Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

Time Management – No Excuses

I just finished reading Brian Tracy’s “No Excuses” book about self-discipline in lots of areas of life. Actually I read it twice, marking the margins for points that applied to my current situation of Do-Due-Overwhelm, then going back to pick a place to start making changes. I liked one exercise in particular – “The Law of Three”.

The first instruction: Make a list of all the things you do in a week or a month – write everything, large and small.

Wow – it was way easier than I expected. I just took my calendar for a month and made a list of the number and type of appointments, lunch meetings, social occasions, and other things I’ve scheduled. Then I looked at my Do-Due List (actually lists: I confess to using post-its for added clutter), groaned a minute, and added those items to the list too.

It was a mess, so I started to clean it up. Some things were duplicates, just using different words. Some things were never going to get done until other things were finished, so I lumped those together into one group and sequenced them. Best of all was when I separated one item into two: my category of “Well-being appointments” included Pilates, yoga classes, haircuts, and facials. Hmmm. Maybe the workout items don’t really belong in the same category as beauty treatments?

I probably spent an hour scraping the barnacles off my “What I Do Every Month” list, then shifted over to scheduling tasks and playing around to see how they might fit into my life. Result: I’m not overwhelmed. I just needed to get clear on what matters to me, then figure out the best time to do those things in the course of a week or a month. This morning I went downstairs to spend some time on the treadmill (which beats walking in the snow, by the way). It’s the first time I’ve used that treadmill in over a year!

I never did get to the Rule of Three, where you pick the things that contribute 90% of value to you or your business. The setup was the value – seeing what I really do, and saying it more clearly changed my conversation about several things. Especially about workouts: they work to create energy, which you can’t really say for a haircut or facial.

Reading a self-help book now and then is a great way to get some new vocabulary and perspective on both daily humdrum and overwhelm. Changing your conversation also changes perspective, which changes circumstances and relationships. Oh the power of talk!

PS: If you want to read Brian Tracy’s book, you’d better hurry. It’s on the Sale shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

No Closure, No Accomplishment

A normally upbeat and productive guy was suddenly downcast and discouraged yesterday morning. I went in to see Chuck and talk about progress on his most important project – implementing an employee development program – and he wasn’t even interested anymore. Wow.

“This project doesn’t matter,” he said. “I thought it would make a huge difference in the whole department, and get people working together in a new way, being more productive and satisfied. Nope. Nobody cares.”

That led us into talking about who he thinks should care about this, and how he knows they don’t. That’s when I found out about the department meeting two days ago. On Monday, two bosses in the organization – both VPs – had attended the department meeting in Chuck’s area. When Chuck presented an update on his Team Building project – progress, participation, and on-time project performance – all the statistics were looking good.

“But the Veeps didn’t ask anything about it, and didn’t even seem like they thought it was a good idea,” Chuck said. “My boss didn’t speak up for it either. I’m tired of busting my butt on things that don’t make any difference.”

I’ve been a management consultant my whole career. That means as soon as I’m done talking with Chuck, I can zip over to those two VPs and have a chat about this project and the importance of speaking up for it. So I did that. I saw Chuck later that afternoon, and he’d regained some energy.

“I got a call from one of those Veeps,” he told me. “She asked how long my project had been going on, and seemed surprised it was such a new idea and was already showing good results. Then she asked me to come and talk with her team at their next meeting, because they might want to do something like that in their division.”

His energy was coming back. All it took was for him to have a sense of the value of this thing, and when nobody bothered to have even a quick Debrief-and-Thanks conversation, the air went out of his enthusiasm. Closure conversations are the most necessary conversations in any relationship – at work or at home. Acknowledge the facts – that’s the debrief part. Appreciate the people – that’s the thanks part. And it can be useful to dust out any crumbs of discontent too, by adding the other 2 pieces: apologize for anything that’s been left swept under a rug, and update any old expectations from the past so they fit well with today’s reality.

Closure conversations can restore a sense of accomplishment and resuscitate a neglected project. Sometimes a little Thank You, laced with some appreciation of the facts in the matter, makes a big difference.

Conversation and the Ego-Magnet

Ever try talking to someone who brings everything you say back around to themselves? Here’s a clip from a conversation a friend reported to me last weekend:

Joan: I watched 3 reruns of The Mentalist on Friday night and learned more about how to observe and understand people than I ever thought possible. That guy is pretty interesting.

Keith: I try not to watch television – it’s not good for your brain. I’m pretty good at observing people already. My boss says I can size up a sales prospect better than anybody.

Then Keith held the stage for the next 3-5 minutes, cycling through a variety of personal opinions, self-praise, and topics that displayed his own superior knowledge and breadth of experience. Joan was in a shadow by the time Keith stopped to take a breath, and the conversation – if we can call it that – had traveled so far from where it had started that there was no hope of re-entry.

