When Integrity is Missing

You know that person who says they will do something and then doesn’t do it? The one who says he’ll be at your place at 10:00, then shows up 15 minutes – or an hour – late. Or the one who says she’ll email you that document as soon as she gets back to the office but you still haven’t received it by the next afternoon?

I was annoyed with both of those people, which didn’t change a thing, of course. I knew I needed to follow up – to let both of them know that what they promised did not match their actions. But I didn’t want to hear their explanations. I just wanted to point out the gap between promise and performance, and figure out how to get things to match better in the future. If you know a nice way to do this, let me know.

The other thing is that those broken agreements are also my bad. Agreements always have 2 ends, and I am at one of them. Did I not get a good promise? Did I not let them know their being prompt mattered to me? With the person who showed up late, I failed to let them know I had a meeting to get to, and hoped they would be on time. With the person who promised the email document, I didn’t tell them I had promised to forward it to someone else. I had to revoke that promise and make the request again.

Letting people know WHY something matters to you makes a difference because it underlines the importance of the agreement. When people know it matters, they raise their attention a bit. I dropped that ball.

It also occurred to me to do a bit of housekeeping with my own agreements. I looked over my schedule and my Due List (it used to be a To Do List, but my husband pointed out that I needed to practice what I preach and list the “deliverables” and who will get them). Sure enough, I saw several places where I had let something slip past the due date. So I had some cleanup to do myself.

Integrity is about honoring agreements. First, I need to have a good agreement – clean and clear about what will be delivered, and when, and why it matters. Second, I need to schedule whatever work is required in order to keep that agreement. Third, I need to put that schedule and agreement where I will see it, instead of putting it in a file folder under my desk or something. OK: Agreement, Schedule, Visible. Lesson learned.

This Works at Home Too

The Four Conversations aren’t just for the office. We communicate in our real lives too. I just had some great results out of having a “closure conversation” with a dear friend. She had been unhappy – and unusually touchy – for several months. I had been patient and kind with her, because I knew she was still upset about her failure to get the promotion she wanted. But sometimes enough is enough.

At first I couldn’t see how to handle it. Of course, use the Closure Conversation’s “Four A’s”. Acknowledge the facts: You had a big disappointment, and have been in a miserable frame of mind ever since. Appreciate the people: I care about you, and you have been a good and trustworthy friend and colleague for many years. Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings: Ummm, not sure I know what to say here. Maybe I don’t need this one? Amend broken agreements: Not sure here either.

But I couldn’t stand it much longer. The irritability, the whining and complaining about every little thing that “went wrong” or “didn’t work”. I should have put my foot down about this situation months ago.

Aha! It’s not about her, it’s about me. I hadn’t communicated!

Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings: I apologize for not pointing this out earlier, but your misery is now driving me nuts. You need to pull yourself out of this, if not for yourself, then do it for the people around you. You’re creating an issue and a burden for others.

Amend broken agreements: You and I have an understanding that we will be honest with one another. But I let this go too long before letting you know we have to do something to break up this negative cycle for you. You can count on me to be more alert in the future: I will pay more attention to the moment when something upsetting – for either of us – turns into a chronic habit of negativity and complaint.

Result: Certain parts of that Closure Conversation sounded a lot like an argument. But I kept going, and fortunately we have enough background relationship that she was able to hear what I was saying. We’re back on track, without the irritability and pessimism, and even showing some glimmers of relaxed optimism. Whew. I’m reminded that the four conversations work wherever there are human beings.

The Debrief – A Path to Re-Starting Anything

Give closure conversations a try – they can remove speed-bumps in everything from personal relationships to organizational change initiatives. Believe me: I have a million stories on this. Here’s one.

I went to a not-so-great educational program this past summer. The fairly small audience – about 35 people – was made up of some people who were on staff for the sponsoring organization, others who were presenters, and many who were long-time members. The agenda was filled with good speakers delivering useful information. Sounds fine, right?

Unfortunately, I was a new member in the group and had no idea which people were staff, or volunteers, or members. They all seemed to know each other well, but I was introducing myself in every conversation for 2 days. Further, I didn’t know some of the insider jargon, and used most conversations to clarify what was being said. I spent 2 days listening carefully, taking lots of notes, and feeling like I had accidentally stumbled into a stranger’s family reunion.

On the flight home, I realized that a general introduction of the participants at the beginning would have spared me (and perhaps others) some discomfort. For example, tell people: “Stand up if you are a staff member. Thank you. Now, stand up if you have been a member for more than 10 years; 5 years; 1 year. Thank you. Now, if you are a new member, stand up and say where you are from and what brings you here.”   It would have taken no more than 15 minutes and it would have warmed things up early.

When I got home, I filled out their Survey Monkey questionnaire about the event, hoping that my “debrief” assessment would open a conversation for how to have future gatherings be more welcoming and productive for people new to the group. Six weeks later, still no response. Today I got an email from the organization promoting future events. I hit “unsubscribe” to all future mailings.

