Organization Hierarchy & the Difficulty of Difficult People

In the last several posts, I have reported on an interesting phenomenon I’ve seen in every client workplace I have ever consulted. People at different levels in any organization see very different problems – and very different opportunities. Going back to the 6-part case study (July 31, 2019) that used the Group Assessment survey to identify key workplace issues, Managers see one set of issues but are blind to quite a few things that are creating barriers for Employees and their effectiveness.

My favorite is the problem of “Difficult People” in the workplace. Everybody sees a different side of the problem and can offer different reasons for why it happens. Here are 3 types of Difficult People, each with a note on who sees these people most accurately:

  1. People who don’t do their work, don’t use the processes or technologies that are available, and/or have to be either motivated or managed closely by somebody. Best seen by Employees, who have to pick up the slack or take them by the hand and show them how and why to do the job.
  2. People who are simply crabby or unpleasant at work, such as complainers or people who think they are better/smarter than everyone else. Best seen by Employees, who will be affected every day by those negative attitudes on display in the workplace.
  3. People who stir up problems by gossiping or blaming others. Best seen by Employees, who will be distracted by the loss of trust within their work group and the futility of correcting it. A peer stepping in to correct this will probably just aggravate the situation.

Why don’t Managers see these problems? They do, but they usually prefer to keep their distance from them. Why step into a “people problem”? That is the world of psychology and sociology, and they have more worthwhile work to do. Many also know they lack the expertise to “fix” a Difficult Person. Managers put up with these people, and even if they see it, they don’t rank it high on their list of workplace problems. As one Manager said, “That guy isn’t a very smart worker, and he isn’t real friendly, either. Maybe he needs coaching, but that’s not my job – I’m a manager and have a lot of responsibilities. He is not one of them.”

For the most part, Employees will not report these problems. Why not? Because that could make them seem like a complainer or a gossip, and they don’t want to be the one giving a Manager another problem to solve. And, in many cases, an Employee who addresses the problem by speaking directly to someone who is “difficult” will likely just aggravate the situation.

The only thing we have found to solve the problem is a Manager who is willing to practice using the four productive conversations with each individual(s) who is causing one (or more) of the 3 problems identified above. Most important is the “Closure Conversation”, which includes being specific about the behaviors that are causing problems, and acknowledging one or more things that are positive about the person’s behaviors or results (several videos are available here on Closure Conversations). But all four productive conversations are needed, perhaps with some follow-up to validate the importance of the message and any progress observed.

So, those Difficult People problems can be resolved – relatively easily – but it also requires what may be a new kind of communication between Managers and Employees to find out what the problem really is. The Group Workplace Assessment points out the problems that Employees see, but doesn’t give names to those Difficult People, nor does it give specifics about when, where, and how the problem shows up. When a Manager is serious about improving performance, morale, and teamwork on the job, a few communication upgrades will improve the work environment. Admittedly, dealing with Difficult People can be difficult – and delicate. But the payoff is worth the investment.

 

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.

Workplace Assessments – What Works (and What Doesn’t)

It was fun writing about the six steps of the Group Workplace Assessment Case Study we did for a client. We have used other assessments before, but we found many of them asked what people like/don’t like, or what they saw as the biggest issues facing a project or a management team. If you want your entire department or group to be more effective, you need more than a bunch of opinions sorted in the order of “Which ones got the most votes?” or interviewing only the management team or a “select” group of staff. That’s no way to run a railroad.

If you want your whole system to be effective, you have to take another approach: Ask everyone about the workplace problems, situations, or issues they see in their workplace – the things that cause them annoyance or frustration, losing energy or productivity – or sometimes losing heart.

Our idea is to ask only one question: “How often do you see each of these situations occurring in your workplace?”  There is no blame and no shame – just a bunch of individual assessments added up to say what the group as a whole will need most. Oh, and you get feedback. And recommended solutions.

We have identified (from years of experience) 56 workplace situations that are negative in terms of getting work done and being effective. Each situation can be minimized or eliminated by changing one or more of “The Four Conversations”, which – no accident – are discussed in our book of the same name.

It has been a workplace assessment that people really get into, and most welcome the idea of learning a few new communication practices too. The long-term results are excellent, with people making more clear requests, following up on agreements, and starting new projects with a firm foundation.

If you are interested, you could try taking the Free Workplace Assessment first, so you can get a feel for the kinds of questions we use and how many of them resonate with what you notice in your own workplace. When you submit your responses to the survey, you’ll receive your feedback: Which negative workplace situations you see most often – and what communication habits might be improved to reduce those problems.

