A Personal Upgrade for 2015

In my year-end cleanup of Stuff and Promises, I have been getting rid of stuff (Goodwill, Salvation Army, food bank, etc.) and closing out promises made. The stuff is easier to clean up than promises, because promises disappear unless they are recorded somewhere. But really, all I have to do to find broken promises is skim through my Outlook contacts, or my Facebook friends, or my LinkedIn connections. I can find Unfinished Business by just looking at a name and feeling that twinge: Oh, yeah, we were going to do that thing, or Oops, he never sent the document and I didn’t follow up.

I have done a communication course or two in my time (thanks, Werner), and was always fascinated by one unique attribute of conversations: they disappear. Unless we make a point of capturing our requests and promises – in some display that keeps them alive for us and “in existence” (not in our heads) – they will dissolve, often within minutes of being spoken.

That “existence” piece is hardest for me. I grew up thinking if it’s on a list, well, that should handle it. But it doesn’t. Unless the list includes something about time – like when the action will happen. And the person or people involved – like whoever else needs to be included or should know about this. And maybe add a location – like whether the action will be in my office, over coffee, or overseas. I don’t make a list that looks like this:

  1. Request confirmation on presentation plans from Darryl in 3:30 meeting at Stauf’s coffee shop;
  2. Review promise for training schedule with LEAN Team by email on Tuesday morning;
  3. Complete and send promised report to Sharon in office on Thursday.

Worse, I don’t always put those details in my calendar. My schedule says:

  1. Monday – 3:30, Stauf’s, Darryl
  2. Tuesday – LEAN Team schedule
  3. Thursday – Sharon’s report

As a result, I risk forgetting certain elements of the request or promise, and not getting whatever it was I wanted to accomplish. Sometimes it means an extra item on my year-end Oops List too.

I’m scheduling an upgrade for 2015: I am now putting my commitments – personal objectives, requests, and promises – into existence in a way that I “have” them alive in front of me every day, instead of trusting that I will remember to “do” them. This is an upgrade of work habits too: I am beginning to build a habit of looking at my (newly upgraded) list of commitments every evening and every morning, and adjusting my schedule as needed to accommodate them.

Conversations disappear. Commitment displays will keep them in existence. I’ll let you know what I learn.

A Not-Serious Conversation

I had an interesting conversation recently when someone asked me why I always seemed to be working. “You’re too serious,” she said, seeming a little worried about me.

It seemed odd, because I don’t have the sense that I’m always working – I just enjoy trying to solve some puzzles that interest me. But she explained what she’s seeing.

She said, “Your book on The Four Conversations – it’s all about getting what you want, when you want it, and making your workplace function better. What about the social part of work? Don’t you ever have any fun?”

Oh boy. Got me thinking. The truth is I enjoy workplace socializing, but mostly leave solving problems in the social part of office life to either Miss Manners or Dear Abby. Plus, I was a management consultant my whole career and what interested me was solving the problems managers had in getting their employees to be productive and working together toward a few key goals.

“What are you interested in?” I asked her.

“Cooking,” she said.

I laughed out loud, suddenly remembering a discussion I once joined where people shared their dearest commitments in life: real estate investment, one person said. Children and family, said another. Anthropology, said one woman. Improving veterinary hospitals, said someone else. Now I’m going to add cooking to the list of things that people find most important.

Still, they all benefit from the ability to have productive conversations, at least sometimes, don’t they? Even when you aren’t at work, you might want to make something happen – Get a new recipe? Sell real estate? Have a great family Thanksgiving dinner? Even in your non-work life, it’s helpful to know how to have those four conversations: to introduce a new idea, conduct a dialogue, make a request or a promise, and wrap things up in a positive way. It’s not a serious thing. Just useful.

You’re always welcome to send me your thoughts about this or any other blog post here, at Laurie

Crabby Consultant Observation #423

Here’s another survey result. This one tied for 5th place on the list of Biggest People-Problems at Work: “Dealing with difficult personalities and behaviors.” Comments went on to describe examples such as “unfriendly people”, “passive-aggressive people”, and “people playing power games”. One person explained, “Nobody wants to work with some people because they don’t like their behavior or personality. “

Seriously? Kind of makes you wonder what people are saying about you when you’re not there, doesn’t it? Actually, our work life does not need to put personality first, or even second. Work is about producing results: solving problems to produce results, communicating to produce results, and yes, working with others to produce results.

