Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

I know a guy – I’ll call him Russ – who is especially proud of the regard people have for him. He is pretty sure that he is admired, and that whoever spends time with him finds it a valuable and worthwhile experience. That is pretty much true, from my observation. People gravitate to him and he welcomes their company.

One oddity though, shows up when any of those people fail to keep the promises they have made to him – even about something as simple as refunding him for a purchase he made for them, or bringing him the book they promised to leave on his desk. The oddity is that he is unwilling to call them on it. He won’t dial their number or send an email to say, “Hey, did you send me a check for that seminar I paid for you to attend?”, or, “I thought you were going to bring me that book. When will you bring it over?”

Even when he sees them in the cafeteria or a coffee shop, he doesn’t mention it to them. Russ insists that, “It’s not worth it. What’s a couple of bucks?”

I asked him, “Don’t you get a little reminder in your brain when you see somebody who told you that they were going to do something, and they didn’t do it? How do you deal with that little nudge without mentioning that bit of unfinished business and resolving it with them?”

Russ laughed. “It’s not worth getting into it or mentioning their failure to come through. Maybe they just made a mistake. I just blow it off.” Maybe Russ would rather keep the relationship free of anything that could disturb their positive view of him. Or maybe he really thinks he can “blow it off”.

I disagree. Those little uncommunicated things are incomplete – and they accumulate over time, like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. They will be there forever in that relationship, little negative nags.

Russ is a shop owner, too, who is often is unwilling to tell his staff what he really thinks about their performance. I tried talking with him about using “closure conversations” to give useful feedback so they could improve. “No way, he said. They would only get upset, defend themselves, and offer explanations. I haven’t got time for that.”

Coincidentally, I just received a book in the mail titled, “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)”. The subtitle is, “Why we Fear it, How to Fix it”. The author, M. Tamra Chandler, looks at the negative ideas around feedback and creates a fresh viewpoint, allowing us to reconsider feedback as providing value and being beneficial and supportive. Now I can see it as a way of getting those little negative nags out of other people’s heads as well as my own.

I can’t say how living with undelivered communications is for Russ – he doesn’t seem to mind carrying those barnacles. Maybe they don’t slow him down or crop up in his head as brain-litter, or worse. They do for me. Brain litter is a distraction that takes me away from what I’m doing, thinking or creating, and gives me a flash of annoyance to realize that it’s still there. I started, some years ago, using that flash of annoyance as a reminder to close out that incomplete item, but I still need the reminder sometimes. Those barnacles bother me, and as much as I wish they would go away by themselves, they do not.

I’m going to send a copy of “Feedback (and Other Dirty Words)” to that manager.

The Manager-Staff Gap – And an Idea for Updating the Performance Review

Looking at a file from work with a former client, I found one particularly interesting list of “Top Five” workplace issues for their organization. What made it interesting was that we could see the difference between problems that Managers had, and the problems reported by lower-level Staff members.

The survey was made of 56 Workplace Assessment questions designed to identify their biggest workplace problems; we used the Consultant Subscription to survey different groups at the same time, but instead of defining survey groupings by their department or function, we grouped them by their different levels in the hierarchy. Here’s what we found:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Managers – “Some projects and assignments involve other teams and departments, but it is difficult to get their cooperation and support.”

Okay, that sounds like a reasonable observation, since Managers have to deal with other departments (and their Managers) in a more administrative way than Staff do.  But it was interesting that the Staff did not rank this as being important at all – they simply did not see it as a workplace problem. Perhaps Staff should thank their Managers for protecting them with having to deal with this issue? Another result:

  • The #1 workplace issue for Staff members – “Some people do only the minimum work necessary or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done.”

This seems reasonable too, since Staff have to deal with finding their way through the jungle of their jobs whenever their workplace contains one or more low-performing Staff members. This Staff issue, however, was ranked very low on the list of problems reported by Managers. Apparently, Managers do not see the performance barriers that Staff are actually dealing with in producing their results.

What did Managers and Staff agree on? Another result:

  • The second-biggest workplace issue for both Managers and Staff – “There are significant differences in the quality of work that people do.”

