Stop Managing People, Step 1

Curtis, a successful manager of three Supervisors and their 25 team members, says, “Don’t use your judgmental mud pit as a basis for giving your people assignments – or for evaluating their performance either.”

You already have an opinion about each of your people, right? Come on, of course you do. As one former client told me, pointing to people in his work area, “That one does shoddy work, the guy over there is more interested in getting a promotion than in completing his assignments on time, and Miss Princess in the blue blouse thinks she is too good for this kind of work.”

This former client admitted to me that he assigned people tasks and projects based on those assessments. “I’m not going to try to fix them, so I don’t give the Princess anything that needs deep thinking, for example. But I do give them evaluations that show my opinions, because I want to avoid the conflict and personality stuff. I just give them a decent review and accept who they are.” Which means, of course, that his people do not get useful feedback on their actual performance.

You may not be quite that opinionated, or use your opinions to guide your delegation of work. But Curtis’s four rules for giving people assignments and evaluating their performance might be useful to you anyway. He focuses on making agreements with people for work assignments that each person or group agrees to do, complete, and deliver. It is the agreements he manages, not the personalities or personal opinions. Curtis’s rules, in short, are:

  1. Formulate the assignment. Get very clear about what you want each person or group to produce or deliver. Don’t rely on assumptions that “they know their job”, or your expectations that they will always use the right standards for each software application. Spell out your requirements and give people creative leeway where you can.
  2. Discuss the specifics. Delegation or assigning is not a one-way conversation. Review the specifics of the assignment in 2 phases with the individual or group involved. The first half, “what-when-why”, covers the assignment, due date, and importance of the work. The second half, “who-where-how”, covers the relevant players, the locations of resources (human and other), and ideas about ways the objective can be accomplished. Make sure it’s a two-way dialogue – you want both sides to learn something in this conversation.
  3. Ask and Agree. Giving an assignment can be as simple as asking for what you want – “Will you do this?” – and sets you up for the confirmation of an agreement. Don’t settle for a head-nod: get a Yes. Then summarize the terms of success so you – and they – have confidence that a performance agreement has been created. (Curtis reminds us we don’t need to be shy about using the term “performance agreement”.)
  4. Track and Follow Up. A regular schedule of group meetings is the perfect occasion for reviewing the status of those performance agreements. You’ll need a visible “tracking scoreboard” listing every project, who is accountable for it, and the due dates of key products or deliverables. Curtis confesses to using post-its in each meeting to note the status and updates for each assignment. “That way”, he says, “the lead person can keep things current for her team. And keeping the tracking scoreboard in our meeting room helps too, so everyone can see and update things.”

Curtis’s advice? “Bottom line, let go of the judgments and work with your people to create a game for accomplishment and accountability. The personalities are interesting, but they aren’t what gets the work done right, or done on time and on budget.”

Understanding is a Dialogue – It Goes Two Ways

I was talking with Kevin, manager of a Customer Service Department, about (his words here) “how to get people to understand their jobs”. He wants to see “better performance”, and hasn’t been able to “get them to raise their standards”.

I’m thinking, “Uh oh, Kevin’s got a real problem: he thinks it’s his people but more likely, it’s really him. And then he launched into criticizing one of The Four Conversations. “I read on your website about Understanding Conversations,” he said. “But they don’t work. I had a meeting with the senior-level Customer Service people to try it out. It didn’t work.”

Here’s what he told the Customer Service people that he wanted from them:

  1. When you interact with people to schedule their appointments with our Tech Specialists, you either have to set up a new account for them or update the existing one. That’s because we need all their contact information plus details on the history of their problem,what equipment they have, and what they want to accomplish.
  2. When you are closing out their appointment, make sure you find out whether they got their problem solved before you talk about their payment. Take the time to hear – and record – their questions and concerns, and to see what else they need. The Tech people want this feedback.

“See?” Kevin asked me. “I told them exactly what good performance is about. But they are still doing incomplete records on people’s accounts. And they still don’t make good notes on what the customers say about their problem-solving process.”

I asked Kevin what his people had to say about his two “standards”. He rolled his eyes and assured me that they had “nothing useful to say”. I pressed for details, so he told me, “They just said the usual stuff. The computers are too slow. The Customer Service spreadsheet doesn’t connect right to the Tech’s session notes. The customers don’t want to wait for the computer, or to have a long talk after their session. Blah blah blah.”