If you want to use one of the two types of Group Workplace Assessments, you can get a subscription. Both subscriptions will take the survey responses from each of your group or staff members, protecting the privacy of individual responses, while adding up ALL responses to give you a group assessment – with solution recommendations for the “Top Three” issues.

The Manager Subscription is good for 90 days, allowing you to do a follow-up if you like. The Consultant Subscription is good for one year, allowing you to use it with multiple other groups during that time.

You will be surprised to see what your group sees – it will be different from your own perspective. We have learned that managers and consultants do not always see the same situations that employees and workers see. And getting to a group consensus is welcomed by the people who have been putting up with difficulties, some for quite a long time. You can see the Case Study here – it will likely give you some ideas about the value it could provide in upgrading your own railroad. Let us know!

Step #6 – Problems & Solutions: Work Plans and Follow-Up

The All-Region Workday paid off for Rodd’s managers and their staff members. They had identified the three biggest problems for the whole StateOrg organization, and then, after listening to all 12 of the small-groups presenting their solutions, they formulated a work plan to solve each problem in the same way at each Regional Office. (The three problems, with their solution-focuses, are listed again farther down in this post.)

After hearing the solution ideas – all based on using the “four productive conversations” as a basis for making changes in staff communications – they took all the ideas and came up with a single format for addressing all three problems:

  • Start by clarifying the Goal for solving each problem, using Initiative conversations to specify What they want the solution to look like, When it will be in place, and Why it matters.
  • With a clear goal, they could move into having group discussions to develop a Work Plan for goal accomplishment. They used the Understanding Conversations – a dialogue – with its questions of Who the key people are who need to be involved in reaching the goal, Where the resources will come from and Where benefits will show up, as well as How to get the right people doing the right things.
  • The next element was to establish good working Agreements with those people. They identified Who Asks for something to be done, and Who Promises to do it, making sure people were clear about What would be done or delivered (whether products, services, or communications) and by When it would be complete. These are known as Performance Conversations, and everyone seemed to recognize that these conversations were their group’s “weakest link”, as one person said.
  • The fourth piece was Closure Conversations that provided the follow-up to see where things stand. People agreed they would have Regular Update Meetings to review the status of requests, promises, and agreements. These conversations are made up of two or more of the following “A’s”:
    • Acknowledge the status of results regarding promises made and promises kept;
    • Appreciate the people who have participated in the project;
    • Apologize for any mistakes and misunderstandings that have occurred since the last meeting; and
    • Amend broken agreements – by making a new agreement that will be workable or by revoking it altogether and finding another solution.

“We aren’t too good at these conversations, either,” one person said, as heads nodded with agreement.

The solutions differed only in their focus and the details of implementation. Here are the three problems, with the key elements of their unique solutions:

  • Outdated equipment or systems and insufficient materials and supplies: It was decided that this problem would be solved by taking an inventory of what was missing and what was needed. The inventory would be kept up to date and timely purchasing would improve productivity while reducing frustration and incomplete work.
  • Changes implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change: The solution chosen for this problem was to have specific communications that would be delivered to everyone by StateOrg executives and managers whenever changes were going to be made to any staffing, budgets, or systems. The communications would be developed by the people who had been through prior changes and knew what was missing in their knowledge of whatever was happening.
  • There are significant differences in the quality of work people do. This problem would be solved only by improving the way managers and supervisors give people their work assignments. The groups working on solving this created a list of ten questions that every manager had to discuss with staff people, so they would be clear on what was expected of them. The questions would be asked whenever assignments were changed in any way.

After three months of working on implementing these solutions – using online ZOOM meetings to report results and update work agreements among the members of the three “Problem Solver” teams, the results were reviewed, including some surprises. You can see them here, with other details about the process and findings of the last step: Workplace Assessment, Step #6.

It was impressive what this client had accomplished – so impressive that Rodd decided they need to have a celebration for the whole StateOrg team. Back to the capitol for a fine buffet and a cash bar!

Step #4 – The Results Are In: What to Tackle First?

After 97% of StateOrg’s staff completed their “workplace issues” survey, Rodd sent out emails to all personnel and attaching the results for all five Regions. Everybody was going to see everything about what people said about all eight categories of workplace annoyances:

  1. Lateness of assignments, projects, or people;
  2. Poor quality work and clarity of work standards;
  3. Difficult people;
  4. Lack of teamwork, collaboration and coordination;
  5. Poor planning and workload overwhelm;
  6. Insufficient resources, support, and training;
  7. Lack of accountability; and
  8. Incomplete communications.

