Note from Crabby Consultant

A colleague called, sounding ½ angry and ½ upset and said he thought I was supposed to attend a professional meeting last week. No, I told him, I’ve got a book to write and will not be attending those anymore. He growled, “I thought you were going to support us until you retired.”

I am retired from consulting, I explained gently (i.e., suppressing my indignation). And I never promised that I would go to every meeting forever. Your expectation is not my promise. OK, I didn’t say that last thing, but I was thinking it. Sheesh.

Then I realized I never had a Closure Conversation with that group to let them know I’m making some changes in my life and career. If I’d done that, it would help them understand my departure and accommodate any difference I made to their gatherings. And they would know they can be in touch with me in other ways if they want to do that.

My bad. I’ll go to their next meeting and let them know I’m in transition and no longer consulting.

And, Note To Self: When I’m crabby, it’s probably because I left out a productive conversation somewhere recently.

Is Your Dialogue Really a Monologue?

Karrie swears she is getting – and using – input from her people to make decisions. “The teachers and principals said they wanted these changes, so I approved them,” she insists. Karrie is a School Superintendent, with 8 School Principals reporting to her.

One teacher disagreed, saying “We never had a voice in the changes or their timing. It takes a lot of work to change courses and we should have planned this together.”

Karrie genuinely believes her decisions were the result of a dialogue, but another teacher said, “All we heard was the decision.” “She had a monologue, listening only to herself.”

Understanding Conversations are dialogues –listening is a key part of that. If we want other people to be engaged in making something happen, we need to tell them 3 things:

  1. The goal (What),
  2. The timeline (When), and
  3. The value (Why).

Then we need to ask 3 questions:

  1. Is there a better way to state the goal, timeline, or value?
  2. What are your ideas about how we could reach that goal by that time?
  3. Who or what else should be involved to reach that goal?

Then listen. Use people’s ideas and answers to help rephrase the goal so it’s more understandable and attractive. Collect good ideas on how to proceed. Without that, we cannot really claim to have had a dialogue.

Karrie had had a coffee-meeting with 2 of her Superintendents and assumed they represented their teachers, bypassing the dialogue. Now she’s got a problem.

Build Relationships … to What?

I was in a good conversation the other day. Eric was leading a new team in the Purchasing department, and he told a small group of us – we were having lunch at Panera – that he was having trouble building good relationships with the new people on his team.

“I want a strong team,” he said, “but I don’t know some of these people very well.  And it’s not just the new team members, it’s the contractors too. They have been brought on to help us learn a new inventory system, but how do we all get related to each other in a positive way?”

Aaron offered some good advice. “Don’t worry about getting them related to each other. Focus on getting everybody related to the goal.”  That shifted the whole conversation from talking about human relations to sharing ideas for how to get people talking about the goal.

Eric looked worried. “My manager wants everybody to be using the new inventory system in less than 3 months. I’m not sure everyone on the team will agree with that. I don’t know who the strong leader-type people are and who are the loafers.”

Then Sheryl told us how she had done it. “I had to get people working toward a goal earlier this year,” she said. “I told each one of them, individually, what I thought the goal was, and that I wanted their input – good and bad. I took notes on their worries about it. And their objections, too. Then I called a meeting. I wrote the goal at the top of a whiteboard, with the list of all the objections and worries on one side of the board. I asked them to create ideas on how to handle each of the objections. It was great – some of them even came up with solutions to the same objection they had given me in our one-on-one meeting!”

That was an Understanding Conversation – Sheryl asked for feedback on a new initiative, then led a discussion about how to make it more workable for a group of people. Implementation is always a challenge, but when you get people involved in talking about the goal and how to reach it, you’re halfway home.

Even if the end result is that you have to tweak the goal a little, that’s okay. When everyone has had their say, given their ideas, and been part of shaping the direction they will go, things can gain momentum.

Motivation Postscript – Excuses and Justifications

There is one last piece to the motivation story. It’s about what happens when people agree to do something by a certain time, then don’t do it and don’t let you know in advance that they aren’t going to be able to do it.

These people have learned – from their parents, teachers, and bosses – that this is OK as long as you have a good Reason for not delivering what you promised when you promised it. Actually, some people don’t even bother with a Reason, they just tell you they will do something and then they forget about it. Maybe they expect you to follow up, or maybe they don’t think they did anything as extreme as “making a promise” – hey, it was just a thought, right?