I knew I was going to go back to the website and re-write the little paragraph about Understanding Conversations (The Book). I needed to move the part where it says, “These are 2-way dialogues” up to the beginning. Too many managers – especially high-level ones – think that an Understanding Conversation means telling people what to do, and then asking them, “Do you understand?”

I met with Kevin’s senior-level people and made a list of what they said was needed to implement his requests more completely. The first – and funniest – result was that they decided to make their own appointment with the Tech Specialists! Those meetings produced three outcomes that will be completed by the end of this month:

  • The Customer Service Department is getting a system and software upgrade;
  • All of the company’s departments will be using the same software and able to connect quickly; and
  • The Tech Specialists are working with Customer Services to clarify exactly what feedback they really need from each customer appointment.

Kevin took this as a lesson on learning how to listen: he plans to start taking notes on what he hears. We all think this will help him hold up his end of the Understanding Conversation.

 

Productive Communication Works!

My first email to Kelly began, “You sat in the back row of the program I led in your hospital last week, and I wondered if you have used any of “The Four Conversations” to solve your budget problem.”

It had been a day-long training, reserved for only manager-level people because the VPs probably wanted their underlings to speak freely about their work lives. We used the last part of the day to talk about “special problems”, where some participants revealed their biggest workplace challenge and the rest of us suggested which conversation(s) might help improve the situation.

Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the most interesting problem was Kelly’s. She wanted to get her team’s portion of a Departmental budget transferred to her direct control. As soon as she said that, about half the room gasped and turned to look at her. Then they burst into applause!

It was so great that she saw the program as an opportunity to take charge of this issue for her team, and not wait passively for someone else to handle it. She gave very few details, but she didn’t need to – the whole room (except for me) knew who the key players were and how risky it seemed to talk to the VP involved. I didn’t even ask her which Department, or why her team needed this. But Kelly was obviously sincere about giving her team members a greater role in implementing decisions they saw as important to fulfill the hospital’s mission: health and wellness service quality, affordability, and compassionate care.

“I’d love an update on what you learned, and who you talked with about this,” I wrote, “plus, of course, whether you’re succeeding in getting the budget authority transferred to you.”

Kelly responded promptly, saying, “The day after the program, I scripted out a Closure Conversation and made a request to set up a new agreement. Here’s the 3 things I said”:

  1. “Adam, you were going to transfer my team budget to me by the end of last month, but I don’t see it on my system yet.” (Kelly acknowledging the factual status of the matter)
  2. “I know you are busy with a million things, and I need your expertise in getting this done properly.” (Kelly appreciating the man who is responsible for making budget transfers)
  3. “Please let me know if you can make the transfer before next Wednesday, and whether you need any other information from me or my team members on our plans for implementing the AXIS system.” (Kelly requesting a new timeline for the transfer)

She concluded her email with, “Adam has already created a cost center and will transfer the budget tomorrow morning!”

A week later, she emailed, “I actually have a quite a few other places where I am practicing the use of these conversations. My team is heading into a strategic planning process and yesterday we had a huddle. I started by restating the invitation (my Initiative conversation), then we spent 20 minutes in an Understanding conversation about the steps we needed and how long each one would take. I closed with a Performance conversation, asking them if they will be attending and participating in all three strategic planning sessions we scheduled. Everyone agreed to be in the game. Thanks for your support on all this!”

Thank you, Kelly, for making things happen in your workplace. It’s so much more powerful than being resigned to waiting, or complaining about “other people” who didn’t do what they said. Productive communication doesn’t require authority, influence, or motivation. Amazing what you can accomplish with straight talk, isn’t it?

Is Resistance a Useful Response to Change? Yes and No.

There’s a rumor that people don’t like change, and they resist it. Know anybody who’s resisting something? I just scrolled through Facebook, and there’s a lot of resisting going on there – mostly about some aspect of our political situation. I’m not sure if the solution I used in my management consulting practice is applicable here, but I’ll give it a shot.

