Why the NRA Blew It Regarding Newtown

Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, made a fundamental mistake when responding to the massacre in Newtown CT last week. He used an understanding and an initiative conversation when he should have used a closure conversation.

Rather than use a closure conversation to acknowledge the magnitude of the tragedy, appreciate the shock, suffering, and heartbreak of the families and community, or offer any real condolences, he went right to attempting to explain, justify, and rationalize why Newtown had nothing to do with him or the NRA. Where people were looking for closure and some acknowledgement that perhaps it was time to step back and think newly about assault weapons, LaPierre offered only his arguments for why guns were not the problem, but that video games, Hollywood, and “bad people” were. And then, using an initiative conversation, he proposed putting more guns in schools.

It is no wonder people are upset and shocked by LaPierre’s response. He committed the same mistake many leaders do – they misuse the four conversations and are then surprised by the result. LaPeirre failed to provide any sense of closure, making both him and the NRA seem cold, detached, and out of touch with reality.

I suspect the public response would have been much different had he used only a complete closure conversation.

Worst Employer Needs Closure Conversation

When the employer-review site Glassdoor.com recently designated Dish Network the country’s worst employer, Dish Network CEO Joe Clayton called the worst-employer label “ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, Joe’s denial won’t change what employees or, now, the public think.  If he really wanted to change how Dish has been branded, he would start with a Closure Conversation.

Closure conversations are one of The Four Conversations and are used to complete the past and open the possibility for something new.  In a closure conversations, people acknowledge the facts, appreciate the people, apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings, and amend broken agreements.

Rather than dismissing the worst employer label as ridiculous, Joe could acknowledge that this is how employees see the company and its current management practices.  He could then appreciate their honesty and thank them for pointing out something that he, Joe, finds unacceptable.  By apologizing for the current state of affairs and accepting responsibility for them, he could commit to creating a new Dish Network with the help of employees and promise that things will change.

Of course, Joe could only say all this if he were really interested in ending the current era at Dish and building something new.

On Building Accountability

Laurie and I recently led a leadership training session for a state agency.  During that session, one of the questions participants wanted to address was “How do we get greater accountability from people.”  The answer, you build it through the combined use of performance and closure conversations.

Accountability is not a personal characteristic; it is a characteristic of the working relationship between people.  It is not whether Janet, or Frank, or Evan are accountable people, but whether the working relationship they have with clients, co-workers, and bosses are ones that are built on accountability.

When we consider accountability as an attribute of our relationship with other people, it makes it easier to build accountability into that relationship through the conversations we have.  Performance conversations, in which requests and promises are made, establish agreements between people.  When I promise to post an article of yours on a web site, we have an agreement.  And, if I fail to perform, we have a broken agreement between us.

By having a closure conversation, in which the broken agreement is acknowledged and amended, we are holding each other to account for the status of our agreements.  Naturally, I am the one who has to account for the failure to perform, but that you had the conversation with me makes it evident agreements are important and will be accounted for.

It is the combination of performance and closure conversations that builds accountability in a relationship.

Closure Can Save A Reputation

I have a friend who’s reputation is being damaged by not having a closure conversation.

Jay, the friend of mine, was recently accused of lying by Colleen,.  According to Colleen, Jay agreed to print and assemble materials for a training session on community service.  Since this was something Colleen was used to doing, and was prepared to do this time, she was hesitant to turn it over to Jay.  However, after several phone conversations and emails to get the details worked out, Colleen agreed to let Jay prepare the materials.

A few weeks later, Jay informed Colleen the materials were not getting done because he could not find anyone to do the work.  Shocked by what she was hearing, Colleen reminded Jay of their conversations regarding what would be required and that he had ensured her he would get it done.  To her surprise, Jay denied having made that agreement.

In response, Colleen sent an email to the session organizers informing them of the problem with materials and that Jay was misrepresenting what had happened.  Jay, who was sent the email, replied to Colleen “I am sorry you think I misrepresented things.”

Some of the people who received Colleen’s email know the facts and that Jay did misrepresent what happened.  And, they express their disappointed that he has never tried to clean up the “misunderstanding” with a closure conversation.  As a result, Jay is now known as someone who lies to cover his mistakes – a reputation he could have avoided.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.

To Be More Effective, Manage Agreements

A project manager in a program I recently led asked “How can I best manage my people to accomplish a change?”   I told him, “Don’t manage your people, manage the agreements you have with them.”

Agreements are the foundation for performance.  Many managers believe the key to getting things done is to appeal to people’s emotions and feelings, including their likes and dislikes and what they want or don’t want.  However, I have not found this approach to be highly effective or sustainable.  Emotions and feelings are easily changed and since I can’t control my own emotions, I am skeptical of influencing those of others.  Besides, there is a much more reliable approach.

Create agreements with people and then manage those agreements.  Agreements are created in performance conversations where both parties agree on what will be accomplished, by when, and how success will be determined.  These are conversations between adults where what counts is the agreement they create together.  Since agreements are between both parties, both are accountable for its accomplishment – one for delivering and the other for receiving what is promised.  This means that if an agreement is not kept, both parties are accountable.