Interesting to see that both levels notice the “quality difference” of Staff performance, and both find it to be either a problem that uses too much of their time and attention, or a it’s problem they do not know how – or want – to address. What could cause this disparity?  Perhaps it was the 3rd disparity – an issue that Managers ranked as their 3rd-biggest problem, but Staff members didn’t even include in their high-ranking workplace issues list:

  • The Manager issue that was invisible to Staff: “Performance reviews are subjective and not helpful in giving guidance for improvement.”

Wow! Managers and Staff agreed on the variability of work quality, but only Managers saw the problem of subjective performance reviews. Could that be because Staff are resigned to being evaluated in subjective ways on subjective criteria?

The Managers chose to update their performance reviews. They found a person in HR to help them orchestrate several discussions with a group of Managers and Staff supervisors. These were the people directly involved with the way that “performance” actually plays out in the workplace, and they collaborated to specify what they meant by “high-quality work”.  Now this organization focuses on using observable attributes of work performance rather than subjective evaluations based on intuitive criteria.

One Manager’s comment after using their new performance review was, “Now we are evaluating “performance” as an attribute of work and results, rather than evaluating the attributes of individual people. This is a good lesson on how to redefine work quality and performance.”

NOTE: The Consultant Subscription provides the opportunity to use the same Group Assessment survey for different groups at the same time. The choice of how to perform the groupings is up to the Consultant.

Step #3 – Using Conversations to Solve Workplace Problems

After Rodd filled out his own free Personal Workplace Communication Assessment, he received a Results & Recommendations (R&R) Report with suggestions for improving the biggest problem he saw: a lack of accountability. Those suggestions, summarized in Step #2, “Using Conversations to Improve Accountability”, moved him to invite all of his staff to take the survey and get their own Regional R&R Report based on responses from their own people. Maybe then they would all see the problem and work together to get it fixed!

Rodd decided to subscribe to the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment – because he wanted to have different Reports for each of his five Regional Offices, and might want to have follow-up surveys over time. He had talked about this survey idea at his last All-Staff meeting, and people sounded interested and willing to do it, so he was confident there would be a good response. He sent out the invitations to take the survey with a distinct link for each Regional Office’s personnel.

Out of 75 staff members, 70 completed the survey. To Rodd’s surprise, the five R&R Reports showed that the five Regional Offices really did see different worlds. And they didn’t all see “lack of accountability” as the biggest problem. But then, after studying the five Reports, he was intrigued to see the different patterns of responses, and figured that working on those differences as a group would help the Regions get better acquainted and begin standardizing StateOrg procedures and communications. (He was right about that!)

Rodd also made up a list of the “Non-Problems” – the items that got the lowest number of votes overall. “That’s the good news”, he told me. “I want them to see our real strengths before we talk about the problems and solutions. His plan was threefold: (1) Send the “Good News” email listing the strengths, or “Non-Problems”, of State Org to all 75 people on Thursday; (2) Send all five R&R Reports to everyone the following Monday; and (3) Schedule a one-day visit with each Regional Office the following week, to discuss their unique “Biggest Problems” and their ideas for improvement.

It was a smart thing to do – people responded well to hearing that this wasn’t all about problems and complaints. And, since each person had received their own individual survey feedback report and recommendations, they were already talking about the idea of using conversations to solve workplace problems. You can see Rodd’s Step #3 (out of 6 steps) here: Step #3 – Group Workplace Invitations & Results.

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.

Accountability is a Manager’s Job – Not an Employee’s Mindset

Last week a friend introduced me to a manager, saying, “This guy is talking about accountability, so I thought I would introduce him to you. The manager – let’s call him Steve – told me a little about his group and how they were preparing to expand it by adding 7 more people.

“I’m looking for people who know how to work with systems and have some financial background. But most of all, I am looking for people who are accountable.”

Uh Oh. I was glad he kept talking, because my brain was spinning with an attempt to think of something useful to say, without offending him.  What I wanted to say is, “That’s ridiculous. People are not accountable. Accountability is not a personality characteristic. And it sounds like you don’t understand the job of management.”  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I found another option.

Accountability is an agreement – and a relationship – between a manager and an employee, or even a manager and a group. A manager, for example, has a dialogue and performance conversations with one or more team members about three things:

  1. To clarify What needs to be done and What results need to be produced, What resources need to be obtained from others, and What deliverables (products, services, and communications) need to be provided to others;
  2. Identify those “others” – Who, exactly are they? And,
  3. Specify When each of those results and deliverables need to happen.