When people were resisting an organizational change, I used the Understanding Conversation/Dialogue approach. Mostly it was organized to have people say what their problem was with the change, and to offer solutions or ideas that might remedy that problem. The only rule was that you had to get specific: exactly what does not work for you, why not, and a more workable option for solving your problem. This has been effective in some very difficult mergers, down-sizings, and other complex changes in corporations and government agencies.

I remember the time the Maintenance guys were pushing back against the installation of a new IT system. Their resistance was choking off any hope of getting an upgrade installed that was badly needed in other departments. The Maintenance people got specific.

“That new system is going to restrict how we purchase our equipment for repairing trucks,” one of the Supervisors said.

“Seriously?” the CEO asked me later that morning. “Those guys barely finished high school. They don’t know what an IT system is, much less have the know-how for seeing how it affects their equipment purchases.”

The next day, I brought the IT people in to meet with the Maintenance supervisors and they solved the problem. “We never saw that,” an IT team member said. “I’m glad those guys noticed it, because it would have limited their options for getting what they need to do their jobs.”

The CEO apologized for underestimating the knowledge of his Maintenance team.

But that discussion wasn’t just a bunch of complaints. The participants all got specific, and talked about the details of their problem and what needed attention. If you look at the comments from Facebook, however, you’ll see accusations (he’s an imbecile, they are lying, etc.) and complaints (they don’t care about people) – all generalities with no specifics and no reasonable ideas for solutions.

Maybe I’m just tired of the wasted energy in so many interactions. But could a grownup conversation, sharing different perspectives about what might work, just possibly be effective? For sure, getting stubborn and refusing to cooperate is getting us nowhere. But then, politics isn’t always about making things work, is it? I should know that – we have been watching Season 3 of House of Cards, i.e., a story that focuses on on individual success and relationships with very little integrity.

I’ll go back to ignoring politics and focusing on something I can have an impact on.

 

Big News! Communication Failures Cause Change Failures!

OK, that’s not really such big news, is it?  Gary, an HR executive in an accounting firm, just ran a Group Workplace Communication Survey to see why his last two organizational change projects didn’t work well. The survey results told Gary the #1 reason: 75% of his staff agreed that the most annoying and counter-productive issue they see in their workplace is this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

Gary had done two of his three planned steps for improving productivity in the company. The first two changes took more than twice as long to complete as he had planned. And in both cases, people were unhappy about the way those changes “messed with their jobs”. Two people left to work for another company. Productivity slowed down, and clients mentioned more service problems than usual. The three steps of Gary’s plan were:

  1. A new software system would help people share documents and communicate in real-time.
  2. The financial and the accounting staff would relocate to the same floor in their office building which would reduce delays and increase information-sharing.
  3. The client services team would work with the financial and accounting groups to redesign client reports and the financial performance evaluation system.

Before Gary started the implementation of that third change, he wanted to find out what had caused the problems. Out of a total of 53 staff people in the company, 49 people took the Group Workplace Communication Survey to learn more about the communication issues that people see at work – and 36 people said that they had not been consulted about some of the changes made in other departments or groups. Two comments from Gary’s staff members:

  • “Our work uses data from both our Clients and the Finance group. Just because we now have a “real-time” communication system doesn’t mean that Finance will bother to put their new templates into that system. We lost 10 days on that one, and the Client was upset about it.”
  • I didn’t have a say in the kind of office furniture I got when we moved to the third floor. Now I don’t have room for my reading chair and side table. I feel like I’m working in a cubicle.

Everybody knows that “communication” can be improved. But what does that even mean? What kind of communication – and improved how? Gary got some specific answers, but most important to him was learning about “Understanding Conversations” – the dialogues to engage people in finalizing the details of a plan.

“I bought the software sales pitch,” Gary said. “They told me people loved the document-sharing system and would pick it up quickly. I never thought about getting everyone together to meet with the software team and discuss it as a group. And moving Finance and Accounting to share the same floor – well, I got their input on that, but I talked to each group separately, and we didn’t get into details about office arrangements and stuff.”

Too many changes fail – taking too long or costing too much – because the people whose daily work life will be changed didn’t have a say in what was going to happen. And they didn’t get to ask the questions about “little things” that employees knew to ask but the change agent did not.

