Communication – One Way to Get Unstuck

I overheard a woman in line at the Post Office this morning, griping to her friend about her landlord and the way he maintained her apartment building . It was a long line, and she kept going for almost 10 minutes about what was wrong with everything about where she lived, including at least two of her neighbors and their children. She reminded me of a man who worked with a hospital client I once had – I’ll call him Daryl – who seemed unhappy about his job and his co-workers. He barely spoke to many of them and was sometimes unfriendly.

That’s what I call being “stuck”. When someone is talking about some aspect of their life, whether it’s work, or family, or money – or anything else – if they keep saying the same kind of bad-news things every day, then maybe they’re stuck. We’ve all been there. But what gets us out of it? I learned something about how to do that from a senior manager at the hospital. Her name was Sharon, and she decided to take on Daryl.

Sharon was a hospital psychiatric nurse, but insisted she would not “use psychology” on Daryl. “I just wanted him to stop being such a drag, and to change the way he talked about his job and his colleagues”, she told me. “So one day I sat him down and asked him three questions.” Here they are:

  1. What is your real complaint here? Maybe you can’t find the job you want, or the people you’d like to work with. But under all that complaining, or being angry, what are you really upset about?
  2. Who plays a major role in that matter, someone who is a key part of your unhappy situation?
  3. When will you talk with that person to find a new way of dealing with this, maybe redefining your perspective or even finding a way to move forward into a happier situation.

Sharon said Daryl was willing to talk with her, as long as she promised to keep it confidential. When she asked question #1, he blurted out that when he was hired, he had expected to work in the technical part of the IT department, not the customer service part. “I don’t like working with all the people in the administration to get their problems solved”, Daryl said. “I want to do the work of solving their problem after somebody else has worked with them to get clear on what that problem is.  I want to do the the programming and hardware fixes. People like you should do the people-work.”

Sharon smiled, then gave him question #2. Daryl answered, saying, “The department manager doesn’t seem to recognize that some of us are pure techs, and some of us are good with helping people understand their tech problems. He doesn’t see the difference.”

“Good point”, Sharon told him. “Now question #3?” Daryl wasn’t so quick to answer this one. Sharon explained that when someone doesn’t see things the way you see them, it might be a good idea to have a conversation to discuss what each of you is seeing.

“You’re unhappy, Daryl,” Sharon said. “This is about getting yourself freed up to be yourself, to enjoy where you are. Or to move on. So, question #3: When will you talk to the head of IT about the difference between “pure techs” and tech service people?”

Daryl needed a little more nudging, but he ultimately did have the conversation. Two weeks later, he hadn’t resolved everything – he was still considering getting a new position someplace else – but the IT manager had begun working with HR to talk with IT team leaders about the differences Daryl saw in staff roles. I could see the difference in Daryl, though. He looked more relaxed, and more like a grownup than an angry little kid.

Sharon said she used a rule she learned in college: “When you’re feeling hate, don’t wait – communicate.” Could be a good recipe for getting unstuck.

For example, using a couple of the four productive conversations did the job for Daryl. Initiative conversations are useful to propose an idea, or a goal, or a conversational topic. Understanding conversations are dialogues for comparing perspectives with others and to create new ways of seeing and operating. Daryl suggested the conversation to the IT manager, and they compared ideas. It changed his relationship to his job.

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.

How to Have People be “Purpose-Driven” At Work

An article reporting on the Workforce Purpose Index findings says that companies with purpose-driven employees have better growth in revenue.  Their study found “three factors that contribute to an employee feeling like they have purpose at work:

  1. Independence;
  2. Influence when it comes to decision-making; and
  3. Recognition for their work.

How do you get those things into your workplace? Communication is your friend here. Let’s take those one at a time.

First, independence doesn’t mean people need to be free to do whatever they want at work. It means they know What results to produce (and what rules and regulations you need to follow), and When to produce them, and Why they matter. They can take it from there, without a lot of “micro-managing”, where the boss looks over their shoulder twice a day and says what to do differently. The part about saying Why the results matter, what they will be used for, or what difference they will make, is what creates a sense of purpose.