So when somebody brings their personality to work, maybe we could just let them be however they’re being?  Maybe we could have a conversation that will help put our attention on the results we want to produce out of our interaction?

Oh, wait. I forgot there are people who want to produce a result by fixing (or dissing) the person, instead of a result for their work responsibilities. So, I have a message for those of you who want people to be some other way than the way they are: get over yourself. Let people be, and get back to work. Your company, agency or organization wants something from you. They even pay you to produce it – products, services, or communications they want you to create, assemble, or deliver to internal or external customers.

Sorry, that’s just me being crabby about people-fixers. I promise I’ll offer some suggestions for reducing people-annoyances soon. Meantime, I’m going to get my personality checked so I can be a better person by the time I write the next blog post. Thank you for listening.

PS – If you haven’t checked out the Personal Communication “diagnostic”, take a couple minutes and you’ll get to see your communication profile. It’s useful to find out which conversations you’re already brilliant with, and which ones need a little work. http://50f.70c.myftpupload.com/personal-communication-assessment/ 

Email Template from a Friend

I was talking with a former client the other day about her recipe for getting what she wants from co-workers. It’s pretty smart!

Jadie was making requests, and she was tracking the responses the way Jeffrey taught her in his MBA class. Her success rate (the % of her requests for which she received actionable responses with only 1 email) had moved from 31% to 84% – not bad for someone who was not at the top of her corporation’s food chain. But she wanted to go all the way, so she made up a Request Template to use in her emails when she wanted something from someone. Here it is:

From: Jadie R.

To: X

Subject: Request for __________

What I’m asking for: __________

When I’d like to have it happen: __________

Why it matters to me: __________

Who else is involved: __________

It would be great if you’d let me know by the end of the day today whether or not you accept this request so I know if I can count on this happening at the time specified. As always, if making this agreement doesn’t work for you at this time, please let me know that too, or send me a counter-offer for what will work better for you. Thanks so much!

Best regards, Jadie

Jadie told me she always sent these out early in the workday so people had time to read it and check their schedules to see if they could do the task she was asking for. She said she added something about “Who else is involved” if that would be helpful for people to see a bigger context for her request. Sometimes she also added a line for Where or How if it seemed appropriate. And notice that she identified What she was requesting up in the Subject line.

It worked. She is up over 97% success on her requests now. But that’s not the best part, Jadie said. “The miracle is that my co-workers are starting to use the template too, making their own modifications. It looks I’m training people – even the higher-ups – to communicate better.”

Summer Close-Out = Space for a New Future

Jeffrey spent Labor Day weekend painting the living room and kitchen walls. I spent the weekend untying lots of those “ties that bind”.

I tossed things out, put things into the recycle bin, and filled up 2 bags of stuff for Goodwill and/or Salvation Army pickup. Then I went through my Outlook list of past business contacts – all the client relationships from the years I was doing consulting projects.  Delete. Alter-and-save-changes. Re-categorize as friends or other resources. I rearranged several parts of my life.

Closure conversations are wonderful. I used all “four A’s” at some point over the weekend:

  1. Acknowledge the facts:  I don’t need this anymore. It no longer represents anything meaningful, or it isn’t something I want in my future. It’s out of here. (And that person who kept complaining about overpaid consultants?  Delete, delete.)
  2. Appreciate the people: Thanks, it was great working with you. I’m no longer doing consulting projects, but let me know if you’d ever like to meet for coffee.
  3. Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings:  I’m sorry I didn’t meet with you before I retired from consulting. I would have enjoyed doing that project with you, and I know your new support team will get it done right. I wish you the very best.
  4. Amend any broken agreements:  I know we had a deal that whenever I was in your city I would call you to set up a meeting. I’ve retired from consulting, but let me know if you still want to get together now that I’ve changed my agenda. These days I’m working on management writing, speaking, and some training programs (be forewarned: I occasionally talk about nuclear waste management too!), and I have always enjoyed talking with you.