Then all you have to do is make sure that everyone is on board – by establishing agreements to perform these results and timelines, with clear responsibilities for each result, including Who will manage each relationship with those “others” who part of the project or program.  Oh – and update the status of the agreements at regular meetings.  Try it for two or three months and watch your team’s performance measures shift gears.

I finally found something say that Steve might find useful. I told him that, sadly, people don’t come equipped with accountability as a part of their DNA, or even their education.

“Accountability is between people, not inside them,” I said.  “But with a few conversations you can set up the communication structure and schedule that will establish accountability between you and keep it going for as long as you choose.”  I told him about setting performance conversations for good agreements – discussing What needs to happen? Who is the team member responsible and Who else is involved? And When should results happen?

Steve began to look more relaxed, with just a hint of a smile. He said, “I’m going to test that idea on my current team starting this week. I suspect it will improve our performance.  I’ll let you know if it works – and if it does, I’m buying you lunch.”

I figure the phone might ring in the next 4-6 weeks.

Performance Management = Count the Hours Worked? Or the Results Produced?

I love reading The Economist magazine for its useful perspective on the world. Last week an article included a summary of the evolution of “performance management” at work.  Here it is:

  1. Before the industrial age, most people worked in their own farm or workshop and were paid for the amount they produced.
  2. When machines were developed and were more efficient than cottage-industry methods, factories emerged. Suddenly, workers were not paid for their output, but for their time – they were required to clock in and out.
  3. Today, work hours are still the measure, and employees have found ways to make it look like they are working longer hours than they really are. The article mentioned some tricks they play to maintain their image as a performer:
    • Leave a jacket on your office chair;
    • Walk around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard; and/or
    • Send emails at odd hours.

The name for this new phenomenon is “presenteeism”: being present but not productive. This is because, the article states, “managers, who are often no good at judging employees’ performance, use time in the office as a proxy”. Some take the shortcut of “judging” performance based on the hours worked rather than understanding the actual results produced. That decision can create a damaging idea of what workplace “performance” means.

Perform: The original meaning is “To provide thoroughly. To deliver completely, as promised.” That tells us performance is the fulfillment of a promise for an action or delivery of a product, service, or communication. It means a manager has to clarify which results, by whom, and by when – not to mention discussing resources, and identifying relevant key players. It requires thoughtful, productive communication, including a “performance conversation” in which the manager clarifies the results and timelines then gets an agreement – a promise from the employee – to deliver the intended result(s).

Performance is not determined by a judgment based on apparent work hours. It entails tracking promises for results and the results produced and delivered.  But managers who take that performance-judgment shortcut are also short-circuiting the work of management.

A “performance review” is more than checking a time clock or filling out a form. It looks at the promises made and/or revised, promises kept, and promises not kept. It is more objective than subjective, looking at what results each person (or team) actually produced.

It does take time and attention to manage performance in terms of results, so I see why some managers rely on their personal judgment instead. It’s sort of like leaving a jacket on their office chair or walking around purposefully with a notebook or clipboard. Looking busy will often be perceived as being productive.

The Missing Piece in Managing for Results: Know Your CRABs (no, not that kind!)

We all know people work to produce results, right?  Produce a sale, a widget, a TV show – there are lots of kinds of results. It’s great if producing the result also produces a paycheck or some other reward.  Either way, the purpose of work is for the results.

That’s why a good manager knows it’s important to be clear about the results people should produce. And equally important, be clear about the goals – the reasons for producing those results. But… many managers, even the best ones, leave out something important (besides giving deadlines, which I wrote about earlier this month). They leave out the “CRABs”.

We forget to tell people that for every goal, and every result, there are people we should consult, i.e., people who have resources we want, people who need to approve some part of what we’re doing, and probably a user-customer at the end of the line who has a preference or opinion you should know about. Here’s how to remember who those people are:

  1. Collaborators – the people who have information we need, such as scope, constraints, and other professional perspectives;
  2. Resource providers – those with money, people, and know-how that could be critical to what we want to produce;
  3. Authorities – the people who will sign off, or reward (and punish, if necessary) some of the details of our work; and
  4. Beneficiaries – the people who are going to use and appreciate (or complain about) the results of our work.