Second, influence in decision-making is a product of dialogue. Instead of just saying “Make X happen by time Y because it will be good for Z”, it helps to have a conversation about the X, Y, and Z. That means you add in the other three ingredients of a productive conversation:

  • Who else should be involved in this? Who has input? Who will evaluate?
  • Where will you get the resources you need? Where will the results go when they’re ready?
  • How should those results be produced? Any useful techniques or procedures?

The trick of dialogue is that it is Question-and-Answer: all participants get to ask questions, all participants get to contribute answers, ideas, and suggestions. People listen to the other people, and include the best of what’s offered. That dialogue is what gives people a sense of having an influence in decision-making – about their job, and about changes being made in their workplace.

Third, recognition doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. Sometimes simply noticing – and saying – that someone completed a task or project is enough to create a sense of accomplishment. Of course, pay raises and better job titles are nice too, but just saying “Good job” goes a long way too.

I’d like to add one more ingredient to have people be purpose-driven at work: Make your mission, vision, and/or objective(s) present and real for people. Some workplaces have the mission on the wall in their conference room; lots of managers maintain a scoreboard in the corner of their whiteboard or update the status of their team’s current objectives in weekly emails to team members.

If we want people to be purpose-driven at work, we need to bring the purpose of their work into our conversations. Purpose lives in the way we give assignments, talk about the job to be done, and recognize the completion of a product or task.  We all like to know that our work matters, so let’s remember to mention how it matters and to whom. Really, even once a day is not too often.

Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and the Missing Conversation

There is much talk right now about Yahoo’s demise as an independent company. The Economist said the failure was due, first of all, to “a chronic lack of focus”, never deciding if it was a media company or a technology company. NPR’s “Morning Edition” said Ms. Mayer, the CEO, treated Yahoo more like a think-tank than the sinking ship it really was.

Both diagnoses are probably right. Ms. Mayer got into the deep weeds when she insisted on reading the resume of every person Yahoo considered hiring, and needing to OK each one. Being Yahoo’s CEO in 2012 was a job that required creating a big-picture view of what Yahoo’s success would look like and leading people toward that future. But Ms. Mayer was more interested in listening to everybody and collecting their ideas than focusing on saving Yahoo. Then she got swept up in the part of the business – media content – that is “fun but will never turn a profit”, as NPR said.

Her listening tour when she began the job might have been good preparation for a Closure Conversation: “Here’s where we are now. Here’s what has worked and what hasn’t. You people are terrific! Now we are going to make some changes in what Yahoo is all about.”

A Closure Conversation is a necessary setup for an Initiative Conversation – and that is the conversation that was missing from Ms. Mayer’s repertoire. She could have opened a conversation to create a future: “Here’s where we are going, here’s our new mission, vision, and purpose (MVP), and here are our top-line goals for the next 3-2- 1 years.” She didn’t do that. She “listened”, read resumes, and collected ideas.

A clear Initiative Conversation creates a well-defined future that can be further developed with an Understanding Conversation: “What is missing missing now, for us to reach our goals? Where are our key resources? What are the most important actions, results and timelines for success? Who else should be working on this with us on these things?” And then, of course, people can have Performance Conversations, getting into action to make that future real with agreements for producing results.

I don’t mean to suggest that I would have wanted a shot at doing Ms. Mayer’s job – I would not. But I do know that without a clear objective pointing people toward a goal, there is no game. Collecting ideas and reading resumes does not create a game that will harnesses talent and energy to produce results. People need to know what success might look like, and to locate the target so they can align their efforts for a worthwhile accomplishment.

My take-away? I really do see, out of this example, how easy it is to pay attention to the beauty of the trees and forget about paying close attention to the forest. It is a good reminder as I set about my next project.

Three “Brexit” Lessons for Getting YOUR Goal

Did you notice that the “Remain” leaders in the United Kingdom – the ones who wanted to stay with the European Union – made some costly mistakes? It seems they had some lazy assumptions, and failed to deliver the well-designed conversations that could have painted a different picture for UK voters.

Mistake #1: Too few dialogues to create new understandings. It is foolish to think that people already understand the facts of a choice. A good leader will sustain dialogues to clarify the facts of the matter – so people can see them, ask questions, and create a positive relationship to what’s actually true.

