Recipe for Zero Action

“I wish I could fire this guy,” Evan told me. “I ask him to do something – I’m very specific – and then he doesn’t do it. I asked him to finish that survey and bring it back to me. I get nothing. Is he lazy? Or is he stupid?”

I asked Evan to tell me how he went about asking this employee to finish the survey. “I just tell him to do the survey,” he said. “How hard is that? And if he looks like he doesn’t understand, I explain it to him. Last week I explained that we need to have every employee fill this survey out so we can get credit toward our next training series. Every single person filled it in except Dale. What’s with this guy?”

Evan needed to look at what was wrong with his request, not what’s wrong with Dale. First, he never gave Dale a “By When” on that assignment. Without a due date, the request is incomplete.

Second, he assumed that explaining the importance of the survey would get Dale into action. Understanding doesn’t cause action – something all of us who would like to lose 10 pounds know very well. We understand exactly how to lose 10 pounds (eat less, exercise more, right?), but that doesn’t get us to take the appropriate actions to produce the result.

You can be pretty sure that people will not do much for you when you make these two mistakes. Practice adding a due date and time to your requests. And don’t trust explanations to make anything happen: giving someone information is not the same as making a clean request.

Evan still has a chip on his shoulder about Dale, but at least he won’t forget to say “By When” next time.

How Hard is it to ASK?

I’ve heard two complaints recently that seem to come from the same root cause: reluctance to make a request.

#1. A technical specialist– let’s call her Sara – tells me that both she and her Supervisor agree that the Senior Manager of their department is a jerk. This Senior Manager makes decisions without consulting the parties involved, dodges any sign of confrontation (i.e., straight talk), and, when under pressure to explain her decisions, lies about what she did, pointing the blame toward someone else.

#2. An external consultant – let’s call him Derek – says he has offered to provide an analysis for his client that would improve the effectiveness of the program he will be leading next month. His client seems interested, but won’t commit. Derek needs to know, because parts of his program depends on the results of the analysis, and the clock is ticking.

In both cases, there is a reluctance to approach someone head-on and ask them for a decision. Maybe it’s because Sara and Derek don’t think they’ll get the decision they want. Or maybe it’s because they don’t think that asking will produce any result at all.

Making a request sounds simple, but it isn’t. You have to think about it: what action do you really want them to take?  This thinking is made even more difficult if you believe that making a request won’t do any good, or could even cause bigger problems than you already have.

After some consideration about how to get a decision made, Sara and Derek agreed to find the right person and go ahead and ask. Here’s how those two situations were resolved:

#1. Sara went over the “jerk” Senior Manager’s head and asked the VP of her company, after a recent meeting he led, if he would want to know when one of his VPs was causing problems for underlings. The VP said of course he’d want to know. So Sara asked, “Would you be willing to look at this recent change of scheduling for client advisory meetings, and let me know if you think some of the managers of those client accounts should be included in that kind of schedule changes?”  The VP looked at the situation, and a week later told Sara that new rules were now in place. “Scheduling decisions”, the VP said, “will now be made to include all the people involved in client account management and service. Thanks for calling my attention to this.”

#2. Derek went right to his client and asked, “Can we schedule this analysis for next Tuesday and Wednesday? Those are the only two days I have available to collect the results in time to summarize the results before the program”. His client, faced with a real deadline, said No. Derek was disappointed, but at least he had the one thing he wanted most: certainty. Now he knew how to schedule his time and how to prepare the program.

Complaining about a workplace problem is much easier than looking to see who can actually solve the problem, and then figuring out how to phrase the request to get that person to take action.

“I didn’t think I should have to ask,” Sara told me. “I thought the VP should already know what the Senior Managers are doing, and he should fix it when they do stupid things. I guess that’s a little naive.” In an ideal world, people would know everything we think they’re supposed to know. Alas, none of us live in that world.

Learn to make good requests and you’ll improve the quality of your life. I promise.

You’re Asking Me to Do Something?

Shawna has been a senior manager in a state government agency for years, and confessed that the people in her department seem to ignore many of their assignments and her requests for them to produce results. “In fact, it seems like they don’t even hear me.” She was right: they weren’t listening.

