily Communication that Gets Results” .

In case you, like Carrie, are interested in Getting Things Done – both for yourself and with other people – it helps to know all three parts of the Manager’s Golden Rule:

  1. Spell out the results you want to see.
  2. Specify when you want to see those results: what day, and what time. And, if you have other people who need to produce or deliver something, make note of that too.
  3. Then display that simple chart in a place where you (and everybody else) can see them at least twice a day.

A sample of items from Carrie’s chart looks like this:

Get It DONE! When Who Does It?
Newsletter out Noon – every 3rd Friday Arnie
Training materials updated & printed Friday 3 PM before every training program delivery Training-IT-Marketing Committee
Subscriber Report Before Tuesday staff meetings (9:15 am) Marketing Team
Budget plans & projections For the mid-month Tuesday staff meeting Kelsey’s Money Team

Carrie posted it on the door outside the meeting room, in a hallway between people’s offices and the coffee pot, where everyone would see it. One member of the Marketing Team told me, “It gives me a little boost every time I go by it, just to see how we’re all working together to make something happen.” Carrie rolled her eyes when she heard about that, and said, “They should know their jobs.” (Sometimes she’s crabby.)

Yes, maybe. Or maybe it’s just nice to be reminded that there IS a “big picture” purpose for the team, and not just a bunch of humans running around being busy. I know I keep my own list on the wall in my study. It helps me manage this rogue brain.

Developing People & Managing Performance… With Meetings? 

Markus, manager of a security team in a manufacturing company, has little patience for the idea that “developing people” (the quote marks are his) is the path to performance management.

He told me, “I get people who are already developed. They went to school, they have experience, they got hired here – and we have a good HR department for the other stuff. So my job is to work with my team to spell out our goals, schedules, and assignments, then track their assignments and results. They don’t need me to be their best friend – they need someone who will help them earn a good reputation for being effective.”

Lately, people are saying some mean things about managers: managers are selfish, unfriendly, and don’t relate well to the “human side” of their people. (Leaders, of course, are wearing their halos as perfect role models, while being busy with inspiring and motivating people. Leaders, good. Managers, not so much.)

Markus says, “The only human development I do is to structure our team meetings so that people get a good look at what we mean by performance. I use a tracking board of everyone’s assignments for the past week, and each person says something about what they got done and what problems they had or lessons-learned they acquired. Everyone sees the whole set of tasks and assignments, and everyone hears all the results. They learn from each other and offer support where it’s needed. Then we decide – together – what we’ll take on to accomplish next week and who will do what. That’s how we learn how to improve our performance as a group. Team performance is what I want to develop.”

Another manager I know has 1-on-1 meetings with each of her staff members. “It helps me focus them on their behavior”, she says, “and that will reduce conflicts. Also, it keeps their performance confidential, which I feel is important. Group meetings are only for information updates about organizational changes. Performance is more personal.”

Probably both methods have their benefits, but I’d rather be in one of Markus’ meetings. Looking at the work to be done with my colleagues seems more interesting (and energizing) than talking about my behavior or workplace conflicts and politics. But that’s probably because I’m an engineer, don’t you think? I’d rather see the bigger picture and improve the whole group’s performance. Either way, it looks like “developing people” means different things to different managers.

What is a “Needs Assessment”?

Almost every HR initiative begins with a Needs Assessment. One HR training specialist announced to a group of manufacturing Operations Managers, “Our most important deliverable to you is the Needs Assessment.” The Operations Managers hooted. “We don’t need your needs assessment! We just need you to train our operators to use the equipment without breaking anything.” Sandra, the HR lady, burst into tears.

In the jargon, a “need” is a discrepancy between “what is” and “what should be.” That’s a big playing field on which a consultant can build an assessment investigation. And there are plenty of methods for doing that (just Google “needs assessment”). That’s a good thing, because HR – and consultants, both internal and external – need some way to determine what and where the organization’s problems are.

One tool we use – the Workplace Communication Assessment – is a survey that asks people about the issues they see daily in their organization. It’s quick – 56 questions – and lets each employee say what causes the biggest headaches in doing their jobs. The tool then tallies the answers by categories and prescribes a few ideas to include in a training program, based on the kinds of communication that will reduce or eliminate the problem.

Example: A recent client’s survey scores revealed that 3 types of workplace issues (out of 8 possible categories) were the most frequent barriers to their job effectiveness:

  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm – Too much work to do in too little time;
  • Lack of teamwork – People not working together or helping each other; and
  • Lack of accountability – People not “owning” their jobs or honoring their agreements.

We used the diagnostics that came back with the survey results to add four elements to our training programs for this client, putting each of “The Four Conversations” to work:

  1. Drafting a brief statement of each Department’s current goals and objectives that would go on the top of each Departmental staff meeting agenda.
  2. Getting the staff into Department discussion groups to make a list of ideas for improvements in (a) having clearer job results and schedules, and (b) interactions with one another and with other groups.
  3. Making specific agreements to adopt several of these ideas right away, and to review the progress at each Department meeting.
  4. Reviewing and updating the goals, ideas for improvements, and agreements at each Department meeting.

All of their “top 3” workplace issues began improving in just 1 month after implementing the ideas they developed in the training. The biggest surprise? They had not been having regular or standardized Department meetings at all – only meetings to solve problems or announce changes. They used the results of the Workplace Communication Assessment to invent their own staff meetings. One group leader for Development emailed me saying, “Now Staff Meetings are a thing! We have an agenda, we really talk, and we don’t get bogged down in side conversations that waste some people’s time.”

They put their “Needs Assessment” to work. Sandra would be pleased.

 

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!