UK voters did not know much about their country’s EU membership. Regular understanding conversations – those dialogues on Who does What, Where, and How – could have spelled out the roles and responsibilities of all EU members and clarified the facts in the arguments, from both sides, about what EU membership really entails – and what it doesn’t.

Alas, voters were energized by dramatic talk of “regaining sovereignty” and “immigrants stealing jobs”. They didn’t know that the UK’s sovereignty was not in question, and the UK was responsible for its own immigration policy.

Mistake #2. Too few communications on the value of what we have. A leader also cannot assume that voters will grasp the true costs and benefits of making a decision to stop doing something. They are so accustomed to the benefits of “the way things are” that they don’t see those things at risk. Spelling out the value of any particular decision is necessary – and must be done many times in many ways.

The “Remain” leaders forgot to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. Frequent “closure conversations” about what EU membership provides to the UK were missing: What good things did UK membership in the EU do for us this week? How did we profit from it this month? What have we gained from it this past year?

If the “Remain” leaders had done that, perhaps thousands of people wouldn’t have been Googling “What is the EU?” on the day after the vote.

Mistake #3: Giving away the initiative. Initiative conversations launch an idea by proposing something of value for the future: What do we want? When do we want it? Why does it matter? But those conversations can’t be a one-time thing. Leaders need to keep the mission, vision, and purpose (MVP) present every day. Find a way to talk about it, and make good slogans and visual reminders. Make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do that will create value for themselves.

The “Remain” leaders surrendered the game with their initiative. They failed to object to the referendum being called the “Brexit” (short for Britain exits the EU). If they had insisted on using the term “Bremain” in all media interactions, it would have given people a shorthand way to think of the value proposition for remaining in the EU. Instead, “Brexit” carried the day.

Note that what ultimately made the difference was leaders speaking, media talking, and people having conversations. Both sides communicating in many ways, all the time. One side won, and now almost nobody is happy about the uncertainty and costs of the whole mess.

Productive conversations matter, so let’s practice getting better at using them, shall we?

Super-vision: It All Depends on Communication

Most of us are supervising something or other much of the time. To “supervise” means to “oversee” something, and most of us oversee about a million things every day, like our credit card balances, household and office chores, and email in-boxes.

Supervising is a way of paying attention to three things at once. We frequently give our attention to:

  1. Some kind of goal or concern, like making sure we can make a deadline, that our clothes fit properly, or whether the dog has fleas.
  2. Other people around us or associated with the matter, whether they are nearby – in our home or workplace – or if they are remote, reachable by phone or email. Are they competent? Do they look busy? Are they in a good mood, or still crabby from what happened yesterday?
  3. The environment we’re in – Are phones ringing and people talking? Do we have access to wi-fi? How long will it take to get someplace during rush hour? And what is it that smells so bad?

We’re on some level of alert most of our waking hours. But none of that mental activity is visible. All we can reliably see or hear is communication.

I watched this mother duck supervising her babies last weekend. She may have been thinking, planning, or worrying, but all I could see was the way she let those babies know they needed to stick close to her. She also let several much larger Canada geese know to keep their distance. And she clearly let me know that if I came any closer with my camera she would take those babies off to the other side of the pond.

Too often we live inside our heads, listening to our million thoughts and feelings instead of putting our attention on whatever communication might connect us to our goals, to other people, and to our environment. So here’s a couple of communication tips for reaching whatever goals you have at the moment:

  • Ask for what you want. Find someone who can help you resolve a problem or take a step forward, and ask for what you want.
  • Clean up things with people who matter to you. Say what’s happening with you, ask what’s happening with them, and be generous in your listening and your speaking.
  • Talk with someone about trying something new and different, or taking some project or activity in a new direction. Add some zest to your life by inviting someone to step outside your boundaries with you.

FYI, Mrs. Duck Supervisor sends you her best regards. And, I’m sure, she advises you to adopt her family management practices too.

A Recipe for Little Changes – Organizational and Personal

Talking to two very different people this past few weeks, I was surprised to see how much their conversations had in common. The first was Elayne, a manager in a manufacturing facility, who dreaded making a change in her HR department.

