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.

Closure Conversations Repair Relationships

Good working relationships are essential to getting work done and to a satisfying work place.  But what can we do when relationships turn sour?  You could have a closure conversation with the person.

One of the managers in my Mastery in Execution class had a very poor working relationship with a woman at work and it was affecting his work.  As he reports it, “She does poor work and it is frequently late.  I can’t count on her and her failure to do the work is costing me.  Do you have any recommendations for what I can do to make her do what she she is suppose to?”

As we talked, he revealed that because he did not particularly like the woman, he didn’t interact with her the same as he did with others with whom he had a good relationship.  He mentioned that he tended to be more abrupt and less engaging with her, simply telling her what he wanted rather than really taking the time to talk to her.  Additionally, he was dismissive of the reasons she gave for not getting things done and got quickly frustrated when she failed to perform.

Based on what he said, I proposed that he could have a closure conversation with her in which he (1) acknowledge the breakdown in their relationship, (2) apologize for how he had interacted with her and the impact it must have had on her, and (3) express his interest in building a more effective working relationship with her.  Not surprising, he was very hesitant about having such a conversation and said “I don’t think I can do that or that it will work, but thanks.”

Several days later, the manager approached me after class and reported “I had the closure conversation with the woman I told you about.  It was hard for me to do that, but it really did change things between us.  She told me she knew I treated her differently than others, but didn’t know why and that she too, wanted a better working relationship.  It turns out that she frequently didn’t understand my directions and didn’t feel like she could ask me for clarification.  I was shocked because I thought I was clear!  Anyway, we agreed I would take more time to explain what I wanted and to help her when she has problem or questions.  Things are already much better, thanks.”

Have a relationship that is not up to what you would like it to be?  You might consider having a closure conversation with them.

 

Closure Conversation Helps Get Job

Closure conversations can be used at anytime, they don’t have to be used only at the end of a project or an accomplishment.  Jason, a hospital administrator in a Columbus hospital, used a closure conversation at the beginning of his interviews for a new job at a different hospital to reduce anxiety and address an issue he was sure was on everyone’s mind – that his former boss as the one hiring him.  Here is what he told us about it:

I recently interviewed for a director position in a hospital in which the position was newly created and reports to someone (Linda) I had once worked for in my current organization.  Since I had never held a director’s position before, I expected people at the hospital where I was interviewing would be understandably curious about my relationship with Linda and how it would affect them. 

I had one interview with a panel of 14 front line managers.  I knew that this would be the most difficult of the interviews, as they have difficult positions and are typically pulled between front line staff and administration.  I assumed that my presence would evoke doubt and worry because of my relationship with Linda.  I felt that acknowledging this up front might alleviate some of the anxiety the panel felt as well as the anxiety I felt in the interview process.  Even though I had never officially met any of these individuals before, I felt that having a closure conversation and was appropriate.  The following is a synopsis of how it went:

Panel Member:  What do you think some of your initial challenges will be?

Me: Well, of course getting to know the system.  But I imagine that my first challenge will be perceptual.

Panel Member:  What do you mean by that? 

Me:  Well, I know from the interview process that you all have had a year of great changes.  I know that Linda is relatively new, and has brought in many new people.  I know the position I applied for is new to the organization.  I also know that you have read my CV, I am sure it took you about 3 seconds to realize that I worked for Linda in the past.  So here I am, in a new position to the organization that was created by my old boss.  I am sure that I will be viewed as Linda’s boy.

Panel: Laughter

Me:  By the way you guys responded to that, I can tell that many of you have thought that.  I get it.  That is okay.  You will not trust me at first, nor should you.  It is not because I am not trustworthy; it is that you don’t know me yet.  This is where the perceptual challenge comes in.  It will be up to me to prove myself to you through my actions that I am worthy of this position and this job. 

Panel Member: Thank you for saying that.  You are very astute.  I will admit that I came here with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because that is EXCATLY what I thought.  Now I can let go of it.  This will be fine, and you will be fine.  That is all I needed to know.

The conversation was much easier from there.  The interview was more conversational than adversarial.  We shared ideas about projects we were all working on in our environments, and the managers were able to open up to me more.  Even though I had never met these people, I think opening with the closure conversation was important.  The result was that the interview was much easier and I feel more confident in building new relationships with these managers.  More importantly, since the tension was taken out of the initial meeting, I was able to learn more about the organization and the team dynamics so that I could come to a more informed employment decision.

I used this pattern of conversation in other interviews during the process and each time I got similar results. 

Incidentally, I was offered the job. 

Although Jason only used one of the 4-A’s of a closure conversation (he used acknowledgement), it was all he needed at this point.  By acknowledging his relationship with Linda could be an issue and that he needed to earn their trust, Jason diffused a potential obstacle to his having an effective working relationship with the 14 front line managers.  He also made it clear that he was aware of what they were probably thinking and that he was not going to run away from it or pretend it didn’t exist or matter.  By being straight and acknowledging what was there, Jason made it easier for people to interact with him.