“I won’t do the report and evaluation redesign changes without having a robust dialogue first,” Gary said. “It takes too much out of everybody to try and fix things after the fact. People felt hurt, and some were mad. My plan looked great on paper, it was approved by the other executives, and I talked to people about it before those steps were implemented. Turns out that was not sufficient. I learned something about implementing change: First, take the time for a dialogue with everybody whose work will be touched by it.

 

Management May Not Be Sexy – But It Really Is Necessary

I went to a conference last weekend and a man asked me what my current #1 project is about. I told I am working on defining what it means to “manage” something and how to do it. I said a little bit more, but then I noticed he was falling asleep. No kidding – he was falling asleep!

OK management isn’t a sexy topic that gets people on the edge of their chairs. But still, it’s everywhere, and when it isn’t done effectively there is a price to pay – sometimes a steep one.

Leadership – now that’s the hot topic in the past several years. Everybody wants to be a leader, and nobody wants to be a manager. I know this only from a sample of MBA students who were asked to choose one of those options. They voted 100% in favor of leadership over management.

Leadership is sexier, because leaders create desirable futures that are attractive and engaging. People are attracted to the positive vision and want to follow the leader toward that future. Who wouldn’t want to be at the head of that parade?

But good management is what gets things done. No vision, however desirable, is realized without management practices like planning, tracking, and reporting. Good management is more than simply being “in charge” of a group of people. It is all about productive communication – like discussing these things:

  • Specifying goals and objectives to create a good road-map to the desired future;
  • Building the calendar for accomplishment, with milestones and celebrations built in as appropriate;
  • Defining the necessary specific results to be produced along the way, complete with tracking systems and due dates;
  • Identifying other key players who will be vital to success; and
  • Agreeing on a meeting schedule and an agenda that will keep things moving forward on schedule, such as (1) refresh the goal commitment; (2) create productive relationships with others who will help produce the intended results; (3) compare the schedule of planned results to the reality of results delivered; and (4) collaborate to resolve problems and barriers along the way.

Management is communication, with an intention to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen by itself. I have heard that there are some people who are not interested in making things happen, so I know they wouldn’t be interested in management. But I never thought a conversation about management would make someone want to take a nap! I think the next time someone asks me what I’m working on, I will tell them that I am the new Director of Communications for the Trump White House. That should keep them awake.

Other Places to Put Your Promises? Nope. They Go in Your Schedule.

After the last blogpost about putting your promises into your schedule, I got a lot of feedback – mostly about all the other places you can put your promises. Here are the top five:

  1. Use Post-It Notes – on pieces of paper, bulletin boards, or the side of your computer;
  2. Write To-Do Lists;
  3. Send an email or text message to yourself;
  4. Keep physical piles of documents, books, and files in your office as “promise reminders”; and
  5. Ask other people to remind you what you said you would do.

That’s just a sample of the “good ideas” I received. They aren’t bad or wrong – except maybe that “physical piles” one. Plus, asking someone else to remind you is only reliable if you are paying them well to serve as your memory system. It is fine to use Post-Its, lists, emails or texts to yourself as a way to capture the specifics of the promise, i.e., the What, When, and Why – along with the Who, Where, and How as needed.

But all of those ideas for places to “put your promise” are only interim measures: where each promise needs to end up is in your schedule. A large and/or complex promise might even need to appear several times on your schedule: once for the final deadline, and other times to account for the various tasks and communications necessary in order to meet that deadline.

Why so picky about where to put your promises? Because when you tell someone you will do something, or send something, or bring something, you are giving your word – and your reputation depends on it. When you tell someone that you’ll be there at 2:15 and you don’t show up, or you’re really late, you are creating your own reputation. It won’t be a favorable one.

Your word matters. It is a way people know you, and know whether they can count on you. Think of the people you know: some of them are reliable and you can be sure they will do what they say, while others are much less dependable. You don’t want to be That Guy, the one who is sloppy about honoring his word.

Using a schedule makes sure you have a time for your promise, too. You know the people who say, “I’ll call you”, and never specify when that will happen? What if you started to ask them, “Can you call me on Wednesday between 10:00 and 10:30? I’ll make sure to be available then.” That gives you a promise, an agreement to put in your schedule. Of course, if you have never waited for someone to show up, or deliver something, or call you at the time they promised, you probably don’t need a schedule: your world is working beautifully. I do not yet live in that world.