“I don’t know how to update our employee timesheet system,” she said. “I mean, I know I can just substitute the old email templates for the new online reporting system. But how do you deal with the resistance ? Some people just won’t do it, and I’ll have to chase them down and have one-on-one begging sessions with them.”

The other was Darren, a father of four. “I wish I could improve weekends around our house,” he said. “The kids are doing a million different activities, and my wife and I spend time chauffeuring them around. Personal time to go to the gym is out of the question.”

I told them the “recipe” I had developed for making a change, whether personal or organizational:

  1. Get clear on what the change is, i.e., what needs to stop happening and what needs to start happening. Be sure to include timing, such as “a by-when date” or a recurring day like Saturdays.
  2. Schedule a time to meet with the key players – people who will be affected by the change – such as the different groups of employees, or the wife and kids.
  3. Have one or more discussions to clarify the change, and make a list (maybe on a flip chart?) of all the negatives – problems and challenges, sometimes called “resistance” – and all the positives: solutions, opportunities, and benefits. Allow “counteroffers” and “bargaining” on some points.
  4. Revise the definition of the change, including the timeline for implementing it, in a way that recognizes the input received from all those key players.
  5. Review the newly updated plan with the key players and establish agreement about what will be implemented, and how, when, and by whom each element will be done.

Elayne held four meetings – one with all the plant managers and supervisors, and three others with groups of employees who had been there more than 5 years. “It was actually kind of fun, with the guys teasing each other about revealing their overtime statistics. And we didn’t need second meetings: I just took the results of all the meetings and summarized them, then emailed everyone the link for our new timesheet and the date to start using it. We got 89% on-time submissions the first time around -amazing!”

Darren told me, “Our first meeting was noisy, but I wrote down the 4 problems and the 2 “good ideas” they offered. The second meeting was a week later, after they had time to think about it and talk it over with each other and with friends. We created a workable solution that included a car-pool arrangement with some of their friends’ parents and a change to my daughter’s dance-class schedule. I’m starting my new Saturday gym program a week from tomorrow. And my wife will be joining a Sunday afternoon book club. Peace reigns.”

Simple? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily. It takes willingness to practice The Four Conversations in the sequence above: (1) Initiative – have it well formulated before delivering it; (2) Request + Promise = Agreement on when to meet and discuss the proposed change. (3) Understanding – a dialogue to identify problems and benefits, along with what will be done and by whom; (4) Update the change statement using the language and ideas obtained from key players; and (5) Meet again to create an agreement for implementation that includes Who does What by When.

It may not be easy, but it can be done.

Getting Other People to Do Stuff

A recent review of manager comments on their workplace communication was very revealing: they didn’t get the idea of dialogue. Two-way talking was not recognized as a tool for getting things done on time and on budget. Here are two samples of their management “conversations” for getting people to perform:

  • “I think we need to get these customer responses reviewed and organized, then prepare a plan for how to improve our customer service and support processes.”
  • “Let’s identify what we need to do in order to improve our in-house communications, and then we can prioritize the ideas and start solving the issues one at a time.”

Neither one of these statements – and they are statements, not conversations – should give the manager any confidence that something will get done, much less with any urgency. An “Initiative Conversation” is simply a proposal for a good idea. Both of those statements qualify as proposals. But a proposal may not get anything into action, much less produce a result.

That’s why the next step would be an “Understanding Conversation” – a dialogue that gives the other people involved a chance to talk about the proposal. They can contribute ideas and clarify the specifics and expectations for actions and results. They can have a conversation to develop the proposal, including timelines and connections to other projects, in a way that increases the odds of success. Managers who seek input from others are much more effective in having their proposals move toward action.

Going a step further, “Performance Conversations” actually produce the action. The manager launches the dialogue to clarify which people will do the specific tasks and produce specific results. This dialogue is a tool for clarifying assignments: Who will do What + by When it will be performed + Why it matters. That sets up the possibility of people being accountable for keeping their agreements to perform.

Initiative conversations are a good start, but no manager can count on getting reliable results by just proposing a “good idea”. If we practice engaging other people in dialogues that build alignment on specifics and agreements for action, we are more likely to be successful in making something happen.