“They don’t take deadlines seriously because we have all these interruptions that change priorities,” Shawna explained. “We get special requests from the Director, and sometimes from the Governor’s office or from outside agencies. Those have to be handled right away, so other things get moved back. Deadlines don’t matter when the Big Bosses want something.”

Shawna read “The Four Conversations”, and learned that she needed to practice making better requests. She started with her immediate staff, and made an interesting discovery: they didn’t grasp the fact that she was asking them to commit to something.

“They listened to me as if I was explaining my ideas to them,” she admitted. “They didn’t seem to realize that I was giving them an assignment.”

She followed up with Jerald, a Team Leader a few days later. “I asked him if he had that summary I asked him to prepare,” she said. “He looked surprised, and said he didn’t have it. Then he asked when I wanted it, as if I had never told him the due date.”

In a workplace where missing deadlines is so common, many people don’t even hear the specifics of an assignment, or even notice that something IS an assignment.  Another Team Leader explained in a focus group a week later, “We just work on what we can, whenever we have time. When everything is a priority, nothing is really a priority, so we just do whatever is on our desk in the order we think is right.”

Shawna realized that, in order to turn this around, she was going to have to be much clearer than she had expected. “Now,” she said, “I start giving an assignment by saying “I am giving you an assignment”, and then I say What they should produce, When they need to have it complete, and Why it is important to me personally. I’m much more emphatic about those “three W’s”.”

It would be nice if we didn’t have to work so hard to make a clean request, but if the current culture is one of “do what you can whenever you have time”, ordinary instructions will not be heard against the background noise. Taking time to form the request is ultimately a real time-saver.

The Missing Conversation(s)

A program director in one of the colleges here at Ohio State is paying the price for not having the appropriate conversations with his boss, the dean of the college.

Kevin, as director of programs, is responsible for admissions into the undergraduate and graduate programs in his college.  In a recent conversation, he pointed out that registrations into one of the graduate programs was down almost 40%.  If, he pointed out, he was unable to substantially increase admissions in the next several months, his college would suffer a substantial loss in revenue and potential damage to its reputation.

When asked what happened, he indicated that the marketing campaign that had been planned was never fully or completely launched because the college’s communications director was, as he said “doing other things.”  I asked if he talked with the Dean about this, and Kevin said “Yes, I met with him on a couple of occasions and explained the situation and that if we didn’t get the marketing we needed, admissions would suffer.”

“Ok,” I asked, “but did you make a specific request of the Dean to have the communication director implement the marketing plan immediately?”

“No, the Dean knows this program is a priority, so I would expect him to put in the correction,” was Kevin’s reply.

“Well, has he put in the correction?’

“Not that I can tell,” Kevin replied dejectedly.

It is easy to blame the communication director and the dean for the current admission situation.  However, doing so ignores that one or more of the four conversations were missing.  Kevin appeared to rely on conversations for understanding to get the dean to take action, but never specifically asked for what he wanted done, when, or why though a performance conversation.  This is exactly the situation depicted in this Dilbert cartoon.

Further, even if we assume Kevin made a request, that he can’t tell if the dean has acted indicates a missing closure conversation in which he follows up with the dean.  It could be that the dean is willing to take a “hit” on admissions in order to achieve some other goal, but Kevin won’t know unless and until he has a closure conversation to get the current situation complete.

The results we get are a product of the conversations we have.  When we don’t get what we want or expect, the first place to look is at our conversations to see what is missing.

To Be More Effective, Keep A Due List

I was recently asked by a manager in one of my classes what she could do to increase her credibility.  I told “Keep a Due List and follow up on it.”

Most people have some form of a “To Do” list, which lets them know the things they have to do.  But credibility and a reputation for effectiveness comes from what you deliver to others and what they deliver to you.  When we know what we have due to others, and by when, we can better schedule the work we need to do in order to successfully deliver what is required.   That is one reason we stress the importance of including “by when” in all performance conversations.  Successful delivery to others increases their trust in us and enhances our credibility and reputation.

By the same token, when we keep a Due List of what other people owe us, and by when, it allows us to effectively follow up with them in a timely manner.  Following up lets people know we really did want what we asked for and that it was important enough that we remembered both what we asked for and by when.  As a result, our credibility increases.  Following up also builds accountability as people come to learn that we will be back to have a closure conversation with them.

Credibility and accountability are built and a key to building them is to keep, and use, a “Due List”.