In either case, what you need to remember is that people are trainable. It just means you have to invest a little more time in making 3 things very clear to them:

  1. You plan to treat what they have said they will do as a Promise, not just a thought. You have to let them know this at the time they say they will do something. EXAMPLE: Them – “I will call you tomorrow.” You – “I will expect your call before 3:00 PM. I appreciate your promising to do that.”  Dropping the “promise” word into what you say makes a difference.
  2. When the call doesn’t come, and you know they’ve either forgotten or blown it off, prepare your next communication and deliver it promptly. EXAMPLE: “I was disappointed when you didn’t keep your promise to call me by 3:00 PM today. We need to find a way to talk clearly with each other, so neither of us is left expecting something that isn’t going to happen.”
  3. When they give you a Reason (or justification, or excuse), even if it’s a pretty good one, let them know you are going to start counting. EXAMPLE: “OK, I understand. But I still think we need to have clearer communication. This one time is alright, and I can let it go. If you can’t keep your word again though, it is going to be like “Strike Two” for me, and I’m likely to be cautious about believing you will do what you say next time. I don’t want to even consider what happens after that. We really need to work together to improve our ways of talking to each other , don’t you think?”

That last question makes an opening for them to respond to the idea of adding this much rigor to your conversations. You can adjust your tone and intensity to be appropriate – maybe they want to learn how to upgrade their communication, or maybe the whole idea of anybody taking them seriously strikes them as absurd or even infuriating.

Don’t give up. People are trainable. But if you keep accepting being blown off or tolerating excuses, you are training them in the wrong direction. Stick to your guns: honor your word, and support other people in seeing that it is possible – and beneficial – to do that too. It’s motivational because it gets people moving.

Motivation Part 4. Practice with Five Guidelines

Now you know: motivation is really only about having people take action and produce results, with a commitment to honoring their word to you. It’s not about getting people to “feel” a certain way so they’ll like you enough to do something. And it’s not about your own personality or charisma somehow inspiring them to do it. Motivation is about communicating effectively: using the two conversations proven to work well to get people into action.

The best way you learn to get better at this is to practice having conversations that include:

  1. Having a personalized dialogue about the actions and results you would like to see in some particular area,
  2. Listening – and using – their input regarding any concerns or questions they have regarding your ideas,
  3. PLUS making a clear request for them to take specific actions and/or produce specific results by a certain time, and
  4. Supporting them in agreeing to make that happen.

Practice will let you see just how specific you need to be with some people, and how much understanding dialogue is needed for them to get into action. Here are five guidelines to support you in successfully moving people to action in your work situation (although it works at home too).

  1. Be clear about what you want done, and by when it should be complete.  This is the single greatest lever for successful “motivation”.
  2. Make a clear and specific request – ask them to do this for you. You may want or need to add something about why you are asking them and not somebody else, or why it matters to have this particular thing done. Those ingredients are usually helpful but not always necessary.
  3. Stay with the interaction long enough for them to either accept, decline, or counteroffer your request.
  4. Let them know you take their promise seriously, e.g., tell them if, at any point, they discover they cannot deliver, that you want to know as soon as possible so that you can make adjustments.
  5. If the request is large, complex, or otherwise challenging, make it clear you are willing to work with them to find a way for them to honor your request. If your request is likely to get buried in the stack of things already in front of them, or is postponed until the result you want is compromised, you have failed. You may need to make the promises that will support them in accepting and satisfying your request.

Motivating people to take actions and produce results is a matter of mastering Understanding and Performance conversations. It does not require “getting inside their heads” but rather getting clear on what you want, and getting into communication about it. You can strengthen your own capacity to make requests and promises, which is definitely something that will make your managerial life easier and more enjoyable.

Motivation Part 3. Conversations to Get People Moving

“Motivation” is about motion – getting something, or someone, to move. Our research shows that the type of conversation you use will materially impact the likelihood of your success. Here’s how it works.

Conversation for Understanding ONLY – Likelihood of Success = LOW.

Using an Understanding Conversation on its own is the least likely to succeed because understanding does not cause action. Even if someone really does understand the situation you are describing, and they understand Who else is involved, Where resources and results are located, and How to do it, it isn’t enough to ensure actions or results. They may not see that action is really necessary, or understand exactly What action to take, When to do it, or Why it would be more important than doing something else.