Joan concluded that she could not have a “grown-up conversation” with Keith, because, she said to me, “He is simply unable to take what is offered by another person and build on it in a way that others could both contribute and be contributed to by the dialogue.”

Sorry to say it, but she might be right. When one is looking for a conversation where mutual learning or interest or enjoyment are available, it doesn’t work to have one participant be a suction-tube, pulling everything in to him- or herself and simply sermonizing.

The only solution I’ve seen was when a Communications Professor demonstrated how to have an enjoyable conversation. She said, “It’s more about listening and asking questions than it is about talking.”

What we have called an Understanding Conversation is a dialogue in which both parties explore an idea – or any topic at all – and look at it from the perspectives of Who-Where-How or What-When-Why. Maybe that would work. What if Keith had said any one of these things?

  • Who is The Mentalist?
  • Where does he do most of his observing?
  • How did he learn to understand people?
  • What did you learn from him?
  • When is the best time to practice using what you learned?
  • Why are you home watching TV on a Friday night?

Perhaps the greatest gift we can provide in any conversation is just our own attentive listening and turning that toward an inquiry that elicits wider or deeper thought from others. Unless, of course, the other person is droning on and on in a self-referential promotion, trapped by their own magnetic ego. The solution to that may be to hum very softly to yourself until the sermon ends.

 

Back to School: Reduce Office Communication Problems

Here’s some feedback from people who just found out about solving the biggest issues in their office communication:

  • We took you up on your idea to find out about the communication issues underneath our department’s problems, and found that the category for “Poor Quality Work” was our biggest concern. We are putting your recommendations to work, reminding people about our department goals, talking to clarify the quality standards for what we want our products and documents to look like, and making better agreements for each assignment. After just 2 meetings where we added these conversations, our Quality issue is much reduced – so we’re going to tackle the 2nd-highest problem next!
  •  The boss thought our problems were caused by personality issues. But now we have proof that it’s time to upgrade communication. Thanks for just giving us just the group scores – we liked the seeing the totals and the averages on each of those 56 questions. It gave us individual confidentiality plus probably softened the Cranky Lady’s score too.
  • Wow – we didn’t know we had such a problem with “Lateness”! But we see it now – we didn’t have good deadlines for our assignments, and most of our projects went beyond the scheduled time and budget. We’ve been getting better at specifying due-dates for things instead of saying “ASAP” or “It’s a priority”. Thank you very much!

Our Workplace Communication Assessment for groups is available now – just go to the regular page where you can take the Workplace Assessment for yourself – https://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2/ – and read the instructions. When you get to the “PS”, you’ll see that you can also arrange to have a profile done that summarizes responses from your whole group or department. Just click on that email and you’ll get the information on how to do it.

We’re betting you will appreciate getting your group involved in improving communication with just a few easy and simple steps to reduce recurring workplace problems. Much quicker than sending everyone back to school.

On Getting What You Want

The hardest thing about getting what you want is the problem of deciding what, exactly, you really do want. If the Lamp Genie offered you one wish, what would it be? Over 70% of people would ask for some time to think about it – which probably means they are living a pretty good life already. The almost-30% group would answer quickly, usually because they have some kind of emergency or are in dire need of something important (like food, shelter, and other basic resources).

But once you do know what you want, how do you get it? A friend recently told me this story as he drove off to a week-long getaway (he was talking to me on his car-phone):

“I wanted my girlfriend to support me in taking a solo summer trip to a quiet cabin by a lake. The place is a long day’s drive away from where we live, and I knew she would rather have me stay home with her. So I explained that I needed the “alone time” to clear my head and make some decisions about work, and that I would only be gone for a week and would bring back a nice surprise for her. Then I took her out to dinner at our favorite place. This softened her up and she helped me pack my stuff so I could leave early this morning. Now all I have to do is figure out what kind of “surprise” I need to bring her.”

This poor guy might need a few lessons in Straight Talk. He reminded me of a quote by Albert Camus: “Charm is a way of getting the answer ‘Yes’ without asking a clear question.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to just propose the idea (an Initiative conversation), discuss the ways it would alter their daily household routines (an Understanding conversation), then make a clear request (a Performance conversation)? Seriously, it’s not hard to say, “Would you please support me in taking a 1-week trip to the cabin so I can have some quiet time alone?”

But charm has its advantages, being softer-edged and less confrontational. It got him the answer he wanted. Now all he needs is a brainstorm idea for the gift he promised in order to close the deal when he gets home. Without that, he could join the 30% who need to put out a fire in their life.

No Thanks!

Last week’s issue of The Economist reported on “rogue employees” who can cause more damage to their company than competitors can. In a 2013 poll, it was discovered that 70% of companies report having employees who committed fraud of some kind: padding expenses, using company technology for their own purposes, or stealing corporate client lists.

Shocking, yes? But the article goes on to identify some pretty ugly ways of dealing with it. Use “spies” to hang around in the smoking room or go out for drinks after work. Employ forensic accountants. Listen to gossip. Yipes.

