Communicate – Don’t Accumulate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Maybe It’s Not Them – Maybe It’s You.

“Morale seems to be dropping around here. It’s the millennials – they have no work ethic.” That was Molly’s explanation for her biggest workplace problem. She manages a department of 14 people, and wasn’t getting the kind of positive participation she expected from them.

“I tell them what we need, what to do, what results to produce, but they seem to be slowing down, not speeding up”, she complained. “They should be more productive to help get this company more competitive. A little enthusiasm would be nice too!”

After Molly mentioned getting the company more competitive, I asked if she talked to her people about her vision or that goal. “Not really,” she said. “They should know we’re not in this business for fun – we’re here to have the company be successful.”

This was not a problem of Molly making unclear requests, or failing to explain what to do. It was bigger than that: the people in Molly’s department did not connect their work assignments to the larger vision of business success. We talked about how to get people related to the “big picture” of their work. Here’s the 3-step solution we created together:

  1. Call a department meeting to talk about the company – the organization as a whole. What is the company’s mission? What is the vision for a successful business? Molly got some documents that talked about those things and made up a list of what she called “Five Big Ideas” for discussion: the market, customer profiles, competitors, sales, and local business rankings.
  2. Write the list on the board, read it aloud, and ask people to talk about where they see these things in their daily work and what they mean to them. Invite questions and comments from everyone, and take notes on the board – visible to all – whenever new ideas or definitions are introduced.
  3. Save the last half-hour of the meeting to ask the group three questions:  First, how would you change your work habits in light of this conversation?  Second, is there a particular “Big Idea” you think is most important?  Third, in what ways would you like to continue this conversation?

The meeting started off slowly, maybe because people were shy, or because the subject was unfamiliar. It picked up, though, and Molly was amazed at what the meeting ultimately produced. Their energy grew as they talked – they were learning more about the business they were in, and they were learning about each other in a new way as well. Then the group chose two of the “Five Big Ideas” as being particularly important to them: customer profiles and local business rankings. People wanted to see more data on those two areas, and to understand how they were measured. They talked about what their department could do to make improvements in those areas.

The group had several more meetings about these ideas, looking at ways to see how they were impacting “big picture” results that benefited the company. They also agreed to track and review those impacts every time the statistics were available, and to add a new topic to their weekly staff meeting: all new assignments would be associated with some aspect of improving “big picture” business success.

Molly gave up her complaint about millennials. “I really did think they were lazy,” she confessed. “I’ve been here eleven years, and I assumed that everybody in this department knows our business goals and connects them to their work. Now I see that part of my job is to engage people in talking about how we can be more successful – and checking to see how well we are doing at that.”

“It wasn’t a problem of them losing energy. It was me – I was not keeping their fires lit”, Molly said.  Management lesson learned.

Tip #2 on Being Professional:  Managers and Supervisors, Listen Up!

Another type of communication that is unproductive – or harmful – is blaming other people. That’s when Person A tells Person B that someone else is responsible for a problem or mistake. Shane was a good example of the fallout from blaming. A new manager, he was disappointed with his 3 team leaders. “I give them deadlines but they never get things done on time. What should I do?”

It made no sense to me, because these were smart, qualified people who seemed serious about their jobs. I asked Shane if it would be OK for me to meet with each of them, one-on-one, to see if I could get an idea about what was happening. “Sure”, he told me, “but don’t expect much.”

What I learned from the 3 meetings was that each of those team leaders had been promised certain things that had not been delivered:

  • Erin was still waiting to hear about whether she was going to get tuition reimbursement for the classes she was taking to bring new technology solutions to Shane’s department. She was halfway through the semester and had started processing a loan to cover the gap.
  • Stephen didn’t know yet whether he was going to be able to book his flights to visit his family in London. The price on the flights was going up every day, but a key meeting date for his team still had not been finalized.
  • Sheryl was the newest team leader, and had not yet received the bump in salary that went with the move up from being a team member to a team leader. She didn’t know how long it would take to be processed, or whether it would be retroactive to her leadership start date.

All three were “on hold”, waiting for Shane to let them know when he would have the information that would eliminate their suspense. Stephen said, “Shane tells us that he is waiting too. He blames another VP – or another department, or sometimes just “corporate – for not getting back to him. We think he could get a decision, but he tells us it’s complicated and he doesn’t make it a priority.”

The fact that the team leaders were not reliably delivering on-time results to Shane might have been a deliberate form of payback. But I could see that they were just discouraged, and maybe taking Shane’s message to heart: Timelines don’t matter, and getting some details resolved quickly is not important when there are so many other things that need to be done.

Shane had not seen the pattern of delay-blaming- waiting until we talked about all 3 team leaders having such similar problems.  He got those decisions resolved the next day. “I see that underneath my excuses for not getting things done was a nasty habit of not taking timelines seriously,” he told me. “I’m going to put due dates for work and decisions of all kinds on our team calendar – then we can talk about them in our weekly meeting.”

Blaming others is too easy – and everyone sees through it anyway. Take charge of your commitments and get stuff done. Sometimes it makes everyone else around you step up to being more accountable for their work 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.