A debrief conversation gives closure: Acknowledging the facts (“we got your survey results”); Appreciating the people (“it was great to have you in the group”); Apologizing for mistakes and misunderstandings (“we’re sorry you were uncomfortable – we thought the nametags would be enough to help everybody know everybody”); and Amending broken agreements (“thanks for the idea of warming things up with a general introduction – we will discuss it at our next Staff-Volunteer planning meeting”).

Without closure, we compromise our relationships and give up responsibility for desired future results. You can’t please everyone, but when you realize there’s a mess, taking charge of the cleanup is a no-brainer.

Summer Close-Out = Space for a New Future

Jeffrey spent Labor Day weekend painting the living room and kitchen walls. I spent the weekend untying lots of those “ties that bind”.

I tossed things out, put things into the recycle bin, and filled up 2 bags of stuff for Goodwill and/or Salvation Army pickup. Then I went through my Outlook list of past business contacts – all the client relationships from the years I was doing consulting projects.  Delete. Alter-and-save-changes. Re-categorize as friends or other resources. I rearranged several parts of my life.

Closure conversations are wonderful. I used all “four A’s” at some point over the weekend:

  1. Acknowledge the facts:  I don’t need this anymore. It no longer represents anything meaningful, or it isn’t something I want in my future. It’s out of here. (And that person who kept complaining about overpaid consultants?  Delete, delete.)
  2. Appreciate the people: Thanks, it was great working with you. I’m no longer doing consulting projects, but let me know if you’d ever like to meet for coffee.
  3. Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings:  I’m sorry I didn’t meet with you before I retired from consulting. I would have enjoyed doing that project with you, and I know your new support team will get it done right. I wish you the very best.
  4. Amend any broken agreements:  I know we had a deal that whenever I was in your city I would call you to set up a meeting. I’ve retired from consulting, but let me know if you still want to get together now that I’ve changed my agenda. These days I’m working on management writing, speaking, and some training programs (be forewarned: I occasionally talk about nuclear waste management too!), and I have always enjoyed talking with you.

September is when we sharpen our pencils for a new school year. Use “Closure Conversations” to do a bit of personal housekeeping and make space for new thinking, new projects, and maybe some surprises in your future.

Not Everybody’s Interested

I used to think everyone wanted to know more about “productive communication”. People are only interested in productive communication in the areas of life where they have some commitment.

That seems obvious now, but I didn’t always know how to find out about people’s commitments. Here’s my latest method: look at how long it takes them to respond to an email communication or a phone message. Try sending an email or leaving a phone message inviting someone to join you at an event, go out for dinner, or get back to you with a date and time they can meet with you. Be sure to include something about the purpose of the occasion, and make it friendly-sounding. Then start counting.

Within 24 hours? They have a commitment to something in your invitation. Two days? They were out of town, busy hosting their in-laws, or lost their smartphone. More than two days? They’re trying to think up a way to get your emails out of their inbox without telling too big a lie. Or they don’t have high-tech things like phone answering machines or email capability. In either case, quit inviting them to do things.

I speak from experience here – I’ve been on both ends of this situation. I am working to make my communications clearer now:

  1. Add a note about when I’d like to hear back if they do have an interest in my request or offer;
  2. Add a note about how it’s OK not to respond if they’re not interested in pursuing this now; and
  3. Make sure I let them know what I’m planning to do in either case, and that I value our relationship no matter what they choose to do now.

It’s simple etiquette, and it’s already saving time – I’m not waiting for people anymore. Plus I’m learning more about the gap between what people say they are committed to and what they will actually take action on. Useful information in updating my contact records.

The Worst Thing About Performance Improvement

I did a survey in one organization. The two places most managers wanted performance improvements were (1) communication, and (2) accountability. OK, no surprise there. Better communication and more accountability would make a manager’s life easier, right?

But 6 months later, guess what they hated most… Communication about accountability.

Dave, a mid-level manager, said on the comments section of the survey, “I hate dealing with people’s excuses for why they didn’t do what they said. There’s always some justification, but it’s really just a story about where they stopped and who else is to blame.”

Sharon wrote, “I don’t want to try the accountability thing anymore. People just give explanations for why they couldn’t do it. They’re creative, but it’s annoying to deal with their buck-passing.”

So the worst thing about improving performance was dealing with people’s excuses about why they weren’t performing.

One manager, Carole, found a solution. “I took my people at their word when they told me that other people were messing us up. We started meeting with key people in other units. We explained our objectives to them. We told them about our deadlines and what we needed from them – and why it was important. After that, when we asked for things from them, they were on board with us. We’re meeting our group targets now.”

Using the excuses as feedback on the quality of relationships gave Carole a reason to reach out and strengthen those relationships. A little closure conversation plus some understanding conversations and voila! Performance conversations (requests + promises = agreements) gained more muscle – and excuses for failures were no longer necessary.

