Understanding Conversation – Clarifying Ideas and Roles

I took my ideas about an online conversation for “Management is Missing” into several meetings over coffee and lunch in the past 10 days. I had lunch with a man who develops websites: he liked the Performance Circle idea, and we sketched out some thoughts on how to have the kind of interactive discussion I’m looking for. Then coffee a few days later with another man who does photography, videos, and video editing for YouTube and other websites.

Then I talked with several people about learning management systems and how they are used for online learning. One of them creates and manages several online learning sites, another has used online learning systems, and a third has built a business around them. All this was useful to help me see the kind of design work and planning that I need to do, and who I could link up with to get some of the results I want to have.

The last conversation was with a manager, call her Lynne, who is in a really bad situation. Lynne was hired as an “account manager”, to provide services to a large customer organization. The job included some compliance duties (making sure that products and equipment were updated on time and with appropriate vendor support) and collaborating with several other organizations in industry, service, and government. The bad situation started when she pointed out some serious compliance issues to her boss – she noticed several places where the relevant laws were being broken and gave the boss a memo about it. Nothing happened.

The situation soon spiraled downward: Lynne grew impatient with a boss who didn’t seem to care about illegal situations, and she began noticing other places where internal policies were not followed or agreements with partner organizations and clients were unmanaged. She began speaking up at meetings about these things even though it was clear that nobody wanted to hear it. Now she is stuck in an increasingly negative relationship with many of the people above her in the organization. Even some of her peers are hesitant to work too closely with her for fear that the management reaction to being accused of mistakes will taint them too.

Could an “understanding conversation” – a dialogue about what players are involved in the problems, who should be involved in creating solutions, and how to go about putting things right – have made a difference? Maybe, if it was held early and privately with the boss. But maybe not. If Lynne is determined to set things right without building a performance circle and having the dialogues for clarifying roles and responsibilities, she is creating a hard road ahead for herself and others.

All of these conversations were exploratory – they were “understanding conversations” to learn more about where my ideas fit into a possible new future. But this last conversation reinforced the importance of having a place where people – both managers and the people they manage – can look at different ways to talk about management problems they are having. And perhaps we can even create a place where people can create solutions that will be relatively quick and painless.

When I finish these understanding conversations, I’ll move on to the performance conversations. Back soon.

Does Authority Lead to Reduced Communication?

Having authority can contribute to the very problems managers believe are solved by that authority.  Why, because when managers have authority they don’t think they need to communicate as much.  This is particularly true when managers confront threats to the successful completion of projects they are managing.

Years of research indicates that managers who have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., pay, job assignments, vacation time) assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessment of a situation.  Managers are often blind to the fact that subordinates see things from a different point of view.  According to a recent study published in Organization Science, one result of this blindness is that when managers with authority confront a threat to the successful completion of a project, they engage in fewer and less immediate (e.g., face to face) communications than managers lacking that same authority.

In reviewing the results of the study, what is particularly interesting is that when compared to their counterparts without authority, managers with authority do not engage in Understanding Conversations or use complete Performance Conversations.  The study indicates that managers with authority do not explain why a particular event is a threat, explore how it might be resolved, or address subordinates’ concerns regarding the impact changing their work to resolve the threat may have on other work (an Understanding Conversation).  Furthermore, rather than get good promises from their subordinates, they assume their subordinates will “just do it”.  Unfortunately, 72% of the time the managers’ communications regarding a threat are ineffective and their subordinates do not respond as expected, requiring additional communication.  This additional communication can result in a loss of credibility and diminish their reputation.

One conclusion from this study is that managers use authority as an excuse for reducing their communication on the assumption that their subordinates will automatically accept what they are told and act accordingly.  We know from our work with The Four Conversations, however, that there is no substitute for appropriate and complete communication.

Deadlines – A Powerful Tool for Accomplishment

Do you use deadlines when you make requests?  Deadlines are one of the most powerful tools for accomplishment you can use.  They give people information that allows them to organize and prioritize the work they have.  Without due dates, people aren’t sure when they should work on things.  As a result, work gets postponed, no matter how urgent or important it might be.