September is when we sharpen our pencils for a new school year. Use “Closure Conversations” to do a bit of personal housekeeping and make space for new thinking, new projects, and maybe some surprises in your future.

Not Everybody’s Interested

I used to think everyone wanted to know more about “productive communication”. People are only interested in productive communication in the areas of life where they have some commitment.

That seems obvious now, but I didn’t always know how to find out about people’s commitments. Here’s my latest method: look at how long it takes them to respond to an email communication or a phone message. Try sending an email or leaving a phone message inviting someone to join you at an event, go out for dinner, or get back to you with a date and time they can meet with you. Be sure to include something about the purpose of the occasion, and make it friendly-sounding. Then start counting.

Within 24 hours? They have a commitment to something in your invitation. Two days? They were out of town, busy hosting their in-laws, or lost their smartphone. More than two days? They’re trying to think up a way to get your emails out of their inbox without telling too big a lie. Or they don’t have high-tech things like phone answering machines or email capability. In either case, quit inviting them to do things.

I speak from experience here – I’ve been on both ends of this situation. I am working to make my communications clearer now:

  1. Add a note about when I’d like to hear back if they do have an interest in my request or offer;
  2. Add a note about how it’s OK not to respond if they’re not interested in pursuing this now; and
  3. Make sure I let them know what I’m planning to do in either case, and that I value our relationship no matter what they choose to do now.

It’s simple etiquette, and it’s already saving time – I’m not waiting for people anymore. Plus I’m learning more about the gap between what people say they are committed to and what they will actually take action on. Useful information in updating my contact records.

Do You Have Problems Working Across Silos? 

We did a little survey in a group of managers, asking them about the biggest communication problems in their organization. Here’s a winner:

“How do I get people in different silos to cooperate with each other rather than butting heads?”

They called it the Silo Effect: when you are trying to communicate with people outside your silo in the hierarchy, you don’t have enough authority to communicate effectively with them.

We thought this was silly – can’t you just make a request? No. Because they won’t honor it as valid or important – they don’t have to even listen to you.

The solution: put the hierarchy to work. One senior manager said, “Talk with your colleagues to get very clear about what you need from people in other departments. What products, services, and communications do you want from them? When do you want them – on a regular schedule, just a few times, or one-time only? Why, e.g., which goals will be advanced by this connection?”

“Once you’ve done that”, she said, “you can meet with your manager to present the need for the link and ask for help creating a pathway with other key people involved. Sometimes there are good reasons why a connection won’t work right now, but usually there is a way forward.”

Silos exist for a reason, but cross-silo links are critical to the success of some projects and goals. Specifying What-When-Why will help everyone in every silo see a bigger picture than what’s piled up on their desks. They might just listen – and deliver.

Do You Micro-Manage Slackers?

People are mad that Elaine avoids work – and sick of her “good excuses”. There are two different views about what their manager, Beth, should do:

  1. She should meet with Elaine at the start and end of every day to check on whether she’s doing her assignments or not.
  2. She should give assignments to everyone according to skills and interests and follow up with everyone – in group meetings.

That 1st option is called micro-managing. Singling out the slackers for a double dose of attention is a poor use of a manager’s time and energy.

The 2nd view suggests a way to use feedback: make a list of everyone’s primary assignments with milestones and due dates – a simple way to keep agreements visible to all. The Assignment Calendar is a manager’s best friend.

Beth took that advice and posted an Assignment Calendar showing everyone’s assignment timelines.  “It was much easier than I thought it would be,” she reported. “I made a chart listing each staff person, with the Friday due dates for the next 2 months as column-headers. Then I entered their milestones into the chart.”

She also said the best part was that her Tuesday staff meetings got much simpler too. “We just go down the column for this coming Friday and everyone reports their assignment status: who’s on track, needs support, how things are going. Elaine isn’t special anymore – she has to participate to keep from embarrassing herself.”

Quit Motivating Me!

We did a survey of about 25 managers, and one of the biggest problems they reported was “Getting people motivated, keeping them motivated, and/or having them motivated in the right direction”.

