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?

Mr. Chicken Talks to the Boss

“My performance review is due next month,” Edwin said. “I’m going to wait and see what happens, and if she gives me a bad review, I’m going to take it to the union or sue her. She would be totally out of line, and I’m going to turn her in.”

That’s a recipe for a lot of stress, it seems to me. And Edwin acknowledged that over the last year he has had some health problems that are likely related to the tension in his relationship with his boss. He explained to me several incidents that have accumulated to build this strained situation. But he seemed curious that I thought he shouldn’t just wait for that performance review.

“Maybe you could talk with her next week,” I suggested, “close out your past relationship with her. See if you can start a new way of working with her.” I gave him the recipe for a closure conversation:

First, acknowledge the facts. Remind her of those three incidents that you think have contributed to a buildup of baggage for you and for her. Just itemize what happened in a short nutshell, no story-telling.

Then tell her something – more than one, if you can think of it – that you appreciate about the way she works or how she manages your unit.

Apologize for at least one mistake you’ve made, or misunderstanding you may have created by your own behavior. Be genuine, and be brief.

Finally, if there are any promises or agreements you have failed to keep with her, own up to it and either let her know you won’t be keeping it or make a new promise for when it will be done.

Edwin said, “She won’t allow any of that. She’s very controlling, and won’t let people talk to her that way.”  He thought for a few minutes, and must have realized he was afraid of her, because he said, “I’m a chicken”, and he agreed to talk with her the next day.

“It was worth it,” he told me later. “I’m not worried about that performance review now. I don’t know what kind of ratings I’ll get, but at least it won’t be because of our past disagreements. I think she was relieved to have our negative interactions brought out into the daylight, and now she knows I will give her more respect and honesty than I did before. It’s taken a load off both of us.”

The Cost of a Failure to Appreciate People

One of the Four Conversations that get results is a Closure Conversation. There are four ways to have a Closure Conversation, but the second type of Closure Conversation can be especially costly if neglected:

Appreciate the people who are working on a project or goal, recognizing what they have accomplished and/or contributed and saying why their participation is important, both to you and to the larger project or the overall process of reaching a goal.

When people do not feel their work is appreciated, or that their situation is not recognized as being an important factor in affecting their performance, they may withdraw and further reduce their effectiveness. Or they may seek to punish you.

Two sculptors were commissioned to complete their statue of Nelson Mandela in South Africa on a very tight deadline. They were denied the opportunity to add a small trademark on the bottom leg of the sculpture in recognition of their work. This lack of acknowledgement apparently didn’t sit well with them.

The two sculptors inserted a bronze rabbit into the right ear of the 30-foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela to serve as their signature. They said it was too small to be visible without binoculars. The rabbit was to represent how fast they had to work: the Afrikaans word for “rabbit” also means “haste”.

Appreciation is useful, as it re-engages people in their work and in communication while possibly preventing subterfuge or hostility. Include appreciation in your regular workplace communications to reduce the likelihood of finding a bronze annoyance hidden inside one of your department’s major accomplishments. You can see an example here: Mandela’s Bunny  .