The Teamwork Thing

The biggest problem I’ve seen with teamwork in my years of consulting is that two conversations are missing. First, the team might have been launched with a good statement of “What we’re here for + When we want to see results + Why these results matter to us and to others”. But usually that’s said only once or twice. After that, it’s assumed people will remember, or just know the team’s purpose, goals, and objectives as well as they know their own name.

Alas, people do not remember. They just keep plugging along day-to-day, and the first – or twenty-first – big challenge, disappointment, or interruption that happens in their life suddenly collapses everything. They wake up one morning wondering, “Is there a good reason I should keep juggling all these things? Can I find a clear direction here somewhere?”

Just because those What-When-Why statements are called an “Initiative Conversation” doesn’t mean you say it only once at the beginning and then fuggedaboutit. No, ideally you’d print it on a banner and hang it on the wall where you have your weekly team meetings. Or something like that, just to keep it in front of people.

The other missing conversation is the dialogue with all team members called an “Understanding Conversation”. That’s where you discuss – and update as needed – those Initiative What-When-Why statements. And you also discuss – and update – your shared understandings about, “Who else is involved in this? Where are our resources and our customers and our partners? How should we go about accomplishing our goals?”

Discussions are tricky. You don’t just get to talk, the way you can with an Initiative Conversation. You have to listen too. That means inviting – even encouraging – team members to offer ideas for what they think might improve those founding statements on the team’s purpose and how it operates. And further, it means actually using their ideas to update the founding statements. Which then, of course, will update the way the team operates.

The “team update” Understanding Conversations don’t have to happen every week. But there’s a secret tip for how to know when they are needed. When things slow down, when deadlines are missed, when people – either on the team or outside it – complain about something more than twice… that’s when you need to sit down and review the game plan.

Teamwork doesn’t happen automatically. You have to put a little conversation into it.

What to Do About those “Lazy” People

A recent survey of workplace challenges listed one old favorite: Dealing with the “lazy people” in the workplace. These are the people who have clear assignments and do them fairly well, but never step outside their narrow boundaries.

Why this hasn’t been solved is a mystery to me, as it’s really pretty easy. There are 2 players here.

  1. First we have Miss Go-Getter, the person who sees other people working (or not working) and wonders why they never seem to take charge of anything.
  2. Then we have Miss Normal, the person who only does what she’s told and doesn’t speak up or raise her hand to take charge of anything.

Miss Go-Getter believes she is working harder and doing more than Miss Normal. She’s right about that, and she likes it that way – Go-Getters are organized to set goals, accomplish things, and be productive. She likes “owning” her work, and sometimes has difficulty delegating to others. Like the Little Red Hen, Miss Go-Getter likes to do it herself, get it right, and hope others follow her lead.

Miss Normal is not so bold, and maybe even a little unsure of her ability to do some tasks. So she watches others to learn the right steps, hesitates about speaking up, and doesn’t go beyond her assignments. She doesn’t think she’s lazy, just a little shy and uncertain but competent enough for the job.

Miss Go-Getter complains (to everyone), “Why does the boss let Miss N. get away with not doing much of anything around here. She has to be told what to do, then get micro-managed to do it. It’s like she’s only half an employee!”

Get over yourself, Miss Go-Getter. Here are three easy solutions:

  1. Proposal to the Boss: “I would like to mentor Miss N. to help her learn how to connect her work to the Service Department, and maybe have more confidence in herself and her ideas. Is that something you would consider?”
  2. Request to Miss N.: “Would you be willing to let me coach you to learn all the details about how this procedure works in every situation? It’s complex and involves several other departments. I have some experience with it that I’d be willing to pass along to you. I could start showing you the ropes next week – probably 2 hours a week for the rest of this month would do it. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
  3. Stop gossiping and complaining to other people in the workplace about Miss N. and practice being more professional and compassionate. Not everyone has your ambition and metabolism.

Pick one. Or two. Or all three. Thanks.

A Conversation with Indians – About Nuclear Waste

I’m on my way to Canada to talk with the Indian Tribes there – called “First Nations” – about the nuclear industry’s plans to build a deep geologic repository for radioactive wastes. My job is to talk to them about having a productive conversation in the face of a serious challenge: the waste site is on the short list of candidate locations, and it’s near their tribal lands.

I’ve only got Four Conversations to work with:

  1. Initiative conversation – put an idea out for something to work toward;
  2. Understanding conversation – have a dialogue about how it could be done and who would be involved;
  3. Performance conversation – make requests and promises to establish agreements about what will be done, by whom, and when; and
  4. Closure conversation – complete anything that is left over from the past to make space for what’s coming next.

I’m going to start with Closure, on the hunch that there just might be some issues and concerns that have arisen over the past 50 years of Uranium mining in the area that might need to be completed in order to give the new waste repository a fair hearing. Yep, I’m betting there are a few of those.

Pre-Conference – So some of us will have a Closure Conversation to identify all the outstanding issues from the past, and all the associated worries about having a new Waste Repository nearby. I plan to make a list on a big chart while we talk in order to help them see and clarify their thoughts. Then we want to turn that list into a set of questions to ask and ideas to introduce to the Conference audience, perhaps paving the way to talk about the future independent of the past.