Interesting – talking to people who are messing up your life can actually be a useful thing to do.

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.

Do You Micro-Manage Slackers?

People are mad that Elaine avoids work – and sick of her “good excuses”. There are two different views about what their manager, Beth, should do:

  1. She should meet with Elaine at the start and end of every day to check on whether she’s doing her assignments or not.
  2. She should give assignments to everyone according to skills and interests and follow up with everyone – in group meetings.

That 1st option is called micro-managing. Singling out the slackers for a double dose of attention is a poor use of a manager’s time and energy.

The 2nd view suggests a way to use feedback: make a list of everyone’s primary assignments with milestones and due dates – a simple way to keep agreements visible to all. The Assignment Calendar is a manager’s best friend.

Beth took that advice and posted an Assignment Calendar showing everyone’s assignment timelines.  “It was much easier than I thought it would be,” she reported. “I made a chart listing each staff person, with the Friday due dates for the next 2 months as column-headers. Then I entered their milestones into the chart.”

She also said the best part was that her Tuesday staff meetings got much simpler too. “We just go down the column for this coming Friday and everyone reports their assignment status: who’s on track, needs support, how things are going. Elaine isn’t special anymore – she has to participate to keep from embarrassing herself.”

Quit Motivating Me!

We did a survey of about 25 managers, and one of the biggest problems they reported was “Getting people motivated, keeping them motivated, and/or having them motivated in the right direction”.

Have you ever had anyone try to motivate you? Don’t you hate that? It’s more like a manipulation than any kind of inspiration or encouragement. This points to a failing of many managers: they don’t see themselves as responsible for keeping up the energy of the workplace. They have too many meetings that drag on too long, or they don’t “close out” assignments and projects on the due date, or they assume that everyone understands – and remembers – the goals and objectives of the department regardless of what has been going on in their lives.

Just because somebody isn’t doing what you want them to do doesn’t mean they aren’t “motivated”. There are probably about a dozen other things that are more likely:

  • They are disorganized in managing their work and feel overwhelmed with mess and loose ends.
  • They are not good at scheduling their tasks and commitments and feel “behind” all the time.
  • They are already at their productive max and just wish you would stop asking them to do things.

None of those problems is going to be solved by “motivation”. People sometimes need assistance in getting a better grip on their workload by learning ways to be more productive –office tidiness and scheduling habits need an upgrade now and then.

We know a manager who has had good results holding an Office Cleanup Day once every quarter. He gets get everyone cleaning out their file drawers and email in-boxes, and has them make up a fresh “Do-Due List” of everything they really need to address within the next two weeks. He’s done it for the past 5quarters and claims everybody is more awake, interested, and productive than they used to be.

One other replacement for “motivation” is to make sure people are very clear about what they need to do, how soon it should be done, and why doing it would be more important than doing some of the other things on their desk. The What-When-Why rule of productive communication is usually a better strategy than trying to make someone “feel” a certain way, such as motivated, engaged, or committed. A straight request is: “Here’s What I want, When I want it, and Why it matters. Are you available to do that?”

Of course, it’s good to add some humanity to it by tailoring your request to whatever already-existing relationship you have. If you can connect on a more personal level, you won’t be mistaken for a robot – and it’s okay to dress your request up a little as long as you’re genuine about it. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can reach into my mind and “motivate” me.

Conversations – It’s Your Turn Now

Dear Everybody,

I’m at a conference in San Francisco this week. I’ll be presenting at the Conference for Global Transformation, then visiting relatives, then skibbling around the city with my sister for a few days.

While I’m away, it’s your turn to practice some stretch exercises with The Four Conversations. I recommend that you try my 3 favorites:

Make some unreasonable requests – either ask people you don’t usually ask, or ask for more than you usually do. Stretch your conversational muscles.

Close out some old issues with people – pick someone that is a little annoying to you, or who you avoid because you don’t want to have that same old conversation again. Prepare your thoughts for using the “four A’s” of closure: Acknowledge the facts of where things stand with your past relationship, Appreciate something about him/her or your relationship, Apologize for something (like for putting this conversation off for so long), and Amend any broken agreements (if you have any). Then go ahead and have that conversation with the intention of clearing the past out of your present relationship. The point is not to have a new super friendship with them or anything, but to get that twitch out of your stomach every time you see or think about them.

Make some unreasonable promises – look at something you would really want to accomplish or take action on, then tell someone you’re going to do it by a specific date. Don’t just tell any old person – tell someone who matters to you. Let them know you will follow up with them to let them know if you did it or not. This is “putting yourself on the hook” to take action, and it works better than simply “trying” to do something on your own.

That’s it. I’ll be back and tell you about a “nuclear conversation” with the Indians (the Tribal Elder kind, not the baseball team kind). But only if you practice at least one of those 3 things over the next two weeks, OK?