Another problem with using only the Understanding Conversation is that some people say it makes them feel manipulated: they suspect that you want something, but dislike having to figure out exactly what it is. Not everyone is good at reading signals and picking up hints.  Understanding conversations alone can be interesting and informative, but are frequently insufficient to move people to act.

Conversation for Performance ONLY – Likelihood of Success = MODERATE TO HIGH

You can often be successful in moving others to action with just a Performance Conversation, because making a clear request of someone is a call to action. The power of a request is due to the three characteristics of a request:

  • It is directed to a particular person, not a general statement about the circumstances.
  • It specifies a particular action to be taken, or a result or outcome to be produced.
  • It includes a definite timeframe – a “by when” for every request.

Saying, for example, “Will you buy me a 12-ounce box of Belgian chocolates to share with our guests after dinner tonight?” is more likely to get you the chocolate than saying, “It sure would be nice to have some chocolate.”

The biggest challenge of learning to use Performance Conversations effectively is learning to be specific about What you want, When you want it, and Why it matters to you. Your power comes from being specific, and improves with practice.

Conversations for Performance PLUS Conversations for Understanding – Likelihood of Success = HIGH

A very reliable way to get people into action is to use both of these conversations. Use the Understanding ones to engage them in a dialogue on what you’re thinking about Who-When-How a particular matter could be handled, and getting their input on that. Then use the Performance ones to clarify your request for What-When-Why they should get moving. If they accept your request, you’ve got a promise for action.

People tell us they are encouraged to take action when they know the specifics of what you want, including why it’s important to honor their promise to you.

Motivation: Part 1 in a series

This will be a multi-part post about “motivation”, i.e., getting people into action. Here’s the starting point:

  • What does it take to get people to do what needs to be done?
  • How do you get people into action?
  • Why are people not doing what they are assigned?

We often get these questions from managers who are trying to get things done “through” other people.  Some managers get so discouraged with how hard it is to get other people to do a task, or do it right, that they tell us things like:

  • I might as well just do it myself,
  • It’s just not going to get done so we’ll do without it,
  • We’ll have to work around that problem.

In other words, they’d rather give up than deal with people’s resistance or non-performance. (Note: It can be hard to tell at first whether someone is resisting direction or just not able to perform a particular assignment).

Another thing we have noticed is that most managers believe the source of these problems is that people simply are not “motivated” (whatever that means).  Many managers we know are working on motivating their people, in the hope that they will become more productive and cooperative.

What makes the motivation problem even more frustrating is these managers tell us that it is their job to motivate the people who work for them!  So if you are a manager and your people are not motivated to perform well, then it must be YOUR fault.  Just to seal the fate of these managers, most management textbooks agree, identifying motivation as one of the primary functions of being a manager.

The irony, however, is that almost every manager we have ever known has a list of things they want to accomplish but never seem to find the time to do. Does that mean managers have trouble motivating themselves to do things?  Take a look at your own “to do” lists – anything on there that’s been around for more than a month or two? If we can’t always motivate ourselves, how can we know what works to reliably motivate others?

We’ve been studying managers for years, and have noticed what they do to motivate their colleagues, spouses, friends, and children.  In other words, we have seen them “motivating others” in formal settings and in informal settings.

What works is – you guessed it – some well-designed conversations. Nothing tricky, nothing you don’t already know how to do. But the way you use either Understanding Conversations or Performance Conversations– or a combination of the two – can make all the difference. Imagine that: a dialogue where you actually listen to the other person, or a clear request and promise, or some of each of those, might just “motivate” them.

And it works on you too. I’ll show you how. More coming soon…

Only 58 Weeks Until I Can Retire

That’s what a friend, Earl, said to me two months ago: “I can retire in 1 year and 1 ½ months.” I could tell this wasn’t a simple fact for him, because it was accompanied by a sad face and a sigh of defeat. This guy can’t wait to leave his job behind.

We talked about this, and what was beneath his “Escape Goal”, as Earl called it, was the fact that he had lost the good relationships he had once enjoyed at work, and was now surrounded by people who had little respect for his talent in handling details and complex problems.

“They don’t see why to bother with things that used to be so important,” he said. “People aren’t trained well, and when they don’t cut it, they are replaceable. Nobody takes time to listen or help people these days.”

Earl had given up. The saddest thing is that it looked like he would spend the next 58 weeks having this same conversation, to himself and with other people. Pretty soon nobody would want to talk with him at all, because every conversation would go the same way: sad and boring.