Conference Day One – This is the First Nations Day where the Tribal Elders, the community leaders, and the First Nation youth will speak and listen. I’m expecting their presentations and discussions to be about their historical reverence for the land and the importance of honoring their relationship with nature. There will be hunters and trappers speaking too.

Conference Day Two – This is the day I will be giving a short presentation about communication, followed by moderating three panels in which the First Nations and other residents of the province will be able to ask their questions and present their concerns and ideas to the people attending the Conference. There will not be a presentation by the nuclear waste industry people – they did that last year and things got “raucous” (that’s the word they used to describe it). This year they simply want to sort themselves out about this new possibility, and to be rational in the face of a potentially polarizing issue. Completing the past is a key part of preparing to talk with the industry about the idea of a repository.

I’ll let you know how it goes. One nice thing: the Tribal Elders start and end each day with a prayer. That would be a Closure Conversation too, and also perhaps creating an opening for a new future.

Only 58 Weeks Until I Can Retire

That’s what a friend, Earl, said to me two months ago: “I can retire in 1 year and 1 ½ months.” I could tell this wasn’t a simple fact for him, because it was accompanied by a sad face and a sigh of defeat. This guy can’t wait to leave his job behind.

We talked about this, and what was beneath his “Escape Goal”, as Earl called it, was the fact that he had lost the good relationships he had once enjoyed at work, and was now surrounded by people who had little respect for his talent in handling details and complex problems.

“They don’t see why to bother with things that used to be so important,” he said. “People aren’t trained well, and when they don’t cut it, they are replaceable. Nobody takes time to listen or help people these days.”

Earl had given up. The saddest thing is that it looked like he would spend the next 58 weeks having this same conversation, to himself and with other people. Pretty soon nobody would want to talk with him at all, because every conversation would go the same way: sad and boring.

Could an Initiative Conversation be useful here? Maybe start something new at work and get out of the pits? Earl and I talked about how to invent some kind of game or goal that would have him be more positively engaged with his co-workers. He resisted the idea that anything would be worthwhile, until he mentioned the documentation problem.

“Our documents are all out of date,” he complained. “My bosses don’t even realize it, and wouldn’t care even if they knew.” It was obvious this was something he cared about, but he hadn’t seriously considered taking any action.

How long would it take to fix those documents? Probably more than a year, Earl admitted. But then he got a light in his eye. “I could do it,” he said. “I’m halfway out to pasture anyway, and can do most of what they expect from me with one hand.” I encouraged him to take on the document-update project, even though it wouldn’t be recognized or rewarded. It was a sanity-protection plan.

I checked in with Earl yesterday. He didn’t say anything about his retirement date, and he didn’t look defeated. In fact, his office was bustling with people bring in papers and flash drives, and taking other ones away.

“I’ve got everybody working on this,” he said with a grin. “I had an Initiative Conversation in our staff meeting right after we talked. I told them what I wanted to do – update the 11 documents that are relevant to our job in this department. And I said by when I wanted it – before I leave here. And I explained why it matters – because I want to do something that will make life easier for the people who come after me.”

“About four people wanted to get in on this project, “Earl continued. “Now there are six of them, making the changes and editing each other’s work. We’ll be done by the end of next month. Guess I’ll have to think of something else to accomplish, just to keep everyone happy!”

Earl’s tip: When you’ve got the blues, find something that needs to be done. Then get busy and get it complete. No excuses.

Hold Your Seat: Dialogue Is 2-Way

The understanding conversation is the one that some senior-level managers and executives dislike. A VP in a financial firm once asked me, “Why should I ask people who work for me to give me input on a plan? Won’t they think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

The difficulty is that it is a dialogue, with listening – and maybe even accepting on what the other person says – a key ingredient. Talking is easy and quick. Listening takes time and attention. Plus, whenever you really listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about whatever you were thinking at the beginning of the conversation. Maybe that’s what people don’t like about it.

A Tibetan lama, Sakyong Mipham, makes some important points about listening in a recent article in the Shambhala Sun:

  1. True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop.
  2. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles.
  3. The best way to practice listening is to learn to “hold your seat”.

Hold your seat. When you’re listening, he says that power has been handed over to the speaker, who will now direct the conversation’s mood and content. When you are listening, you hold your seat by calmly refraining from interrupting, by being engaged and self-assured, and allowing someone else to take charge. If it’s hard to stay present and really hear the other person, try taking a gentle in-and-out breath or shifting your posture in some way, uncrossing your arms or dropping your shoulders. Bring yourself back to listening.

When you want to engage people in accepting something – say, a plan of action or a suggestion – you can’t just hand them the plan, ask them to read it, and believe they will adopt it as their own. You’ll need a dialogue, and a willingness to accept the others’ input as useful. You might even change your mind about something. Learning and updating our ideas is what understanding conversations are all about.

The Romance and Reality of Leadership

The students in my MBA class on Leadership in Action are confronting the difference between the reality of leadership and the romance of leadership.