But they ended the discussion beautifully, noting that a recent study (by Accenture) found 43% of employees surveyed said they received no recognition for their work. None. The Economist’s suggestion? Treat your employees (and maybe other people too?) with respect.

Here’s one way to do that: use Closure Conversations regularly.

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter: What they did, what you did, what happened.
  • Appreciate the person: Recognize something you value about them and/or what they have said or done. Say “Thanks!” every now and then, specifying what you are thanking them for – a good job, a good deed, or just being on time.
  • Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings: This isn’t about anybody being right or wrong, it’s about pointing out mistakes and misunderstandings between you, and apologizing for your role in that. A little “ownership” goes a long way to close out the past and open the possibility of a new future.
  • Amend broken agreements: Reset your relationship in a way that supports you both, maybe changing some of the plans or understandings you had before, in a way that can set up a more satisfactory relationship going forward.

A relationship without even an occasional “Thank you” can become very strained. Maybe strained enough that you want to pad your expense report just to make up the deficit.

A healthy closure conversation is cheaper than a forensic accountant, and takes less time than hanging around the smoking room listening to gossip, right?

A Tip for Smarter Staff Meetings

 

A manager I know came up with the best idea I ever saw for having her staff meetings be short and smart. Her name is Sharon, and she has a staff of 14 direct reports. I borrowed her idea myself when I managed a conference, and I have recommended it to every manager I ever worked with. She had some rules, of course.

Rule #1. Always have the meeting in a room with a whiteboard or a flip chart.

Rule #2. Write the group goal at the top of the whiteboard or flip chart.

Rule #3. Track the assignments for each staff person – everything they are responsible for, including projects, tasks, communications, etc. – as well as when they are due. Add any clarifying notes as needed.

Here’s what Sharon’s meeting room whiteboard looked like (shortened for sanity’s sake):

Our Goal

Customers Pleased, Employees Valued, and Bottom-line Business Growth for the Future

Staff Names

Assignment(s) – Project, Task, etc. Due Date

Notes

Aaron 1. Newsletter out
2. Staff review of customer survey report
1st week/mo.
July 8
Work with Karen
Joan 1. Billing program updates
2. Software training manuals ready
July 9
July 10
IT group
Zack 1. Budget review and approval
2. New carpet in front entry
July 10
July 3
Contractors

Sharon used this display as her meeting agenda. At the start of each meeting, the group went through the list and reviewed each person’s assignments and what they had to say about how things are going – problems, breakthroughs, calls for help. Sharon always asked them to say what’s next, or she would let them know what she saw was needed by the next meeting. Then the board would be updated for next week’s meeting.

There was one last rule that Sharon kept as a way for people to be related in a way that she called “our non-agenda life”:

Rule #4. Use either the first or the last 10-15 minutes for an update on “Human Being News”. This was the part of the meeting where a few people would speak up about something that was either good, bad, or exciting in their personal or home life. It didn’t take long, and it added a dose of humanity to the business of producing results.

Sharon’s meetings worked – everyone knew what everyone else was working on and stayed on track with the work to be done. The meetings had a good energy and value for each participant, and her department was one of the most pleasant and productive workplaces I’ve ever seen.

See Your Communication Habits

While the blog has been down (we’re fixed now – yay!), the activity using “Communication Assessments” has been up. People are going to https://usingthefourconversations.com/free-assessments and checking out the value of those tests (both are free).

I just re-took the 20-question Personal Communication Assessment, which is a quickie way to find out which of the Four Conversations are strong and which ones need some work. I learned that I need to work on Closure Conversations – especially cleaning up some agreements. What I got on the screen when I clicked ‘Submit’ was (1) a graph showing how I scored on the conversations, which is how I knew I Closure was the lowest, and (2) my answers on the questions in each category. That’s how I knew my agreement-management scores were off. I like that can see where I’m doing well and where I can upgrade something. I’ll take the test again in a month or two and see what needs work then.

The 56-person Workplace Communication Assessment takes longer – about 10-15 minutes – to complete. This isn’t about scoring your personal communication habits – it’s to identify the biggest problems in your workplace that result from poor communication habits.  When you click ‘Submit’, you get a profile of eight types of workplace problems (lateness, difficult people, lack of resources, accountability, etc), showing which ones are biggest for you. Plus, for your #1 biggest workplace problem, you get a few tips on what kinds of communication habits can be developed to reduce the problem.

I’m glad people are getting some mileage out of these assessments. We are developing a way for a group of people to take the Workplace Assessment and compile a group score, so it’s not just one person’s opinion. We have done a few of those manually and the results have been very valuable to managers and team members. Having a group of people take the test means everyone has seen the questions, so they have at least thought about their workplace in terms of its communication-related problems. That means more people might be interested in upgrading their group habits for better teamwork. A good thing, right?