Closure conversations are used to follow up and hold people accountable for agreements.  In these conversations, both parties have the opportunity to address what worked and what didn’t.  The focus of these conversations is on the success or failure of the agreement, what can be learned, and what can be done differently in the future.

For another take on managing agreements, read this blog.

Absence of Communication Undermines Reputation and Future Change

I recently talked to Jeremy, a staff member whose organization is changing from one type of work structure to another.  Prior to the change, each work unit in the organization made recommendations on how the allocation of work in their area, who should do the work, and the timelines that should apply.  According to Jeremy, the recommendations were well thought out and developed through extensive individual and group meetings within each of the work units.  Once completed, the recommendations were forward to the Rebecca, the senior manager responsible for reviewing all the recommendations and determining how best to incorporate them in the new structure.

Everything seemed to work fine until Rebecca began informing the work units of her decisions.  According to Jeremy, Rebecca’s decisions ignored many of his work unit’s recommendations with no explanation why.  When he went to his unit manager to find out on what basis Rebecca was making her decisions, his manager replied “I don’t know”.  People in Jeremy’s unit were perplexed, confused, and upset.  They felt betrayed and there was a substantial increase in gossiping and complaining about Rebecca.  Some people even quit their jobs.

Change leaders like Rebecca have to make tough decisions and are accountable for those decisions.  But Rebecca could have reduced the damage both to her reputation and the future receptivity of people to change if she had engaged in understanding conversations with people prior to her decisions and closure conversations after.

To Keep Sponsors, Keep the Agreement

To keep the support of their sponsors, black belts and other specialists will do well to manage the agreements they have with sponsors.

The director of a lean management program recently approached me with a problem he was having with program sponsors prohibiting students from implementing their lean projects at work.  According to the director, each student who enters the program has a sponsor who agrees on the focus and scope of the project the student will do while in the program.  This agreement is worked out before the student enters the program and includes numerous “check off” points so the sponsor knows what is happening throughout.  However, when it is time to actually implement the lean project, 20-30% of the sponsors refuse to proceed.

Initially the program director thought the sponsors might be resistant to change, but I told him I didn’t think that was the issue.  Rather, I told him there was something else going on.  And indeed there was.  As students progress through the program, they see other things that could be done beyond the project they originally agreed to with the sponsor.  However, rather than renegotiate the agreement, the students proceed with developing the larger project.  It is these larger projects that sponsors refuse to implement.

The issue here is not resistance to change, but a failure to honor and manage the agreements among students, sponsors, and the program.  More complete performance and closure conversations will reduce the percent of sponsors who refuse to implement projects.

Influence Requires Using Different Conversations

Influencing others – having an impact on their ideas, opinions, and actions – requires using different types of conversations and not recognizing this limits our effectiveness.

I recently read an article in which the authors maintain that effective leadership requires influencing others and that leaders can influence those others through five different influence styles. The authors point out that we each have preferred influence styles and that we use them even when they don’t work.  Increased effectiveness, therefore, comes from learning and using other influence styles.

Influence, however, is more than a matter of style, it is also a matter of using the appropriate type of conversation.  If you want someone to consider a new idea, for example, an initiative conversation is appropriate.  However, if you want to influence their understanding or opinion, then an understanding conversation is the way to go.  If its action you want to influence, then partnering performance and closure conversations are what’s needed. And, if you want to influence someone’s opinion of you, then closure conversations are your best bet.

Clearly there are lots of ways in which you can have conversations – aggressively, timidly, etc. – and these ways of conversing contribute to your influence style.  However, if you use the wrong type of conversation, style won’t make up for it.  Influence depends on our ability to use the appropriate conversations as well as the manner in which we have those conversations.

Leadership Credibility Depends on Closure

Credibility is a key element in effective leadership and depends on the effective use of closure conversations.  Most people realize that credibility is built by telling the truth.  But credibility is also built by doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it and when you don’t, acknowledging the failure to do so, apologize for the consequences, and repairing the damage by having closure conversations.  When leaders don’t do the “cleaning up”, they undermine their credibility and reduce their effectiveness.

The impact of failing to have closure conversations is indicated in a study of mergers among Canadian hospitals.  According to the authors, credibility was central to the ability of leaders to take actions and get the support of others in making the mergers happen.  When leaders kept their promises and did what they told people they would do, their credibility was enhanced and they were able to do more.  However, when they didn’t keep their promises, or did things contrary to what they led their followers to believe they would do, their credibility was diminished and they became less effective.

What is interesting is that the leaders who did not keep their promises apparently did nothing to “clean up” the broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.  The research on trust indicates that closure conversations, in which people acknowledge they betrayed their promise and authentically apologize, rather than blame circumstances, and then commit to changing their actions in the future, are every effective in repairing broken trust.  Had the leaders in the merger study had closure conversations, they would have been able to reduce the negative impact that resulted from not doing what they said.

Leaders depend on credibility and credibility depends on authentically “owning up” when things don’t go as promised or expected through closure conversations.