By romance, I am referring to the concepts or ideas they have of what it is to be a leader.  For example, some of them believe that if they just have the right style, engage in the right behaviors, or speak a sufficiently compelling vision, then others will just naturally follow.  And if they don’t follow, well that is because there is something “off” with the followers, not the leader.

But they are now coming face to face with the reality of leadership.  For example, each student is required to take on a leadership project of their own choosing in which they are to produce specific results through leading others.  Since they cannot know everything that will be required of them in accomplishing the project, they have to commit in the face of “not knowing”.  Although making such commitments is a hallmark of leadership, several students were anxious and concerned.  As one student put it “How can I say I will accomplish the project if I don’t know what I will have to do or if I can even do what is required?”

Furthermore, this concern did not disappear even after we had conversations for understanding about the project.  The reality of leadership is you have to commit even when you don’t know or understand everything and even conversations for understanding don’t remove that risk.

Not Telling Them Undermines Integrity

Managers undermine their integrity in following a “don’t tell them” strategy.

The topic in my leading change class today was integrity and its impact on a leader’s ability to effect change.  Integrity was defined as honoring your word and doing what you said you would do by when you said you would do it and if you are not going to do what you said, to communicate fully to everyone affected as soon as you know you won’t be going what you said so that they can make the appropriate and necessary accommodations.  During the discussion, several students told of job situations in which projects they were working on were not going to get done when promised, but were told by their immediate managers not to tell the project clients.  The reasoning was that if the clients were told before the due date, they would question the manger’s competence.  However, once the deadline was missed, other factors could be blamed.

Although managers may think this “don’t tell them” strategy protects them from looking bad, it actually undermines their integrity and reputations.  Each of the students involved in these situations said they lost respect and regard for the managers involved.  This is unfortunate since all the managers needed to do to maintain their integrity was to have closure conversations with their clients.

Having one closure conversation, even if it may be a little uncomfortable, seems like a small price to pay for keeping one’s integrity and the respect of others.

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.

Missing Communication Skills Doom Projects

Why is there such a high failure rate among projects?  One reason is that there is a gap in the soft skills of project managers.  Although project managers are well trained in the technical “hard” skills of risk assessment, project planning, etc., little attention is given to interpersonal or people skills – the so called soft skills.  To correct this shortcoming, members of the Association for Project Management group on LinkedIn have proposed that project managers need strong leadership skills, to train/coach stakeholders on their roles and responsibilities, speak up openly and honestly, be assertive, have greater self-awareness, and so on.

Unfortunately, in none of the recommendations offered for improving “soft skills” is there an explanation of how project managers translate these personal capabilities and understandings into other people taking effective and appropriate action in a timely manner.  Rather, it is assumed that having these capabilities will somehow magically translate into project managers do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.  Now that’s a big, and erroneous assumption.

Getting other people involved, engaged, and continually contributing requires communication.  But not just any communication.  I recently led a training program to a Master Black Belt group in which we explored why they were having difficulty getting projects accomplished.  Interestingly, none of them ever said anything like “I am having problems because I am ineffective in my communication with other people.”  However, by the end of the class, they began to see that one reason they were having difficulty is because they were either using the wrong type of conversation or the conversations they were using were missing important elements that reduced their effectiveness.

It would be nice if there was a direct link between personal qualities and attributes and effective communication.  However, as such books as Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and The Four Conversations point out, there is much more to effective communication than simply talking.  Until project managers realize that the results they get are a direct product of the appropriateness and completeness of their communications, communication skills will continue to be missing and projects will continue to fail.

Undeveloped Leaders Sink Change

According to John Kotter, one reason organization changes fail is because leaders don’t develop a vision for the change and “communicate, communicate, communicate” it to their organziations.  Well, a study in Human Resource Management Journal* indicates that vision is not the only thing leaders fail to develop.  They also fail to develop the change agents within their organizations that will implement the change.

Based on a survey of the management experience and attitudes of 90 people from 27 different organizations, the authors found that the role of change agents tends to be poorly defined and poorly understood in many organizations.  This ambiguity is compounded by the finding that change agents are not systematically developed in the techniques and processes of effective change management.  As the authors point out “not only is a poorly-trained change agent likely to be highly inefficient at managing the change process, but, certainly in the early stages, the risks posed to the change process by change agent `incompetence’ could be serious.”

Why aren’t change agents better trained in change management?  The authors believe it is because of a perception that change management is essentially an “add on” to normal management responsibilities and thus requires no additional training or development.  Apparently, the assumption is made that if you can manage, you can manage change.  This assumption is unfortunate given the extensive literature on the skills and abilities managers need to be effective at change, particularly in the areas of communication.

We know that communication is critical to effective change and that not all communication is the same.  Not only do managers need to know when to communicate and to whom, they also need to know what types of conversations to have.  According to the respondents in this study, change managers need to be able to negotiate, influence, and persuade, all of which involve different types of conversations.

If organizations are to be more successful at change, they will want to invest more in developing the skills of those responsible for implementing the change.  Among those skills is the ability to determine what type of conversation to have and how to carry them out.

* Buchanan, D., Claydon, T., & Doyle, M. 1999. Organization development and change: The legacy of the nineties. Human Resource Management Journal, 9(2): 20-37.