So, I’m sorry to all those who sent in the “good ideas” – I’m going to stick with the idea of a schedule as the best place to put a promise. If it gets there by way of a list or a Post-It, that’s fine. But don’t wait long to get it on the schedule: time flies, you know.

How to Save Time: Make Better Requests to Get Better Promises

Shane, a student in Jeffrey’s management class last semester said he had solved a problem at work: wasted time! He stopped me in the hall at the university yesterday and said, “We reduced the time people spent making unnecessary calls to remind people about what they said they were going to do. Tell your husband thanks for teaching us how to make better requests and get good promises!”

It was funny to me, because Jeffrey and I had just asked a local handyman to repair the downspouts on the side of our house. The guy said he would come over “next week”. By Thursday morning, I was wondering if he was really going to come, and how I could get him to be more specific, so I texted him and reminded him that we were waiting. He didn’t answer, and only arrived on Saturday afternoon. I was annoyed at the lack of response as well as the vagueness of his “promised” time of service.

“Promised” may be a stronger word than he would have used. People don’t always hear that what comes out of their own mouth might be a “promise”. Right now, for example, I have an email in my in-box that was sent to me 2 days ago. It says, “I will get back to you tomorrow.” She hasn’t gotten back to me yet.

Did she make a promise? In my world, yes, she did. In her world, I would guess not. When you say, “I’ll have it for you Tuesday”, do you consider that you’ve made a promise?

What Shane did was take the idea of making good requests and put it into practice with his whole team. His goal was to get more solid agreements, and here is his description of what he did:

  1. First, I proposed the idea of making better requests to all my team members at our Monday meeting. I explained that whenever we ask for something from someone, whether they are on the team or not, we are going to say three things:
    1. Specifics about “What” will be done;
    2. A specific time “When” it will be complete; and
    3. A statement of whatever workplace goal our request supports, i.e., “Why” it matters.
  2. Then I reminded everybody to also specify any information about “Who, Where, and How” that is relevant to their request – or at least discuss those things with the person they are asking to do something. It helps you get the other person’s input to clarify and confirm the importance of the request.
  3. The last thing I told them was that we would keep a list of their requests on a flip-chart in the meeting room. Anyone on the team who requested something from anybody else in the company would write it on the chart, along with the “due date” for completion. And we would review the chart every Monday morning to see how our requests were being fulfilled.

Shane’s approach to getting better performance agreements from people focused only on the request side of the conversation. It was an effective first step. He said the first Monday review of the “Request List” revealed that there had been 35 requests made in the previous week, and over half of them had been completed as expected. “Not bad,” Shane said, “but not great either. Seven people had to follow up with people who hadn’t delivered what they promised. Five people had to reschedule some of their work because they didn’t get what they requested in time to do what they had planned to do.”

“We talked about what was missing in our requests,” Shane said, “and started to understand why we aren’t getting what we ask for 100% of the time. The second week we got much better results. Making clearer requests is a real time-saver – we are getting good promises from people and it has made our work life smoother.”

I never got a “good promise” from that handyman because I didn’t make a good request. I could have explained that I wanted him to come over when Jeffrey would be home to explain the problem. I could have asked for a narrower window of time to come to the house. I could have explained that the house is being sold and the buyer wants to check that all the necessary repairs have been done. Coulda. Didn’t.

Bottom line: making good requests is not just for the workplace. Productive communication works at home too.

When a Team is – And Is Not – a Team

A corporate trainer, I’ll call him Edwin, was complaining about having to update his middle-management training curriculum. “I have to do another Team Training,” he said, “and the bosses want me to include games and activities and other kinds of “fluff stuff”. Seriously? It’s a joke. Teams don’t work like that.”

I agreed that the word “team” is probably over-used, usually with a little bit of a halo on it. Some managers refer to “my team” or “our team” instead of saying “my staff” or “our department” – just because it sounds better. Sort of like the way people say “leader” because it sounds better than saying “manager”.

We talked about his old Team Training programs to see how to keep what he thought was valuable, and what he could do to improve them. “There are 3 basics I emphasize in those programs,” he said.