These are the CRABs associated with every goal and every work assignment. They need to be our partners in performance, but they are too often invisible to us. Sometimes we forget they’re there until it’s too late! CRABs are a key part of your “performance circle” to produce results.

You can see the sketch of a CRAB network in the picture accompanying this blogpost. I drew it up as part of a project with people who were working at nuclear power plants. Note: I was a management consultant for a long time and have lots of these diagrams.

Identifying CRABs is a worthwhile exercise for anyone who has a goal and a result to produce. Find out about the individuals and groups who will likely have (or want to have) something to say about what you are doing or producing. Maybe get in touch with them early on, to let them know what you’re up to and to learn about their perspective on the matter.

But don’t get crabby, even if they say something negative. Those CRABs could be around for a long time.

PS – You don’t need to mention that you call them CRABs. ?

Create Certainty for Yourself and Others – Start Saying “By When”

I just read an article about “time” in The Economist. It was in the business section, so I expected it would say something about managers setting due dates for assignments (or not) – maybe in the context of high performance or something like that.

Nope. It was about whether “long-term strategizing” or “following mega-trends” would help businesses be more competitive in the marketplace. Their conclusion was interesting: “Too much emphasis on the distant future is a waste of time.” OK, amen to that.

But, that is a 10,000-foot view of time. Admittedly, it is a valuable perspective, but I’d like to see more discussion about workplace communication at the 1000-foot level. And even the 100-foot level. I’ve had more than a few examples recently of people leaving a “time” commitment out of their interactions, such as:

  • The colleague who answers my email requests for his conference presentation materials by saying, “I got your information”;
  • The woman at the moving company who wouldn’t commit to a time for the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new residence; and
  • The supervisor in the dining room who accepts every complaint – about food or service – with a generous smile and a promise to do something about it, though never saying “by when”.

A few of my former clients called me the “by-when-lady”, because every time they told me what they were going to do for one of our projects, I would ask, “By when?” That question always plunged them deep into their heads, where they searched for an answer. At some point they got used to thinking in terms of scheduling a due date for their work agreements with me.

I usually have to check my calendar before I can answer a “By when” question. But without knowing specific times when I will get back to them, other people are left either waiting or doing follow-up with me. Neither of those options is productive or enjoyable – and a little of our energy leaks away every time either one of us thinks about that unfinished business. Better to pick a time, enter it into the schedule, and make it happen.

The challenge is this: are we willing to be responsible for supporting other people in being productive too? Or do we leave them waiting, and having to follow up with us?  People do appreciate certainty in their lives, at work and elsewhere.  If we can give them that simply by including a “by when”, a date-and-time, we are granting them a little more peace of mind than they would have had without it. In these uncertain times, that is a lovely gift.

Personal productivity or accomplishment depends on the agreements we make with others. An agreement always has three ingredients: What are we going to produce + When will we deliver it + Why does it matter. If we leave out that middle one, we don’t have an agreement. Hope is good, but a promise for delivery is gold.

Breaking News: Accountability Can Be Killed by Vocabulary

I learned something this week: accountability isn’t just a matter of the conversations we use. It can also be ruined by the words we use.  Wow.

My “conversations” theory – which is still valid, by the way – is that Accountability is strengthened by conversations that (1) establish agreements and (2) follow up on those agreements. Let’s say we have a (performance) conversation, in which I agree to bring some boxes over to your place so that you can pack up your antique toy cars and take them to an auction. We agree that I’ll deliver them Tuesday morning.

Depending on how reliable I’ve been with past promises, you might assume I will keep my word and not bother to follow up with a second conversation. Or, maybe you’ll decide to call me Monday evening and ask, “Are we still on for you bringing those boxes over tomorrow morning?” Or, if I didn’t get them to you on Tuesday morning, you would likely call me and ask where those boxes are. Either one of those would be a closure conversation.

Accountability begins with performance conversations: a request plus a promise makes an agreement. Then accountability is completed with a closure conversation: Was the agreement kept? Do we need a new agreement? Did something unexpected happen that needs to be dealt with?