Deadlines are specific – they tell people the exact date and time by when you want to receive something or start something.  For example, “by Thursday at 9AM” or “at 10AM on March 23, 2012”.  Telling people you want things “ASAP” (as soon as possible), “when you get a chance”, “first thing”, or “at the next opportunity” is not a deadline.  Although you may have a clear idea of when you mean, they don’t and won’t know how to schedule their work.  Giving people a specific “by when” reduces the chances of being told later “I didn’t know you wanted it then.”

Deadlines increase accountability – theirs and ours.  If you are going to give a deadline, be prepared to receive what is due at the time its due, don’t be “out of the office”.  The accomplishment value of deadlines is diminished if people believe you are not serious or if you give false ones (saying you need it by a date when you really don’t).

Deadlines are a tool that can dramatically increase the accomplishment and success of both parties.  If you aren’t using them, try adding them to your requests.

A Tip for Ending Complaints

Have you ever wanted to reduce, if not end, unproductive complaints?  One way to do that is to implement a policy that people only complain to those who can do something about the complaint.

Complaints are prevalent in organizations.  People complain about the weather, about their work, about their coworkers, and about their boss(es).  Although some complaints may seem innocuous, complaining contributes to a culture of negativism, lowers morale and satisfaction, gets people upset or angry, and adds to resignation and cynicism.  Complaints act like depressants, particularly when they are expressed to people who really can’t do anything about them.

But some complaints can be productive if they are directed to the right people.  Properly directed complaints can improve processes, products, and customer service.  They can lead to and support change and be a source of innovation.

If you want to increase the number of productive complaints (and reduce the number of unproductive ones), create a policy where you ask people to direct their complaints to someone who can do something about it.  If you are the someone, then listen up.  However, if you aren’t, then let them know immediately they have the wrong person and then either direct them to the right person or ask them to find out who the right person is.  This will reduce the number of complaints you listen to and train people to being accountable for their complaints.

Tiger’s Apology – A Complete Closure Conversation?

Tiger Wood’s recently addressed the world to apologize for his marital infidelity.  If you watched the apology, you could tell that it was not easy for him.  He was clearly ill at ease, unsure of himself, nervous, and at times, upset.  For someone who values his privacy, this was difficult.

In terms of The Four Conversations, Tiger’s address was a closure conversation.   The primary purpose of closure conversations is to create endings by completing something from the past.  It could be to complete an outstanding promise, it could be to report the status of a project, it could be to acknowledging that you received something that was sent to you, or it could be to own up to something you did, as in Tiger’s case.  Closure conversations, when done completely can be very powerful because they make it possible to “move on”.  When they are done poorly, however, they only add to the mess they are trying to address.

Closure conversations involve 4-A’s, though not all four are used in every conversation: acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.  How did Tiger do on each of these?

Acknowledge the facts, say what’s so.  Tiger clearly acknowledged that he had been unfaithful, that he had cheated.  Although we already knew this, this was the first time Tiger acknowledged the facts, the first time he “came clean”.  What he did not do, however, was acknowledge the extent or degree of his cheating.  How many women had he cheated with?  Were the reports in the press exaggerated, or were they accurate?  By not addressing these, he left questions that will haunt him in the future.  He did not have to provide the sordid details, only acknowledge something about the extent of his affairs.

Appreciate the people.  Tiger was clearly appreciative of and spoke well of his wife Elin and who she has been through all of this.  He was also appreciative of the people who have sent him emails, letters, etc. in support.  What could have made this even more powerful would have been had he appreciated the people who “blew the whistle” on him.  By not doing so, we are left with the impression that had he not been caught, he would have continued doing what he was doing.  If, as he says, he has no one to blame for the shame but himself, then the women who went public did him a service by giving him an opportunity to transform his life.  Not pretty, but a service nevertheless.  It would have been extraordinary for him to do this.

Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings.  This was the whole point of Tiger’s address, to apologize.  He did a good job of saying what he did that was wrong, and what he felt contributed to doing it (“I had worked hard all my life and thought I deserved…”).