When You REALLY Know it’s Time to Leave Your Job

There was an article on the internet a while back about how to know when it is time to leave your job. I talked with a young professional recently who told me her friend, Shane, was thinking about quitting. Shane’s problems included:

  1. Two bosses who aren’t as smart or experienced as Shane is;
  2. A boss who could – but doesn’t – do something about the way other groups operate inefficiently and cause delays, extra work, and inefficiencies for Shane;
  3. Bosses in the company who assign work to Shane without being specific about exactly what they want, and without mentioning the other people who have related assignments; and
  4. Bosses who evaluate Shane on work and timelines he cannot control, meaning that Shane’s accomplishments go unrecognized and unappreciated.

Many people would accept those excuses as valid, but an employee who is a chronic complainer about his bosses, and who blames other groups for their “unproductive” ways of operating, could be overlooking one big opportunity. Shane could take responsibility for altering the situation.

I know it might sound unsympathetic, but it really deserves a little investigation to find out what’s going on with those 4 complaints:

  • Does Shane have a habit of being judgmental and critical of others?
  • Does he usually expect higher-ups to smooth out his relationship with other groups instead of doing it himself?
  • Would it help if he asked for more specifics when he is given an assignment, and if he asked to know who else was assigned related tasks?
  • Maybe if Shane documented his tasks-and-times he would be able to make a case for his accomplishments and also make the inefficiencies created by other groups more visible to the boss. But without being able to show specific facts, he just sounds like a whiner.

Bottom line: You know you really need to find a new job when you have genuinely practiced having more effective conversations – and when you’re sure that nothing more will make the situation any better. Learning to make good requests (performance conversations) and give good feedback to others about your work realities (closure conversations) will do more to improve the quality of your work life than blaming or complaining. Don’t give up until you’re sure you’ve done your best to communicate effectively.

Consider a visit to https://usingthefourconversations.com/personal-communication-assessment/) – this personal communication assessment tool lets you see which conversations you’re already good at, and which you could practice improving. It’s quick, and better than another day of unhappiness at work.

Accountability is Not Authority

 

Most managers have some confusion about “accountability”, but one manager I talked with recently takes the cake. Howard complained about the poor quality of employees, saying that his (mostly young) staff people are “not accountable”. “They just do the work they think they should do, but they are not accountable for their results,” Howard explained, summarizing our 20-minute conversation about his office problem.

Three things are missing from this logic:

  1. Howard seems to think that accountability is an inborn trait that people either have or don’t have. When I asked him how he would know if his people were “accountable for their results”, he said, “They would report results to me on a regular basis.”
  2. Howard didn’t specify exactly what results he thinks they should report. If they are doing “the work they think they should do”, then what reporting does he expect? A report on the results they think they should be producing?
  3. Howard has exempted himself from any responsibility for establishing accountability as part of his management practices. In fact, I didn’t hear any management practices at all in our conversation about accountability.

Accountability requires both Performance and Closure Conversations. With no clear management request for specific results, there is no accountability. With no clear management request for a schedule to report on those results, there is no accountability. With no employee reports – feedback to the manager on what was actually produced – there is no accountability. Accountability requires being specific about what and when to count, track, and report.

Poor Howard. He prefers to rely on Authority, which is only a hierarchical position with a title of some sort given by his higher-ups. That will never help him build accountability in his unit. But he doesn’t think he needs to do that anyway.

Howard insisted “They should know their jobs”, and refused to clarify expected results, much less set up a weekly report-out meeting, or have employees update a team-customized “results scoreboard”.

“Too much work,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.” Then he went back to complaining about “young people today”.

One Way to Refresh a Resigned and Cynical Workplace

The most important thing in bringing a low-energy workplace back to life is completion. I once worked with a newly hired manager, Evan, who was shocked at how slow and negative his department was. He said, “If I had known these people were so dispirited, I might have thought twice about accepting this job.”

“They just have some bad habits,” I suggested. “Let’s look at what we know about the way they work, and see what we can do.”

We worked together to make a list of habits that were weighing on people – in some cases literally weighing them down. For the sake of brevity, here are the top three:

  1. In-boxes full of email. People were proud to compare how many emails they had: 500, 1200, and over 2000.
  2. Cardboard boxes of files in their offices, sometimes behind their desk, or next to the bookshelf, and sometimes with plants or family photos sitting on top of them.
  3. Lateness: most people showed up late to meetings and took 2 days (or never!) to answer an email. People rarely used deadlines or due dates, and didn’t honor them when they saw one.

We targeted those three things first. Evan called a meeting, and the invitation said:

“We will meet in room 214 at 10 AM on Tuesday morning. Coffee will be provided. Meeting requirements:

  • If you are storing any boxes of files in your office, bring one of those boxes with you to the meeting.
  • Look at your email in-box before you come, and bring the number of emails you are holding there to the meeting.
  • Be on time. Do not be late for this meeting.

It was a good start – people seemed excited when they arrived. Evan had them put their box of files on a table at the side of the room and gave them a post-it and a marker so they could label it with their name. Then he had each person share their number of emails, and wrote the score on the board. The “winner” had only 54 emails in her in-box. Evan identified the 3 people who were late. “No stories,” he said. “We don’t need to know why you were late.”