This week, however, I saw a demonstration of what I will now call “Accountability Prevention”. A woman, let’s call her Millie, worked at a moving company and was responsible for coordinating the delivery of my sister’s belongings to her new home. Millie said the delivery date would be no later than July 9th.  On July 9th, my sister texted Millie, saying, “What time will my things be delivered?” Here are some of the statements she got back from Millie over the next 8 hours:

  • I’m trying to reach the driver.
  • I tried calling you and got a busy signal.
  • The driver tried to load your shipment from the warehouse, but he was unable to do it because of a miscommunication.
  • The local agency has been trying to get the containers, but they haven’t arrived yet.
  • I will try calling you again after my meeting this morning.

You notice the word try?  That word was used rather than making a promise, which would have sounded more like, “I will call the driver and get back to you within an hour.” Or, I will call you at ten this morning.” Or, “I will see that the warehouse releases your containers to the driver and let you know your expected arrival time.”

My sister noticed that Millie was really “trying” – in every sense of the word – rather than committing to something specific. Unfortunately, my sister – an executive at heart – has little sympathy for people who are “trying” rather than performing. Now our radar is now out for the try word, because if we let it stay in any conversation we’re having it will block access to creating an agreement. Without agreements, and the follow-up they make possible, there is no accountability. Sometimes it is best not to try.

How to Handle Lateness – It’s Everywhere!

Projects are late. Promises aren’t kept. Schedules are tweaked or ignored. We human beings are pretty bad at starting and ending our tasks on time, no matter how much planning we do.

A good article-plus-podcast Why We’re Late explains the causes. One is that lateness is due to the “planning fallacy” – our estimates of how long a task or project will take is often too optimistic. We don’t plan for all the possible interruptions we might encounter – after all, as the article said, we plan to succeed, not to fail. Two other contributors to lateness are:

  1. On big complex projects, we often forget to plan for the coordination required to pull various aspects of the project together.
  2. On a more personal level, we forget that humans aren’t very good at “impulse control”, meaning we procrastinate because we do what we want to do at the moment, instead of sticking to our scheduled plan. Like, I’m going to check my email for a minute first? Yeah, sure, and half an hour later I’m into a whole other mini-project. We humans are pretty distractible!

Solutions? They mention software that helps project team members see what other players are responsible for, and how project parts are related by schedules and dependencies. They suggest tracking your performance – get data on what takes a project off-course or distracts you personally from getting a task done. And also, of course, using that data to improve your time estimates.

Lateness is everywhere. People are late to meetings. Managers give assignments without a specific deadline, often over-using the word “priority” as if that will make things go faster. And when an assignment is turned in late, nobody says, “This is three days overdue.” We let it go.

Communication can shift the lateness habits of a work group. Performance Conversations and Closure Conversations help give more attention to timelines, including follow-up on whether deadlines were met.

  • Alex says, “I’d like to present this policy brief at the Board Meeting on Tuesday. Can you get the references needed, collect comments from the other three Advisors, and include the changes they suggest? I would need that finished by Friday close of business.”
  • Justin says, “Sure, I can do that. Send it over to me.”
  • Alex confirms that they have an agreement: “You promise you have time for this? I don’t want to be scrambling to pull things together on Monday.”
  • Justin: “Yep. Consider it done.”

So, a request from Alex + a promise from Justin = an agreement. Performance Conversation complete.

  • Justin, on Friday at 5:45, says, “Sorry, but one of the Advisors hasn’t responded yet. I’ve sent you the update using comments from the other two, but don’t know if that’s enough.”
  • Alex says, “Thanks, I’ll look at it over the weekend. But, FYI, close of business means 5:00 PM, not 5:45, so I was wondering whether you were going to deliver. I say this because I want all of us to pay more attention to keeping time agreements. I’ll talk with Advisor #3 this weekend about that too. Sorry I didn’t make it clearer before. And, despite being picky about timing, I really appreciate that you’ve made it possible for me to review this and plan my Board presentation over the weekend. Thank you very much.”

Closure Conversation complete. Bringing all “four A’s” into a conversation is powerful:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the situation – what happened and why it matters;
  • Appreciate the people – recognize the value of their effort and contribution;
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings – cleanup improves trust; and
  • Amend broken agreements – set up for a future where agreements can be honored.

The article pointed out there is data going back more than 100 years showing that at least 80% of projects have cost and/or time over-runs. Making clear agreements, and communicating with people about the success and failure of those agreements, can shift the communication habits of a work group to support being on time.