Good job Jason!

Closure Conversation Saves Dog and Home

Closure conversations are one of the most powerful conversations you can use.  I want to share an email from a former MBA student that illustrates just what impact a closure conversation can have.  She writes:

Professor Ford,

I had to write to you and let you know I had the most incredible closure conversation today.  Yesterday, I found out that apparently, our dog is on the “restricted dog breed” list for our apartment complex.  I was given two options; get rid of the dog in 2 weeks, or move out by January 1st, and pay an additional $1,500 in lease buyout fees (our lease didn’t expire until June).

I decided I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I went this morning to talk with the property manager.  I asked if she had some time to speak with me, which she did, and then I told her I had just a couple of questions for her first, and then I wanted to say a couple of things regarding the current situation. I acknowledged the issue, appreciated that she was simply abiding by the rules and regulations set forth by corporate, and apologized for my fault in the matter; not letting the office know when we got the dog, and failing to pay the fees that come as part of owning a pet on the premises.  I offered to amend it, if I could; paying back fees due to the complex, even offering to pay a penalty, if they saw fit, for my negligence.  I told her my request was to stay until the end of our lease in June, and keep the dog.  The manager was very receptive to me, and promised to do what she could; she would state my case to coporate, but couldn’t promise me anything, as cases like mine in recent history had ultimately been forced to get rid of their pet or move.

I received a phone call an hour and a half later.  Corporate agreed to let us stay until June, with the dog, pending no complaints from any of our neighbors.  They gave us until June 30th to pay the back fees due as a result of having the dog since December of 2009.

I have always thought I understood closure conversations in theory; to actually have one, to put the elements into conscious practice…I understand it could have gone either way, but I do believe this conversation saved our dog and our home.

Thank you for teaching me something that is more than just an interesting concept. Have a great weekend

Jen

Pretty cool huh?

What Happens When Promises Aren’t Kept?

All of us have failed to keep a promise we made to someone.  It might have been we forgot to make a call, failed to get something done on time, or only did part of what we said we would.  And even though we may have a good reason for breaking our promise, there are consequences nevertheless.  Among these are:

  1. People get upset.  Although most of us don’t like dealing with upset people, the fact is they have a right to be upset.  After all, they counted on us to do something and we didn’t do it.  Being upset is perfectly understandable.
  2. We lose credibility.  Credibility results from doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it.  Even if we have a really good excuse, every time we fail to keep a promise, our credibility suffers.
  3. We lose trust.  When we fail to keep our promises, people see us as less trustworthy.  Even if we think we are completely trustworthy, others may not share that opinion if we fail to keep our promises.
  4. We can lose affinity.  People stop liking us as much.  Sure, our close friends will still like us if we don’t keep our promises, but others may not.  Like it or not, people make decisions about how they will treat us based on whether they like us.

There are no doubt other costs , but these are among the primary ones.  How many of these can you afford?

One way to reduce these costs is to have a Closure Conversation in which you (1) acknowledge you did not keep your promise, (2) recognize it had an impact on the person to whom you made it, (3) apologize for the mess you have created, and (4) offer whatever assistance you can to clean it up.  Such a Closure Conversation might look something like this:

“I promised that I would have the data to you today by 3 and I have not done that.  I know you were going to use the information in a report that is due at 5 and that my failure to have the data puts you in a tight spot.  I apologize for the problem I have created and if there is anything I can do to help you now, please let me know and I will do it.”

Closure Conversations don’t make everything better, but they can sure help.  Next time you fail to keep a promise, no matter how big or small, try having a Closure Conversation with the person.

Use A Closure Conversation to Gain Credibility

How do you get credibility when you don’t already have it, particularly when you are new to a group?  One way is to use a closure conversation.  One function of a closure conversation is to acknowledge the facts of a situation.  In this case, it is used to let other people know that you know what they know – that you have no credibility.

Kouzes and Posner, in their book The Leadership Challenge, contend that credibility is the foundation of leadership.  According to them, credibility is a result of doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it.  But this definition creates a problem for anyone who is new to a situation and has no established history of doing what they said they would do when they said they would do it.  What am I suppose to do if I don’t have any credibility with you and yet I need at least some in order for you to listen to what I have to say?

One way to obtain some immediate credibility is to use a closure conversation in which I acknowledge what you already know – that I have no credibility. I could do this by saying something like, “I have something to tell you that you may not believe coming from me since I am new to the group and don’t have any credibility with you.  If I were you, I would probably be skeptical too and so I won’t take it personally if you doubt me. [Then proceed to deliver message.]”.

Making such a statement is both authentic (i.e., I am not pretending I have credibility) and courageous. How many people do you know are willing to admit they have no credibility to a group of people with whom they need credibility?  The result is that people will listen to you, at least for the moment.  Of course, you can only do this once, so you better be sure that what you say is easily and quickly verified.