  1. A Team has a stated “team purpose” – a goal, a commitment, something that gives the group a reason for collaborating and coordinating internally as well as working with others.
  2. Team members work together to create a structure for coordination:
    1. Clarify who is the Team Leader, and which team members have primary responsibility for sub-goals or projects.
    2. Determine how decisions will be made. Which things does the Team Leader decide? Who else gets to make other kinds of decisions? How will those decisions be communicated to the rest of the team?
    3. Design a framework for how and when team members will communicate with one another. Weekly meetings, with an agenda? Regular consultations among subsets of team members? Or some other reliable pattern?
  3. Team members review and revise this structure of agreements as needed. If things get bogged down with internal or external problems, it’s time to get together and refresh the framework – as a team.

“Teams are not built on a foundation of focusing on individuals,” Edwin explained. “That is the biggest pitfall. Americans are especially fixed on being individuals first, and having their individuality be the centerpiece of their attention.

“Teams need a focus on the group: they need a reason for working together, and to agree on a structure of responsibilities, decisions, and communications.

“The purpose of a team is not to resolve conflicts, boost morale, or fix someone’s personality traits that are aggravating other team members. Team members might need to learn how to collaborate more effectively, or improve skills in communicating directly and honestly. But really, a team is a team for a reason: to make something happen, or to move something forward. It is not a family or an exercise in social studies.”

Thanks, Edwin. Now I realize there are many fewer “teams” than I thought. Not every group is willing or able to do those 3 things to become a team. The attraction to focusing on people, personalities, and interpersonal drama is compelling – and more familiar to us than defining a group purpose or creating a framework for interacting productively.

Hmmm. Maybe he could add a couple of games or exercises that help people practice doing those 3 things? Just a thought.

It’s Valentines Day – But What do You Do When You Hate Someone at Work?

A good friend – let’s call her Katy – shared with a group of us the other evening that there’s a woman she works with who is “awful”. She didn’t go into details, but said she was unwilling to even have a conversation with “Cruella” to clean up the bad vibes. And Katy said, “There’s a lot of other people at work who agree with me about her.” Uh oh.

So not only does she dislike this lady, but she is participating in gossip about her, gathering evidence about what a horrid person she is. I don’t know whether Cruella is incompetent, or wacko, or just plain mean, but I do know there is a cycle of misery in that workplace: Katy and the haters aren’t happy, and Cruella can’t be too pleased either. What can turn this cycle around?

Some of us suggested using one of the 4 ingredients in a Closure Conversation, i.e., one of the “4 A’s”:

  • Acknowledge the facts of the matter;
  • Appreciate them for what they have contributed;
  • Apologize for any mistakes or misunderstandings; and/or
  • Amend any broken agreements.

Katy could probably have used any one of these “A’s”, but I didn’t think she would. She seemed pretty dug into her position that this was a hopelessly unpleasant situation. In fact, she was hoping Cruella would lose her job soon. And she was working on a personal project to “take back her power”, and to get healthier (she had a nasty cough that night). So there.

Then a note landed in my email. It was addressed to everyone who was in the discussion the other night:

All,

Today I took some ground in my “taking back my power” project. I acknowledged the co-worker I told you about for the success of the project she has been managing. Yes, I did go talk to her! I pointed out several specific accomplishments of the project – the number of people reached, the materials and services provided to our community, and the huge impact we are having by delivering on the promises of our mission.

She said, “I couldn’t have done it without my team.” But I wouldn’t let her deflect the acknowledgment.  I said, “Yes, and you are the one who managed it.”

She was very guarded when I first approached her, as one would expect, but she was genuinely grateful for the acknowledgement. She said thank you. I will keep looking for other ways to acknowledge her.

Katy

Wow! That’s better than a Valentine, right? I’m betting this will change the atmosphere at work – for Katy, the other gossipers, and, especially, for Cruella. Plus, it probably also improved Katy’s health – is that cough is gone yet?

Gossip is a killer (see the 1/23/2017 blogpost) and damages workplace integrity along with reputations (everybody’s). It was great to see such a perfect example of someone who was swept up in a stab-fest take charge of the cleanup and rehabilitation of those involved. I predict good things here.

Last word from Katy: “Thank you for your much needed “gentle” nudge – aka – kick in the butt.” Last word from me: “That’s what friends are for.”