Leadership Credibility Depends on Closure

Credibility is a key element in effective leadership and depends on the effective use of closure conversations.  Most people realize that credibility is built by telling the truth.  But credibility is also built by doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it and when you don’t, acknowledging the failure to do so, apologize for the consequences, and repairing the damage by having closure conversations.  When leaders don’t do the “cleaning up”, they undermine their credibility and reduce their effectiveness.

The impact of failing to have closure conversations is indicated in a study of mergers among Canadian hospitals.  According to the authors, credibility was central to the ability of leaders to take actions and get the support of others in making the mergers happen.  When leaders kept their promises and did what they told people they would do, their credibility was enhanced and they were able to do more.  However, when they didn’t keep their promises, or did things contrary to what they led their followers to believe they would do, their credibility was diminished and they became less effective.

What is interesting is that the leaders who did not keep their promises apparently did nothing to “clean up” the broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.  The research on trust indicates that closure conversations, in which people acknowledge they betrayed their promise and authentically apologize, rather than blame circumstances, and then commit to changing their actions in the future, are every effective in repairing broken trust.  Had the leaders in the merger study had closure conversations, they would have been able to reduce the negative impact that resulted from not doing what they said.

Leaders depend on credibility and credibility depends on authentically “owning up” when things don’t go as promised or expected through closure conversations.

Understanding the End Game

My daughter and I recently visited my mother at her home in Kentucky.  My mother is 89 (will be 90 early next year) and is concerned about who will “pay her bills” (take care of her) in the remaining years of her life.  It was an invitation for an understanding conversation, which my daughter and I accepted.

Like many people her age, my mother can’t really imagine that she won’t always be a fully functioning adult right up to the end.  So she hasn’t really considered her options, what they involve, who could assist her, where she might go, etc. – all the things that understanding conversations consider.  So over lunch, we talked about what some of the options and some of the down sides.  Since understanding conversations are two-way interactions, we listened to her concerns, objections, and questions, not to dismiss or resolve them, but to fully understand them.  There were times in the conversation when neither she nor I liked or agreed with what the other had to say.  But understanding conversations aren’t intended to convince the other side or to get your way, they are intended to have people understand what is involved in accomplishing something of interest to them.

As a result of this conversation, I now understand more about my mother’s concerns and what needs to be taken into account moving forward.  My mother also knows more about her options and at the end of the visit thanked me for helping her come up with a plan for who would pay her bills.  We will need more understanding conversations before we get to the point of taking action, but we have begun and though it may be frustrating, the conversations are important for understanding how she wants to complete her time here.

Closure Conversations Repair Relationships

Good working relationships are essential to getting work done and to a satisfying work place.  But what can we do when relationships turn sour?  You could have a closure conversation with the person.

One of the managers in my Mastery in Execution class had a very poor working relationship with a woman at work and it was affecting his work.  As he reports it, “She does poor work and it is frequently late.  I can’t count on her and her failure to do the work is costing me.  Do you have any recommendations for what I can do to make her do what she she is suppose to?”

As we talked, he revealed that because he did not particularly like the woman, he didn’t interact with her the same as he did with others with whom he had a good relationship.  He mentioned that he tended to be more abrupt and less engaging with her, simply telling her what he wanted rather than really taking the time to talk to her.  Additionally, he was dismissive of the reasons she gave for not getting things done and got quickly frustrated when she failed to perform.

Based on what he said, I proposed that he could have a closure conversation with her in which he (1) acknowledge the breakdown in their relationship, (2) apologize for how he had interacted with her and the impact it must have had on her, and (3) express his interest in building a more effective working relationship with her.  Not surprising, he was very hesitant about having such a conversation and said “I don’t think I can do that or that it will work, but thanks.”

Several days later, the manager approached me after class and reported “I had the closure conversation with the woman I told you about.  It was hard for me to do that, but it really did change things between us.  She told me she knew I treated her differently than others, but didn’t know why and that she too, wanted a better working relationship.  It turns out that she frequently didn’t understand my directions and didn’t feel like she could ask me for clarification.  I was shocked because I thought I was clear!  Anyway, we agreed I would take more time to explain what I wanted and to help her when she has problem or questions.  Things are already much better, thanks.”

Have a relationship that is not up to what you would like it to be?  You might consider having a closure conversation with them.