Could an Initiative Conversation be useful here? Maybe start something new at work and get out of the pits? Earl and I talked about how to invent some kind of game or goal that would have him be more positively engaged with his co-workers. He resisted the idea that anything would be worthwhile, until he mentioned the documentation problem.

“Our documents are all out of date,” he complained. “My bosses don’t even realize it, and wouldn’t care even if they knew.” It was obvious this was something he cared about, but he hadn’t seriously considered taking any action.

How long would it take to fix those documents? Probably more than a year, Earl admitted. But then he got a light in his eye. “I could do it,” he said. “I’m halfway out to pasture anyway, and can do most of what they expect from me with one hand.” I encouraged him to take on the document-update project, even though it wouldn’t be recognized or rewarded. It was a sanity-protection plan.

I checked in with Earl yesterday. He didn’t say anything about his retirement date, and he didn’t look defeated. In fact, his office was bustling with people bring in papers and flash drives, and taking other ones away.

“I’ve got everybody working on this,” he said with a grin. “I had an Initiative Conversation in our staff meeting right after we talked. I told them what I wanted to do – update the 11 documents that are relevant to our job in this department. And I said by when I wanted it – before I leave here. And I explained why it matters – because I want to do something that will make life easier for the people who come after me.”

“About four people wanted to get in on this project, “Earl continued. “Now there are six of them, making the changes and editing each other’s work. We’ll be done by the end of next month. Guess I’ll have to think of something else to accomplish, just to keep everyone happy!”

Earl’s tip: When you’ve got the blues, find something that needs to be done. Then get busy and get it complete. No excuses.

Hold Your Seat: Dialogue Is 2-Way

The understanding conversation is the one that some senior-level managers and executives dislike. A VP in a financial firm once asked me, “Why should I ask people who work for me to give me input on a plan? Won’t they think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

The difficulty is that it is a dialogue, with listening – and maybe even accepting on what the other person says – a key ingredient. Talking is easy and quick. Listening takes time and attention. Plus, whenever you really listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about whatever you were thinking at the beginning of the conversation. Maybe that’s what people don’t like about it.

A Tibetan lama, Sakyong Mipham, makes some important points about listening in a recent article in the Shambhala Sun:

  1. True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop.
  2. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles.
  3. The best way to practice listening is to learn to “hold your seat”.

Hold your seat. When you’re listening, he says that power has been handed over to the speaker, who will now direct the conversation’s mood and content. When you are listening, you hold your seat by calmly refraining from interrupting, by being engaged and self-assured, and allowing someone else to take charge. If it’s hard to stay present and really hear the other person, try taking a gentle in-and-out breath or shifting your posture in some way, uncrossing your arms or dropping your shoulders. Bring yourself back to listening.

When you want to engage people in accepting something – say, a plan of action or a suggestion – you can’t just hand them the plan, ask them to read it, and believe they will adopt it as their own. You’ll need a dialogue, and a willingness to accept the others’ input as useful. You might even change your mind about something. Learning and updating our ideas is what understanding conversations are all about.

Understanding Does Not Mean Agreement, Acceptance, or Action

One of the myths the students and managers in my leading and managing change classes persist in believing is that people don’t “buy in” to a change is because there is something they don’t understand.  They are mistaken.

Implicit in this “myth of understanding” is the belief that understanding is the key to agreement, acceptance, and action.  No doubt, there are situations in which failing to understanding what another person is talking about, wants, or is proposing results in confusion and contributes to disagreements.  This frequently occurs when using unfamiliar terms or assuming the listener has a sufficient background in the subject at hand.  Under these circumstances, increased understanding can foster agreement and acceptance.

But increased understanding can also contribute to disagreement and non-acceptance.  When something is vague or ambiguous, it allows for multiple interpretations and understandings.  In this respect, it is more inclusive of potentially competing or inconsistent viewpoints.  Under these circumstances, greater clarity of understanding makes the inconsistencies apparent and fosters greater disagreement and non-acceptance.   For example, as managers spend more time explaining and discussing a change in an attempt to increase understanding, the impact and consequences of the change become more apparent and real to people.  Some people will react favorably, others will not.

Increased understanding, therefore, is not necessarily the key to agreement and acceptance, or to the action people think will stem from.  Understanding conversations are important, but they are only one of four productive conversations that are needed for change.