The meeting was short. He said that being on time was going to be important now. And that reducing the size of the in-box was going to be a new habit the group would build over time. The first target was to get everyone down to no more than 54 emails – the lowest number in the group.

“We’re cleaning house,” he told them. “Not just habits and not just files. We’re going to change the energy level here, and take back our power.” People looked at each other, curious, but there was already a new kind of attention in the room.”

“Last thing,” he said. “You’re going to empty that box of files you brought in here, because it’s not going back into your office. If you need to keep a couple of papers, that’s OK. But the box stays here. You have until lunch to sort through this stuff – put some in the shredder over there, and the rest in the recycle bin here. Help yourself to coffee while you work!” And he left the room.

People who didn’t know that completing things creates energy got a good lesson that morning. They were surprised; some were laughing and others crabby – but mostly in a good way. They emptied their boxes, joking about what they could do with the new-found space in their office.

Three weeks later, their meetings weren’t about boxes of files and emails anymore. They had a new whiteboard in the meeting room (the shredder stayed) with a roster of team member names. Everyone had their assignments posted – with due dates – and they liked putting stars next to their on-time tasks. It was a whole new workplace, and Evan was finally glad to be there.

Committed Complaints? Good for You!

The US election season is now underway. That means there will be 18 months of complaining about the candidates, then we can switch back to our usual complaints about the weather, TV programming, and people who eat pizza with a fork. Those are all examples of “uncommitted complaints”, because we usually are not going to do anything about them. Except for voting – please do that, OK?

A “committed complaint” is one where you are committed to taking action to get it resolved. If you have a complaint about something you ordered in a restaurant and you tell the waiter or restaurant manager about it, then that was a committed complaint. If you just gripe to your dinner companion as you walk out to the parking lot, that’s an uncommitted complaint.

Every organization has a unique menu of uncommitted complaints. Here are 3 of my favorites:

  1. We don’t have enough resources to do the job;
  2. We tried that and it didn’t work; and
  3. “They” don’t _________ (fill in the blank: care, listen, help, etc.).

Nobody ever has “enough” resources; either stop complaining about it or make a request. I met a manager who took this on and itemized the specific results her office was supposed to produce. She put the time estimate for completing each task, totaled the hours, and made a note of how many staff she had to do the work. Point made: there weren’t enough staff hours to get things done on time.

She went an extra mile, however, and spelled out the value and benefits of getting each job done: who would get the results and what difference it would make to them. Then she sent it to her two bosses with a note that said, “If you will provide me with an extra 28 staff-hours per week, I can get this done. I hope you can make this happen before the end of this month so we can get back on our timeline. Thank you.”

She got the staff-hours. “I learned the power of a well-designed request,” she said. “And I told my staff to quit griping about resources. They helped design that request, and now they need to own the results.”

The same is true for the other 2 uncommitted requests above. You tried that and it didn’t work? How about itemizing what exactly didn’t work and how it could work today? Then make a request for what you need to be successful.

And the complaint about “they” – well, we’re going to hear a lot of that for the next 18 months. Let’s save our breath and find something positive to say about something, somewhere in the world. Or get out there and fix something that matters to us. Actually, you probably already do that. But do consider passing these thoughts along in order to reduce the amount of gas between now and Election Day.

Accountability Is Like Tango – It Takes Two to Do It

So the Manager says, “My people aren’t accountable”.

And the Staff People say, “People who do poor quality work are not held to account for improving it.”

I know this because I’m doing a survey about what managers and staff say about their workplace. It’s the same workplace, but two very different perspectives.

The difference between people “Being Accountable” vs. “Being Held to Account” is simple, but it’s not easy. A manager who thinks people should “be accountable” believes that accountability is a personality or character trait. It’s not. Like tango, accountability takes two people.

First, both sides have to agree on what it is that Staff Person A is going to be accountable for doing or producing. Then, when Staff Person A completes the task, Manager Person recognizes that fact, maybe just saying thank you, or maybe saying, “Okay, that’s done. Now what’s next on the list?”

Or, when Staff Person A doesn’t complete the task – either it’s late, or it’s incomplete, or it ran over the budget, the Manager Person recognizes that too. “Hey, where’s that thing you promised?” Or, “You said you would have this by 3:30. It’s late. What do we need to do to fix this for the people affected? And what do we need to do so that you deliver on time in the future?”

That’s called Holding to Account. So when Manager Person says, “My people aren’t accountable,” what s/he is really saying is either:

  • “My people aren’t reading my mind to see exactly what I want and when I want it”, or
  • “I shouldn’t have to follow up with everyone to remind people of their promises”, and/or
  • “I don’t want to have to deal with people’s explanations and excuses”, and/or
  • “I don’t like having to work with slackers to figure out how to reduce the negative impact they have on other people or how to change their behavior for next time.”

Accountability is a product of communication, not personality or character. So, Managers: Get good promises and have the Closure Conversations to complete the accountability. And Staff: Let your manager know about the costs to you of dealing with co-workers who do incomplete, late, or sloppy work.

End of sermon.