Amend broken agreements.  Amending broken agreements begins with recognizing an agreement has been broken and reporting on its breakage to those involved.  Tiger broke agreements with Elin his wife, his sponsors, friends, and fans.  He betrayed their trust and confidence and owned up to having done so.  He also tried to address some of the costs and consequences of breaking these agreements, but I don’t think he came even close to dealing with the true cost.  He did, however, acknowledge that regaining people’s trust would take time and would involve a change in his future behavior.  Finally, amending broken agreements requires committing (promising) to a new future.  Tiger did that by saying he would continue therapy, that he would need help, and that he was promising to be a better person.

Was Tiger successful?  He seemed to have done a good job in terms of having a complete closure conversation.  It seems clear to me that just having the conversation completed things for Tiger and cleared some space for him to move forward, which is the intent of such conversations.  Did he satisfy everyone?  Probably not.

No Response Leads to Resentment

A former student of mine sent me the link to a great blog article posted by Fast Company entitled “2010: The Year of Saying ‘I Got It’ “.  The focus of the article, written by Lynette Chiang,  is how companies, as well as individuals, have gotten into the habit of not responding to inquiries – they don’t tell you “I got it”.  Telling people you received what they sent you, or that you got their message, is a closure conversation and it completes something for them.  As the author of the article points out, when we don’t know if the person we are corresponding with received what we sent them, it creates uncertainty, leads to resentment, a loss of trust, and damages your reputation.

Most of us have experiences similar to those reported by Lynette.  I once order some electronic marketing materials online with a “money back guarantee”.  When I downloaded it and found it did give me what I wanted,  I emailed and called the seller – multiple times.  At no time did he respond (sorry, I don’t remember the  seller’s name), so I finally contacted my credit card company, went through their processes, and eventually got my money back. Interestingly, even though I don’t remember the seller, I do remember one of the people who endorsed him (whom I also contacted and who didn’t respond) and I will no longer consider his products either.  Unfortunately, not only do the people who “don’t respond” hurt themselves, they cast a shadow of doubt over everyone else in the business.

But “no response” is not limited just to businesses.  How many people do you send replies to when they send you something important?  How many people tell you when they got the report, the email, the proposal, or any number of other things you invested in providing them?  Is your opinion of them higher or lower as a result?

Telling people “I got it” does not take much.  Telling people “I got it” is a simple closure conversation, but it  makes a world of difference to them and to your reputation.  Tell people “I got it” and see what happens.


What the Absence of Accountability Sounds Like

I have been doing some research in preparation for a workshop on personal accountability a colleague and I are doing for MBA’s at the Fisher College.  As I have been getting into it, I am beginning to notice more about what the absence of accountability sounds like when people talk.  Consider the following example.

The other day I was changing a light bulb in my basement work area.  One of the screws holding the cover on the light was tight, so used a screwdriver to loosen it.  When I was finished with the screwdriver, I threw it down onto the workbench (I was on a stepladder), where it hit and scattered some small ceramic tiles I had been removing from a table made by Laurie’s dad.  I found all the tiles except one and was upset because its loss would mean the table could not be restored in its original form.

When I went upstairs to tell Laurie, my first thought was to say “The screwdriver knocked a bunch of tiles off the workbench, and now I can’t find one.”  And that’s when I noticed how the absence of accountability sounds – there is no “I” in the action of what happened.  My initial thought made the screwdriver accountable for the lost tile, not me.  I was the one who threw the screwdriver and my having done that accounts for why the tiles were scattered.

As I thought more about this one example, I began to notice how many places I leave off any mention of “I” when things happen, as if they happened on their own accord and I was simply an observer.  You know, stuff like “The cup feel off the dish drying rack and broke” rather than “I hit the cup and knocked it on the floor.”  The more I considered explanations for things that I have something to do with, the more I realized that the key word missing in those explanations was “I” and what “I” did that produced the result – good, bad, or ugly.

Perhaps you have noticed the same thing when people give explanations – there is no “I” in what they say except, possibly, when it is something good.  Check it out.  Listen to the explanations you and others give and see when there is an absence of accountability.  Let me know what you discover.