Big Change, Part II: Expanding the Executive Team

Four weary senior executives came home from their 2-day “huddle” with a decision to close a regional office and eliminate 11 jobs in their company – the only solution they could find to solve the problems identified by a recent financial audit. The decision to decision to “outsource” the company’s marketing and communications responsibilities was daunting on several fronts.

“It’s worse than just restructuring,” Matthew, the CEO, said. “We will be losing people who are good people, good workers, good talent. It’s sad, and we will have to learn how to manage contracted firms to get the work done. It will be cheaper, but I wish we didn’t have to take this road.”

All 4 executive decision-makers were apprehensive about how to bring the company’s other 7 managers on board with their plan. One of those managers would lose all 11 of the staff members, but all of them would face changes in their job responsibilities. And all of them would feel bad about bringing this kind of news to a team that had worked together for many years.

What pattern of conversations is going to have everyone move forward? The newly defined “Executive Team” went to work (with a bit of facilitation assistance).

  • Closure conversation: A summary of the financial audit was presented to give everyone the facts of the situation. There was very little discussion about this, as they all knew that expenses had been greater than revenue for quite a while.
  • Initiative conversation: Matthew announced the decision to close the Dayton office, eliminate the jobs of 11 marketing and communication personnel, and bring in a private firm specializing in those functions. There was silence for a bit, then questions, then a break for lunch. Not everyone was interested in eating.
  • Understanding conversation: How can we make this announcement about the office closing, tell staff they’re being laid off, support new employment opportunities for 11 people, solicit bids for marketing firms to take over the necessary functions, terminate the employees, and bring on a new firm? The discussion took all afternoon and the next morning. It produced a list of tasks, results, and timelines for what was needed over the next 6 months.
  • Performance conversation: Who will do what, and when? Each task needed an owner or “point person” as well as a partner or two on the Executive Team. This increased the “reality factor”, as one participant said, and the specifics about each task, result, and timeline were adjusted accordingly.
  • Closure conversation: We have decided what to do. We will keep this confidential until we make the announcement to the staff in Dayton and the other staff being terminated. We each have our own tasks and timelines, and we will have Executive Team meetings once a week to stay on the same page and update our progress.

The Operations executive noticed something as everyone was packing their briefcases to leave for the day. “You know,” he said, “I have been so focused on the logistics of this change that I forgot to invite one person to attend these meetings. I didn’t ask the HR person to be here. I’ll bring her on board tomorrow when we’re back in the office.”

Uh oh. More on that later.

Big Change, Part I: Conversations for Possibility

A client organization has received a daunting financial audit: they’re losing money and must act quickly to save the company. I met with Matthew, the CEO, to discuss the way forward. He said, “My top 3 executives and I went into a 2-day “huddle” to review the audit report and talk about what we should do. On day 1, we had lots of ideas, threw some out, and kept some for later. On day 2, we reviewed what was left and made a big decision.”

That 2-day discussion is called a “conversation for possibility”, and in this case, it was completed by making an agreement for action. The conversation for possibility looked like this:

  • Initiative conversation: Let’s restructure the organization. We could combine these two departments, change those job titles, and update the responsibilities for all the mid-level employees.
  • Understanding conversation:
    • That would require relocating Chuck’s people in the Dayton office, and we don’t have room for them here.
    • I have space in the Rogers Road facility. But I’m pretty sure the department manager wouldn’t want to relocate: His kids are in school in Dayton.
    • So we could keep Chuck in Dayton, and have that part of his staff move to Rogers Road, then give Chuck the HR section along with his communications staff responsibilities.
    • Yes, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of our money-drain.

This is what it sounded like at the beginning of those two days – aren’t you glad you weren’t there?

At the end of the Initiative and Understanding conversations, they came to a decision: they would close the Dayton office altogether, “outsource” the marketing and communications functions in all offices, and redefine remaining jobs as needed. A tough call.

Conversations for possibility are made up of Initiative and Understanding conversations, and are intended to explore both what is possible, and the effects or impacts of each option proposed. They don’t always end in a decision or agreement, but in this case, they did.

“There were a few tears shed,” Matthew told me. “But we have to be responsible for the organization as a whole, and help people with the adjustments. And we have to get the other top managers in the company on board with this decision.”

That’s when they called for help with implementation. More on that later.