He also instructed everyone to pay the most attention to the top-ranked issues in their own Regional Office, telling them, “These survey results show us the different types of non-productive situations you see around us all. When I come to your office next week, we’ll talk about the ones that are the biggest headaches in your Region.”

Rodd also attached a copy of the five Recommendations Reports for each Region’s survey – again, everything to everybody. But he encouraged people to focus on the recommendations for their own Region, so they could get the idea of resolving these issues by changing their conversations with other people, in their own office as well as in other StateOrg groups.

When made his one-day visits with each Regional Office, Rodd asked the attendees to tell him the top three issues and he wrote those on the whiteboard. “That should keep our attention on improving these issues”, he said.

Then he reviewed all four “productive conversations”, giving people a handout that summarized the basics of each one. This opened the discussion of how all four conversations occurred in each office, either internally or with people in other Regions and other agencies or community organizations.  They saw their daily communication in a new light, as well as where its strengths and weaknesses were.

Then Rodd asked, “Which one conversation – out of these four – is the one that each of you thinks you’re already pretty good at having? Everybody, choose one conversation.” He had people raise their hand as he read out each of the four conversations: Initiative proposals, Understanding dialogues, Performance requests and promises, and Closure completion of projects and agreements. Then he had people get into sub-groups, one for each of those conversations, to talk about how their conversation could be applied in the office. The discussion was lively, with people writing notes and ideas on the flip-charts around the room.

At the end of the session, Rodd gave them an assignment: “Keep your groups going in your Region, and put your insights to work on those “Top Three” situations in your workplace. It’s time to make those disappear!”

He closed the meeting by announcing an upcoming all-staff meeting at the State Capitol in the near future. “This should be a fun gathering,” he told them. “All five Regions getting together in the same room! We are going to take on communicating better and improving our coordination and collaboration across all the Regions. I know it sounds either impossible or like really hard work, but I promise to provide a really good lunch.”  Everybody laughed – they had enjoyed a good afternoon.

Each “conversation group” took away their flip-chart notes, agreeing to keep working on collecting new ways of communicating in various situations and testing them out every day. Rodd was pleased to see that people were energized and, as one staffer said, “We’re finally going to clean up our language!”

Step #2 – Choosing an Assessment to Identify Biggest Workplace Problems

We’ve received a wave of inquiries about practicing productive communication techniques to resolve workplace problems. Since last week’s post of Step #1 in a 6-step process used by Rodd, a former client (see Step#1 blogpost), it seems people recognize the need to repair a “fractured organization”. The idea of using 4 distinct kinds of conversation to get a group on track might be catching on – perhaps my retirement years will be well spent letting people know about this!

Rodd’s first introduction to using productive communication was the free Personal Communication Assessment – only 20 questions – to see how his own skills stacked up in this area. He got prompt feedback on his answers, showing him his strengths and his weaknesses. Then, he kept exploring by taking the free Workplace Communication Assessment – this time, 56 questions. Again, he got immediate feedback on 8 types of workplace problems in StateOrg (our name for his organization).  The report validated what Rodd saw as the biggest problem: a lack of accountability.  Even better, it gave him a recipe for how to use all four productive conversations to solve that problem.

First, though, Rodd thought about having all his staff take one of the Group Assessments so he could get an even stronger validation on that “biggest workplace problem”.  He only had to decide which Group Assessment he should get:

Rodd thought if everyone recognized that there was a “lack of accountability”, they would surely work together to solve it.  He also felt that getting feedback from everyone in all five regions would be a good way for them to experience themselves as part of one organization instead of five separate outposts. He was right about that part.

You can see the links to all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s second step is here, including the ideas he had for how to put the Consultant’s Workplace Assessment to good use in having his five-regions work together in a more coordinated way. (For a little more on the mess he was dealing with, see Step#1 blogpost.)

How New Manager Got a Fractured Organization to Collaborate

I’ve been going through my past cases with client organizations – now that I’m retired from my consulting career, I figure I can write up some of what I learned from working with them.  One of my favorites was Rodd, newly hired to run a multi-regional organization that worked with state agencies, local employers, and lots of other businesses and civic groups. He was overwhelmed – not because there were too many people, but because none of those regional offices worked in the same way.

This case is now posted on our workplace communication website because after Rodd found that site, he tried two of the free assessments, and then figured out a way to get all of his people – and processes and procedures – working in synch.  In our last conversation, he told me, “I thought I was screwed, but this worked and we all actually had some fun doing it. Thanks for saving my career.”