Have you ever had anyone try to motivate you? Don’t you hate that? It’s more like a manipulation than any kind of inspiration or encouragement. This points to a failing of many managers: they don’t see themselves as responsible for keeping up the energy of the workplace. They have too many meetings that drag on too long, or they don’t “close out” assignments and projects on the due date, or they assume that everyone understands – and remembers – the goals and objectives of the department regardless of what has been going on in their lives.

Just because somebody isn’t doing what you want them to do doesn’t mean they aren’t “motivated”. There are probably about a dozen other things that are more likely:

  • They are disorganized in managing their work and feel overwhelmed with mess and loose ends.
  • They are not good at scheduling their tasks and commitments and feel “behind” all the time.
  • They are already at their productive max and just wish you would stop asking them to do things.

None of those problems is going to be solved by “motivation”. People sometimes need assistance in getting a better grip on their workload by learning ways to be more productive –office tidiness and scheduling habits need an upgrade now and then.

We know a manager who has had good results holding an Office Cleanup Day once every quarter. He gets get everyone cleaning out their file drawers and email in-boxes, and has them make up a fresh “Do-Due List” of everything they really need to address within the next two weeks. He’s done it for the past 5quarters and claims everybody is more awake, interested, and productive than they used to be.

One other replacement for “motivation” is to make sure people are very clear about what they need to do, how soon it should be done, and why doing it would be more important than doing some of the other things on their desk. The What-When-Why rule of productive communication is usually a better strategy than trying to make someone “feel” a certain way, such as motivated, engaged, or committed. A straight request is: “Here’s What I want, When I want it, and Why it matters. Are you available to do that?”

Of course, it’s good to add some humanity to it by tailoring your request to whatever already-existing relationship you have. If you can connect on a more personal level, you won’t be mistaken for a robot – and it’s okay to dress your request up a little as long as you’re genuine about it. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you can reach into my mind and “motivate” me.

Busy is a Conversation

Meredith Fineman titled her article, written in September 2013, “Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are”.  I looked it up recently, after listening to a colleague go on – and on – about how many appointments he had, how many deadlines, and how many staff had been cut in his organization.  He told me he was “like an octopus, with all 8 arms working on something all the time.”  Poor guy, I wanted to throw him a few shrimps and crabs for sympathy.

Not really. As Meredith says, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero.”

I looked that up. Inbox Zero is a “rigorous approach to email management that aims at keeping the inbox empty — or almost empty — at all times”. It was developed by Merlin Mann, who says that time and attention are both limited, and our productivity suffers when we confuse our inbox with a “to do” list.

Which reminds me – I know a group of people in one organization whose way of saying “I’m busier than you are” is to tell people how many emails they have in their inbox. They all have thousands of them – and they brag about it!

Being busy is a popular conversation, but it’s a little like bragging about having bad work habits. I know four conversations could be deployed to turn that around.

  • Initiative: Tell people you’re going to upgrade your scheduling system in 2 ways. (1) You will maintain a Do-Due List of what needs to get done and delivered, including due dates; and (2) You will take 60 minutes every Friday afternoon to schedule the tasks you intend to accomplish in the following week.
  • Understanding: Ask co-workers for ideas on how to implement this. Talk about what their concerns are, and make minor adjustments to your plan as needed. Beware of getting pulled into the “It Can’t Be Done” conversation: this isn’t about doing more work, it’s about giving yourself the satisfaction of completing some tasks while at the same time giving up the boring “too busy” conversations at work.
  • Performance: Get clear requests from people who want something from you – what do they want, when do they want it, and why does it matter? Then, if it doesn’t fit into your schedule, make a counteroffer instead of a promise. “I can only do that if I drop this other thing off my schedule. Which do you think is more important?”
  • Closure: Tell people some of the most important things you have on your Do/Due List, when they’re due, and why they matter – to you. Thank them for their support in your being more effective with your time and tasks. Apologize for any inconvenience this change will be for them.

Then give up the “I’m busy” conversation. You’ll come to grips with the fact that there will always be more things that could be done than there will be time to do them. That’s life. And you’re responsible for your schedule and your productivity. You have to choose and plan. The good news is that it’s fun to accomplish things, even small ones. See if you can schedule and complete an accomplishment or two every day!