I didn’t save his career, of course. He did that himself, using the assessments on that site to evaluate what was going on in his regional offices. But he started with himself: what was his profile in using the four kinds of productive communication?  He found that he was strong in two kinds of conversation, weak in the other two. Then he kept going, learning more about the communication in his whole office and ultimately in all five regional offices.

You can see the list of all six chapters of “The Case Study” on the Group Assessments page of the site. The story of Rodd’s first step is here, the beginning of his six steps to get his people more aware of each other and better able to collaborate on standardizing some of their work procedures and reports. It was a highly successful project for him, and he was right: it was fun.

The New World of Management

I was talking with a professor the other night and she said something I had heard a million times in my (former) career as a management consultant: “I hate managing people”, she said. “They should just do their jobs.”

That might have been a valid position back in the days when Frederick Taylor first invented workplace management. People worked on assembly lines then, putting pieces and parts together to make tools or equipment of some kind. Their “job” consisted of making the same four or five movements in a specified sequence – and that’s what they did all day long.

Today, jobs are more fluid. I had lunch today with Alina, who works in an insurance agency. We were scheduled to get together yesterday, but I got a text that morning asking to reschedule because her boss had a special project for her. Today at lunch she explained her “job” to me.

“No two days are the same,” Alina told me. “I’m often not doing what I was hired to do, and sometimes it’s frustrating. The boss sent me an email the other night, but I didn’t see it until the morning. He told me to “dress down” because I was going to be moving boxes for the construction of our new meeting rooms. It’s like that all the time, where he changes my assignments to new things. Sometimes it’s OK, but I wasn’t happy about doing the physical labor yesterday.”

I hear similar things from many younger people, saying they don’t have a well-defined job definition and need to be ready for, as one friend puts it, “Interruptions, disruptions, and people changing their minds.” A new software program, a change in meeting schedules, a special request from higher-ups: the days when people could plan and do their work seem to have dissolved into thin air.

Bottom line: management today is rarely about training people to do one simple job and then putting up with them until they retire. It’s more about having lots of productive conversations every day.

  • Propose actions to take or results to be produced. (Initiative conversation)
  • Discuss the actions or results so the people – the “performers” – are clear about who does what, how it could or should be done, and where the resources will come from, where the work will be done and where the results will be delivered. (Understanding conversations)
  • Make requests and make promises to establish agreements with all the “performers” regarding what each will do or produce, when it will be done or delivered, and why it is important. (Performance conversations)
  • Follow up to confirm whether the agreements were kept, and, if not, identify what happened and how the failure(s) can be remedied. (Closure conversations)

This is not Fred Taylor’s kind of management. And it’s not about “managing people” anymore. It’s about managing people’s agreements for taking actions and producing results. That means the manager is a communicator – not in order to motivate people, but to get clear on the job for today, or for this afternoon, or for that phone call at 2:15. Being a manager means you work with people to clarify the jobs to be done and get people’s agreement that they will do it. Every day.

If you’re a manager, it’s probably smart to get really good at this, because you’ll be doing it all day long for the rest of your career.

Organization Assessments – Is Your Workplace Working?

I have been reading about organization assessments lately. There are a LOT of tools, techniques and reasons for doing an assessment! Most of them focus on figuring out the people – their values, styles, or readiness for change, and the culture their behaviors reflect.

So I thought I would toss another kind of assessment into that basket: https://usingthefourconversations.com/overview-2.

This one doesn’t study the people. It studies the situations the people observe when they are at work. There are 56 statements of situations that commonly arise – to varying degrees – in most organizations. The assessment asks only 1 question: How often do you see each situation where you work? Never = 1, Rarely = 2, Sometimes = 3, Usually = 4, Always = 5.

Those 56 situations reveal 8 distinct types of workplace problems:

  • Lateness
  • Poor work quality
  • Difficult people
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm
  • Insufficient resources and support
  • Lack of accountability
  • Incomplete conversations

At the end of the assessment, your workplace gets a score. You will find out which of those 8 workplace problems your people are seeing on a regular basis, including the specific situations they notice. Good to know, right?

You’ll also get recommendations on how to upgrade the communication habits in your workplace to resolve those problems. And, if you use the Manager’s Subscription – https://usingthefourconversations.com/manager-subscription – you’ll get information on how to give your people the survey and how to put the results to work.

So, instead of studying what makes your people tick, maybe it makes more sense to ask them about what’s happening at work that tends to compromise their productivity and effectiveness? They will tell you. Then you can work together to implement the recommended communication upgrades. Easy peasy.

Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.